Thursday, May 24, 2018

Addicted to War: The Seductive Myths of Militarism

An ever-deepening militarization threatens to hollow out democracy and leave the country isolated and bankrupt, morally and economically.

George Washington could hardly be called naive about the use of military power. Yet, in his presidential farewell address, the general-turned-political leader issued a warning that would be wise to reconsider since the United States began pursuing a foreign policy based on preventive war and a crusade to spread democratic capitalism worldwide. Citizens should be wary, Washington explained, of “those overgrown military establishments which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty, and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty.” 
While he considered a respectable army essential to national well-being,
Washington also believed that an overgrown military establishment in the New World would replicate the errors of the Old one. Unfortunately, this concern – considered superfluous in 1796 – has been largely ignored in the two centuries that have seen the United States transform itself from a revolutionary experiment into the world’s only superpower. 

As Andrew J. Bacevich has argued in The New American Militarism, the roots of the change go deep and cannot be traced a single political party or administration. Yet, the problem was intensified by the disorientation that followed the Vietnam War, as well as illusions about the invulnerability provided by technology and a neoconservative argument that military power provides the “indispensable foundation” for the nation’s unique role in the world. 

Coming from a left-leaning writer, such a conclusion would not be surprising. But Bacevich is a West Point graduate, veteran of Vietnam, and former Bush fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. As such, he has watched the evolution of what he describes as an “ever-deepening militarization of U.S. policy” that threatens to hollow out democracy and leave the country isolated and bankrupt, both morally and economically. 

Conservative pundit Pat Buchanan made a similar case in Where the Right Went Wrong (2004), his book on how neoconservatives hijacked the Bush presidency. Calling the post 9/11 Bush Doctrine “democratic imperialism,” he warned that it would “bleed, bankrupt, and isolate this republic. This overthrows the wisdom of the Founding Fathers about what America should be all about. This is an American version of the Brezhnev Doctrine, wherein Moscow asserted the right to intervene to save Communism in any nation where it had once been imposed. Only we Americans now assert the right to intervene anywhere to impose democracy.” 

However, while Buchanan sees Ronald Reagan as a true conservative who would not have countenanced “regime change” and preventive war unless the evidence of an imminent attack was absolutely solid, Bacevich argues that Reagan romanticized the U.S. military in order to boost defense spending and confront the Soviet Union, setting the stage of future militarization. More than anyone else, he writes, Reagan “conjured up the myths that nurtured and sustain present-day American militarism” and made military might “the preferred measure for gauging the nation’s strength.” 

On the other hand, the shift was underway before Reagan. Bacevich sees Jimmy Carter’s failures – including entreaties to end the U.S. addiction to imported oil and turn toward self-sufficiency, as well as a disastrous covert mission to rescue U.S. hostages in Iran – as inadvertent persuasions, convincing people that a weak military was intolerable and thus playing into the agenda of the neoconservative movement. 

After Reagan, Bill Clinton aided the project by backing military enhancements like “smart weapons” and “flexible power projection capabilities,” as well as intervening “with great frequency in more places for more varied purposes than any of his predecessors.” 

Although neoconservatism can be traced back to 1960s attacks on the New Left and counterculture by Norman Podhoretz and others, it didn’t gain much traction until the Reagan years. The argument begins with the assertion that “evil” will prevail if those who confront it flinch from duty. The primary example used before 9/11 was appeasement of Hitler by Britain and France, combined with U.S. isolationism before World War II. The only effective response, they conclude, is military power, not vague and unrealistic international negotiations. In this regard, the United States has no choice but to assert global leadership, and the mission is open-ended. Neoconservatives leave no room for pessimism or self-doubt; in fact, they consider such thinking close to treasonous. 

At home, concervatives defined a set of related threats, among them sexual license, vulgarity, an absence of standards, and the decline of institutional legitimacy. In response, they have been impelled to discredit 1960s legacies such as multiculturalism, affirmative action, feminism, and gay rights, while promoting “traditional values” and so-called beleaguered institutions, notably marriage and the nuclear family. 

