[Speech to a Democratic Party club in southern California which had asked him to make the best case for voting for Senator John Kerry for president.]
The United States faces a real crisis. It’s not just the military failure of Bush’s policies in Iraq or the discrediting of our armed forces and intelligence agencies as corrupt, incompetent, and criminal. It is above all our international isolation and disgrace because of our contempt for the rule of law. Article six of the U. S. Constitution says, in part, “all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land.” The Geneva Conventions of 1949 covering the treatment of prisoners of war and civilians in wartime are treaties the U.S. government promoted, signed, and ratified. They are therefore the supreme law of the land. Neither the President nor the Secretary of Defense has the authority to alter them or to choose whether or not to abide by them. President Bush’s invention of such hitherto unknown categories as “illegal combatant,” “evil-doer,” or “bad guy” and his claim of a unilateral right to imprison such persons indefinitely, without charging them or giving them access to the courts and legal counsel, is a usurpation of the Constitution. It is precisely why the United States should have ratified the treaty establishing the International Criminal Court. It is intended to deal not only with genuine terrorists and people like Saddam Hussein but also with the kind of crimes President Bush has committed.
In his speech of May 26 at New York University, former Vice President Al Gore said, “We are less safe because of [Bush's] policies. He has created more anger and righteous indignation against us as Americans than any leader of our country in the 228 years of our existence as a nation — because of his attitude of contempt for any person, institution, or nation who disagrees with him.”
Despite endless hypocrisy about how we have brought freedom to the people of Afghanistan and Iraq, we know that almost all the citizens of those countries who have come in contact with our armed forces and survived have nonetheless had their lives ruined. The courageous, anonymous Iraqi woman who edits the blog “Baghdad Burning,” subtitled “Girl blog from Iraq,” writes (on May 7), “I sometimes get emails asking me to propose solutions or make suggestions. Fine. Today’s lesson: don’t rape, don’t torture, don’t kill, and get out while you can — while it still looks like you have a choice. . . . Chaos? Civil war? We’ll take our chances — just take your puppets, your tanks, your smart weapons, your dumb politicians, your lies, your empty promises, your rapists, your sadistic torturers and go.” Her reports on the Internet are indispensable to an understanding of the disaster we have made of a country that we invaded in the name of “preventive war.”
You’re thinking that I am only citing anti-Bush politicians like Gore or a highly literate but still unquestionably anti-American woman from Baghdad. OK. Let’s look at the views of some of our ubiquitous high-ranking military officers.
In his press conference of April 14, President Bush said repeatedly, “We must stay the course in Iraq,” and Democratic challenger John Kerry agreed with him, arguing only that he would do it better. The problem is that, as former Centcom commander Gen. Anthony Zinni said to 60 Minutes, “The course is headed over Niagara Falls.” (Washington Post, 5/23/04) Gen. Joseph Hoar, a former head of the Marine Corps, has remarked, “I believe we are absolutely on the brink of failure. We are looking into the abyss.” Zinni and Hoar are both retired officers. But the active-duty Commander of the 82nd Airborne, Army Maj. Gen. Charles Swannack, when asked by the Washington Post whether he believes the United States is losing the war in Iraq, replied, “I think strategically, we are.” Marine Maj. Gen. William Whitlow wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Post (5/30/04), “A principal tenet of forming a strategy — have a ‘war termination’ phase — was neglected… It is time for the president to ask those responsible for the flawed Iraqi policy — civilian and military — to resign from public service.”
The point is that the torture scandals at Abu Ghraib prison, Chalabigate, CIA Director Tenet’s resignation, war profiteering by Cheney’s Halliburton Corporation, and other recent events have so discredited the United States that we have only the choice of getting out or being thrown out.
The Iraq war is very possibly the most serious self-inflicted wound in the history of American foreign policy. It was caused by American imperialism and militarism, which are the subjects of my new book The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic. Let me make clear what I mean by imperialism and militarism.
According to the Pentagon’s annual inventory of real estate — its so-called Base Structure Report — we have over 725 military bases in some 132 countries around the world. This vast network of American bases constitutes a new form of empire — an empire of military enclaves rather than of colonies as in older forms of imperialism.
Our military deploys well over half a million soldiers, spies, technicians, teachers, dependents, and civilian contractors in other nations. To dominate the oceans and seas of the world, we maintain some thirteen carrier task-forces, which constitute floating bases. We operate numerous espionage bases not included in the Base Structure Report to monitor what the people of the world, including our own citizens, are saying, faxing, or emailing to one another.
Our installations abroad bring profits to civilian industries, which design and manufacture weapons for the armed forces or, like the now well-publicized Kellogg, Brown & Root, a subsidiary of the Halliburton Corporation of Houston, undertake contract services to build and maintain our outposts. One task of such contractors is to keep uniformed members of the imperium housed in comfortable quarters, well fed, amused, and supplied with enjoyable, affordable vacation facilities.
