Furthermore, we have about 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3% of the its population. . . . In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction.
. . . . This process cannot be a liberal or peaceful one. . . . – George Kennan in a 1948 memorandum[i]
Andrew Bacevich is a leading commentator on and critic of America’s senseless “habit for war,” as he puts it. His foremost concern is our going-on-sixteen-year debacle in Afghanistan, though he is naturally troubled by our other misadventures in Iraq and North Africa, as well as our propensity for international violence in general.
Bacevich has recently asked when we might see “A Harvey Weinstein Moment for America’s Wars?”[ii] When, in other words, will something like the “sudden shift in the cultural landscape” that was precipitated by the brave women who stood up against Weinstein be seen in response to “our penchant for waging war across much of the planet”? Although he remains deeply disappointed by the distracted acceptance of these wars by the American public, he claims to find some reason for optimism in the recent “Weinstein moment”: “on some matters, at least, the American people retain an admirable capacity for outrage.” But when it comes to our foreign wars, he frets, “most of us simply don’t care, which means that we continue to allow a free hand to those who preside over those wars, while treating with respect the view of pundits and media personalities who persist in promoting them.”
I think Bacevich is right to remind us that our wars bear little resemblance to the euphemisms and clichés with which they are advanced; he is correct to note that we have let ourselves be lulled to sleep by the sheer monotony and repetition of it all. Like traffic deaths and now, perhaps, mass shootings, war is accepted as a part of the normal fabric of American life, the terrible violence of it all notwithstanding. However, I don’t think Bacevich should hold his breath waiting for a Harvey Weinstein moment in relation to our militarism, and not just because our general disengagement and apathy as a citizenry. Rather, in most of its facets, the analogy he attempts to establish is false, even fallacious.
To put it bluntly, the people most victimized by our wars have not only been silenced, but in many cases are dead, while the survivors remain well out of ear-shot. I do not want to understate the devastation that our wars have caused to our veterans and our men and women in uniform, nor ignore the gross misallocation of national funds that could, perhaps, be used to much more positive ends.[iii] However, even keeping our domestic suffering appropriately in mind, the most consistent victims of American wars are the people of Afghanistan and Iraq, Vietnam and Cambodia, or Guatemala and Cuba or Mexico and the Philippines if we extend our consciousness back in time. And these victims are and have been outraged, if largely voiceless. The listless American public, truth be told, is not the primary victim and is unlikely to act like one.
But even though the analogy is false, it provides an interesting insight into Bacevich’s assumptions surrounding American use of military might, one shared by many on the left side of the political divide. Liberal and progressive anti-war activists, I will suggest, engage in what I will refer to as the peace fallacy[iv]—the belief that peace is a result of people coming to their senses and demonstrating outrage at those who “preside over our wars,” or perhaps of adopting an attitude of peacefulness from which action might flow. Our relationship to our international aggression is far more complex than this. War, I will suggest, has a significant function in American life and its ugliness reveals an ugliness that runs far deeper that Bacevich, who thinks of war as a “bad habit, recognizes. Bad habits can be kicked. War, unfortunately, is part of who we are and have become, and becoming unwarlike will require far-reaching changes.
I should be immediately clear that in saying this, I’m not speaking from the “other side” of the political divide, nor do I condone these wars in any way. Rather, my insistence is that we understand the role that war plays in the American way of life. To Bacevich and other liberals, I would say, the elimination of our wars and foreign interference will also eliminate other parts of our way of life that few seem ready even to question.