Furthermore, conservatives claim that the crisis is permanent and dire, and the only antidote is a heroic form of leadership Bacevich defines as a “weird homegrown variant of the Fuehrer Principle.” He holds back from using the word fascist, but as Willhelm Reich explained in The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933/1946), identification with a “Fuehrer” forms the psychological basis of national narcissism. In pre-war Germany, “The structure of the fascist proved to be characterized by metaphysical thinking, piety, and the belief in the abstract ethical ideas and the Divine mission of the ‘Fuehrer’,” Reich explained. “These traits rested on a basis of a strong authoritarian fixation to a Fuehrer-ideal of the nation.” 

In the United States, other factors assisting the rise of militarism include Hollywood and evangelical religion. The entertainment industry’s contributions include a series of influential films that have etched a romanticized vision of the military into popular consciousness. Bacevich focuses on three: An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), which suggests that becoming an officer is the way to move from a dead-end existence to status and respectability, “up where we belong;” the Rambo series (1982-88), which argues that soldiers aren’t given the respect they deserve at home and should be set loose to win abroad by any means; and Top Gun (1986), a feature-length recruitment poster that made combat look clean, technologically sophisticated, and highly cool. 

Since then Hollywood’s war narrative has become slightly more complex, but no less romantic. Dozen of major war films have been released in the last two decades, many of then looking back at World War II as a violent crucible that nevertheless reflects noble national ideals. Other films support neoconservative arguments about the dangers of a half-hearted response to evil and how political considerations threaten humanitarian missions. 

As far as religion is concerned, a chapter titled “Onward” opens with the bold statement that the United States remains, “as it has always been, a deeply, even incorrigibly, Christian nation.” Noting that about 100 million people in this country define themselves as evangelicals, he states bluntly that they tend to be conservative and vote Republican. 

Beyond that, evangelical Christians also celebrate the military as a bastion of the values needed to stop the current slide toward perdition and thus have provided religious sanction to militarization. This links up nicely with neoconservative logic, offering support for the idea of striking the first blow. Books like The Church and the Sword and One Nation Under God replace the “just war” idea with a “crusader theory of warfare.” As Hal Lindsey, author of The Late Great Planet Earth, argues, “The Bible supports building a powerful military force. And the Bible is telling the U.S. to be strong again.” 

With evangelicals leading the way, both within the military chaplaincy and the GOP, “Conservative Christians have conferred a presumptive moral palatability on any occasion on which the United States resorts to force,” Bacevich concludes. “They have fostered among the legions of believing Americans a predisposition to see U.S. military power as inherently good, perhaps even a necessary adjunct to the accomplishment of Christ’s saving mission. In doing so, they have nurtured the preconditions that have enabled American infatuation with military power to flourish.” 

Bacevich also posits that the world is in the midst of World War IV, and argues that this battle to guarantee U.S. citizens “ever-increasing affluence” actually began when Jimmy Carter declared in January 1980 that, “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” That was called the Carter Doctrine.

Once the "Doctrine" was in effect, Reagan ramped up the military’s ability to actually wage the new world war, thus cocking the trigger that George W. Bush ultimately pulled. What has allowed the crusade to proceed, Bacevich argues, is a combination of self-induced historical amnesia and a momentum for militarization that has built since the national trauma induced by defeat in Vietnam . 

Although suggesting that the country may be stuck with a “misbegotten crusade,” he does offer a series of alternative principles that might mitigate the effects. The list includes restricting military actions to those that truly reflect what the U.S. Constitution calls “common defense,” forcing Congress to exercise its oversight concerning war, renouncing preventive war in favor of force as a last resort, limiting U.S. dependence on foreign resources, reorganizing the military around defense rather than power projection, basing the U.S. military budget on what other nations spend (rather than a fixed percent of GDP), and more fully funding diplomacy to better communicate with the rest of the world. 

He finishes with three ideas for reforming the military itself. Favoring the idea of “citizen soldiers,” Bacevich suggests that the current all-volunteer force should actually “mirror society” rather than becoming increasingly “professionalized.” Specifically, he calls for shorter enlistments, more generous signing bonuses, flexible retirement options, and free college education for anyone who serves. If the military is rooted among the people, problems that develop in any future interventions are more likely to be identified early and corrected. At least that's the hope.  

