Anti-War Veterans, The New Peace Movement and the Old American Exceptionalism

Here are three anti-war essays. All were also in Counterpunch. Thanks again to Geoff Herzog for his careful reading and editorial suggestions.

A Different​ War Story: The Soldier and Veteran Resistance Against the War in Vietnam

The battle over American war stories began during the peak of the last revolution. Millions of Americans and tens of thousands of veterans and soldiers opposed the war in Vietnam. In the war’s moral outrages, crimes and betrayals, many saw the US empire for the first time.[1] For the last 40 years, the ruling class has been running away from the problems revealed by the Vietnam War.

The war-makers have lots of money and weapons but their stories — and the politics behind them — no longer make sense. The empire is running out of maneuvering room as its war narratives grow weaker and less convincing.

The disruptions caused by the Vietnam Era anti-war movement are part of an unfinished revolution that still begs questions. How can a nation that does not practice democracy — or a government that attacks the Bill of Rights at home — convincingly claim it is “a force for good in the world?” How can a military that drives climate change and guarantees the global interests of bankers and oil companies claim to protect or defend anything at all? How can an empire, as large and militaristic as ours, co-exist with democratic rule at home?

American exceptionalism — the idea that we are a chosen people, inherently good, and outside of the normal constraints and contradictions of history —  is one of the founding ideas of American culture. But, when the empire lurches from crisis to crisis even culture as deeply rooted as exceptionalism can be dragged into consciousness and challenged.

As long-time Vietnam Veterans Against the War leader and former Vets for Peace President Dave Cline once told me, “”Vietnam is where all that history changed.”

The Vietnam Legacy They Do Not Want You To Think About

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US Involvement in South East Asia began as an effort to restore the French and British Empire in Asia. But neither imperial power could weather the storm of WWII or defeat the national liberation struggles that followed.  Soon enough the empire was ours — all ours — and so were the wars. Anti-communism and the Cold War positioned the US as “leader of the free world” and insisted that the Vietnam War was the moral equivalent of WWII. The enchanting idea of “nation-building” cast the war effort as benign, high-minded and helpful. But the Vietnamese victory over US forces and the peace movement broke the spell and momentarily revealed the empire for what it truly was.

What cannot be honestly explained must be hidden. Because of its revolutionary implications — and its contradictory nature — the history of the soldier and veteran anti-war movements have been largely forgotten. It’s way past time to remember.

Since the Vietnam War the media has censored war news by listing it low on their agenda, omitting it altogether, or, today, marginalizing anti-war social media sites. The government stopped the formal draft and reduced their reliance on US troops to a mere .5% of the population making soldiers and veterans and war casualties less visible.

In order to keep the numbers down, the military brass cynically abused and wounded their own soldiers by forcing them into multiple tours with far too much exposure to combat. Those that endured the ordeal had some serious survival issues returning to “normal” life. Over twenty soldiers and veterans commit suicide each day. It’s hard to fudge that data.

The military had to attack its own soldiers to avoid the reemergence of a Vietnam era style anti-war movement. It was then that a massive peace movement — in the context of the civil rights/black power, student and women’s movement — became not just a movement against the war and — for millions of Americans at least– against empire itself.

By the early 1970s, the political heart of this wide-ranging peace movement was soldier and veteran dissent. Their power came from two sources. First was the fact that soldier resistance was a real material constraint on military operations and — second to the bloody sacrifices of the Vietnamese people themselves — was a major factor limiting the military’s ability to wage war.

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Just as important, the soldiers and veterans had the cultural and political credibility to help working-class Americans question and challenge the war and, in some cases, the existing order itself.

“The most common charge leveled against the antiwar movement is that it was composed of cowards and draft dodgers. To have in it people who had served in the military…who were in fact patriots by the prowar folks own definition was a tremendous thing. VVAW (Vietnam Veterans Against the War) in 1970 and 1971 was unlike almost anything I’d seen in terms of its impact on the public…We took away more and more of the symbolic and rhetorical tools available to the prowar folks–just gradually squeezed them into a corner…we took away little by little the reasons people had not to listen to the antiwar movement.”[2]

“We took away more and more of the symbolic and rhetorical tools available to the prowar folks.” This is the transformative dynamic at the heart of military resistance which made it both revolutionary, deeply contradictory and hard for people to understand. Ideals like the “citizen-solder” were claimed by the military because they motivated soldiers with high moral appeals. But under the conditions of the period, such ideals were transformed, refashioned and repurposed into a new service ideal that would wage — not war — but peace. They rocked the foundation of military culture not simply by criticizing it or repudiating it — that’s easy — but by transforming it — that’s the hardest thing in the world. Transformation is what revolutions are made of.

