By Kevin Baker
George W. Bush at the Home of America’s Hammer
The nationalist apotheosis of George W. Bush reached its fruition last January 3, when the commander-in-chief of the United States’ armed forces traveled to Fort Hood, Texas. He was there ostensibly to sell the idea of a war in Iraq to the American people, and to rally the troops to the task ahead. But, much more importantly, he was there to reclaim for himself and his party the mantle of the true keepers of the American identity.
It was a chilly, damp afternoon for a rally, but the location alone provided the White House public relations wizards with a fine coincidence of cultural iconography. Fort Hood was named for John Bell Hood, the tough, pigheaded Confederate general who was all but shot to pieces by the Yankees, losing an arm, a leg, and the city of Atlanta. No less than Elvis Presley himself had slept in the base barracks, passing through on his way to Germany as a buck private in the Cold War.
Today Fort Hood is the most populous Army base in the country and the home of its heavy armor; 340 square miles of rugged, East Texas hill country, conveniently located 90 miles from Bush’ vacation ranch in Crawford and housing some 42,000 soldiers. Most of these were the men and women of the First Cavalry Divison and the Fourth Infantry Division, and their presence lent an added poignancy to the commander-in-chief’s visitation. Both units were considered all but certain to be shipped out to the Gulf.
“For God and country is what I signed the paperwork for,” Brad Hastings, a twenty-year-old private from Memphis, Tennessee, told a reporter from the Dallas Morning News. “If I’m called, I’m ready to go.”
The Morning News and The Houston Chronicle reported that Bush spent most of the day meeting selected individuals such as Pfc. Hastings and inspecting specialized tanks with nicknames like “Anarchy,” “Burn, Baby, Burn,” and “Anger Management.” He then proceeded to a gymnasium off Tank Destroyer Boulevard, festooned with giant American flags and a banner proclaiming “Fort Hood, Home of America’s Hammer!!!” where he spoke before a sea of soldiers in black berets and camouflage uniforms waving small, plastic American flags. Behind him, serving as a backdrop for the TV cameras, sat the usual melting pot of men and women, blacks and whites and Hispanics and Asians that seem to pop up like magic for Bush’s every speech on a military base or airfield or warship.
“The Iraqi regime is a grave threat to the United States,” he told them, and the country, after inveighing against the intransigence of Saddam Hussein.
“Our country is in a great contest of will and purpose. We’re being tested,” Bush went on, vowing, “We must, and we will, protect the American people and our friends and allies from catastrophic violence wherever the source, whatever the threat.”
It was very much the same sort of speech that Bush had been giving throughout his campaign to drum up support for war in Iraq. Indeed, it was much the same sort of vaguely Christian, newsbite-sized portentiousness that has characterized his every address, beginning with his 2001 inaugural.
It was the response that was startling. The soldiers answered their commander-in-chief not with cheers or claps, or any sort of ordinary, civilian applause, but with a sudden, violent roar of “Hu-AH! Hu-AH!” Shouted simultaneously from 4,500 throats, it came across on the evening news as a primal, lusting sound; unexpected and voracious and thoroughly martial, like something one might have expected to hear from the Spartans, or a falangist street rally in the 1930s. It was not like anything that I have ever heard before, at a rally presided over by an American president.
The chant continued throughout the speech, turning Bush’s address into a churchy call-and-response. Individual cries of “Yeah!” and “Let’s go!” rose from the crowd when he explained why we would invade Iraq, but would not invade North Korea—but again and again there was that same, swift chant, sweeping all before it: “Hu-AH! Hu-AH! Hu-AH!” Reverberating around the gym until Bush, who just before the rally had exchanged his dark, suit coat for a green, waist-length army jacket, held up his left hand, palm-out, in grand, imperious acknowledgement.
The media would later come to dwell on another moment, four months later, when Bush would take his now legendary turn across the carrier U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln to declare Gulf War II over—the most audacious strut across a ship of war since Cher bumped and ground her way across a battleship in a black leather thong for her “If I Could Turn Back Time” video. Pundits lingered over every choice detail of that performance—over Bush’s confidence, or whether he really took over the controls over the small plane that flew him in, over even the bulge in his flight suit pants.
But Bush on the carrier was only a matching shot, a triumphalist bookend to his visit to the Home of America’s Hammer. He had already become, at Fort Hood, something more than any other president has ever been, which is to say the very avatar of American power. The president of Huah.
“Huah is an all-purpose expression,” the journalist David Lipsky explains in his fine new study of West Point, Absolutely American. “Want to describe a cadet who’s very gung-ho, you call them huah. Understand instructions, say huah. Agree with what another cadet has just said, murmur huah. Impressed by someone else’s accomplishment, a soft, reflective huah.”
And huah is exactly what George W. Bush’s presidency was and is—a gung-ho, in-your-face, balls-to-the-wall approach to governance that has refused any hint of compromise, and which has already brought about a seismic transformation of American politics. Bush’s appearance at Fort Hood came only four days before the swearing-in of the first truly Republican-controlled congress to serve under a Republican president in almost 50 years, a stunning triumph achieved by an off-year electoral strategy that boldly repudiated the old notion that all politics are local, and based the entire campaign on the issues of national security—and on George Bush himself.