Bacevich also calls for a reexamination of the role of the National Guard, along with its expansion. “We need more citizen-soldiers protecting Americans at home even if that means fewer professional soldiers available to assume responsibility for situations abroad.” And finally, he urges an end to the current painful and dangerous separation between the military profession and the rest of society. As a former military man, he sees war as part of the human condition. But he wants to bind the profession to the “outside world” rather allowing it to keep the world at bay.
Originally Posted March 17, 2016 

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Rebel with a Cause: Discovering a Socialist Family Hero

My great uncle Lorenzo was still marching in 1964.

The Romans may have been the earliest to exploit southern Italy, their behavior so brutal that it eventually sparked the revolt of Spartacus. But some believe the darkest period may be the 200-year rule of the Spanish dynasty, which subjected the Mezzogiorno to a long series of predatory barons and viceroys. Officially, the feudal era ended in 1806, but its passing also meant that peasants could no longer turn to a wealthy overlord for aid. Now they were on their own.

Over the next decades, absentee landlords gained in influence, permiting gross inequities and draconian contracts that exploited most peasants. Some became outlaws and thieves. As a result, when southerners resisted landlord abuse or complained to the central government, they were often called barbarians and savages. But artisans and storekeepers were respected across class lines. Each trade had its own mastri and apprentices. They were more likely to take advantage of educational opportunities, and also among the first to join the exodus to America.

Young Lorenzo
Born on April 17, 1891 in the small Calabrian mountain town of Parenti, Bruno Lupia was the oldest of three brothers and, in 1902, the first of my family to emigrate to the United States. His parents, Michelina Cardamone and Joseph Lupia, had three other children: Lorenzo, Luciano, and Rosa. Lorenzo came to the US a decade later as a teenager, possibly to apprentice with his brother. Luciano followed in 1921. Both of them returned to Italy, however. According to my mother, the former “got into trouble” for his politics and the latter failed in a restaurant business.

There was obviously much more to this story. After all, grandpa Bruno became a clothing manufacturer and philanthropist, influential enough to merit an audience with President Truman. And Lorenzo ultimately became mayor of his hometown. Not bad for a troublemaker.

By 1911, I learned, Bruno had launched himself as a tailor in Red Bank, New Jersey, established enough that the local newspaper reported a case in which he had a customer arrested and brought to court for trying to avoid a bill by skipping town. At the time Red Bank was a commercial and manufacturing center, with the emphasis on textiles, tanning, furs, and other goods destined for sale in Manhattan. It was also a port from which steamboats took commuters to work in Manhattan. 

Bruno eventually moved his business to Manhattan and his growing family to Queens. As a clothing designer and manufacturer, he launched Metro Coat & Suit in the city’s garment district and became a leading Italian philanthropist, co-founder of the Italian Charities. 

But by then a serious split had opened up with his brothers, apparently over politics and property. For years, as Bruno became established as a tailor and maker of women's clothes, he sent money home. At least once, in the early 1930s, he brought his family to Cosenza. After that, mostly silence. 

 In September 1946,  Bruno (on the right) led a delegation of Italian businessmen to meet with President Truman. They were disturbed at "the way things were going in the world," according to a report, and might not support Senator James Mead, the Democrat running for Governor of New York. His opponent was Thomas Dewey, the Republican incumbent. Dewey was re-elected and Bruno became a Republican. 
Two years later Dewey almost defeated Truman for President.  

As a child I was told almost nothing about relations across the ocean. But a recently found Italian cousin says that Bruno once sent Lorenzo a bust of Mussolini -- not a friendly gesture. And Luciano may have become an outright fascist. On the other hand, my mother lamented years later that no one from Italy bothered to reach out after Bruno sold (or surrendered) his family land rights.

Whatever the reasons, the evidence suggests that Lorenzo returned to Calabria by 1919, early enough to fight for Italy in World War I. After the war, he became a hard-line Socialist, a “maximalist” who advocated real social revolution. Evidently, he had picked up some radical ideas as a teenager in New York's immigrant circles, possibly by frequenting anarchist meetings. 

From 1918 to 1920, Italy experienced serious monetary devaluation, along with so many strikes and factory occupations that the period became known as the "red biennium." In the little-industrialized south, the struggle played out on farmland. Soldiers returning from the war were in urgent need of work. But having encountered other peoples, ideas and cultures during the war, the former fighters wanted to finally leave behind the primitive social relations and working conditions of the middle ages.