The Vietnam legacy reveals the importance of supporting anti-war soldiers and veterans because they have power far beyond their numbers. This argument is not idle speculation. Although I am not a veteran, I was nearly drafted into the Army in 1971-2. It made me rethink my life. Then I got involved as a young activist and organizer in the anti-war and radical movements of the period. Inspired by a few anti-war veterans I knew, I spent a decade researching the soldier and veteran anti-war movement and wrote New Winter Soldiers: GI and Veteran Dissent During the Vietnam Era. 

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Here is the shortest possible summary of a movement that came to speak for half of all soldiers and veterans of the time:

During the American War in Vietnam, soldiers refused to go into combat and resisted commands of all kinds. The lowly foot soldier demanded democracy inside their combat units by insisted on discussing actions rather than simply following orders. They marched in protest and sent tens of thousands of letters to Congress opposing the war. In desperation, they attacked reckless officers — their own officers. An international underground newspaper network spread the word. Thousands resisted the war effort in ways large and small. 

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Massive prison riots of US soldiers in American military jails in Vietnam — like the uprising at Long Binh Jail — disrupted military command. Over 600 cases of combat refusal rose to the level of a court-martial, some involving entire units. US soldiers violently attacked US officers over a thousand times. Urban rebellions at home and the assassination of Martin Luther King had a profound impact pushing black troops toward war resistance.

1*BAZUaLpWf-AAdLq6z2H-JwAfrican American soldiers in Vietnam observe the birthday of late civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in 1971. (Bettmann via Getty Images)

The military brass lost their ability to enforce discipline and wage war. In 1971 Colonel Robert D. Heinl claimed: 

“The morale, discipline, and battle-worthiness of the US armed forces are, with a few salient exceptions, lower and worse than at any time in this century and possibly in the history of the United States.”

From the bottom up, US troops replaced “search and destroy” missions with “search and avoid” missions. In some areas of Vietnam “search and avoid” became a way of life. A US Army Colonel recalls:

“I had influence over an entire province. I put my men to work helping with the harvest…Once the NVA understood what I was doing they eased up. I am talking to you about a defacto truce you understand. The war stopped in most of the province. It’s the kind of history that doesn’t get recorded. Few people even know it happened and no one will ever admit that it happened.”[3]

Anti-war soldiers were simultaneously on the front lines of war and the front lines of the anti-war movement.[4]

When they came home veterans became the leading protestors. Black veterans joined civil rights groups or revolutionary organizations such as the Black Panthers that connected peace and internationalism with local community service. The Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) had at least 25,000 members — 80% were combat veterans –and the VVAW became leaders in the anti-war movement in the early 1970’s.

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The VVAW kicked off some of the largest civil disobedience protests against the war. In one of the most stirring moments of the entire peace movement veterans returned their medals on the steps of the US capital. 

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This was the most important working-class peace movement in American history. Since those days there has been an unbroken tradition of opposition to war from service members, veterans and their families. Today the tradition is carried on by the Veterans For Peace, About Face: Veterans Against War, Military Families Speak Out. The VVAW remains the only peace group founded during the Vietnam resistance still in existence today.

Soldier and veteran resistance was a blow against the empire. Can it become one again?

1/ See, New Winter Soldiers: GI and Veteran Dissent During the Vietnam War.

2/ Ben Chitty is quoted in, New Winter Soldiers, p.130

3/ Moser, p. 132

4/ See a new collection of essays Waging Peace in Vietnam, Edited by Ron Carver, David Cortright and Barbara Doherty

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Soldiers and Veterans are Anti-War Leaders. Could This Be The Peace Movement of Our Time?

