A thousand times worse – NationofChange


Image Credit: Daniel Zender/NBC News

What pops into your head when you hear the number 1,000 in a political-military context? Having studied German military history, I immediately think of Adolf Hitler’s confident boast that his Third Reich would last a thousand years. In reality, of course, a devastating world war brought that Reich down in a mere 12 years. Only recently, however, such boasts popped up again in the dark dreams of Donald Trump. If Iran dared to attack the United States, Trump tweeted and then repeated on Fox & Friends, the U.S. would strike back with “1,000 times greater force.”

Think about that for a moment. If such typical Trumpian red-meat rhetoric were to become reality, you would be talking about a monumental war crime in its dis-proportionality. If, say, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard shot a missile at an American base in the region and killed 10 U.S. military personnel, Trump is saying that, in response, he’d then seek to kill 10,000 Iranians — an act that would recall Nazi reprisals in World War II when entire villages like Lidice were destroyed because one prominent Nazi official had been killed. Back then, Americans knew that such murderous behavior was evil. So why do so many of us no longer flinch at such madness?

If references to “evil” seem inappropriate to you, keep in mind that I was raised Catholic and one idea the priests and nuns firmly implanted in me then was the presence of evil in our world — and in me as a microcosm of that world. It’s a moral imperative — so they taught me — to fight evil by denying it, as much as humanly possible, a place in our lives, even turning the other cheek to avoid giving offense to our brothers and sisters. Christ, after all, didn’t teach us to whip someone 1,000 times if they struck you once.

Speaking of large numbers, I still recall Christ’s teaching on
forgiveness. How many times, he asked, should we forgive those who
offend us? Seven times, perhaps? No, seventy times seven.
He didn’t, of course, mean 490 acts of forgiveness. Through that
hyperbolic number, Christ was saying that forgiveness must be large and
generous, as boundless as we imperfect humans can make it.

Trump loves hyperbolic numbers, but his are plainly in the service of
boundless revenge, not forgiveness. His catechism is one of
intimidation and, if that fails, retribution. It doesn’t matter if it
takes the form of mass destruction and death (including, in the case of
Americans, death by
coronavirus). By announcing such goals so openly, of course, he turns
the rest of us into his accomplices. Passively or actively, if we do
nothing, we accept the possibility of mass murder in the service of
Trump’s dark dreams of smiting those who would dare strike at his
version of America.

It’s easy to dismiss his threats as nothing more than red meat to his
base, but they are also distinctly anti-Christian. The saddest thing,
however, is that they are, unfortunately, not at all un-American, as any
quick survey of this country’s record of wanton destructiveness in war
would show.

So while I do reject all Trump’s murderous words and empty promises, I
find them strangely unexceptional and unnervingly all-American. Indeed,
my own guess is that he’s won such a boisterous following in this
country precisely because he does so visibly, so thunderously, so bigly embody its darkest dreams of destruction, which have all too often become reality when visited upon recalcitrant peoples who refused to bend to our will.

Destruction as salvation

Americans today are sold an image of war as almost antiseptic —
hardly surprising given our distance and detachment from this country’s
“forever wars.” But as history reminds us, real war isn’t like that.
It never was, not when colonists were killing Native Americans in vast
numbers; nor when we were busy killing our fellow Americans in our Civil
War; nor when U.S. troops were ruthlessly putting down the Filipino insurrection
in the early twentieth century; nor when our air force firebombed
Dresden, Tokyo, and so many other cities in World War II and later nuked
Hiroshima and Nagasaki; nor when North Korea was flattened by bombing in the early 1950s; nor when Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos were bludgeoned
by bombs, napalm, and Agent Orange in the 1960s and early 1970s; nor
when Iraqis were killed by the tens of thousands during the first Gulf
war of 1990-1991.

And
that, of course, is only a partial and selective accounting of the
wanton carnage overseen by past presidents. In reality, Americans have
never been shy about killing on a mass scale in the alleged cause of
righteousness and democracy.

In that sense, Trump’s rhetoric of mass destruction
is truly nothing new under the sun (except perhaps in its pure
blustering bravado); Trump, that is, just salivates more openly at the
prospect of inflicting pain on a mass scale on peoples he doesn’t like.
And even that isn’t as new as you might imagine.

In this century, Republicans have been especially keen to share their
dreams of massively bombing others. On the campaign trail in 2007, to
the tune of the Beach Boys’ cover Barbara Ann,” Senator (and former bomber pilot and Vietnam POW) John McCain smirkingly sang of bombing Iran.
(“Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran!”) Similarly, during the Republican
presidential debates of 2016, Senator Ted Cruz boasted of wanting to
“utterly destroy” the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq by carpet-bombing its territory and, in doing so, making the desert sand “glow in the dark.”
The implication was, of course, that as president he’d happily use
nuclear weapons in the Middle East. (Talk about all options being on the
table!)

Alarming? Yes! Very American? USA #1!

Consider two examples from the nuclear era, then and now. In the
depth of the Cold War years, in response to a possible Soviet nuclear
attack, this country’s war plans envisioned a simultaneous assault on
the Soviet Union and China that military planners estimated would, in
the end, kill 600 million people. That would have been the equivalent of 100 Holocausts, notes Pentagon whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, who was privy to those plans.

