The point I am trying to make here is a simple and obvious one, or would be in a society not burdened with a two-pronged ideology of extreme militarism and extreme individualism. It is this: In feeding the military-industrial complex so richly at this time, we are starving ourselves of many vital things and weakening ourselves as a society, perhaps to the point of suicide. We are in effect sacrificing our future on the altar of American imperialism, which like some dark god of the past, is ever hungry and can be assuaged only by human life.
The coronavirus plague now sweeping the globe – sickening millions, killing hundreds of thousands, bringing normal life for the world’s masses to an unprecedented and indefinite halt – puts into sharper relief than ever before the distinction between what we refer to reflexively as “national security” and the safety and security of real human beings. The ability to grasp that distinction at this moment is the difference between sanity and insanity.
Right now, as at least 40 of the nation’s states still fail to test their populations at the benchmark rate set by the World Health Organization, the Pentagon continues to chew through its bloated $700 billion-plus budget, larger than the next 10 countries combined. At a time when states still scramble to locate and pay for basic protective equipment for doctors and nurses, when every level of government here in the so-called “richest country in the world” is trying to square the circle of escalating costs and radically diminished revenues, the great American war machine grinds on, fighting its forever wars and extending its intimidating presence into every continent. A quarter-million American troops and mercenaries are now deployed in at least 177 countries and territories, at last count. It’s easier to list the places not housing U.S. forces; those would be, by and large, the nations our military, intelligence and diplomatic services are attempting to subvert, sanction or otherwise bludgeon into proper submission to the geopolitical and economic agenda of the global leviathan.
What exactly are these soldiers doing in Australia, Norway, the Philippines, Mali, Bahrain, etc.? Who knows? Defense Department bureaucrats feel as much need to explain and justify the stationing of their legions as did the Roman emperors. It all falls under the convenient, no-questions-allowed rubric of “national defense.” The exorbitant spending on high-tech weapons against low-tech terrorists, or whomever this week’s existential threat is – this too is largely unaccountable. It is managed by the fourth and most efficient branch of government, the revolving-door lobbyists employed by weapons makers, whom I hope and pray are maintaining proper social distancing as they perform their essential work of channeling corporate largesse to the campaign funds of key congressional committee members.
What we do know is what our ubiquitous military is not fighting: the only enemy that matters at the moment, the novel coronavirus, the real red menace. No amount of gunboat diplomacy with oil-rich nations, or support for Saudi Arabia’s murderous and endless war in impoverished Yemen, will bring us one minute closer to a vaccine or useful treatment against COVID-19, the microscopic invader that within a couple of months since its arrival in the U.S. has produced as large a death toll as the Korean and Vietnam wars combined. No rattling of sabers against China or Russia, no chest-thumping assertions made to a bemused world of American greatness or exceptionalism will bring to heel a contagion that, thanks to the current administration’s total lack of preparedness and tardy and inept response, has overcome our feeble public health defenses and made America the world’s epicenter of illness and death. Nor, obviously, do the plans in place to “update” our already planet-destroying nuclear capability protect us one bit from the catastrophic destruction – physical, psychological, cultural and economic – already wrought by these invisible specks of protein and genetic material. No, the $5 trillion and change we have spent this century on devastating and pointless warfare has only moved us closer to bankruptcy, financial and moral, while undermining COVID-19 prevention, treatment and research efforts, as well as related social support.
The raw numbers of the pandemic – with the U.S., representing just over 4 percent of the world’s population, accounting for 32 percent of total cases, 41 percent of active cases and 29 percent of deaths as I write this – serve as an irrefutable index of bad decisions made, of skewed priorities and sheer failure. The wave of suffering and fear that has come upon us has produced altruism and insight among some, but it has also triggered much misplaced rage and denial on the part of the MAGA crowd. The aggression, confusion and willed stupidity we see on display these days among militant “reopeners” is to some extent a karmic rebound of our geopolitics, an increasingly fascistic domestic belligerence that echoes the arrogant, bullying, me-first-and-only face our nation has long presented to the larger world.
That old radical pacifist America-hater, Dwight D. Eisenhower, famously wrote that “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron.” In the same letter, he also presciently noted, “The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: … two fine, fully equipped hospitals.”
Which is just the sort of thing that could come in handy about now. Along, of course, with the ability to test the minimum of 900,000 people per day that Harvard researchers claim is necessary to reopen the economy with any margin of safety. That number is almost three times the country’s current daily testing rate, which is still limited, after all these weeks, by supply issues, including shortages of swabs. (Which in itself is symptomatic of an industrial plant so corrupted by military spending and Defense Department procurement practices that it can readily produce complex and deadly weapons, but not modified Q-Tips.) It’s hard to imagine such a crisis affecting the Pentagon, with its rich legacy of $500 hammers and $600 toilet seats. However, the swabs are intended not to take lives but to save them, a goal that many on the Right seem to find unseemly and unmanly. This includes the president and vice president, with their selfish, macho refusal to protect the health of others and send a positive message to the citizenry by wearing a mask.