Let’s start by looking at the way Bacevich divides up Americans into roughly four groups, an act that allows war to be located in a distinct and non-essential extremity of the body politic, where a small minority lustily wields its power: first, then, are those who wage our wars and “preside over them”; and second are their apologists, the pundits and journalists who soft-pedal their criticisms; third, are the indifferent masses who look the other way; and fourth are the rare activist or writer like himself who is urging us to join together against the people in the first group and to some extent the second. He would like more people to take to the streets, or put a foot down and declare, “no more,” with the sort of rising momentum that has toppled from high places sexual abusers and harassers. Until we the people rise-up and take back the power from the malevolent but sheltered few, Bacevich assumes, we can expect these endless wars to continue. As Bacevich puts it, “Mattis and Nicholson (along with White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and National Security Advisor H.R. McMasters) are following the Harvey Weinstein playbook: keep doing it until they make you stop.” By shedding our indifference and expressing outrage, Bacevich hopes, we might be the “they” whom makes “them” stop.
According to this view, the wars we wage are not only senseless, but they are a perversion of our liberal values. Kick the war habit, and we might assume our place as a force or benevolence, protecting human rights and leading the charge towards global emancipation. If we ended our habit of warfare, not only could we cleave more tightly to our deepest principles and values, we would be all the wealthier for it, or so the argument goes, as we could now spend our peace-windfall on social programs or job-creating infrastructure. [v] To put it another way, peacefulness, according to this view, is a state of mind, an attitude, or dispensation. It receives its proper and sufficient articulation in marches, protests, vigils, and even Facebook “likes.” This state of mind, moreover, is a chief quality of our deepest liberal or progressive values. It represents who we “truly” are, says the progressive. The only task is to stand up and start acting like it.
The division of the body politic into perpetrators and victims makes for fine political theatre and for comforting narratives of political identity. “Look how senseless those who support senseless wars are! Look at the stupidity those little men with their big guns and their air force flight jackets.” There is of course the essential bad guy, someone quite distinct from “us,” the Donald Rumsfelds and Dick Cheneys, whose small-minded will to power provides us with both clarity and an eased conscience. This drama has something for both the optimists and the pessimists. To the optimists, it shows a clear path to happy resolution: we take back our country and get ourselves back on track. To the pessimists, our failure to take this clear path to happy resolution confirms the entrenched power of the bad guys and the simple stupidity of it all. Most importantly to our liberal, peace-loving identities, no one has to engage in any introspection or reckoning. The problem lies with others.
Just because this, our basic political narrative, makes for good drama does not of course prove that it is mistaken. The perpetrator/victim model does make sense in the actual Harvey Weinstein case, after all. And it is true that along with the increasing concentration of wealth comes a concentration in prevailing beliefs and political ideology. But the failure to ask several significant questions about the systemic relationship between war and our privilege does reveal the weaknesses in the liberal view. What if, pace the George Kenan quotation with which I began, these wars are central to the strategy to retain the “pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity?” What if our overwhelming wealth, prosperity, and matching ecological footprints require constant and unwavering military protection?
The fact that few Americans–including the likes of Bacevich or nearly any other liberal commentator who bemoans the end of the American dream, the death of the liberal class (or its triumph), or the gutting of the middle class—notice or make mention of our privilege is symptomatic of what we don’t want to see, and provides a good and needed starting place for me. Residents of the United States make up only 6% of the world population. Do we use only 6% of the world’s natural resources or energy supply? Does our middle class way of life, even in its alleged stagnation, require only 6% of the world’s output of consumer products? Certainly we only use about 6% of the world’s supply of illegal drugs.
Unfortunately none of this is even close. Rather, the number is around 25%. 6% of the world’s people use about a quarter of everything the world produces, including the cocaine and heroine. If you include the emissions resulting from the foreign production of so much of our mounting piles of crap, we are responsible for a quarter of current carbon emissions. We consume at a rate of 6 times the global average, while the planet is reaching (or has transgressed) the ecological limits of extraction and pollution.