It was also a strategy that depended in good part on using the military itself as a campaign prop. Bush stumped at military bases throughout the 2002 elections, blowing in dramatically on Air Force One to pump his latest tax cut or the Homeland Security plan (indeed, he has spoken either at a military facility or to a specifically military audience an astounding forty-five times since March 2001). There was a practical advantage to this—no American president has ever been less comfortable with unscripted appearances before the general public, and by campaigning on military bases Bush’s handlers could assure that his crowds would always be restricted to jubilant, flag-waving supporters—but above all there was the opportunity for the commander-in-chief to personally interact with our men and women in uniform. Bush could throw his arms around their necks; shake their hands, hug them, dress up like them. Their physical presence and their huah approval erased any remaining public memory of Bush’s own, adroit dodge of the Vietnam War, or the fact that he may officially be a deserter to this day after going AWOL from the Air National Guard unit he managed to join during that war, or even his rabbity scurry about the country on Air Force One in the immediate wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Surmounting his largely pacific past, George W. Bush had made himself one with what has become the most revered institution in the country. According to a New York Times poll published soon after the “completion” of the war in Iraq, 79 percent of all Americans expressed “a great deal or quite a lot” of confidence in their nation’s military, as opposed to only 45 percent who had the same level of confidence in the leaders of organized religion, and only 29 percent who believed so fervently in the Congress. This sort of faith extended even to 64 percent of the baby-boomers’ children, aged 18 to 29. A Harvard Institute of Politics poll of 1,200 college students found that 75 percent trusted the military “to do the right thing” either “all of the time” or “most of the time,” and that they characterized themselves as hawks over doves by a ratio of 2-1.
Nor is this a new phenomenon. Confidence and trust in the American military has been growing steadily since its nadir, back in 1975—almost exactly the moment, not so coincidentally, that the last, compulsory military draft ended and our modern, all-volunteer service began.
An even more salient fact, which Bush’s advisors could not have missed, is that many—perhaps most—Americans now see the military as the last remaining refuge of many democratic values, in a society that seems ever more shallow and materialistic and ironic. David Lipsky—comparing the West Point cadets to the cynical, disillusioned slackers he had become accustomed to in a career of writing about college campuses—found the America of the Army to be what his liberal father had described when he talked about “his best hopes for the country. A place where everyone tries their hardest. A place where everybody—or at least most people—looked out for each other. A place where people—intelligent, talented people—said honestly that money wasn’t what drove them.”
There is, of course, at least another side to the military, as the rape scandal that emerged from the Air Force Academy during the latest Gulf War demonstrated. But even this seemed to be handled in a direct, forthright way compared to the scandals, real and invented, sexual and financial, Democratic and Republican, that have dominated Washington over the last decade. The military remains an institution that has integrated women and minorities into its ranks more successfully than most—perhaps all—other public institutions. That gorgeous mosaic of faces behind Bush at every base may have been contrived by his handlers, but it was only possible because the military is such a mosaic.
It is no wonder that Bush—along with “the genius” Karl Rove and his other advisers—has sought to identify himself so completely with this winning cultural icon. By again defying conventional wisdom and running right at what might be thought to have been Bush’s Achilles heel—his hypocritical draft dodging—they managed to erase yet another chapter of what has to be the murkiest past in presidential history.
But there is more to Bush’s identification with our armed forces than simply an effort to boost poll numbers. His apotheosis signals both a reversion to the deepest, darkest roots of the Republican party, and the new political era to come. It marks the advent of the Party of Huah, and a dangerous and unprecedented confluence of our democratic institutions and the military.
For all of their supposed conservatism, the Republicans have always been the true radical party in America. From its very inception in 1854 as a rejoinder to the Slave Power, the GOP was a repository for all sorts of crackpot notions and secret societies—the Know-Nothings and the Sons of Sam, and the anti-Masons; the Sabbatarians and the Prohibitionists. Their leading, shared characteristic, what brought them together as a movement in the first place, was their willingness to try to define for the first time just what a true American was—and to enforce that definition by the sword, if necessary.
From its inception, the G.O.P. has been our party of blood and iron, the (Protestant) church militant. Their first martyr was John Brown, author of the Pottawatomie massacre and armed rebellion at Harpers Ferry. During the 1860 electoral campaign, the first party activists, the “Wide Awakes,” marched through city streets in torchlight parades, wearing silver capes and singing, “They’ll find what by felling and mauling/ Our railmaker statesman can do…”
Lincoln himself saw the incredibly bloody conflict that they would fight and win as holy war, a divine redemption that would expunge the great national sin of slavery and save not so much our individual souls but the Union. This would be worth any price in blood, as Lincoln made clear in his second inaugural—in what is surely the most sanguinary passage ever penned by an American president—when he asserted that “if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”
Lincoln and the Republicans were right about the Civil War, of course. They not only abolished slavery but forged the United States into what was truly one nation for the first time, upsetting the long, delicate series of compromises that the accommodationist antebellum Democrats had used to preserve the old half-slave, half-free Union.
