The World's Schoolyard Bully
Lawrence R. Velvel
A blog of July 20, 2004 entitled America Loves War. Does John Kerry? listed a large number of the major wars and military actions that supposedly peace-loving America has engaged in since World War II.* The major wars alone include Korea, Viet Nam, Gulf I and Gulf II. On average thats a major war every 15 years since 1945. Imagine how many wars we would fight if we were a war-loving people instead of a peace-loving one.
Not to be forgotten in the list of major wars is what happened in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. True, it did not expand into a major war. But, we now know, we missed a thermonuclear holocaust by the skin of our teeth. Had the initial desire of most members of ExComm for an invasion of Cuba been implemented, we now know, the world would have blown up, since local Russian commanders on the scene had been given the authority to fire operational nuclear missiles, which they would have done if our troops had come across the beaches. So our penchant for military solutions came within an ace of destroying everything. Some peace lovers we are!
The July 20, 2004 blog also set forth a list of the reasons why America is so enamored of ostensible military solutions.* * Two of my personal favorites on the list are Americans gross failure to know history, with their consequent failure to understand that history shows that war usually leads only to more trouble, and the fact that our leaders are never criminally punished nor do they, their children or relatives ever fight in our wars now. (Leaders children did fight in the Civil War and World War II, but not afterwards.) It is my judgment, as said here many times, that American bellicosity will continue until these personal favorites are seriously changed.
To the foregoing list of reasons why we fight so many wars, however, I would now like to add a few more. One has been discussed here many times. It is the large-scale incompetence, and refusal to print or show truth, of the mass media -- newspapers, magazines, television, and radio. We need not elaborate the mass medias failure to question the current administrations WMD claims, which were phony but took us into war. Add to this the embedded cheerleading of reporters, plus the failure to show pictures -- still or video -- of any of the tens of thousands of dead Iraqi civilians blown apart by American munitions -- although one gathers that much of the rest of the world sees those pictures on Al Jazeera and hates us for them. The hatred is quite understandable and, from theirs and others standpoints, quite reasonable. (We would certainly hate people who caused the beheadings of Americans, Britons, etc., and the hate our own actions engender is no different.)
Add to all that the constant sycophantic sucking after and lapping up of every word that evildoers like Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld (axes of evil, if you will) bestow upon the mass media, and the lusting after every photo op these axes of evil provide the mass media, and you get still another reason why the media has failed us so widely.
With regard to media failures, incidentally, the august New York Times, which is itself responsible for so much and so many of the mass medias failures, still has not revealed when it learned of the NSA spying on American civilians, and still will not say whether it learned of this before the 2004 election but did not print it until December 2005, or learned of it only after the 2004 election. Strangely, neither has James Risen, one of the two Timesmen reporting on the case, told the date when knowledge was acquired in his recent book dealing with the NSAs spying. It is entirely plausible to think that, if The Times and Risen learned of the spying before the election but did not print the story for another year, then The Times may well be responsible for the reelection of Bush. For public knowledge of the spying could easily have sunk Bushs reelection, probably would have sunk it, even though his opponent was John Kerry. It must be a heavy burden for an organ like The Times to know that it may be responsible for the disastrous reelection of this possibly worst of all 43 American Presidents (move over James Buchanan), just as it was significantly responsible for this war in the first place because of its parroting, and failure to challenge, the Administrations WMD claims.
One would think that, had The Times not learned the relevant information about the NSA spying until after the November 2004 election (or until so close to the election that there was no time to check out what it learned), the paper would say so. The fact that The Times doesnt say so, and never has said so, but instead has always chosen silence on the matter, seems to me a pretty good indication that Arthur Sulzberger, Bill Keller and the paper knew about the NSA spying in advance of the election, then made either the terrible mistake of voluntarily determining not to disclose it (for another year), or the alternative terrible mistake of yielding for a year to administration threats against disclosing it, and now does not want its awful mistake known. If the relevant facts were known to The Times before the fall 2004 election, as one suspects from the papers silence on the matter, then the papers failure to publish the facts at that time, whether the failure was voluntary or because of threats, most likely insured Bushs reelection, insured four more years of war, and is a truly awful example of the medias complicity in war.