 

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“The greatest purveyor of violence in the world: My own government.”  — Martin Luther King

If you want to stop the wars, challenge the empire and deal with climate crisis then support our anti-war soldiers and veterans. Soldiers and veterans carry special knowledge. Sometimes that knowledge starts with the gut-wrenching realization that they have fought, suffered, killed and died in vain — or worse. It’s hard not to hear the echoes of anti-war Vietnam veterans in the words of today’s war veterans. High-stakes betrayal teaches some mighty hard lessons.

“We were lied to, and… we were betrayed…. This really wasn’t about going after Al-Qaeda. This wasn’t about fulfilling that mission of protecting the American people at all. It was a regime change war that was launched under the guise of national security, under the guise of humanitarianism, and, “Look at all these atrocities that this brutal dictator has done to his own people,” and done really for the benefit of corporate interests and oil.” — Tulsi Gabbard [1]

But always they have seen first-hand the horror and futility of war. What we understand as endless war, occupation and empire they know through personal experience. And that personal experience of America’s wars has forced many of the anti-war leaders to undergo a personal and political transformation — from warriors to peacemakers — from waging war to waging peace.

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This shift is embodied by the leadership of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, (VVAW) About Face: Veterans Against War, Veterans for Peace, Military Families Speak Out and Veteran Power. These organizations are the leading edge of a much broader disenchantment with war. According to the Pew Research Center, a majority of US veterans do not support the regime-change wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Empire Abroad, Empire at Home

Sharp-sighted, the anti-war vets see militarism everywhere they look.  About Face puts it this way.

We are Post-9/11 service members and veterans organizing to end a foreign policy of permanent war and the use of military weapons, tactics, and values in communities across the country. As people intimately familiar with the inner workings of the world’s largest military, we use our knowledge and experiences to expose the truth about these conflicts overseas and the growing militarization in the United States.

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What happens “over there” happens right here at home to the poor, black and brown. But some of the first casualties are the soldiers and veterans themselves.

Today’s soldiers and veterans have been treated worse by the US government than any generation of soldiers in well over a century, maybe ever. In an effort to hide war from the public, the war managers put heavy combat duty on approximately 0.5% of the American population. That .5% sees far more combat than soldiers did in WWII, or Vietnam or Korea. So far, 225,000 soldiers have been deployed three times or more and over 28,000 have deployed a soul-crushing five times or more.

The consequences in PTSD, moral injury, suicides and casualties are more than tragic — the empire is eating its own. But, that is what empires do, intentionally or not, and that is also why they collapse. And the enormous burdens veterans carry makes it a real challenge for them to mount resistance to the war machine without a civilian movement to stand beside them. 

And make no mistake about it: the government hides war from us by increasing their reliance on mercenaries and terrorists to do the dirty work. Many quietly accept or even deny our use of “moderate rebels” or soldiers of fortune or that US troops have been brutally sacrificed. That is the price of our “American privilege.” Imperial privilege is one of the most widely internalized if little understood form of privilege — inviting us to go about our days oblivious to what is done in our name. As long as the bombs are not falling on us it’s all cool, right? Except now we know that war and climate change are inextricably linked and militarization abroad leads to militarization at home. The empire has become a threat to our rights, our lives, our planet.

Soldiers and veterans need our help but also have so much to teach us: they know the military and they know how to organize. Their training can teach us the kinds of dedication and discipline we need to build a mass movement with real power to disrupt the war machine. With a little help from their friends, soldiers and veterans can once again be leaders in a new anti-war movement. Here are just a few of the past and present projects of the Veterans for Peace, About Face, and the Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

  • Drop The MIC Campaign: Raising consciousness about the Military-Industrial Complex and militarism at home.
  • Winter Soldier: More than 200 U.S. veterans and soldiers, as well as Iraqi and Afghani civilians, told of their war experiences. The event was inspired by the VVAW’s Winter Soldier Investigation of 1971.
  • Deported Veterans Advocacy Project: Assistance and support for veterans facing deportation.
  • Veteran Peace Teams: “act as an unarmed, nonviolent presence standing with peaceful protesters, taking a front line if necessary, confronting, documenting, and opposing any and all use of force by police, national guard, regular military, or private contractors against peaceful protesters exercising their right to assemble and seek redress of grievances. Veterans Peace Teams have deployed domestically with the Occupy movement, Standing Rock and Ferguson. Internationally the Veterans Peace Teams have also traveled to Palestine, Okinawa, and Jeju Island, South Korea.”
  • Operation Recovery: Stop the Deployment of Traumatized Troops focuses on ending the practice of deploying service members suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), and Military Sexual Trauma (MST).
  • VVAW Archive Project. The VVAW is where it all started and they have become our teachers preserving their anti-war legacy.