But they also set the casts of our two major parties to this day. For better and worse, the Democrats would remain the party of moderation and compromise, trying to reconcile the inevitability of change (for America has only been a nation during the modern age, and thus change is an intrinsic part of its character) with the customs and folkways of the past. Despite the common conception of the Democrats as the “left,” none of the great liberation movements that have transformed American society over the last century-and-a-half —populism, the labor movement, civil rights, women’s liberation, gay rights, etc.—originated from within the Democratic party. Instead, they all started as protest movements outside the party that the Democrats gradually absorbed and worked into the political mainstream.
The Republicans, by contrast, would remain the party of uncompromising, self-generated, draconian solutions—and it is their agenda that has mostly driven the national political debate. As Walter Karp wrote in The Politics of War, the Republicans shared a belief that their party “was not a faction, not a group, not a wing, [but] a synonym for patriotism, another name for the nation.” Thus they have tended to couch their arguments in terms of “conserving” essential American values, while actually embracing one radical nostrum after another, from Social Darwinism to Progressivism, from protectionism to laissez-faire to the corporate state, from isolationism to the new imperialism.
None of these had much to do with traditional notions of conservatism. For all of the rhetoric about limited government, since the advent of Reagan and the current Republican hegemony the federal government has by any objective measure become larger, more intrusive, more coercive, less accountable, and more deeply indebted than ever before. It has more weapons, more soldiers, more police, more spies, more prisons. These trends have only accelerated under the present administration, whose stated agenda includes plans to privatize Social Security by forcing Americans to turn their retirement savings over to private investment firms, to turn Medicare over to HMOs, to turn most other social welfare funds over to religious organizations, and to place most American businesses under the regulation of remote, international—and unaccountable—bureaucracies.
What Republicans have really done, over the past quarter-century, is to return to their roots. They once again presume to speak for the idea of Volk—for the larger, mistier notion of the American people, beyond any specific, coherent ideology, or even the bonds of the Constitution.
The problem with such an ambition is that, unlike Europe, America has no mystic ties of blood. Being an entirely modern nation, it did not have time to build a “race” before it was flooded with immigrants. The early, nativist wing of the GOP was largely obliterated during the Civil War and the following decades. And America as a mixed-race, multicultural, nonsectarian country, came to be an accepted—then a celebrated—fact of our national character. Despite the power wielded by the GOP’s white Protestant clerics, and its perfection of the coded racial appeal, the party has never been able to sustain itself simply as a movement of racial identity.
Lagging hopelessly behind the urban, Democratic machines in recruiting the new immigrant masses, Republicans were historically all the more anxious to find a national zeitgeist that might substitute for blood. But here, too, they badly miscalculated, misreading the national will during the great, twentieth-century-long emergence of the United States as the world’s foremost power. The isolationist wing of the G.O.P. opposed America’s entry into both world wars, into the League of Nations, and even—under Robert Taft—the series of alliances that would contain the Soviet Union and win the Cold War. In each instance, the Republicans were forced to scramble and come up with later red scares that sought to judge what true “Americanism” was. These had some initial success, but ultimately proved too ugly to be sustainable. Even the most frenetic examples of Republican activism, such as John Foster Dulles’s stated determination to “roll back” communism or Ronald Reagan’s revived arms race, proved ultimately to be no more than variations on established, long-term Democratic strategies.
But all that changed on September 11, 2001. For the first time, Republicans found themselves more-or-less in charge of the federal government at a moment when a stunning new foreign threat presented itself. They immediately embraced the crisis as their own, applying the sorts of radical remedies—both at home and abroad—that they have often advocated in the past but have never been able to fully put into effect. The destruction of the World Trade Center towers enabled Bush and the Republicans to finally, fully reclaim the mantle of national identity—to become the Party of Huah.
Just what the Republicans’ crowded hour portends has since become very clear, and it is disturbing for anyone who values our democratic institutions. In keeping with his party’s tradition of identifying itself with a “higher” notion of the national will, Bush has not bothered to ask Congress to declare either of the two wars it has launched since 9/11, as is clearly mandated in the Constitution. Instead, he has claimed unprecedented powers to use whatever military force he deems necessary, for as long as he wants, in this conflict of open-ended duration against terrorists and “evildoers.”
At home, Bush used the issue of Homeland Security—as opposed to actual homeland security—to personify the national will and drive the Democrats from any remaining vestiges of power. He achieved this by insisting that the new Department of Homeland Security be exempted from the usual, federal government standards regarding employee compensation and job security.