You know, this has been discussed here previously. So why bring it up again? The same question can be asked with regard to many matters brought up here regularly, including that America has elected a serial incompetent, that our leaders are never punished for their evildoing, that renowned professors and high officials at Harvard have committed or allowed dishonest acts, that, relatedly, ghostwriting is a plague of our society. The mass media generally would not and does not keep bringing up the same points over and over again. It moves on, as the saying goes. What was reported a week or a year ago is no longer news and is not to be written of again. Indeed, the only time I can remember a major editor insisting on continuous stories about something, he was strongly criticized for doing so: when he was the Editor of The Times, Howell Raines had something like 13 or 17 stories written about the exclusion of women from Augusta National, the home of the masters golf tournament. He was heavily criticized for this, although some could think that not only was he right to keep the spotlight on something that was at best untoward, but that the spotlight should still be there notwithstanding contrary journalistic convention.
But since journalistic convention is what it is -- is against remembering and continuing to spotlight the same points, however fundamental they may be, if they have been discussed before -- why should a blog do so? Not quite a year and a half ago, Peggy Noonan, of all people, provided an answer in a February column she wrote in, of all places, the online Wall Street Journal. Bloggers, she said, unlike journalists, are not, and do not have to be, governed by mainstream thinking. Nor do they have to accept the directives of an editor pushing an ideology or a publisher protecting his friends. Bloggers have the freedom to decide on their own when a story stops being a story. Noonan is, of course, right. Bloggers like this writer can continue to pursue something as long as they think it relevant and important. That this country elects incompetents to its highest offices, that these boobs are never punished for their criminal misdeeds, that the country is enamored of war notwithstanding all its baloney to the contrary about being peace- loving, that dishonesty is pervasive, that it exists in spades at our most honored institutions -- matters such as these continue to affect us dramatically -- and continue to be relevant and important. They implicate, indeed, first principles. Let the gnat-attention-span mass media put them aside quickly in order to get on to the next new new thing, to the latest rock star or summer movie or whatever else it deems newsworthy. Some of us want to stick with the truly essential. We are, of course, swimming against the tide. So be it. There are many who think that progress comes only when people swim against the tide.
None of this is to say, of course, that blogging and/or bloggers are free of actual or possible defects notwithstanding all the good blogging has done. The general style of blogs is too often both callow and shallow. (It is interesting, isnt it, that both these words end in the word low?) And lately, the mainstream media recently reported, bloggers have taken lessons from coaches -- in particular from a former deputy White House press secretary under Billy Blowhard -- in what to wear, how to sit and [even] what to say on television. The mainstream media interprets this, and other things too, such as books by Moulitsas/Armstrong and Ana Marie Cox, as showing that bloggers, though they vigorously deny it, have always been interested only in breaking into the mainstream media. One mainstream public action has said Moulitsas is a fame hound, a loudmouthed nerd at the back of the room. He apparently has had, according to Maureen Dowd, a media coach who taught him how to stand, dress, speak, breathe and even get up from his chair. Maybe the mainstream medias interpretation of bloggers motivation is true -- it wouldnt surprise me if it was at least partly true. Yet, the other side of the matter is that people with something to say have been kept out of the mainstream media for literally hundreds of years, and Internet blogging is now giving them a chance. That is a really important social breakthrough.
Now, I hold no brief for hiring coaches to teach one how to speak and even sit. For this smacks of -- is so typical of -- another phenomenon that pervades the countrys public life and is so regularly manifest on TV, the lust for fame. Of course, perhaps one should be charitable: after all, Ive been a lawyer and a legal academic for over 40 years, professions that emphasize, and in which one becomes practiced in, speaking and presentation. Whereas a lot of the bloggers apparently are relative youngsters not involved in, nor practiced in, such arts. Nonetheless, ones taste does not run to being charitable here. For having coaches to teach how to talk, dress, even how to sit is part of the process which ends up causing people to devote their lives to lusting after the big shots, to lusting after TV, to hanging on every word of a serially incompetent war criminal simply because he is President. Bloggers caught up in this process will ultimately lose -- more accurately, will ultimately give up -- their raison detre in order to pursue fame. They will ultimately be no better than, will be just another incarnation of, the mass media and the pols they now lampoon.
But let me now return to the matter of additional reasons why Americans regularly choose to rely on war. One of them is that, when it comes to war, they use a form of thinking that typifies the legal profession: they use worst possible case analysis. Positing the worst possible case, they assume it will occur, and further assume, mainly as a matter of ex cathedra pronunciamento, without any true analysis, that actions we take will effect desirable outcomes. To show this point, need one say more than two words: Viet Nam? (A country whose name properly is two words, not one.)
