It’s tough these days being a non-violent peace activist. Many see the notion of “peace is the way” as laughable, and the government equates peace with military domination.
The bi-partisan War Party in America won’t budge from its imperial wars despite majority polls and protests urging they do so. The right-wing base continues to narrow its range of toleration on everything. And the courts come down on the side of corporations, state power and a culture that has elevated guns into a religion.
I’ve worked in the peace movement for 30 years, and I believe in non-violently speaking truth to power. But the prospects for peace have never seemed gloomier or the situation more absurd.
Camp-following cheerleaders like ABC’s Martha Raddatz’s and others like her aside, General Stanley McChystal’s frustrations as revealed in a Rolling Stone article were a profound window into the fact the counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan is going badly.
In a reasonable, democratic universe, this might have kicked off a serious national discussion and a re-evaluation of the occupation itself. Instead, the war has been given a whole new lease on life with 4th of July bunting.
Except for Republican Chairman Michael Steele, who veered off message for a moment to criticize the war in Afghanistan as “a war of Obama’s choosing,” all elements of the War Party got their stories straight and are now in full cheerleader mode.
President Obama seeks “success” in Afghanistan, something that shifts with the political winds. Senator John McCain calls for “a certain trumpet,” lest the Taliban insurgents get the wrong idea that Americans are tired of the war – when all polls suggest Americans are tired of the war. He must think the Taliban don’t read The New York Times.
McChrystal’s boss, General David Petraeus, was sworn in as the American Viceroy of Afghanistan on the 4th of July. He did Obama’s “success” goal one better and said, “We are in this to win.”
In his drive-through Senate confirmation, Petraeus reassured senators that he would revise restrictions on lethal air support in cases of infantry units in trouble. These restrictions, of course, were policy based on his famous counterinsurgency doctrine, but in the American media-mind they are now treated as McChrystal’s failed policy.
This means jacking up the “kinetic” war, more aerial bombing and less sensitivity to civilian casualties.
President Obama made a big deal over firing General McChrystal to protect his constitutionally mandated civilian control over the military. Then he put the military squarely back in the driver’s seat with $33 billion in fresh funding.
“Long wars are antithetical to democracy,” says Andrew Bacevich in a Washington Post op-ed. He is a retired Army colonel and professor of history at Boston University.
“Protracted conflict introduces toxins that inexorably corrode the values of popular government,” he says. There is “a culture of contempt” for civilians in the ranks of the military. Bacevich concludes that Americans “need to reclaim ownership of their army.”
Afghanistan is now the longest war in American history, yet there is no end in sight. Even thinking about an end, we’re told, is defeatism. What’s so troubling, the Long War Bacevich speaks of is not really new and has been around since 1898 and the invasion/occupation of the Philippines.
In a 1910 essay called “The Management of Small States Which are Unable to Manage Themselves,” Theodore Roosevelt said that the best thing for tiny nations “unable to keep elementary order” — like the Philippines or Algeria — was intervention by a single strong nation like the United States or France, respectively. He opposed all international efforts to thwart US intervention.
“The very worst thing from the standpoint of humanity which can happen to such a community,” Roosevelt wrote, referring to “small states” like the Philippines and Algeria, “may be to guarantee it against outside aggression.”
In his 4th of July remarks, General Petraeus said we were in Afghanistan to “safeguard the Afghan people.” Absolutely nothing has changed in 100 years.
The Law of the Gun rules everywhere today. It seems to trump all attempts at an international or domestic social contract based on reason, compassion and justice. This toxic reality pervades our lives.
Intolerance and guns
The Supreme Court recently ruled 5 to 4 that the Second Amendment isn’t about “a well regulated Militia.” The one-sentence amendment may clearly say that, but, no, we are told the amendment is actually about the right of individuals to own a 15-shot Glock semi-automatic pistol or a magazine-fed, semi-automatic shotgun called a “street sweeper,” equipment the founding fathers could not have imagined.
From the vantage point of the men who wrote the amendment 223 years ago, it makes as much sense to give Joe Tea Bagger an M1A2 Abrams tank or a Predator drone system hooked up to his Mac.
I’m a Vietnam veteran who was raised with guns, and I’m not against gun ownership at all. In fact I own two pistols that I regularly shoot. What I’m against is the distortion of history for deplorable ends.
According to Michael Bellesiles in the 600-page epic Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture, guns were not commonly owned by individuals at the time the Second Amendment was written. Muskets were heavy, cumbersome, inaccurate things that farmers and other residents of the colonies had no interest in; they left guns and gun maintenance to George Washington’s standing national army or the various militias favored by people like Thomas Jefferson. If weapons were needed for self-defense, they used fists, clubs or blades.