I think I understand their reticence. Once you start treating human life – all human life – as just a tiny bit precious and maybe a hint sacred, where will it end? With a questioning, perhaps, of our current concept of national greatness, based as it is on the concrete reality of perpetual war. And maybe, too, of a healthcare non-system designed around private profit, which withholds its benefits from those who are most susceptible to disease and most likely to spread it to others. In his grandiose way, the president declares his commitment to quickly (i.e., before the November election) develop a vaccine against the killer virus, likening this effort to the Manhattan Project in its urgency and budgetary priority. But the Manhattan Project took place during a real war, and this is just the moral equivalent of war – which is to say, it is driven by compassion rather than hatred and xenophobia. And so whatever resources end up being pledged to this seemingly humanitarian medical initiative – which will undoubtedly be tainted by the capitalist imperatives of Big Pharma – they will still be dwarfed by the monies allocated to the direct descendant of the Manhattan Project, the Strangelovian nuclear war-fighting capability that for 75 years has kept us all in a man-made climate of demoralizing terror.
In his Riverside Church speech of 1967, Martin Luther King stated that “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” Perhaps we have passed that point already, maybe long ago, judging by the complacency with which our society accepts a bellicose status quo in a time when nothing is normal. American companies continue to supply the smart bombs that Saudi pilots dumbly – or perhaps quite intentionally – drop on Yemeni children. Vindictive, senseless sanctions continue to be levied against Iran, a nation hard hit by the epidemic, as well as Venezuela, an oil-exporting nation in “our backyard” that cannot be allowed to function as a sovereign state, lest the example spread. American boots remain planted in myriad places the American public cannot pronounce or find on a map. The Pentagon pledges to build hundreds or thousands of hypersonic missiles, their newest toy, triggering yet another dangerous, futile and ruinously expensive arms race. Trump sputters on about his Space Force, declaring that “We must have American dominance in space” – a far cry from “We came in peace for all mankind,” the words left, however sincerely, on the surface of the moon by the Apollo astronauts half a century ago. The Cold War and its ideological rivalry is a generation past now, and not even lip service is paid anymore to peace and humanity, ideas fit only for wimps and losers in the Darwinian struggle of all against all that is life in the MAGA Republic.
The inhuman language of domination, power and control emanates endlessly from the top these days, from the lips of a deranged and dangerous president and the leadership of the Republican Party, which has completed its metamorphosis into right-wing death cult. But the context has changed, and so, subtly and inevitably, has the language’s meaning. Blustering about our arsenal and striking power at a time when we have failed so spectacularly to protect ourselves from a primitive microbe signals weakness, not strength. It reveals a thought structure so ingrown and ossified that it can no longer recognize its own situation or adapt to changing circumstances.
When I see photos of the militia types milling around state capitols, unmasked and brandishing AR-15 rifles while denouncing the emergency measures designed to keep them and their families alive, I wonder: Do these people mean to shoot the virus dead, Rambo style? There’s something strangely poignant beneath the reopeners’ ugly, threatening posturing. Paunchy and paranoid, born victims, they swagger childishly and flaunt their phallic weapons because, like all of us, they are afraid. But unable to honestly acknowledge their own fear, they mask it with anger and suspicion and hostility aimed at straw-man enemies. Dimly aware of their own isolation, vulnerability and powerlessness in a culture of exaggerated self-reliance, torn social safety nets, toxic masculinity and Fox TV, they come together in illusory and transient communities cemented by shared anti-social attitudes and excess testosterone.
These sad-sack right-to-deathers are a disturbing reflection of larger forces. Only in America would we have the Blue Angels – shining symbol of the military behemoth that spreads so much death and destruction worldwide while consuming half or more of the federal government’s discretionary spending – salute the lifesaving labor of the frontline healthcare workers who have gotten so little tangible support from Washington. Spectacle we do well; it’s planning, cooperation, mutual aid and shared sacrifice for the common good we find more challenging. A shallow patriotism comes easily to Americans, but real solidarity does not.
This is a terrible moment we’re going through, but also one of unwonted clarity. We must choose – in our thinking, our behavior, our policy and budgetary decisions – between life and death, between saving actual lives and projecting brute, abstract force. If we continue to pretend that things haven’t shifted fundamentally, that out of a crippled and traumatized economy we can extract both new missiles and new medical treatments, then we have learned nothing from this experience and have not earned a livable post-virus future.
Making America Great Again proved an effective campaign slogan, a sadly popular invitation to collective self-delusion and the unleashing of pent-up hatreds. The question we can no longer avoid is whether we can make America good for once. If it’s still possible at this late date, it will begin with a reconsideration of the muddled and mystified concepts of national security and national defense, and a plan for moving as a society from a passive acceptance of the sickness that is war to an active pursuit of healing and of peace.