Americans don’t generally recognize these simple facts about the American way of life and therefore don’t understand how much of the wealth of the world we’ve actually cornered and kept safe for American enjoyment. If you make 34K a year, you are a member of the world’s top 1% earners. The inequality of the world order is staggering but scarcely recognized nor taken into liberal accounts.[vi]
How have we maintained this gross inequality? There are two standard answers. The first, political one, prattles on about the American spirit and how we are the freest, most innovative and hard-working people in the world, a message common to Reagan and Obama alike, as only two examples. As Reagan put it, there is “no arsenal or no weapon in the arsenals of the world is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women.” To any one who doubts this, declared Obama in his first Inaugural Address, “their memories are short, for they have forgotten what this country has already done, what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.”
There is also a somewhat more nuanced historical answer, that admits a certain luck and good fortune, as European settlers came to inhabit a land with a temperate climate and previously unimaginable quantities of good land and natural resources that created the surpluses necessary to create a motivated and generally well-educated populace. And all this happened on the cusp of the industrial revolution, where the name of the game was figuring out how to use energy to turn natural resources into industrial goods. America was the perfect place for economic growth at the very moment that the global economy began to grow. Some might add that we’ve taken this good fortune and actually shared it generously with the rest of the world through development, aid, and international peace-keeping.
One of the things that makes these self-congratulatory narratives compelling is that there is some truth to them. But what do these narratives leave out? They leave out the troubling history of the way European immigrants spread from an initial foothold on the eastern seaboard and created a European, white, continental empire by way of one land-grab after another, by way of wars against Native Americans, and then Mexicans, as well as all the other European powers vying for American wealth. By 1850 when California had achieved statehood on the heels of one of the great unrecognized genocides not only of our history, but world history, it was only a blink of an eye before we turned our attention to Hawaii, the Philippines, the Caribbean.
Today, we maintain a global empire, and like all our previous national expansions, the purpose of an empire is to draw wealth from the periphery to the center. This is what the Romans did, what the British did, and what we now do. It is not, to paraphrase Adam Smith, from our benevolence that we outspend the rest of the world on military and armaments, but from regard to our own national interest. While Bacevich would suggest that this spending, and its accompanying violence, misses the mark of our true national interest, I would suggest that it may play a crucial role in it, which in turn is why I advocate a more thoroughgoing interrogation of this national interest that has always depended upon such great shows of force and indifference to the lives of people who stand in our way.
Many liberals, readers of Howard Zinn for instance, are at some level conscious of our history or racial genocides, while critics of cold war realpolitik may regret the era of American-sponsored coups. But many of these same people believe that we have evolved beyond these days (or that we could have thrived as a nation without them). And few make the crucial connection between our history of conquest, regime change, and global policing, and our oversized levels of consumption, privilege, and wealth. As Kennan understood, these “conditions of disparity” which almost no one is serious about relinquishing—not with all the talk about how hard things are when each generation doesn’t live more lavishly than the previous one–are likely to create humiliation and resentment; central to our foreign policy has always been “to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity.” Part of this pattern of relationships have been a navy spread out across the globe and American service members with garrisons in almost 150 nations, where we have over 800 military bases.
Falling prey to the peace fallacy, liberals and progressives distance themselves emotionally from this use of force, adopting symbols and a rhetoric of peacefulness, separating themselves and their own privilege from the constant threats of international violence that protect it. I’m not suggesting that this peacefulness is insincere, but that this sincerity requires a consistent effort of self-blinding, of enjoying the spoils of empire while expressing a distaste for all the trappings of force and violence. Liberals may, if they were even conscious of it at the time, have been horrified by the intrusion of the CIA in Guatemala in the 50s on behalf of United Fruit. But they nevertheless enjoyed the cheap bananas and pineapples. It is by way of the profits of companies like United Fruit that wealth was able to stream into the United States, just as our long-standing threat against the nationalization of mineral resources, especially oil, kept the oil supply and the huge profits rolling in. Until we are prepared to relinquish this position of disparity, our leaders will also know what, when push comes to political shove, we will really demand—an economy that grows at about 2% per year, cheap consumer goods, and, most of all, access to as much cheap oil and natural gas as our hearts desire. “Peacefulness,” without a severe and conscious curtailment, will not end these wars. We may not know what we demand, but we demand it as if it is our good liberal, middle-class birthright. Nor will “peacefulness” end our wars.