For their occupants, these bases are not necessarily unpleasant places to live and work. Military service today, which is voluntary, bears almost no relation to the duties of a soldier during World War II or the Korean or Vietnamese wars. Most chores like laundry, KP (“kitchen police”), guard duty, and cleaning latrines have been subcontracted to private military companies. About $30 billion, fully one-third of the funds appropriated for the war in Iraq, are going into private American hands for exactly such services.
The military prefers bases that resemble small fundamentalist towns in the Bible Belt rather than neighborhoods in the big population centers of the United States. For example, even though more than 100,000 women live on our overseas bases — including women in the services, spouses, and relatives of military personnel — obtaining an abortion at a local military hospital is prohibited. Since there are some 14,000 sexual assaults or attempted sexual assaults each year in the military, women who become pregnant overseas and want an abortion have no choice but to come home at their own expense or try the local economy, which cannot be either easy or pleasant in Baghdad or other parts of our empire these days.
Our armed missionaries live in a closed-off, self-contained world serviced by its own airline — the Air Mobility Command — that links our outposts from Greenland to Australia. For generals and admirals, the military provides seventy-one Learjets, thirteen Gulfstream IIIs, and seventeen Cessna Citation luxury jets to fly them to such spots as the armed forces’ ski and vacation center at Garmisch in the Bavarian Alps or to any of the 234 military golf courses the Pentagon operates worldwide. Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld flies around in his own personal Boeing 757, called a C-32A in the Air Force.
The inseparable companion of imperialism is militarism. This refers not to the defense of the country but to vested interests in the military as a way of life, in the expansion of the military establishment at the expense of civilian sectors of our government, and in making a living by working for the armed forces, military think tanks, or the munitions industries. Service in our armed forces is no longer an obligation of citizenship, as it was back in 1953 when I served in the Navy. Since 1973, it has been a career choice, one often made by citizens trying to escape from one or another dead-end of our society. That is why African-Americans are twice as well represented in the Army as they are in our population and why 50% of the women in the armed forces are from minorities. Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch, who was wounded at Nasiriyah during the assault on Baghdad, was asked by the media why she had joined the army. “I couldn’t get a job at Wal-Mart in Palestine, West Virginia,” she replied. “I joined the Army to get out of my home town.” When she was recruited she was also told that as a supply clerk she wouldn’t be shot at.
Today, we have a professional, permanent standing army that costs around three-quarters of a trillion dollars a year — that is, about $750 billion. This amount includes the annual Defense Department appropriation for weapons and salaries of $427 billion, another $75 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan, $20 billion for nuclear weapons funded by the Department of Energy, and at least $200 billion in pensions and disability payments for our veterans. We are not paying for these expenses but putting them on the tab. Since we are today running the largest governmental and trade deficits in modern economic history, our militarism threatens us with bankruptcy.
The two most famous warnings about militarism in our history came from two prominent generals who became presidents. The first was by George Washington in his Farewell Address of September 1796. He wrote, “Overgrown military establishments are under any form of government inauspicious to liberty, and are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty.” The key phrase here is republican liberty (with a lower case ‘r’). Washington was referring to the division of labor in our government into executive, legislative, and judicial branches and the establishment of checks and balances among them. The intent was to prevent the concentration of power in any one institution or person such that it or he could exercise dictatorial power. Washington was warning us that standing armies concentrate power in the executive branch. They lead to an expansion of taxes and the growth of a national bureaucracy that can lead to an imperial presidency, such as we have today. The division of labor in our form of government is the main bulwark defending our freedoms; if the enlargement of standing armies leads to a breakdown in the balance of power, the Bill of Rights becomes nothing more than a piece of paper.
No less important than Washington‘s Farewell Address was that of President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1961. He warned us against the vested interests that stand behind our huge military establishment. He wrote: “Our military organization today bears little relation to that known by any of my predecessors in peacetime, or indeed by the fighting men of World War II or Korea. Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry…. But now 3.5 million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations. This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience…. In the councils of government we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted.”
Unfortunately, we Americans did not heed this warning and today the Department of Defense and its supporting military-industrial complex dominate our government. Of the money we spend on foreign affairs, 93% is controlled by the Pentagon, only 7% by the State Department. The biggest of all our weapons companies is the Lockheed Martin Corporation. In the year prior to the outbreak of the Iraq war, Lockheed Martin’s profits rose by some 36%. When war becomes this profitable, we can expect more of it.
In The Sorrows of Empire I devote the final chapter to the likely consequences of our imperialism and militarism: perpetual war, the end of the Republic, official lying and disinformation, and bankruptcy. I document how advanced these are in our society. I hope you will read my analysis. My intent is to mobilize inattentive citizens to information that I know they don’t have — because our government does everything in its power to see that they don’t — but that they need if they are not to lose our Republic and the civil liberties it defends.