 

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Gabbard is a Peace Candidate 

The presidential campaign of Tulsi Gabbard shines a national spotlight on what seems to many an anomaly: a two-tour combat veteran is the most articulate and focused opponent of regime-change wars and the new Cold War. Gabbard defies easy categorization and is causing heads to explode — left and right. But the bottom line is that Gabbard’s campaign is calling on soldiers and civilians alike to end the wars that have caused nearly eight million Muslim casualties since the early 1980s.

We will not disrupt the war machine if we cannot disrupt the war narratives. Gabbard is teaching us a powerful truth by her example: it is urgent and honorable for soldiers and veterans to oppose the kind of wars we now fight. In fact, it is their duty — and our duty — to resist. Anti-war warriors are our secret weapon against the machine. No wonder the pro-war forces hate and smear her.

There is evidence that Gabbard will support popular movements. She went to Standing Rock along with many other veterans and visited the rebellion in Puerto Rico. When a group of activists from the Veterans for Peace, Green Party and Poor Peoples Army occupied the Venezuelan embassy, Gabbard called them “Peace Warriors.” Gabbard is the only major party candidate to defend Assange, Snowden and Manning for their courageous resistance — a stance that protects freedom of speech and press for all of us.

Legislation introduced by Gabbard shows that her campaign is addressing the systematic causes of war. Gabbard’s “End Presidential Wars” legislation would reclaim Congress’s constitutional power to declare war and make wars waged by presidential order “high crimes and misdemeanors” — impeachable offenses.

Since 1950 or so the executive branch has overwhelmed all Constitution limits by becoming the “imperial presidency” — command center of the war and spy machine. Congress has surrendered its power to declare war just as we have surrendered our rights. To the best of my knowledge, Gabbard is the first presidential candidate in US history to demand the reduction of executive powers. That is really big news.

Gabbard’s Stop Arming Terrorists Act draws attention to one of the main strategies the US uses to reduce their reliance on the US troops they fear are unreliable. The empire’s capacity to wage war would be severely curtailed if we stopped arming and supporting terrorists, “moderate rebels” and informal militias. Bar the use of mercenaries too and the machine will grind to a halt.

Gabbard’s 2017 “Off Fossil Fuels Act” was described by Food and Water Watch as “the strongest, most ambitious climate and energy legislation ever introduced.” It’s not just that the military is the world’s largest polluter — although that is true enough. The US empire is the headquarters of a global corporate order based, in large part, on fossil fuels. Drain the oil out of the “oil empire” and what is left?

War is climate change and we can only win by struggling against both.

I am not a liberator. Liberators do not exist. The people liberate themselves. — Che Guevara

Gabbard is contradictory for sure: that’s actually part of her popular appeal. But most criticism misses the point — no politician or celebrity will save us and the sooner we give up that illusion the better. Since the social movements are far more effective in creating rapid political and cultural change, the real question is: how do we liberate ourselves? How can the Gabbard or Sanders or Gravel campaign help us to build an anti-war movement? No engagement, no find out. But, the 2016 Green Party campaign points us in the right direction.

Ajamu Baraka sets a high standard for how political figures can relate to the peace movement. A veteran himself, Baraka went from being a long-time human rights activist to the Green Party candidate for Vice President in 2016 — returning to the movement as a lead organizer of  The Black Alliance for Peace. This is ideal. Baraka’s seamless (but hardly effortless) transition back and forth between electoral and movement work is a prime example of what the Green Party might become: the electoral wing of the social movements.

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Are we ready to engage anti-war people wherever we find them? If we can look beyond our electoral obsessions or rigid categories and set our sights on organizing and movement building we might see that Sander’s, Gabbard’s, Williamson’s and Gravel’s base of supporters represent what is quite possibly the largest contingent of new anti-war activists in the US. There are many thousands of good people that want to stop climate change and end war. We should make the most of it.