It is true that most American liberals over the decades did not directly share the profits of Exxon Mobil, United Fruit, or Union Carbide. But nevertheless, our corporations (better known as “American business interests”) are the international agents responsible for the imperial flow of resources into our borders, while our military and covert agencies protected their freedom to do as they may. It is for this reason, and this reason alone, that the U.S. government has been involved in the overthrow or attempted overthrow of scores of governments over the course of the twentieth century (see below). Far from being a perversion of our liberal values (or at least the way they can operate with such affluence) the protection of business or commercial interests by force has been a key and ongoing feature of American life from the moment the first pilgrims stepped staggered on shore on Cape Cod, or the first Jamestown planters began tilling ancient tribal lands for the incipient tobacco trade. This, in short, is who we are and the way we have always been.
You and I might not like it, but look around the room you’re in and take-in the profusion of products, or look out the window and look at the land your house or apartment is sitting on. This is all war booty. If, as Bacevich rightly notes, we shield this from view, it is not because we are yet to have a Harvey Weinstein moment of awakening and outrage. It’s because we are the Harvey Weinstein of this scenario, or at least his protectors. As Bacevich points out, we’re going to keep going until “they” make us stop.
There are two common objections to this view. First is the partially true observation that, unlike “real” empires, we aren’t colonizing foreign lands (we only militarize them, especially near mining operations).[vii] Second, and somewhat more compelling, is the notion, shared by Bacevich or someone like Chalmers Johnson, that our foreign wars and intrusions have, at least most recently, been abject failures. Going on 16 years in Afghanistan, there is no end in sight, while the thought that regime change in Iraq would strengthen our Mid-East foothold (and that of American oil companies) and open-up the oil taps was uninformed hubris. Even the overthrow of the Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán couldn’t rescue United Fruit’s stock prices.
First the issue of empire. While we may respect foreign sovereignty (as long as it doesn’t nationalize something we want) more than empires past, we still maintain a sort of leverage over many parts of the world that is not consistent with egalitarian values or even anything most of us would, absent our interests, recognize as justice. We call it “free trade,” but the rules are clearly set up to the advantage of rich, industrialized nations, who often lure the elites of undeveloped nations with payable loans, followed by forced “reforms,” which destroy local economies and establish the familiar relationship of cheap labor and resource extraction, usually with little concern for anyone’s future, beyond the next quarterly profit report and the anxious American consumer always eyeing the “price at the pump.”[viii] As Susan George explains in A Fate Worse Than Debt, “Debt is an efficient tool. It ensures access to other peoples’ raw materials and infrastructure on the cheapest possible terms. Dozens of countries must compete for shrinking export markets and can export only a limited range of products because of Northern protectionism and their lack of cash to invest in diversification. Market saturation ensues, reducing exporters’ income to a bare minimum while the North enjoys huge savings.”[ix]
As an actual reading of so-called “trade agreements” reveals, one of their chief purposes is to ensure that American companies are kept immune to the local laws of other sovereign nations.[x] And if any nation in which we have strong business interests attempts to rewrite the rules in their favor, the threat of sanctions, even covert action, always remains present.
But what about the failure of our recent military excursions? How do the Iraq fiasco and our permanent war in Afghanistan helped maintain our global empire? To begin with, I would be clear that our global economic empire is unsustainable, both environmentally and politically. As anthropologist Joseph Tainter has shown, the maintenance costs of an empire are affordable only as long as the empire is growing, which is why empires are always temporary; when expansion is no longer possible, they begin their often slow and bumpy decline.[xi] Our global reach and power is in decline. And this, it is important to keep in mind, also means our level of prosperity is probably in decline as well. We don’t consume at our current level without maintaining a high degree of leverage over much of the world.
