Evil Empire

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The
American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s
,
Tom Engelhardt, Haymarket Books, 269 pages

On Nov. 9,
1989 a number of students crowded into a tight dormitory room, one
of the few with a TV, in Zahm Hall at the University of Notre Dame.
They had gathered to watch history unfold, as thousands of East
and West Germans came together armed with sledgehammers, hope, and
joy to tear down the Berlin Wall, skipping, sliding, and shimmering
across the top of that concrete monstrosity. Only eight years before,
President Reagan, under the watchful eye of Our Lady of the Lake
atop her Golden Dome, had stood a few buildings down from Zahm and
identified communism as “some bizarre chapter in human history
whose last pages are even now being written.” The prophecy
was coming true, right there on the screen.

Since the early
1960s, Ronald Reagan had been planning an end to the Cold War in
what might only be described as the equivalent of a mixture of fantasy
baseball and the board game Risk. He stated his aim openly throughout
his two terms as president, but predictably few believed him. The
kind dismissed his words as simple optimism from a lovable actor.
The cynical – including those who helped shape public opinion
– dismissed Reagan’s words as misguided, destabilizing,
idiotic, colored by too many White House screenings of “Star
Wars.”

But even after
Reagan’s vision was fulfilled, the Cold War did not end. The
events of 1989 should have offered the West some breathing room,
a time to rethink the purpose of our nation and reinvigorate republican
ideals. Instead, the past two decades, under Republican and Democratic
administrations alike, have revealed America and the West as morally
and spiritually bankrupt. Plunder and torture best symbolize the
bloated American Empire of the last 20 years, a force that exists
merely for the sake of self-perpetuation. Our standing in the world
has declined precipitously. At home, many are angry and want to
change, organize, and harangue. Despite their best intentions, they
stand impotent, comprehending neither the past nor the present,
looking at the future – when not navel-gazing – with understandable
dread.

When voters
elected Barack Obama in 2008, his supporters acclaimed him higher
than a prophet; he was messianic. As one fine and intelligent person
– an expert in high tech as well as a farmer – wrote to
me in immediate post-election euphoria, “Brad, why are you
so upset, don’t you realize that we finally have a chance to
end war and poverty, permanently?”

What the Obama
administration has delivered, of course, is not only the continuation
of the policies of the previous three administrations but a profound
exaggeration of them. If anything, we suffer more violations of
our privacy and civil liberties now than at any time during the
Bush administration, all in the name of a national-security state
that keeps the populace in its place while perpetuating war abroad.

In his soul-searching,
illuminating, and often depressing look at the unholy ménage
of Demos, Leviathan, and Mars, Tom Englehardt probes deeply into
the war culture of Washington, D.C. He notes that only two positions
have any real voice in contemporary public-policy debate: those
who want more of this and those who want more of that. The key word
is “more.” As Englehardt writes, when it comes to conflict
overseas “however contentious the disputes in Washington, however
dismally the public viewed the war, however much the president’s
war coalition might threaten to crack open, the only choices were
between more and more.” More drones, more troops, more nation-building.

So much for
campaign promises and the new messiah who would end war and poverty
permanently. The first military budget Obama submitted, Engelhardt
notes, was larger than the last one tendered by the Bush administration.
“Because the United States does not look like a militarized
country, it’s hard for Americans to grasp that Washington is
a war capital, that the United States is a war state, that it garrisons
much of the planet, and that the norm for us is to be at war somewhere
(usually, in fact, many places) at any moment.”

Further, as
the Washington Post revealed this past summer in a penetrating
series on the intelligence community, no one knows exactly how many
persons in how many agencies are spending what levels of taxpayer
dollars to keep the espionage machine running. Engelhardt argues
the intelligence communities are as bloated as any part of the Department
of Defense. (Too bad we don’t still call it the Department
of War, which would be far more honest.)

As further
evidence of our degeneration into a martial empire, the U.S. sells
70 percent of the weapons in the international arms trade. In almost
every way, Engelhardt contends, the United States precipitates the
militarization of the globe.

How far and
fast we’ve fallen since the relatively peaceful days of the
Reagan era. Four interventionist administrations later, we find
ourselves as the leaders of international vice and terror. What
happened, Englehardt asks, to the republic our Founders bequeathed
to us? What have we done with and to our inheritance?

In the background,
I can hear Steve Horgarth’s wonderfully English voice from
the film Brave: “The Cold War’s gone, but those
bastards will find us another one. They’re here to protect
you, don’t you know. Get used to it.” He was right.

Read
the rest of the article

December
21, 2010

The
Best of Phil Maymin

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