Let us put aside the fact that Bush’s requirements would automatically make Homeland Security the least desirable government department to work in, or that it was revealed—after the 2002 elections—that it would still take several years to integrate all the parts of the new department, or that these would not include the FBI, the CIA, or any other important segment of the national security apparatus. Or that the latest report from Warren Rudman’s Independent Task Force for the Council on Foreign Relations found that our security efforts were “underfunded” to the tune of $98 billion and that the country “remains dangerously unprepared to handle a catastrophic attack on American soil.” To understand just how much of a joke Homeland Security really is, it is necessary to live in a major urban area and see its forces in action everyday.
In New York’s Pennsylvania Station, for instance, pairs of uniformed National Guardsmen sit all day behind desks at what seem to have become permanent posts. When a friend of mine approached one desk, to ask if the Guardsmen would contact the police and have them remove a violent homeless man from the subway platform below, he was politely informed that the Guard’s radios did not operate on the police bands.
Meanwhile, once a week or so, a helicopter comes and hovers over my neighborhood for an afternoon, apparently expecting to see Al Qaeda operatives moving freely about in their kaffiyehs. Out on Broadway and 96th Street, a checkpoint is sometimes set up by the curb, with police waving over vans and small trucks for inspection. Of course, the flashing police car lights are visible for a good five blocks away, and because they are close to a bus stop and have little space, the police wave any bigger trucks past—apparently hoping that Al Qaeda will not try to smuggle in too large a weapon of mass destruction.
These are only a few examples of our new national security state in action; everyone I know has their own stories. One can scarcely imagine the sheer scale of this nonsense; the waste of manpower and money multiplied many times over, at airports and bus stations and bridges and train depots throughout the United States.
But of course Homeland Security, the issue, is less about catching or deterring actual terrorists than about making a show of action—and of force. The men and women of our national-security agencies—just like the men and women of our armed forces—have been fetishized, made into another political prop for the Party of Huah. Homeland Security will not apprehend or deter any terrorist blessed with more than a sub-cretinous level of intelligence. But it has injected a constant military presence into our lives. Already, it has become routine to see armed men in uniform roaming our streets, to hear Air Force jets and military helicopters buzzing low over our homes—one more pretense of uniformed efficiency.
Where the Bush administration fights its real national-security battles is in the subcommittee room, or in the halls of John Ashcroft’s Justice Department. The administration even went so far as to try to hire Henry Kissinger in order to exculpate itself from any blame during the long-delayed investigation of the September 11 attacks. Eventually, it had to settle for temporarily classifying 28 pages of the congressional committee’s report, in a pathetic attempt to obfuscate the leading role prominent Saudi friends of the Bush family played in funding Al Qaeda. Such political face-saving means that, incredibly, there will be no wholesale re-assessment of our intelligence capabilities in the wake of the 9/11 fiasco. No heads will roll, no departments will be reorganized.
Instead, the Bush administration has decided that it is the Bill of Rights which needs to be reassessed. During the Iraq war Attorney General Ashcroft—far and away the most radical individual ever to sit in a U.S. cabinet—worked up an 86-page, legislative draft of the “Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003,” or “Patriot II”. The bill is designed to preclude any court challenges to the original Patriot Act, the law under which Ashcroft has has already claimed the power to suspend the right of habeus corpus for any American citizen he deems to be a security risk.
Section 201 of Patriot II, entitled, “Prohibition of Disclosure of Terrorism Investigation Detainee Information,” would provide that “the government need not disclose information about individuals detained in investigations of terrorism until…the initiation of criminal charges.” Another crucial clause would give the government the wholly novel right to strip any American of his or her citizenship, if he or she “becomes a member of or provides material support to, a group that the United States has designated as a ‘terrorist organization,’ if that group is engaged in hostilities against the United States.” [my italics]
“Until now,” longtime civil liberties champion Nat Hentoff pointed out in the Village Voice, “an American could only lose his or her citizenship by declaring an intent to abandon it.” Under Section 501 of Patriot II, however, “the intent to relinquish nationality need not be manifested in words, but can be inferred from conduct.” It would be Mr. Ashcroft and his subordinates in Justice who would be doing all the inferring, and determining just what “providing material support” to a terrorist group means.
The premature leaking of Patriot II has delayed its formal submission to Congress, but related ways of closing up Patriot I “loopholes” are already being discussed. Even the Pentagon’s proposed “Total Information Awareness” (TIA) program—a gargantuan intelligence operation under which almost every transaction Americans make would be electronically monitored—is back on the table, under the new, somewhat less Orwellian label of “Terrorist Information Awareness.”
It is unclear just how any of this purported technological fix is to stop Al Qaeda, an organization already so devoted to low-tech strategies that it reportedly disdains cellphones in favor of personal messengers. But then, many of our security programs seem to reply on similarly ineffectual tactics. A report issued this past June by the Clinton-appointed inspector general of the Justice Department, Glenn Fine, found that of 762 illegal immigrants caught up in Ashcroft’s nets since September 11, 2001, none were terrorists. Of course, this did not save them from being detained, incommunicado, for months, subjected to “a pattern of physical and verbal abuse,” and even threatened with death before being deported.
