This is a fight for the soul of America, between those who would face the crimes that have been committed in our name and those who would defend those crimes at all costs in the name of Old Glory. This fight will be ugly, because it threatens many Americans’ emotional attachment to their country - a.k.a. “patriotism” - and many other Americans’ conscience. It’s sad that so many of us are emotionally dependent on the idea that the USA is “the shining city on the hill.” But that’s the price we’ve paid for our luxuries.
The American Empire has stripped us of the social support networks we used to rely on. Those institutions that were refuges from economic competition - family, religion, unions, fraternal organizations - have all been weakened and sacrificed to Capitalism, increasing our reliance on Big Brother and Big Business. As a coping device, we replace these support structures with an idealized conception of our home country, imagining it as a father- or mother-figure. The American “Homeland” is a disturbing echo of Imperial Germany’s “Fatherland” and Tsarist Russia’s “Motherland.”
To compensate for the decay of our social and emotional lives, the Empire has provided us with creature comforts, dazzling entertainments and labor-saving devices to make our lives easier. Only a morally bankrupt society would confuse “easier” with “better,” but we’ve gone along with it, happy (or at least resigned) to exchange the chance of spiritual fulfillment for the security and stability of physical comfort. Unfortunately, as our goodies slip away, we’ll have no social network strong enough to support us when the imperial bill comes due, and that day may be coming sooner than we think.
The Empire is crumbling, and, as a result, our economy is in a long-term phase of contraction. We’ve been robbed of that share of the American Dream we thought was our birthright. Rather than let the rich have their wealth reduced by this process too, our politicians have taken from our slice of the shrinking pie to keep the wealthy in the manner to which they’ve grown accustomed. We’re understandably upset about this, but we feel impotent to effect political change. Instead, we lash out at convenient – i.e., weak – targets, such as immigrants, Muslims and other groups with marginal status in the US.
The government has harnessed this rage, and the poverty that feeds it, to fight our wars overseas. Growing economic inequality creates many willing, if not totally gung-ho, candidates for the military. The unreasoning fear and hatred of Muslims and Arabs that has enveloped the country since 9/11 provides their motivation. Islamophobia also offers domestic political cover for our government, because it would be impossible to summon sufficient popular support for a massive military campaign if we knew the real mission objective. That objective is control of the Middle East’s oil, not just access for ourselves, but determining who else gets to use it.
With this control, we would wield even greater global power. Like all power, it is self-justifying. Our leaders do not seek this leverage to protect us. They seek it for their own aggrandizement and out of a paranoid sense of patriotism. In their minds, any slip in American supremacy is a threat to the security of the Homeland and must be prevented by any means necessary. They can justify our wars in the Middle East and our decades-long support of dictators in that region as an effort to keep their oil under our control. If the oil fell into the “wrong hands” - meaning “any hands but ours” - they believe we would be subject to the same oppression we’ve imposed on them, either directly via military action or by proxy via brutal client regimes.
This is the psychology of empire: We must subjugate others to keep from being subjugated ourselves. But this is merely a geopolitical extension of the human habit of ascribing our own flaws to our enemies. Jung called it “projecting the shadow.” The bigwigs in Washington can’t deal with the lust for power that lurks in their own souls, so they pin that evil on the Russians, the Chinese and anyone else who prevents them from ruling the world. But we all possess this impulse. Luckily, other people check our power and prevent this instinct from reaching full flower.
Unfortunately, the power of the US military is unmatched in the world, and our leaders are able to indulge their Nietzchean “will to power” to the point of mass murder. In this effort, they are encouraged by the rapacious appetite of Big Business for overseas riches, like minerals, fossil fuels and cheap Third World labor. They’re also abetted by the American public’s greed for comfort and ignorance of global geopolitics. We support the invasions and airstrikes because we want to keep our cozy lifestyle, we don’t know any better or some combination of the two.
The troops bear no more blame for their mission than the rest of us. We all contributed to the decisions to go to war, whether through our support for those decisions or our failure to oppose them effectively. Since the Vietnam War, there’s been a concerted effort to erect a moral barrier between the troops and their mission, and this is to be commended. But it does not absolve soldiers of personal responsibility for their actions. The “just following orders” defense didn’t work for the Nazis at Nuremberg, and it should not be employed in defense of our own military.
Nor should we rely on the “bad apples” argument. In case your memory needs refreshing, the Bush administration claimed that the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq was the work of a few “bad apples” and not a systemic problem. The two soldiers who appeared in the photos associated with that scandal were publicly shamed and sentenced to prison stateside. But they were just extreme symptoms of an imperial campaign. Our wars are not noble, if misguided attempts to rid the Middle East of evil, occasionally sullied by the excesses of certain troops. The wars themselves are the crimes, and all who contribute to them are guilty, including we civilians.
Every salute to the troops sparks a sense of alienation in me. As a sports fan, I watch these on a regular basis on TV. But it’s worse experiencing them in person. I attended a college football game last season at one of the many schools that show athletics greater deference than academics. During a break in the action, the public address announcer directed our attention to a solider on the field who was attending the game as an honored guest of the university. Everyone in the stands seemed to be applauding, and many of them stood up as the soldier walked around the edge of the field and waved to the crowd. I thought, “What are we cheering for? What are we applauding? Are we really thanking him for his contribution to the deaths of over a million people?”