Are we going to keep surrendering ground by failing to reach out to them? Is the peace movement so powerful that we can afford the luxury of turning people away because we don’t like their politics or the candidate they support? We should reflect on this:

“What blows are you striking against empire? And, what are your connections to systemic murder and oppression? Tell me that while you judge someone who did bad things at some point in their lives but now are needed in a struggle to undo systematic oppression the world over.” Bob Witanek

The new peace movement faces many problems that can only be addressed in the field — through the struggle and risk that is the hallmark of organizing and activism.

Leave ideological comfort zones behind and learn to ride the wild wind.

Soldiers are Workers but Workers are Soldiers Too.

And, if you think we can confront the military without confronting the problems of the working class consider the fact that armies throughout history have relied on the poor. Workers and peasants have always done the bulk of the fighting.[2] Think on these facts:

  • The majority (60% or so) of the military is white but overwhelming working-class.
  • Overall, 15% of DOD active-duty military personnel are women. 56% of women are Hispanic or a racial “minority.”
  • Racial and ethnic groups made up 40% of the Defense Department active-duty military in 2015, up from 25% in 1990.
  • In 2015 blacks made up 17% of the DOD active-duty military – somewhat higher than their share of the U.S. population ages 18 to 44 (13%).
  • In 2015, 12% of all active-duty personnel were Hispanic, three times the share in 1980.
  • Natives serve in the US military in greater proportion to their population than any other group and have for many decades.
  • The Williams Institute estimated in 2010 that 70,000 members of the U.S. military were lesbian, gay, or bisexual.
  • In 2014, the Williams Institute also concluded that about 15,500 transgender Americans currently serve in the armed forces.

Is this the enemy? Can we dismiss them all as brainwashed or hopelessly colonized? Or are these allies in the making? We have the very populations that today’s social movement grew out of inside the military. So much depends on how we engage.

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The working class joins the military for many reasons. At present, the government does not need a formal draft because an “austerity draft” is in full swing. A country without minimum standards for health care, decent wages and higher education is tracking the poor into the military. Austerity is a favorite weapon of corporate power for many reasons.

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Family and community traditions of service are powerful recruiters as well.

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And somewhere in the mix is the belief that the US military is “a force for good in the world.” Can we blame people for believing in American Exceptionalism or other ideas central to dominant culture?[3] Can we blame them for doing as their elders have done?

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And remember many have their first contact with military recruiters while still children. Help stop this horrid child abuse by supporting counter-recruitment efforts.

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Whatever We Do We Cannot Stay At Home

Let’s not slip into what I call “stay at home knowledge,” or what used to be called “analysis paralysis.” A prime example of stay at home knowledge is the widespread belief that because there is no draft that it’s impossible to organize a peace movement. That piece of knowledge leads to retreat and surrender. That is why it’s important to know that there is a draft: it’s a class-based austerity draft that tracks the poor into war. Fight austerity to fight the draft. And remember too that the military resistance during the Vietnam era was often led by people who volunteered — not by reluctant draftees. Same as now.

Our job is to engage — not blame people that have simply grown up in America. Condemnation is easy but it is no way to build the movement.

 

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Remember Standing Rock

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Given an opportunity to stand up for the kind of values and ideals that they really wanted to fight for, a new GI and veteran movement is ready to spring to life. We saw that movement come alive when thousands of veterans supported native leaders at Standing Rock in what was the largest demonstration of radical veterans since the Vietnam era. 

Not only did they stand with water protectors but in a ceremony of political responsibility and spiritual reconciliation offered heartfelt sorrow for our role in attacking native people and stealing their land.

When soldiers revolt their actions have direct consequences on the military’s ability to maintain the war machine. When a working-class peace movement takes shape it will take the shape of soldier and veteran dissent. Reach out to soldiers and veterans, build a peace movement to support them, and when struggles like Standing Rock break out veterans will answer the call.

The question is: will we? 

 

1/. Tulsi Gabbard as quoted by Matt Taibbi in Whose Afraid of Tulsi Gabbard?

2/. For material in the bulleted list see Pew Research.