Fine’s report did not deal with our prison at Guantanamo, which is outside his jurisdiction, being run by the U.S. military. In fact, Guantanamo’s “Camp X-Ray” seems to operate outside the jurisdiction of every national or international body of law. Its wardens answer only to their commander-in-chief, George W. Bush, making it the first detention center—or, for that matter, the first institution of any kind—to be run by a U.S. president without any judicial or congressional oversight. Despite all the reports of underaged captives at Camp X-Ray, despite the accounts of attempted suicides and severe psychological depression and deprivation on the part of the prisoners, the Pentagon still offers no information on when or how they will be tried—beyond a vague promise of military tribunals, “when the time is right,” that would not be bound by normal rules of evidence, would offer no independent right of appeal, and would place attorneys under a “permanent gag order.”
There is a silent, secret war going on, all around us, terrifying whenever we dare to contemplate it. Usually we do not, for this war is largely invisible to most us, directed against the most marginal citizens of our society, new immigrants of color and without much money.
Occasionally we get a glimpse of it when some less marginal individual stumbles onto the battlefield. One Jason Halperin, a writer who had the bad luck to enter an Indian restaurant off New York’s Times Square last March, before going to see a Broadway show, posted up his experiences on the web. Halperin and a friend, named Asher, were just tucking into their vegetable curry when they looked up to see five, New York City police officers with drawn guns, clamoring into the restaurant. Shouting and gesturing with their weapons, the police herded patrons and the waiters alike into a back corner of the establishment. Then, with fingers on their triggers, they smashed their way into the kitchen and made the workers there come crawling out on their hands and knees at gunpoint.
For the next hour-and-a-half, the police officers continued to barge about the restaurant, fingers still on their guns, kicking in bathroom and closet doors, and taunting their prisoners. Meanwhile, some ten INS and Homeland Security Department agents entered, confiscated their captives’ IDs, and started checking them out on laptop computers.
When Halperin and his friend—the only two whites in the restaurant—protested, the agents told them that they had “every right” to do what they wanted under “the Homeland Security Act.” When they asked for a lawyer, they were informed that first they would have to be taken to a police station and held there while they awaited “security clearance”—a process that would take “Maybe a day, maybe a week, maybe a month.” When they threatened to leave, a police officer walked over to them with his hand on his gun and told them, “Go ahead and leave, just go ahead.” The restaurant staff and the other customers seemed terrified. When Halperin continued to protest, an Asian-American customer urged him, “Please stop talking to them. I have been through this before. Please do whatever they say. Please for our sake.”
In the end, the whole raid turned out to be a mistake. An INS agent gave the Halperin and Asher their licenses back and apologized as he escorted them outside—telling them they didn’t think any non-Asians were likely to be inside.
This is how your country is run today.
It is unclear that, even if they knew more about it, the American people would care much about the abuses of power being perpetrated in their name. The greater question, though, is whether they could stop them anymore, even if they wanted to.
The war has largely succeeded in finishing off any effective opposition. The Democracy is a cobweb, waiting to be swept away. In a unique disaster, the party has been simultaneously de-pedded and beheaded; bereft of a dedicated, activist core and any meaningful leadership.
The Democrats’ first presidential debate this spring, shown on tape delay, revealed its potential candidates to be perhaps the most singular array of non-entities, curiosities, stalking horses, and outright charlatans ever brought together on a single stage. Most of them seem to quietly agree with the Republicans’ basic world view, and those who do not lack the will or the ability to do anything about it, or to offer any alternative vision of their own. It seems all but inconceivable that the likes of either Joe Lieberman or Howard Dean will get to wear the little green jacket at the Home of the Hammer.
Unlike their counterparts in the GOP, political activists on the liberal/left are unfocused and badly organized. Above all, they has been unable to muster a convincing worldview to counter that put forward by the Party of Huah. For all that it has dwelled on the blatant lies told by the administration about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and terrorist connections, the American left has been unable to fashion any effective response to the inescapable conclusion that the war was the best possible (and I stress possible) turn of events for the people of Iraq, providing them as it did with at least a chance for freedom.
Whether that chance will be taken up is something else again. But the fact remains that the activist left lacks any real strategy for engaging with the world as it is, preferring to retreat into the usual, Chomsky-Zinn-Vidal dreamworld of outraged American innocence. There was little or no acknowledgement from the left that Afghanistan was a failed state that had become a haven for terrorists and would have to be invaded, or that destroying Al Qaeda and any related terrorist networks will involve a long-term campaign that will have to include at least some military and intelligence oerpations,or that there should always be, in the modern world, an ongoing effort to dislodge, by one means or another, any and all dictators, including Saddam Hussein. In failing to develop a nuanced, engaged worldview that would both reject Bush and find a way to confront Saddam and Bin Laden, the successors to the old, engaged Democratic liberalism have allowed themselves to be cast as hopelessly naïve and ineffectual.