Since this is a gathering to support the candidacy of John Kerry, let me turn to the case for him and ask whether the decline and fall of the American empire can be averted. The case for Kerry has, to my mind, four main points. First, he is not a “chicken hawk.” It is a scandal that with the exception of Colin Powell every single civilian leader of our government from the President on down has no experience of either war or barracks life and that the vice president obtained six deferments to avoid service in Vietnam. When married men with children were ordered deferred, Dick Cheney and his wife had a daughter nine months and a day later. Kerry has a distinguished record of military service. This is important today when the military establishment is easily the largest and most expensive element of the executive branch.
Second, Kerry’s stand as a leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War is one of the most honorable aspects of his background. It is a tragedy that we have become so militaristic he must disown the courageous stand he took thirty-five years ago in order to be elected. This reflects one of the major differences between our military during the Vietnam War and our military today. Then it was a citizens’ army. Members of the armed forces were a democratic check on militarism because they were not volunteers. They were naturally concerned about the purposes of the war, how it would end, and whether their government and officers were lying to them. Today we have a professional military. People who serve in it are volunteers with a vested interest in advancing their careers through armed conflict. It’s possible we’ll see a movement of Iraq Veterans Against the War, but the participants are likely to be more concerned about internal military grievances — such as involuntary extensions of enlistments — than deceit by the president, vice-president, and the high command about the war itself.
Third, a Kerry administration will be a check on the rampant spread of secrecy upon which our militarism thrives. Given his nineteen years of service in the Senate, he is likely to end at least a significant part of the secrecy that covers up the destruction of the environment, the deployment of weapons in outer space, our refusal to conserve fossil fuels, and many other scandals. Last year, the US government classified more than 14 million new national security secrets, up from 11 million the previous year, and 8 million the year before. Ending, or at least curtailing, the secrecy surrounding the Department of Defense and the intelligence agencies would be one of the most effective ways to begin to restore democratic controls over them.
Fourth, the main issue in the coming election is the Constitution and the need to restore its integrity as the supreme law of the land. It was concern over violations of the Constitution that energized the Howard Dean campaign. Kerry will end the tenure of John Ashcroft and the illegal incarceration of native-born citizens in Federal prisons and prosecute those responsible for torture in Iraq and at GuantÃ¡namo Bay. If we’re lucky, he might even close the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, which is where we instruct military officers from Latin America in state terrorism. For those even slightly interested in human rights, a Kerry victory is indispensable.
Having said all this, let me nonetheless end by noting that the political system may not be capable of saving the Republic. It is hard to imagine that any president of either party could stand up to the powerful vested interests surrounding the Pentagon and the secret intelligence agencies. Given that 40% of the defense budget is secret and that all of the intelligence agencies’ budgets are secret, it is impossible for Congress to do effective oversight of them even if it wanted to. This is not something that started with the Bush administration. The Defense Department’s “black budgets” go back to the Manhattan Project of World War II to build atomic bombs. The amounts spent on the intelligence agencies have been secret ever since the CIA was created in 1947. The stipulation in article 1, section 9, clause 7 of the Constitution that “a regular statement and account of receipts and expenditures of all public money shall be published from time to time” has not been true in our country for more than fifty years.
A good example of the sorry state of oversight was the recent hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee concerning the military’s torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison. The hearings were a travesty. The committee, with the possible exception of Sen. McCain, treated the secretary of defense and the military high command as if they were beyond accountability to the representatives of the people. The Army Times was more effective. Its editorial of May 17, A Failure of Leadership at the Highest Levels, demanded that Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard Myers resign or be fired.
I believe that if the Republic is to be saved it will be as a result of an upsurge of direct democracy. A little more than a year ago some ten million people in all the genuine democracies on earth demonstrated against the war in Iraq, against George Bush, and for democracy. These were the largest demonstrations in British history — two million people in London — but they also included 400,000 people in New York City and a million each in Berlin, Madrid, and Rome. In late April we saw a powerful demonstration in Washington DC of over a million for a woman’s right to choose and to encourage younger women to vote. A half-million demonstrated in Rome last Friday against a visit by our Boy Emperor.
The first victory of this movement came on March 14 with the election of Spanish prime minister JosÃ© Zapatero. If democracy means anything at all, it means that public opinion matters. Zapatero understood that 80% of the Spanish people opposed Bush’s war in Iraq, and he immediately withdrew all Spanish forces. It’s a great pity that Kerry criticized Zapatero for this. We need to duplicate the Spanish victory in Tony Blair’s Britain, Silvio Berlusconi’s Italy, Junichiro Koizumi’s Japan, and in our own country.
I intend to vote for Kerry because I believe he is the only electable politician in America who might, like Zapatero in Spain, pay attention to public opinion. If we can demonstrate that a majority of the American people want peace, I believe that John Kerry will heed the call.
Chalmers Johnson is the author of The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic and of an earlier volume, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, among other works.
Copyright C2004 Chalmers Johnson
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture and The Last Days of Publishing.]