3/ For more see:  American Exceptionalism and American Innocence by Roberto Sirvent and Danny Haiphong

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The Empire Is Running Out of War Stories. Or is it? Will American Exceptionalism Rise Again?

The First American War Stories Are Still With US

American Exceptionalism remains one of the innermost ideas shaping our national identity and still lies behind all of the war stories used to justify US foreign policy. Exceptionalism has been a part of American culture since the very first European settlers landed. At its core, exceptionalism places America outside of history into a category of its own. For example, a historical view of empire is that all empires rise and fall and the US will be no different. An exceptionalist view of the US empire is: “empire what empire? We’re simply defending democracy.” The initial “escape” from history followed two interrelated tracks: one was the religious radicalism of the Puritans, the other was the frontier experience. Both paths were the warpath.[1]

The early settlers believed that they were “chosen” — blessed by a special relationship to their God. They viewed their “errand in the wilderness” as a holy mission destined to bring a new and better way of life to the world. God’s judgment on their progress was revealed in the bounty of a harvest or the outcome of a war.

iu-57American Progress (1872) by John Gast. An allegorical figure representing America’s “civilizing mission” brings light, white settlers and modern technology to the dark west as natives and the bison retreat.

Exceptionalism was not a free-floating idea but was forged into a lasting culture by the frontier wars aimed at the elimination or assimilation of native people and the conquest of land. America’s frontier mythology popularized empire and white settler culture while cloaking their many contradictions.

I know it is hard to believe that the Puritans are still camped out in our minds. The old religious radicalism has taken modern form in the liberal-sounding belief that the US military is a “force for good (read god) in the world.” The double-edged sword of exceptionalism traps us into repeating history: our high moral standards and special role in the world gives us license for wars and aggressions. It is the liberal elements of exceptionalism that are most seductive, most difficult to wrap our heads around, and the most effective at winning our consent to war.

Exceptionalism Wins Our Consent to War

On the one hand, we have the “hard” exceptionalism like that of the Cold War (New and Old) and the War on Terrorism. These war stories revolve around a rigid binary of good and evil. After 9/11, in scores of speeches, George W. Bush repeated the mantra that there were “no gray areas” in the struggle between good and evil.

On the other hand, “soft” exceptionalism takes a slightly different tack by appealing to the liberal in us. Stories of rescue, protection, democracy and humanitarian efforts assure us of our goodness. Obama mastered this narrative by claiming the US had a “duty to protect” the weak and vulnerable in places like Libya.

These two strains of war stories are the narrative one-two punch, winning our consent to war and empire.

Here is how war propaganda works: if authority figures in government and media denounce foreign leaders or countries or immigrants as an evil threat and repeat it thousands of times, they do not even have to say, “We are the chosen people destined to bring light to the world.” They know that millions of Americans will unconsciously refer to the exceptionalist code by default because it’s so deeply embedded in our culture. Once made brave by our exceptional character and sense of superiority, the next moves are war, violence and white supremacy.

The Myth of “Nation-Building” Meets the American War in Vietnam

The Vietnam War, and the resistance to it, profoundly challenged all existing war stories but especially the idea of “nation-building.” The idea that the US could create a new democratic nation — South Vietnam — was an utter illusion that no amount of fire-power could overcome. In truth, the US selected a series of petty tyrants to rule that could never win the allegiance of the Vietnamese people because they were the transparent puppets of American interests. Following the defeat of US forces, the elites shifted gears. The ruling class learned a lesson that forced them to abandon the liberal veneer of “nation-building.”

At the heart of this disruption was the soldier’s revolt. Thousands of US soldiers and veterans came to oppose the very war they fought in. An anti-war movement inside the military was totally unprecedented in US history. The war-makers have been scrambling to repair the damage ever since.

The Next Generation of War Stories: From “Noble Cause” to “Humanitarian War.” 

Ronald Reagan tried to repair the damaged narratives by recasting the Vietnam War as a “Noble Cause.” The Noble Cause appealed to people hurt and confused by the US defeat,  as well as the unrepentant war-makers, because it attempted to restore the old good vs. evil narrative of exceptionalism. For Regan, America needed to rediscover its original mission as a “city on a hill” — a shining example to the world. Every single President since has repeated that faith.