Nor can one expect any real defense of our democracy from the media any longer. The giant media conglomerates (created in good part by the Reagan-era gutting of the FCC’s old anti-monopoly safeguards) have served mostly as auxiliaries to the administration since 9/11, as exemplified by Clear Channel’s persecution of the Dixie Chicks. During the latest Gulf War, the New York Times, for one, seemed to be recycling much of its vocabulary from the 1960s, writing of a “long-haired” opponent of the war and a “short-haired” supporter. The paper of record granted that “the antiwar movement today appears more diverse than it was during the early protests of the Vietnam War, when it often seemed hostile to ‘anyone over thirty,’” but put us all on notice that “disruptive demonstrations can wear out even the most tolerant.” Meanwhile, James Traub, writing in The New York Times Magazine, denounced as “Weimar Whiners” those acquaintances of his who claimed that such little repressions proved the United States was becoming a fascist state—as if there could be no gradations of authoritarianism.
Much more chilling than these exercises in denial has been the media’s creeping acceptance of the concept, put forth for some time now by various Bush apparatchiks, that we are now an “empire.” The Atlantic Monthly, in its July/August 2003 issue, published one in what it threatens will be a series of articles by Robert D. Kaplan intended to serve as “a kind of user’s manual for managing an unruly world”—a series that, in Kaplan’s own description, “will be a ground-level portrait from the remotest and most exotic regions, not a broad overview from the imperial capital.”
Kaplan finds military operations of the scale employed in Iraq to be unsustainable for very long, and estimates that in any case the American worldwide empire will probably not last beyond “a few decades from now.” His user’s manual, though, is broken down into such indicative, and ominous, subheadings as “Rule No. 3: Emulate Second-Century Rome,” “Rule No. 4: Use the Military to Promote Democracy,” and “Rule No. 10: Speak Victorian, Think Pagan,” and suggests that we take our cues from “liberal empires—like those of Venice, Great Britain…,” which he claims were “motivated not by an appetite for conquest per se but because it was thought necessary for the security of the core homeland.”
Kaplan urges us to borrow tactics from some of our bloodiest foreign adventures, including the conquest of the Philippines, our foray into Central America under Reagan, and our overthrow of the Chilean regime of Salvador Allende. He advocates that CIA and Special Forces teams revert to running coups and carrying out assassinations. He wants a corps of Roman-style military tribunes who will make foreign policy as well as enforce it, and that we become “more pagan” in our outlook. Most chillingly of all, he complains that “the media increasingly, and dramatically, affect policy yet bear no responsibility for the outcome.” Kaplan’s solution for this problem is primarily that the government “find the budget and the will to hire away the best communicators,” but he insists that ultimately “our intelligence officers, backs by commando detachments, should in the future be given as much leeway as they require to get the job done, so that problems won’t fester to the point where we have to act in front of a battery of television cameras.”
Never mind, for a moment, that the idea of Rome or the British Empire as liberal institutions of any sort would have come as a surprise to, say, the Gauls or the Carthaginians, or the Jews of Masada; or, respectively, the Zulus or the Boers or the North American Indians or the Maoris of New Zealand. Or that the dark side of these supposedly civilizing forces is, say, the Japanese Empire of the twentieth century, a venture that was also launched on the excuse of national survival and soon spiraled down into the absolute “need” to take over half the world.
Much more demoralizing, for the American prospect, is the fact that a venerable publication of the humanities, such as the Atlantic, would give its imprimatur to any screed suggesting that “intelligence officers” and “commando detachments” be empowered to get rid of journalists “as they require to get the job done.” After such an immediate capitulation to secrecy and brute force, what can we look forward to in the future?
With their utter dominance of the national media, their vast advantages in money and organization, their tactical ruthlessness, and the disarray of the opposition, George W. Bush and his party have positioned themselves for a crushing electoral victory in 2004, and most likely for some years to come. The Republicans already control all three branches of the federal government, most of the country’s governors’ mansion and statehouses; even—for the third term in a row—the mayoralty of the nation’s largest city. There, still another ceremony of apotheosis is in store for us, on September 11, 2004, now that the genius, Karl Rove, has scheduled the Republican convention to coincide with the third anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center.
Rove likes to compare the Bush ascendancy to the election of William McKinley in 1896, after which the Republicans controlled the presidency and remained the majority party for all but eight of the next 36 years, or until they were finally ousted with the onset of the Great Depression. He may be more right than he knows. Soon after becoming president, McKinley took the nation into its “splendid little war” with Spain, in which America took its first, overseas colonies—and then waged a brutal, extended, not-so-splendid guerrilla struggle in the Philippines, one in which our armed forces—for all of Robert Kaplan’s admiration—killed a larger percentage of the population than they would in Vietnam.
Currently, in Afghanistan and Iraq, we are occupying some 428,000 square miles of the most fractious real estate in Asian history. Our troops there are subjected to almost daily ambushes, and the cost of occupying Iraq alone has already doubled, to some $4 billion a month. By July, the Pentagon was conceding that our ground forces had already been stretched nearly to their limit, with some 370,000 troops deployed in 120 countries around the world. Between our occupation forces, planned replacements for those troops, and units being held in abeyance for emergency deployment in North Korea, there were only three Army brigades available for any potential new missions—a situation that one official, in a beautifully evasive bit of Pentagonese, lamented as “the tyranny of fixed numbers.”