This is probably how it felt to be one of the few dissidents at the Nazi rallies at Nuremberg. (I apologize for relying on the clichéd rhetorical cudgel of the Nazis. I’m not saying we’re as bad as they were, just that the military campaigns glorified by our politicians and media are, in reality, savage attempts to consolidate imperial power. I sometimes wish our media would stop summoning their memory so frequently, although I doubt doing so would keep their ghosts from haunting our collective unconscious.) It’s at times like those that I feel as if I’ve slipped into a parallel universe, an alternate timeline in which we are the Bad Guys and they are the Good Guys. It’s as if the Nazis won the war, conquered the USA and instilled their morality in us.
This is not to say our celebrations of the troops reflect the Nuremberg rallies’ bloodthirsty spectacle. Our ceremonies have been sanitized of those vulgar displays. The barbaric wallowing in the glory of battle has been replaced by admiration and gratitude for the soldier’s sacrifice. Rather than glorify their murder of the enemy, we honor their willingness to temporarily give up the comfort of the American lifestyle. We honor their choice to go into harm’s way and be subjected to the soul-shattering horrors of war in our name, in the supposed defense of our freedom and way of life.
But what we’re celebrating is essentially the same as what the Nazis celebrated: an imperial campaign of slaughter, torture and oppression that terrorizes millions of men, women and children who have done nothing to us. If anything, most of the victims of our wars oppose the same dictators and terrorists we claim to be fighting. The terrorism we’ve suffered in the West is nothing compared to the terrorism we’ve unleashed on the Middle East. In the battle of Islamic extremists vs. Christian extremists (America’s political and military leadership), Christianity is way ahead in the body count, and the lead grows daily. If this were Little League, the mercy rule would’ve been invoked long ago.
Despite the laughably lopsided score in the “clash of civilizations,” Democrats and Republicans still fall over each other claiming that their support of the Global War on Terror is “courageous” and “patriotic.” The only yardsticks they use to measure this support seems to be the passion of their verbal defense of the Empire and the number of times they’ve voted to send other people’s sons and daughters into harm’s way. If words and votes were as lethal as rocket-propelled grenades, then surely no one could question the bravery of the politician. Unfortunately, rhetorical and political combat bears little resemblance to the military kind. At the end of the day, they can retire to their finely-appointed homes and carouse with their friends in the lobbying and money-making industries. Soldiers don’t have that luxury.
For all the praise we heap on them, you think soldiers would be living the high life. In reality, of course, they’re treated like cannon fodder at home too. The government programs to reintegrate them into society have been an abject failure for decades. Our attitude toward the troops is upside-down. We applaud their criminal exploits and fall far short of healing their scars. We should be condemning their role as Defenders of the Empire and caring for them as human beings. Perhaps only acknowledging the evil of their acts will lead to true healing. Maybe only then can we find the courage to admit our true debt to the troops and help them regain their humanity.
But I can’t condemn the people who’ve fought in my name without acknowledging my own complicity in the imperial enterprise that has enriched me at their expense. I haven’t done enough to keep these wars from starting. I’ve been derelict in my civic duty. I may email my congressional representatives regularly, but I rarely call their offices. Even worse, I only participate in local and state politics through elections. This is the consumerist model of democracy. True democracy arises from regular engagement with neighbors and elected officials.
We all bear the blame for these criminal wars, either through apathy or ignorance. For this reason, I cannot call our troops “heroes” for their military service. At best, I can only call them survivors of soul-scorching exploitation by our government and society in general. I owe them more support, but only because I failed to save them from the harrowing crucible of war. I owe them no laurels, only the kindness and care we should extend to any fellow human being who has been wounded, physically, psychologically or spiritually.
I reserve the honorific of “hero” for the soldiers who’ve come to terms with their guilt and understand their direct participation in atrocities. The courage required to face one’s own crimes exceeds the bravery demanded by war. That kind of soul-searching is at least as terrifying and challenging as the combat that necessitates it. These troops are the conscience of the nation and deserve our admiration and gratitude. We should listen to their warnings and take their counsel in formulating our foreign policy. They are the tip of our moral spear.
For those still in the military, I implore you to remove yourself from the Machinery of Death, before it cripples you physically, emotionally and spiritually. I’ve tried to remove myself from the imperial infrastructure by leaving the corporate world, but as long as I live in the US I’m still a part of it. This may be my most important message for you: You’re not making us safer; you’re making us less safe. You’re being used to further “U.S. interests.” Have you ever stopped to think what those might be? They’re not the interests of average Americans to be safe from terrorism. They’re the interests of the American Empire in protecting its own power.
Our society twists itself into knots trying to maintain the illusion of righteousness. We’ll destroy ourselves just to avoid looking in the mirror for fear of seeing the truth. Like the children of abusive parents, we can’t bear to think that our country could be horribly misguided and even evil. We’re afraid the truth would destroy us and render our lives up to that moment a waste. We can’t bear to face the possibility that all our love and works may have been spent in the service of a false idol. We’d rather die or continue serving a lie than face the truth.
But we have to trust that what we would lose isn’t nearly as valuable as what we have to gain. When we abandon the Empire, we’re not turning our back on our family or friends or country. We’re trying to save America from the moral abyss of the imperial system that supports our way of life. Our comforts come at the expense of the Third World. Only by dismantling the Empire can we atone for our sins.
In addressing this admittedly delicate subject, my hope is not to ignite a firestorm of controversy, but rather to shed light on an issue that our leaders are too eager to ignore. I’d like to provoke a debate on the morality of our wars rather than the tactics we employ in prosecuting them. With any luck, this will encourage filmmakers and the public to embrace movies that are willing to deal with the criminality of our military adventures. We can’t afford to continue burying the central question of war - Why? - under an avalanche of blind patriotism, because, eventually, we’ll all have to answer that question.