In the spring of 1921, with the help of Lorenzo — recently back from America and the war — a group of returned soldiers founded the Agricultural Cooperative for Liberty, Mutual Aid and Work. It was a cooperaive society along the lines of one that had existed in Parenti back in 1909. The 1920s reincarnation was called the Anonymous Agricultural Cooperative of Parenti. During the fascist period it disbanded. When it was finally reactivated in 1943, the organization was renamed again, this time as the Agricultural Cooperative for Liberty and Work. 

Twenty years earlier, back in 1923, Lorenzo had already become concerned about political faddism and the rise of fascism. “People wake up anarchist in the morning, have a stroll, and become socialist,” he lamented in one article, “at noon comes De Cardona (a political priest), and we all are Popular; in the afternoon, after some drinks, from populist to ’Democratic-Liberal,’ then’fighters’; at night we all dress in black shirts and we are fascist. Without ceremonies!”

Three years after writing that, following a “summary” trial in November 1926, Lorenzo was “confined” to internal exile. His crime: As secretary of a “dissolved” section of the Socialist Party, he had conducted “active propaganda” throughout the district of Rogliano, defending peasants and challenging fascists. In other words, he was an organizer. 

He was also part of the early anti-fascist resistance, and a new decree on public safety, following several attempts to assassinate Mussolini, had increased surveillance, clamped down on dissent, and established a system of “forced residence” (confino).

Once his appeal was dismissed, Lorenzo was sent to Lipari, an island where local pigs cleaned up rubbish in the streets and some locals viewed the political prisoners sent there as a pampered “species of nabob.” On the other hand, he met left-wing leaders like  Carlo Rosselli and Emilio Lussu, democratic organizers and returned soldiers, and Francesco Fausto Nitti, nephew of the deposed prime minister.

When Lorenzo returned from exile, rather than being intimidated by his time in prison, he continued the struggle for social justice and freedom that characterized his life so far. As head of the local peasants and laborers organization, he helped to liberate land from the remaining baronies and fought phony “agrarian reform” that was being used against peasants and in favor of landowners. He “actively fought fascism with all his might and with the means at his disposal,” one local history noted.

May Day on Lipari in 1927; Lorenzo is on the left.

In 1943 Lorenzo became a Parenti Commissioner. A year later, after the complete liberation of southern Italy, May 1 was celebrated in a special way. The Socialist Word had resumed publication and commemorated the event by printing an article by Lorenzo that reminisced about a past May Day, when he was exiled on Lipari in 1927.

In “Memories of May Day,”  he recalled that “the rugged cliffs of the island were invaded around two in the afternoon by men who emerged from all directions. A group of white boulders that looked like a big boulder held us all on the part that was looking at the sea. We were about three hundred. 

“Above, the anarchist group. On the summit, Robiati stood guard, gazing, to the streets with ready access to sound the alarm. Under him Mazzoni, Malara and those of one unidentified wag. More to the right a large group of communists. I remember the manly figure of Volpi, and the children's faces of Repossi and Piccelli. 

“To the left were the socialists, the most numerous. Here Tega, Busoni, Carini, Innamorati, Tramontana, Grave, Germiniani and many, many others. There were then, alone, some Republicans, Mazzini, Mitti, Bruno. The lookout gave the signal to start because no one else would come and the celebration of our May Day began. 

“What was said? I do not know. I do not remember. I look into the distance towards the coast of Sicily and think about those I had seen every morning, starting handcuffed between two policemen, called by the special court, in response to unimaginable and obscure crimes. I feel that although we do not agree on many things, we are all united by a single hope. ‘Down with Fascism!’ I cry out, and all we repeat it forcefully, and the cry echoes through the reef. 
“When, one by one, we walk in single file, silent, toward the town, I seem to see an endless procession marching purposefully toward an achievement and a hymn that opens the door of my heart. Forward, forward Comrades!” 

In the first free elections after the fall of the fascist regime, uncle Lorenzo was elected Mayor of Parenti in 1945. He held the position for the next thirty years, supervising community affairs with rigor, prudence and democratic principles. 

Unfortunately, due to the rift in my family, we never had the opportunity to meet. Lorenzo Lupia, Presente!

Uncle Lorenzo gives a speech as mayor.