Using worst possible case analysis, we were sure that, unless we fought the Commies in Nam, they would take over the rest of Southeast Asia and we would have to fight them in San Francisco. And, with no competent assessment of the matter whatever, but rather as ex cathedra pronunciamento, as ipse dixit, we assumed that American intervention would have the desirable effect of enabling our South Viet Namese puppet government to remain in power while the Viet Cong and North Viet Namese retreated. This legalistic form of thinking proved wrong on every count, didnt it? We failed utterly in Viet Nam, with our opponents taking over the country. But they did not take over the rest of Southeast Asia nor did we have to fight them in San Francisco.
Also wrong on every count was the legalistic thinking in which we indulged in order not to withdraw from Viet Nam after it became obvious no later than 1966 or 1967 that we would lose. This thinking was a subset of the thinking that took us into the war in the first place. If we withdrew, it was claimed, there would be chaos -- the favorite scare word of lawyers, hack politicians and hack statesmen -- the Commies would win, and there would be a bloodbath. All of which was the worst possible case. Whereas if we stayed, our puppets would win -- we would be effective. Well, we stayed for another 4 to 5 years. But the Commies won, and there was a bloodbath in which millions of additional lives were lost. But it was a bloodbath caused by the continued fighting, not the Communist victory, and, one guesses, caused mainly by American bombs and artillery -- after all, more millions were dead, but our opponents did not assassinate millions of civilians or kill millions of South Viet Namese soldiers.
One result of all the killing done by our South Viet Namese puppets and ourselves was summed up by a Communist general many years later at one of the conferences among former enemies attended, even arranged, by what seems to be a guilt stricken Robert McNamara -- a war criminal responsible, with his colleagues, for millions of deaths. If I remember the quote correctly (and I think I do), the Communist general said that Blood speaks with a terrible voice. That is by way of saying that the death of ones own people cries out for revenge, and causes military action to seek it. While the American people have from the beginning been eager to avenge the Boston Massacre, to avenge Fort Sumter (where nobody was killed), to remember the Maine, to avenge Pearl Harbor, to avenge 9/11, they are completely oblivious to the fact that other people react the same way. And then Americans wonder, after our missiles, bombs, and artillery kill people by the tens of thousands or more, why people all over the world hate us, why people all over the world consider us, and George Bush, not the jihadists, bin Laden or even Zarkawi, to be the real terrorists, who rain sudden, unexpected death from the sky with missiles and bombs and artillery. (Such a view seems perverse to most Americans, who do not know and could care less what other people think. Yet amazingly, and perhaps out of understandable grief at the loss of his son, that George Bush is the real terrorist is reported to have been recently said by Michael Berg, the father of Peter Berg, the young man who horrifically was beheaded by Zarkawi.)
The same kind of legalistic thinking that led to Viet Nam also led to Gulf II. Our so-called leaders first envisioned and assumed the inevitable occurrence, absent American action, of the worst possible case. Saddam, it was claimed, had WMDs, would use them against ourselves and our allies, and would even take over the Middle East. Of course, in reality, he had no WMDs, so the assumed worst case was nonsense. Our leaders also assumed, with no validity whatever, as lawyers do, that proposed action would be effective, that American soldiers would be welcomed with rose petals by Iraqis, and that American military action would quickly result in democracy in Iraq and soon result in democracy in the entire Middle East. Is it possible to have been more wrong? All this thinking has merely proved a reprise, in the Middle East, of the disastrously wrong legalistic sort of thinking that led us into Viet Nam.
And, also like Viet Nam, we are told that we cannot withdraw because there will be chaos, a blood bath, etc., etc. But nobody in power even considers whether the claimed blood bath would be avoided by dividing the post World War I, mere geographic convention that is Iraq into three areas, one each for Sunnis, Shia and Kurds, with people moving to their own areas if they wish. No one considers that a terrible internal bloodbath between Hindus and Muslims ended in India after it was divided into Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan in the 1940s and people moved to their own area. Nor does anyone consider how many deaths are likely if, as in Viet Nam, we continue to stay in Iraq and fight. And no matter what our government and military claim -- and despite the kind of shortslighted claims of success made when the fool stood on the Abraham Lincoln, or Saddam was captured, or now when Zarkawi has been killed -- there can be no doubt whatever that, even though a lot of the thousands of additional deaths will be due to insurgent bombs, a lot of them also will be due to American missiles, bombs, artillery and rifle fire. The world, though not Americans, will continue to see these results on television, and will understandably continue to hate us and think us terrorists, will maybe hate us even worse. Thank you New York Times, if you see what I mean. One fears that, with regard to withdrawal, as with regard to getting into the war in the first place, the lessons of Viet Nam have gone by the board.