The Noble Cause narrative was reproduced in numerous bad movies and dubious academic studies that tried to refight the war (and win this time!). Its primary function was to restore exceptionalism in the minds of the American people. While Regan succeeded to a considerable degree — as we can see in the pro-war policy of both corporate parties  — “nation-building” never recovered its power as a military strategy or war story.

The next facade was Clinton’s “humanitarian war.” Humanitarian war attempted to relight the liberal beacon by replacing the unsolvable problems of nation-building with the paternalistic do-gooding of a superior culture and country. In effect, the imperialists recycled the 19th Century war story of “Manifest Destiny” or “White Man’s Burden.” That “burden” was the supposed duty of white people to lift lesser people up to the standards of western civilization — even if that required a lot of killing.

The_White_Man's_Burden_Judge_1899John Bull (Great Britain) and Uncle Sam (U.S.) bear “The White Man’s Burden…by delivering the colored peoples of the world to civilization. (Victor Gillam, Judge magazine, 1 April 1899)

This kind of racist thinking legitimized the US overseas empire at its birth. Maybe it would work again in empires’ old age?

From the “War on Terrorism” to the “Responsibility to Protect.”  

After the shock of 9/11 the narrative shifted again. Bush’s “global war on terrorism” reactivated the good vs. evil framing of the Cold War. The “war on terror” was an incoherent military or political strategy except for its promise of forever wars. Just as the Cold War was a “long twilight struggle” against an elusive but ruthless communist enemy, terrorists might be anywhere and everywhere and do anything. And, like the fight against communism, the war on terrorism would require the US to wage aggressive wars, launch preemptive strikes, use covert activities and dodge both international law and the US Constitution.

9/11 also tapped into deeply-rooted nationalistic and patriotic desires among everyday people to protect and serve their country. The first attack on US soil in modern memory powerfully restored the old exceptionalist binary: when faced with unspeakable evil, the US military became a “force for good in the world.” It’s easy to forget just how potent the combination is and how it led us into the War in Iraq.  According to The Washington Post:

Nearing the second anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, seven in 10 Americans continue to believe that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein had a role in the attacks, even though the Bush administration and congressional investigators say they have no evidence of this.

The mythology is so deep that at first the people, soldiers especially, just had to believe there was a good reason to attack Iraq. So we fell back on exceptionalism despite the total absence of evidence. Of course Bush made no attempt to correct this misinformation. The myth served him too well — as did the official propaganda campaign claiming Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

But in due course, some of the faithful became doubters. A peace movement of global proportions took shape. But in the US far too much of what appeared as resistance was driven by narrow partisan opposition to Republicans rather than principled opposition to war and empire.

But fear not war-makers — Barak Obama and Hillary Clinton came to the rescue! As they continued Bush’s wars in the Middle East and expanded the war zone to include Libya, Syria and then all of Africa, they sweetened “humanitarian war” with a heaping dose of cool-coated “Responsibility to Protect.” Once again, American goodness and innocence made the medicine go down and our wars raged on.

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Obama restored legitimacy to the empire so effectively that it took years for the illegal, immoral, racist and “unwinnable” wars to reveal themselves to the public. I was told by one of the leaders of About Face: Veterans Against War that they almost had to close shop after Obama was elected because their donor base dried up. Obama’s hope was our dope. Just as the daze was finally lifting, Trump started to take the mask off.

Is The Mask Off?

Today’s we face an empire with the mask half off. Trump’s doctrine — “We are not nation-building again, we are killing terrorists.” — is a revealing take on military trends that began with the first US – Afgan War (1978-1992). US leaders gave up nation-building and opted for failed states and political chaos instead of the strong states that nation-building, or its illusion, required. The US military began to rely on mercenaries and terrorists to replace the American citizen-soldier. The soldier revolt of the Vietnam Era already proved that everyday Americans were an unreliable force to achieve imperial ambitions.

Nothing rips the mask off of the humanitarian justifications better than the actual experience of combat in a war for oil and power — so the war managers tried to reduce combat exposure to a few. And they succeeded. The number of official US troops abroad reached a 60-year low by 2017. Even still a new resistance movement of veterans is gathering steam. Can the mask be put back on? It’s hard to say, because as The Nation reports, Americans from a wide spectrum of political positions are tired of perpetual war.