In Europe and in America at that time there was still a lingering attitude that guns were cowardly; that a real man fought with a sword. In a way, it’s an earlier version of the argument we hear today referring to drone “pilots” killing from a great distance in total safety.
At the time of the Constitutional Convention in 1887, there was much arguing over the two modes of defense, standing army or local militias. The Second Amendment was Alexander Hamilton’s concession to advocates of militias.
All militias were federally controlled, and the government could, and did, restrict the possession of firearms by individuals as it saw fit. It was especially fearful of weapons in the hands of the poor and the aggrieved. If a militia got out of line, as in the Shay and Whiskey Rebellions, they were put down with what amounted to the Powell Doctrine of the time, overwhelming force from the national standing army.
All these issues always gravitate to the reality of a standing national army. Who is in charge of it and what to do with it?
Bellesiles’ thesis is that our current gun culture was actually formed later in the 1840s and ‘50s. It really took off following the Civil War, when the NRA was formed by two veterans to teach and encouraged gun skills.
“During the twenty years before the Civil War,” Bellesiles writes, “Americans began constructing an image of themselves as a violent people and to act on that self-perception.” Leading up to the Civil War, vigilantism played a large role.
Slavery and western expansion, he says, were central in this dynamic, as was the fact gun manufacturing was hitting its stride. Eventually marketing primed the pump.
“The good people of this world are very far from satisfied with each other and my arms are the best peacemaker,” Samuel Colt said in 1852, referring to his famous revolver.
The notion of individual self-defense that Justice Samuel Alito points to as essential to the Second Amendment was not a significant factor at all. Self-defense became a motive for gun ownership 60 years after the Constitution was written when it was deemed necessary to “defend” oneself against unruly slaves and “savages” in the west – and anyone who might go against Manifest Destiny and support either of them.
“Racism determined the presence and nature of American violence more than any other factor,” Bellesiles says.
So it’s not surprising to see right-wing justices friendly to corporations and concentrated state power to rule as if our mid-nineteenth century, oppression-based gun culture somehow had something to do with the Constitution.
Besides the NRA and Tea Baggers, the Supreme Court decision was welcome news to Nevada senate candidate Sharron Angle, who actually said, “If this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies and saying my goodness what can we do to turn this country around?” She also said she wanted to “take out” her opponent Harry Reid.
She may, however, have missed Harry and blown her own foot off. There are reports the NRA will endorse Reid, who also supports the second amendment.
Angle’s foot-in-mouth honesty wonderfully underlines the mid-nineteenth century culture war intensities that led to the rise of our gun culture, which got its best boost, according to Bellesiles, after 600,000 Americans were slaughtered in our Civil War and surviving soldiers of both sides took their weapons, their animosities and their feelings of righteousness home with them.
In the South, of course, this led to the rise of armed Ku Klux Klan militias and the enforcement of Jim Crow for 100 years.
I read Ms Angle’s remarks as I was reading something about Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber. On some level, their respective anti-government ravings didn’t seem that dissimilar. It’s not that hard to imagine some unhappy sociopath living alone in the Nevada desert nursing a long-simmering grudge hearing Ms Angle or any number of her peers and setting off on a mission to “remedy” Congress.
When the going gets weird …
We are living in very weird times, and as that famous leftist gun-owner Hunter Thompson liked to say, “When the going gets weird, the weird go pro.” I take that to mean, one should not remain on the sidelines.
Even though I own guns, I still respect the power of Gandhi’s satyagraha (non-violent truth force) as the best mode for addressing all this political and military malfeasance. It hasn’t worked so far, but as the cliché goes, it’s darkest before the dawn and you never know when some unforeseen critical mass of circumstances will occur and the absurd policies we seem doomed to endure will begin to fall away.
I know a professor who spent years working on a book about the Cold War that was published the week the Soviet empire crumbled. He had not seen it coming. All his work suddenly became irrelevant.
Something like that could happen here. The whole edifice of imperial war-making set off by people like Teddy Roosevelt could fall from the weight of its own tragic inconsistencies and wastefulness.
I’m not holding my breath. But I’m not giving up either.
The forces of violence and power are currently flourishing everywhere. The current president convinced many in the peace movement he was their friend; then he became another carrier of the “toxins” Bacevich spoke of.
By allowing the Pentagon and the War Party to overrule a tough, spirited effort to ease the United States down from empire in order to accomplish a list of overdue domestic policy needs, he has missed a major opportunity.
Americans need to move beyond the tired myths and demons of their past.
In The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein quotes the apocryphal remark made by Franklin Roosevelt when a progressive lobby group asked him to do something.
“Get out there and make me do it,” he told them.
This is the dilemma that haunts all non-violent peace activists: Without guns or violence, how do you motivate change in a government long committed to violence as a change agent?