It is this tyranny of fixed numbers that provides the real threat to Karl Rove’s Republican millenium. They now seem to pop up everywhere. We simply cannot go on indefinitely waging war around the world while giving ourselves record tax cuts. And we cannot go on occupying vast swaths of Asia for years without resorting to a military draft.
The administration has resolutely rejected any such suggestion. A few months ago, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld even went so far as to ridicule the performance of America’s old draft army before being forced to apologize. Others, such as longtime Congressman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), a Korean War veteran, have proposed that the draft should indeed be restored. Rangel’s suggestion was mostly facetious, a small protest against what he saw as the disproportionate burden that the poor and minorities currently bear in our all-volunteer army. But it speaks very much to the hollowness of the whole politics of Huah.
The Bush administration rushes to repudiate even the idea of a draft because it realizes that such an eventuality would pose a mortal threat to its own popularity. It is no coincidence that public confidence in the American military, as noted above, has grown exponentially since 1975, for this is roughly the time when the armed forces returned to their all-volunteer status for the first time in a generation.
For all of its merits, our military is not, and cannot be, an actual democracy. The administration, and often the army itself, tries constantly to obscure this fact, most recently under the Thoreauvian rubric, “An Army of One.” No more disingenuous recruiting slogan has ever been devised, for no army has ever been about promoting individualism but rather its exact opposite, bending the wills of many individuals into a single, blunt instrument of incredible violence.
No doubt, the young men and women at Fort Hood meant every word they said about defending freedom, and some have probably already paid the last full measure of their devotion to that cause. But the world that our soldiers live in every day is one in which where nearly every aspect of their lives is carefully controlled. It is—ironically, considering our victory in the Cold War—the closest thing in America to the collectivist ideal. Grow your hair too long, and you will receive a threatening letter. Let the grass grow too long around the house you live in on base, and you will get another letter. Our servicemen and women shop at the same PX and BX monopolies, are subjected to a national health care system whether they like it or not. Even the personal behavior of their spouses is carefully scrutinized, and can be cause for official reprimands and other punishments.
A military that everyone actually had to serve in would mean one that they might actually come to know—a military that is not simply rows of men and women in crisp new uniforms on a carrier deck, or natty black berets at the Home of the Hammer. An old-school military would also mean inane orders and lousy chow; sadistic drill sergeants and incompetent officers, and aching feet and KP.
The old draft did not make the military a democracy either, but it did connect it organically to the democracy it was created to serve. Under the draft the armed forces were a levy of free citizens, taking up an onerous but temporary duty in order to preserve their freedom. Any military commitment that extended this duty had to be well thought out and truly important to our national security, or it was bound to founder on popular opposition.
It is well and good that this should have been so, for in a true democracy the military should never be an end unto itself, or an isolated institution, but a necessary burden that we all share in, one way or another. We should always celebrate the heroism and dedication of our troops, but we must never try to force upon them roles that they are not equipped to play.
Under the Bush administration, the all-volunteer military has become a photo-op, a fantasy; a feel-good, television substitute for actual participation in our democracy. Its troops can be shuttled around like toy soldiers on a ever-expanding game board, whisked to conflicts of every possible size and duration, all around the globe. The Bush attempt to substitute it for our democracy has done a terrible disservice to both institutions. It has made each one a simulacrum of its true self, rendering our democracy passive and largely unengaged, while our military is overburdened with all sorts of tasks and missions it is not ultimately suited for, such as nation-building, and policing the streets of Baghdad.
This is the ultimate politics of Huah—with Bush himself revealed as no more of a leader than, say, Al Pacino’s risible characterization of a blind, retired colonel in the film, Scent of a Woman, yelling out “Hu-ah!” at every opportunity, in order to convince us that he had some connection with real fighting men.
And yet we go on, making an ever greater commitment to our armed forces, $329 billion in 2002 alone—or more than China, Russia, Japan, Iraq, North Korea, and all other NATO countries combined, according to the Center for Defense Information.
“No other military is even close to the United States,” Gregg Easterbrook wrote in the New York Times following the fall of Baghdad. “The American military is now the strongest the world has ever known, both in absolute terms and relative to other nations; stronger than the Wehrmacht in 1940, stronger than the legions at the height of Roman power…the extent of American military superiority has become almost impossible to overstate.”
According to Easterbrook, our Navy now has nine supercarrier battle groups, with a tenth under construction; no other navy in the world has a single supercarrier. Our Air Force has “more advanced fighters and bombers than those of all other nations combined.” We possess the world’s only stealth aircraft; the world’s only aerial tanker fleet, to project our air power around the world; the only AWACS planes. We have far and away the most heavy bombers, the most advanced tanks, the most deadly air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles; the most sophisticated military electronics, including armed drone airplanes, and space satellites…
As it is written in the Bible, where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. We now substitute military solutions for almost everything, including international alliances, diplomacy, effective intelligence agencies, democratic institutions—even national security. Although a mere five months and fewer than 270 fatalities in Iraq have our ground forces dangerously extended, we continue to rattle sabers at Syria, Iran, North Korea.