But if the national goal, one I don’t share, is to maintain as much of our current “position of disparity” as possible, our military might may still be a requirement, as doomed to eventual failure as it may be.[xii] Part of this has to do with the fact that the subtler work of an economic empire requires a different sort of military presence. And in this way, our military may be fulfilling its role about as successfully as one could hope. One of the functions of our military, and the constant threat of “regime change,” is to protect overseas resources and their supply lines. Look on the map for major trade routes, chokepoints, or pipelines, and you won’t have to look much further to see the U.S. Navy.
But even more than that, the mere existence of an armed forces with the reach and firepower that can still overwhelm any other foe weighs heavily on the rest of the world; other nations need to think long and hard before they attempt to shift the current balance of power and thus the balance of resource consumption. This isn’t to say that China isn’t making a pretty successful play, but we’re still the biggest and scariest international bully.
Take, for instance, something like the simple fact that the dollar still remains the world’s main reserve currency (64%), which allows the U.S. and its citizens to borrow at lower rates and by imports more cheaply. We enjoy an economic gain of about 100 billion dollars a year from reduced borrowing costs alone and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.[xiii] As the U.S. government appears increasingly dysfunctional and our volatile economy appears subject to financial bubbles, there has been talk of choosing another primary reserve currency. Even the Euro was considered for a time.
But as Kevin Phillips notes in his important book, Bad Money: Reckless Finance, Failed Politics, and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism, when such decisions are made, at stake isn’t just the strength of the economy standing behind any given currency. “Realistically,” Phillips explains, “for nations like Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, and the Persian Gulf emirates, the sheltering military might of the United States in the Persian Gulf or Pacific would affect monetary allegiance; the United States fielded the world’s strongest armed forces, while the European Union had a parliament, but nothing remotely resembling a Pentagon” (147).
In this case engaging in Afghanistan or Iraq, win or lose, may provide a strange and sick sort of comfort and security, and a fair amount of international cowering; Iran and North Korea may realize that the U.S. could probably never defeat them with the sort of conventional military campaign that the American public would stomach; but neither do they want to become the bombed-out scene of another one of our 16 year failed wars. Needless to say, challenging American global power or doing anything that directly dampens our ability to consume to our hearts desire is likely to be met with the appearance of a few aircraft carriers or some targeted drone strikes, if not teams of CIA operatives in search of a more favorable government. And meanwhile the international order remains pegged to the dollar.
But even then, people around the world are trying to rise-up and resist. Perhaps Bacevich will get his Harvey Weinstein moment, even if he won’t be able to recognize it. Or perhaps it has already occurred. Like the women of Hollywood or Fox News (and NBC and NPR and everywhere else), I imagine, people living under the American economic thumb face an awful dilemma: go along with the game and suffer humiliation and abuse, but still maintain the hopes of advancement and checkered prosperity? Or stand up, speak out, lob some bombs, and risk losing it all. It will be unpopular to say it, but international terrorism against the U.S. and its allies may, in a sense, be the Harvey Weinstein moment, articulated in the only way the voiceless may expect to be heard. True, by following corrupt and brutal fundamentalists, those who suffer under the U.S economic yoke of failed development, mega-cities, and mass unemployment may be missing the mark, which might instead target inequality of consumption and the U.S. led destruction of the planet’s biosphere. But even then, an Islamic fundamentalist is standing up for a way of life which, the U.S. has made quite clear, is not to be a legitimate part of the liberal world order (except in places like Saudi Arabia). And we have the attempted regime changes to show for it.