Indeed, there can be no doubt that these lessons went by the board starting with Bush the elder and his stuff about we have kicked the Viet Nam syndrome, and continuing now with his mentally enfeebled son and his sons fool-jesters, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Addington, Yoo, etc. These people have proven ultra susceptible to an American problem that might be described as the schoolyard problem in world affairs (a problem which lately is yet another reason why we get into wars). What I mean is pretty simple. It is this. When one is a male child, and in reality, I think, up until ones 20s and 30s because there are so many American men who physically want to fight (viz. road rage), one learns that there are physical dangers. There are kids who want to fight. There are hoods. There are bullies. Unless one wants to go around brawling or worse all the time and throughout history there have been such people, often in gangs, as is true today as well -- one learns how to maneuver to avoid fighting while retaining some dignity. One knows the worst possible case could occur -- a bad beating -- but he relies on the fact that it usually will not if one maneuvers and tries to get along. This is just one of those lessons of male life in America.
In terms of legalistic forms of thinking, one is aware that there are people in the schoolyard -- or on the streets -- who can pound the crap out of you (or these day even worse), which is the worst possible case. But one does not therefore try to forestall this case by picking a fight with one of them, since this, in self-fulfilling prophecy, would bring on the very beating one fears. One learns to maneuver and to get along, in the hope, usually attained, that the worst possible case won't occur. Of course, there usually are a few fights in the life of young males, but, for most males, fights are mostly avoided because one knows he lacks the power to be continuously successful, or maybe even infrequently successful.
Something very much like this simple analogy was long the rule in the sophisticated arena of international affairs. It was called the balance of power, which avoided huge wars (though not lots of smaller ones) in Europe from 1815 to 1914. From 1945 through 1989 there was another balance of power, often called the balance of terror, between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. But when the Soviet Union collapsed, and the U.S. was left as the worlds sole superpower, the Bush family and its acolytes began to think of the U.S. in the same way that a schoolyard bully of unmatchable physical strength and power -- a schoolboy Mike Tyson, for instance -- might think of himself. That is, there were no reasons to try to get along and to maneuver to avoid a physical beating. Rather, the U.S. could do whatever it wants because militarily it is so much more powerful than anyone else. So rather than maneuver and try to get along, the Bushes and Cheneys and Rumsfelds of our country began to act on the precepts of worst possible case analysis -- the worst possible case is that Saddam does have and will use WMDs, so we will attack him now rather than trying to maneuver. Likewise, we will threaten preventive war against the other members of the axis of evil: Iran, Syria and North Korea.
I am not a wholesale fan of psychiatry or psychology, which, in their Freudian aspects, I regard as basically mumbo jumbo. But it does seem to me that we have been experiencing a form of psychological problem arising in people like Bush and his cohorts. Having had life too good, having sometimes been born to the purple as Bush was, not having experienced (or learned from) serious set backs in life, but instead having always been bailed out by family, friends and contacts, they got us into Iraq and keep us there because they are the Mike Tysons, and conceive of the U.S as the Mike Tysons, of the worlds schoolyard -- as persons and a nation that can do whatever they and it wants because they and it are so powerful. Those of us not to the manor born, or who have experienced and learned from unbridled reverses in life, or who even may only have empathy for others (which Bush and company clearly lack), dont see it the same way.
Of course, to some extent these world-schoolyard bullies have now learned in Iraq that their view is not correct, that they cant do whatever they want and get whatever they want just because America is a superpower. They thus seem no longer to be threatening North Korea and Syria with wars, at least not at the moment. (Although, despite the fact that our mass media almost never discusses it, Americans have fought Syrians along the Iraq-Syria border.) Whether they intend to fight Iran is something one doesnt know, though the thought-free legalistic worst possible case is that Iran will get and use nuclear weapons and that American military action will stop this and result in a new and better Iran (like our peerless leaders new and better Iraq).