The logic is inexorable. Having committed so many of our resources to the military, at the cost of so much else, there is nothing else we can do. No previous national dilemma compares with our current one. Even Vietnam was, in the end, overreaching in pursuit of the basically sound policy of containment. Our current course is no more than a blind stumbling forward, until we shall indeed run up against, once and for all, the tyranny of fixed numbers.
For the fact is that we are not an empire, no matter how fashionable it has become to say so, on both the left and the right. We have no storied class of dedicated, career civil servants; no vast surplus population, hungry for land or betterment. Nor are we some ancient race of pagan warriors. A random survey of those undecided about Gul War II drew such comments as “I think they should finish the job fast and get out” and “I think it would be a mistake to tie down American troops for years.” For all of the conditioning that the administration and the enthusiasts of empire have already subjected us to, America remains at heart an isolationist country, willing to tolerate foreign ventures only for so long as they seem vital to actual homeland security.
It is the soldier, not the reporter
Who has given us freedom of the press
It is the soldier, not the poet.
Who has given us freedom of speech
It is the soldier, not the campus organizer,
Who has given us freedom to demonstrate
It is the soldier
Who salutes the flag
Who serves beneath the flag
Whose coffin is draped by the flag
Who allows the protestor to burn the flag.”
—Father Denis Edward O’Brien
USMCThe sentiments above can be found on a poster, pasted on the side of one of four little sheds near the foot of the Lincoln Memorial. They are staffed by four different, Vietnam POW/MIA groups: The Last Firebase, POW Outpost, Rolling Thunder, and Warriors. Their sheds—no bigger than an average city newsstand—have been open twenty-four hours a day since 1982, when Maya Lin’s remarkable Vietnam Veterans Memorial was first dedicated, keeping a round-the-clock vigil until all of the remaining American troops missing in action in Southeast Asia “come home.”
These are the only private groups represented on the National Mall, at the heart of our nation’s capital. To raise money they sell all sorts of martial tchatchkes: unit insignias; statuettes of soldiers and Marines; old MIA bracelets, small round coasters labeled “Hanoi Jane’s Urinal Stickers”; and posters with a variety of super-patriotic platitudes printed on them—including the above poem by Father O’Brien, and one reading “Politicians don’t keep the United States FREE Our Military Does! USA, USN, USAF, USMC, USCG.”
For all of the bellicosity and the schmaltz, the individuals manning the stands are soft-spoken, polite, almost shy. They are not conspiracy nuts, and as melodramatic as some aspects of their vigil could be—one shed billed itself as “THE LAST FIREBASE STANDING VIGIL UNTIL THEY ALL COME HOME WORLD WAR II, KOREA, COLD WAR, VIETNAM, GULF WAR”—there was a certain dignity to it all. Standing in those the sheds for so many nights, close to twenty years now, through the dead of winter. Alone out by the silent monuments, waiting for what they expect to be mostly a few boxes of bones. It is a grand, romantic gesture, and the sort only associated with the military among all our institutions today.
By contrast, our civilian democratic culture at home is fading away. Slowly, slowly, we are becoming conditioned to a military style of discipline. We live in a country now where anyone can be banned from flying, or detained and searched, or browbeaten and humiliated, or arrested and hauled off to prison for as long as the Supreme Commander says so—and where soon Americans may even be stripped of their citizenship at his discretion. We have become a nation of secret police raids that never make the papers, and of permanent gag orders; of military tribunals and perhaps even drumhead death sentences that cannot be appealed. In America today, federal agents can walk into a public library and confiscate any public records they choose. They can also demand lists of who has taken out which books, and they can order the librarians, under the threat of criminal prosecution, to keep quiet about it all.
We have not yet arrived at a point where we receive letters ordering us to cut our hair, or our grass. But we may well be told, in the very near future, what private firms we are to trust with our retirement savings and our health care; what religious sect, or cult, the administration will turn us over to if we fall upon hard times. Fewer and fewer men tell us what we may read, or watch, or listen to, while on their television channels the huah heads shout down any dissent. Already, most democratic dialogue has vanished, replaced by personal insults, and growing accusations of treason—even death threats.
When troubles arise in this new America, when we are no longer able to escape the tyranny of fixed numbers, it is unlikely that we will return to a befuddled, liberal opposition. Instead, we will most likely look for the real thing.
When the Party of Huah can no longer keep up its various pretenses, we will seek out an even stronger, more confident hand. The one public institution we respect above all others—because most of us have never experienced it. The one that over three-quarters of us expect to do the right thing all, or at least most of the time, and the one which has, after all, the longest experience running a paternalistic, authoritarian society. The one that is demographically the most like us, that does its job with startling efficiency and without complaint; the one that captures our imagination to the point that men hold twenty-one-year, ’round-the-clock vigils to honor it.
In the end, we’ll beg for the coup.
© Copyright Harper’s Magazine