Whether China had joined or even known about the Soviet attack didn’t
matter. As communists, they were guilty by association and so to be
obliterated anyway. Ellsberg notes that only one man present at the
briefing where this “plan” was presented objected to such a mindless act
of mass murder, David Shoup, a Marine general and Medal of Honor winner who would later similarly object to the Vietnam War.

Fast forward to today and our even more potentially planet-ending nuclear forces are still being “modernized” to the tune of $1.7 trillion over the coming decades. Any Ohio-class
SSBN nuclear submarine in the Navy’s inventory, for example, could
potentially kill millions of people with its 24 Trident II ballistic
missiles (each carrying as many as eight nuclear warheads,
each warhead with roughly six times the destructive power of the
Hiroshima bomb). While such vessels are officially meant to “deter”
nuclear war, they are, of course, ultimately built to fight one. Each is
a submerged holocaust waiting to be unleashed.

Rarely, if ever, do we think about what those subs truly represent,
historically speaking. Meanwhile, the Pentagon continues to “invest” (as
the military likes to say) in ever-newer generations of nuclear-capable
bombers
and land-based missiles, promising a holocaust of planetary proportions
if ever used. To grasp what an actual nuclear war would mean, you would
have to update an old saying: one death is a tragedy; several billion
is a statistic.

Aggravating such essential collective madness in this moment (and the president’s fiery and furious
fascination with such weaponry) is Trump’s recent cynical call for what
might be thought of as the nuking of our history: the installation of a
truly “patriotic” education
in our schools (in other words, a history that would obliterate
everything but his version of American greatness). That would, of
course, include not just the legacy of slavery and other dark chapters
in our past, but our continued willingness to build weaponry that has
the instant capacity to end it all in a matter of hours.

As a history professor, I can tell you that such a version of our
past would be totally antithetical to sound learning in this or any
world. History must, by definition, be critical of the world we’ve
created. It must be tough-minded and grapple with our actions (and
inactions), crimes and all, if we are ever to grow morally stronger as a
country or a people.

History that only focuses on the supposedly good bits, however defined, is like your annoying friend’s Facebook page — the one that shows photo after photo of smiling faces, gourmet meals, exclusive parties, puppies, ice cream, and rainbows, that features a flurry of status updates reducible to “I’m having the time of my life.” We know perfectly well, of course, that no one’s life is really like that — and neither is any country’s history.

History should, of course, be about understanding ourselves as we really are, our strengths and weaknesses, triumphs, tragedies, and transgressions. It would even have to include an honest accounting of how this country got one Donald J. Trump, a failed casino owner and celebrity pitchman, as president at a moment when most of its leaders were still claiming that it was the most exceptional country in the history of the universe. I’ll give you a hint: we got him because he represented a side of America that was indeed exceptional, just not in any way that was ever morally just or democratically sound.

Jingoistic history says, “My country, right or wrong, but my
country.” Trump wants to push this a goosestep further to “My country
and my leader, always right.” That’s fascism, not “patriotic” history,
and we need to recognize that and reject it.

Learning without flinching from history

The United States has been the imperial power of record on this
planet since World War II. Lately, the economic and moral aspects of
that power have waned, even as our military power remains supreme
(though without being able to win anything
whatsoever). That should tell you something about America. We’re still a
“SmackDown” country, to borrow a term from professional wrestling, in a
world that’s increasingly being smacked down anyway.

Harold Pinter, the British playwright, caught this country’s imperial spirit well in his Nobel Prize lecture
in 2005. America, he said then, has committed crimes that “have been
systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but very few people have
actually talked about them. You have to hand it to America. It has
exercised a quite clinical manipulation of power worldwide while
masquerading as a force for universal good. It’s a brilliant, even
witty, highly successful act of hypnosis.”

Anyone with a knowledge of our history knows that there was truth
indeed in what Pinter said 15 years ago. He noticed how this country’s
leaders wielded language “to keep thought at bay.” Like George Orwell
before him, Pinter was at pains to use plain language about war, noting
how the Americans and British had “brought torture, cluster bombs,
depleted uranium, innumerable acts of random murder, misery, degradation
and death to the Iraqi people and call[ed] it bringing freedom and
democracy to the Middle East.”

The point here was not simply to bash America. It was to get us to think about our actions in genuine historical terms. A decade and a half ago, Pinter threw down a challenge, and even if you disagreed with him, or maybe especially if you did so, you need the intellectual tools and command of the facts to grapple with that critique. It should never be enough simply to shout “USA! USA!” in an ever-louder fashion and hope it will drown out not only critics and dissenters but reality itself — and perhaps even your own secret doubts.

And we should have such doubts. We should be ready to dissent. We
should recognize, as America’s current attorney general most distinctly does not,
that dissenters are often the truest patriots of all, even if they are
also often the loneliest ones. We should especially have doubts about a
leader who threatens to bring violence against another country 1,000
times greater than anything that country could visit upon us.

I don’t need the Catholic Church, or even Christ in the New
Testament, to tell me that such thinking is wrong in a Washington that
now seems to be offering a carnivorous taste of what a future American
autocracy could be like. I just need to recall the wise words of my
Polish mother-in-law: “Have a heart, if you’ve got a heart.”

Have a heart, America. Reject American carnage in all its forms.

FALL FUNDRAISER

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