Finally, a few last, oft related points about America and war. It was said above that one of my favorite reasons for American wars is our widespread ignorance of history. (You know, this ignorance is so profound that, during Viet Nam, it was not until years of warfare, if I remember correctly, that anybody began to seriously realize and/or say that the Philippine Insurrection, which occurred only 60 years before, provided a horrible and all too applicable precedent for what was happening.) And one has to believe that people like Bush and Cheney dont want to know history, except for their simpleminded, often erroneous view of what happened constitutionally soon after the American Revolution, a view they feel they can (misleadingly) use to get what they want. For if one knows history, one knows that America has done not just good stuff, but a lot of bad stuff too. And one knows that since 1898 this country has regularly been driven by a desire for empire, with associated military action. The empire has often been economic rather than occupational, but is empire nevertheless, and sometimes has been (and/or still is) occupational, e.g., the Philippines, Hawaii, Puerto Rico. A history of seeking empire and hegemony is not something that one can quote when trying to convince our people to go to war, so our leaders dont want to know or face facts. Neither do their right wing zealot followers, whether fundamentalist or secular. And neither, for that matter, do most Americans.
We are, once again, dealing with a psychological phenomenon. The leaders, their followers and the vast body of people dont want to know history or the facts. History and the facts interfere with ones idealized view of the country, which is a major psychological prop for leaders and citizens alike. They make it more difficult for the leaders to put over whatever nutso policy they wish to pursue -- like war in Iraq. They make clear that in nearly every war there are Hadithas or their equivalent: Our wonderful hero-worshipped red state Civil War Southerners killed black prisoners in that war, we killed prisoners and Germans who wished to surrender in World War II, which is regarded as the good war, civilians were gunned down en masse in Korea, and what we did in Nam (not to mention the same conduct in the Philippines at the turn of the last century) need not be repeated. The facts of history show that since the advent of modern warfare in our Civil War, we often have been largely unsuccessful when not fighting an all out war in which our size, technology and the enlistment, military and otherwise, of all the people have made all the difference. These are not points one wants to hear or know if ones view of America is that we can do whatever we want because we are historys great exception and are so powerful militarily.
Indeed, a desire not to know history is often obvious or even explicit even among politicians who are in opposition to the government. Because all they care about is getting money and winning office, it is obvious that the Democrats - - and their political hangers-on, and the fearful mass media too - - have not cared about and have not brought up some of the most pertinent lessons of Viet Nam, e.g., the extent to which our actions in Nam just made us more enemies in-country (as has occurred in Iraq - - as well as throughout the entire Middle East), and the precedent that our withdrawal stood America in good stead.
The obvious problem, of course, is that while history may not repeat itself, it does come in patterns. Desiring not to know history, our leaders and people are, as Santayana said, condemned to repeat it. As we do. Thus it is that, in hoping for a reasonable and effective third party to arise in this country because of the moral, intellectual and political bankruptcy of the Republican and Democratic parties, one of the things devoutly to be wished is that a third party would take special pains to understand and apply relevant lessons of history. Maybe its policies would present us with new mistakes. But at least they wouldnt be the same old ones repeated time and time again.
* The list includes: Korea, where America suffered approximately 33,000 dead; a naval quarantine of Cuba, which nearly led to World War III; Viet Nam, where America suffered about 58,000 dead; long secret wars in Laos and Cambodia; an invasion of the Dominican Republic; the Mayaguez incident, where America lost 38 dead; the botched attempt to rescue the hostages in Teheran; air strikes against Libya; sending troops to Lebanon, where 241 died in the bombing of a barracks; an invasion of Grenada; the first Gulf War against Iraq; naval patrols in the Persian Gulf; an invasion of Panama; sending troops to Somalia, where 25 died; the bombing of Bosnia; air strikes in the Sudan; the bombing of Serbia and Kosovo; the war on terror; the war in Afghanistan; and the second Gulf War against Iraq.
**The list includes: A desire for American power and influence to be preeminent in the world; the claimed need to stop tyranny; economic imperialism; racism; a gross failure to know American history; utter failure to know the history and culture of opponents; hubris; governmental incompetence and utterly stupid decisions by leaders; the regularly followed, but seldom identified, domino theory of causation; falsehoods, delusions and political reasons; Congressional abdication to the president of the power to decide whether America shall fight a war; the influence of the South; the fact that America has never been invaded or had its cities destroyed by a foreign power since the War of 1812; the effect of movies and television; the fact that American leaders, unlike some foreign leaders, are never subject to criminal responsibility for their actions, nor do their families or friends fight in our wars; the new theory of preventive war; and the male desire to fight and destroy.
This posting represents the personal views of Lawrence R. Velvel. If you wish to respond to this email/blog, please email your response to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Your response may be posted on the blog if you have no objection; please tell me if you do object.
Articles may be quoted or republished in full with attribution
to the author and harvardsquarecommentary.org.