Does this mean that we as U.S. citizens have no way of resisting U.S. wars of aggression and regime change? Are peaceful sentiments really of no value? I would not state my position with any such absolutes; but these sentiments—and those yard signs and bumper stickers declaring a painless absence of hate—will not get us very far (nor have they) unless we also reduce the consumption and live like global citizens. We need to stay off the airplanes, stop demanding an ever-growing economy, cede the “right” to a yearly tropical vacation, avoid beef, fix things, maintain a simple wardrobe, live in smaller homes, grow our own food, walk, turn off the TV and resist the $1500 of marketing per head spent on each of us every year. Perhaps we need to undergo what Pope Francis calls an ecological conversion. Perhaps we need to take what will seem like a vow of poverty–or just live a lot more like Mexicans or Moroccans or any other people whose privilege doesn’t come with the tremendous collateral damage created by the American way of life. There are many reasons we as Americans need to make peace with a low-consumption way of life; the wars fought in the name of our “position of disparity” is an important one. For some day, they will make us stop.
And a gesture of listening and understanding, perhaps we need to support a new so-called “hashtag”–maybe #ustoo. #ustooFirstnations; #ustooSamoa; #ustooPuertoRico; #ustooMexico; #ustooHawaii; #ustooPanama; #ustooPhilippines; #ustooNicaragua; #ustooCuba; #ustooChina; #ustooAlbania; #ustooIran; #ustooGuatemala; #ustooCostaRica; #ustooSyria; #ustooEgypt; #ustooIndonesia; #ustooBritishGuiana; #ustooIraq; #ustooVietnam; #ustooCambodia; #ustooLaos; #ustooEcuador; #ustooCongo; #ustooBrazil; #ustooDomincanRepublic; #ustooBolivia; #ustooGhana; #ustooPalestine; #ustooChile; #ustooGreece; #ustooAngola; #ustooZaire; #ustooJamaica; #ustooSeychelles; #ustooChad; #ustooGrenada; #ustooSouthYemen; #ustooLebanon; #ustooSuriname; #ustooFiji; #ustooLibya; #ustooVenezuala; #ustooHaiti; #ustooSomalia; #ustooHonduras; #ustooAfghanistan [xiv]
[iii] More about this later.
[iv] I refer to “fallacy” in a way borrowed from David Fleming’s Lean Logic: A Dictionary for the Future and How to Survive It. Employing a distinction between formal and informal logic, Fleming prefers the latter. “Informal logic considers the context, content and delivery of an argument; it recognizes the fallacies that can destroy dialogue, and teaches how to avoid, or use, them” (215). The Peace Fallacy, as I am conceiving it, more specifically destroys political reflection and introspection; it is a part of an already-destroyed political dialogue where someone else, very different from “me,” is always to blame.
[v] This faith in “win-win” situations is an important part of the liberal mythos. In reality, doing what is right does not always result in material gain as well.
[vi] Listen Thomas Frank!
[viii] See http://newpol.org/content/us-economic-imperialism-and-resistance-global-south-prelude-ows
[ix] New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990, pp. 143,
[xii] https://www.foreignaffairs.com/reviews/capsule-review/2010-09-01/americas-global-advantage-us-hegemony-and-international. Carla Norrlof argues in America’s Global Advantage: US Hegemony and International Cooperation that our military might does pay for itself.
[xiv] Hyperbole? This is only a partial list. The Washington Post reported that “The U.S. tried to change other countries’ governments 72 times during the Cold War” alone. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/12/23/the-cia-says-russia-hacked-the-u-s-election-here-are-6-things-to-learn-from-cold-war-attempts-to-change-regimes/?utm_term=.85441d00240b. See also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_involvement_in_regime_change, and https://williamblum.org/essays/read/overthrowing-other-peoples-governments-the-master-list
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Erik Lindberg received his Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature in 1998, with a focus on cultural theory. After completing his degree, Lindberg began his career as a carpenter, and now owns a small, award-winning company that specializes in historical restoration. In 2008 he started Milwaukee’s first rooftop farm, and was a co-founder of the Victory Garden Initiative, as well as a member of Transition Milwaukee’s inaugural steering committee. He lives in Milwaukee with his wife and young twin boys.