Can the “Green New Military” Put The Mask Back On? 

The recycled imperial justifications of the past are losing their power: Manifest Destiny, White Mans’ Burden, leader of the free world, nation-building, humanitarian war, war against terrorism, responsibility to protect — what’s next? If only the military could be seen as saviors once again.

A last-ditch effort to postpone the collapse of the liberal versions of war stories might just be the “Green New Military.” Elizabeth Warren’s policy claims, “Our military can help lead the fight in combating climate change.” It’s a wild claim that contradicts all evidence unless she is also calling for an end to regime-change wars, the New Cold War and the scaling down of our foreign bases. Instead, Warren is all about combat readiness. She did not invent this — the Pentagon had already embraced the new rhetoric. Given that the Working Families Party and some influential progressives have already signaled their willingness to accept Warren as a candidate, she might just silence dissent as effectively as Obama once did.

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But, the lie is paper-thin: “There is no such thing as a Green War.” You can fool some of the people all the time and all the people some of the time but you cannot fool mother nature one little bit. War and climate change are deeply connected and ultimately there is no way to hide that.

The New Cold War and More of The Same Old Wars

So far the New Cold War against Russia and China has recycled the anti-communist conspiracy of the old Cold War into the xenophobic conspiracy theory of Russia-gate. Even a trusted tool like Mueller could not make it work as a coherent narrative but no matter — the US did not skip a beat in building up military bases on Russia’s borders.

The media and political attacks on Russia or China or immigrants, or Iran are likely to continue because propagandists cannot activate the exceptionalist code without an evil enemy. Still, it takes more than evil. An effective war story for the US ruling class must project the liberal ideas of helping, protection, saving and the spread of democracy in order to engineer mass consent to war. Hence the need for “Humanitarian War,” “Duty to Protect” or maybe the”Green New Military.”

Let anyone propose a retreat from any battlefield and the “humanitarian” war cry will rally the empire’s pawns and saviors-types. If we take our exceptionalism religiously — and religion it is — then the US empire will never ever pull back from any war at any time. There is always someone for the empire to “protect and save:” from the “Noble Savages” and innocent white settlers of the frontier, to the Vietnamese Catholics, to the women of Afghanistan, to the Kurds of Syria.

We so want to see our wars as a morality play, just as the Puritans did, but the empire is all about power and profit.

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“Politics and War” By MilesLand on DeviantArt

“War is the Continuation of Politics by Other Means.” — Carl von Clausewitz

All the Big Brass study Clausewitz because he is the founder of western military science — but they are so blinded by the dilemmas of empire that they make a mess of his central teaching: War is politics.

None of the war narratives and none of the wars can solve the most important question of politics: governance. Who will govern the colonies? The overwhelming verdict of history is this: colonies cannot be democratically or humanely governed as long as they are colonies. Until the empire retreats its heavy hand will rule in places like Afghanistan.

The empire is reaching the limits of exceptionalism as both war narrative and national mythology. This is why our rulers are forced to desperate measures: perpetual war, occupation, intense propaganda campaigns like Russia-gate, the reliance on mercenaries and terrorists and the abuse and betrayal of their own soldiers.

Just as damning to the war machine is the collapse of conventional ideas about victory and defeat. The US military can no longer “win.” The question of victory is important on a deep cultural level. According to the original mythology, the outcome of wars waged by “the chosen people” are an indication of God’s favor or disfavor. In modern terms, defeat delegitimizes the state. Endless war is no substitute for “victory.”

But it’s not military victory we want. Our victory will be in ending war, dismantling the empire, abolishing the vast militarized penal system and stopping irreparable climate chaos. Our resistance will create a new narrative but it can only be written when millions of people become the authors of their own history.

The empire is slipping into decline and chaos – one way or another. Will we be actors deciding the fate of the American Empire or will it’s collapse dictate our fate? But these wars will, sooner or later, become the graveyard of empire — or else America is truly exceptional and we really are God’s chosen people.

 

1/ Check out these two important recent works that discuss both the history and  contemporary forms of  American Exceptionalism: The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism by Andrew Bacevich and American Exceptionalism and American Innocence by Roberto Sirvent and Danny Haiphong