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Rebecca Solnit: The Future Needs Us

7:35 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Marching band in New Orleans

As 2013 closes, Rebecca Solnit looks to the future from New Orleans.

‘Tis the season of tradition and, as it turns out, TomDispatch has one seasonal tradition of its own.  For the last nine — count ‘em: nine! — years, Rebecca Solnit has stepped into the breach (“dear friends!”) and ended the TomDispatch year for us with her usual panache.  In 2006, she was dreaming of 2026; in 2008, she was looking back at the grim aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in lawless New Orleans; in 2010, it was iceberg economies and hope in the shadows (and as I wrote in my introduction that year, with the Bush administration’s approach to war in mind, “As they privatized, I’ve privatized hope, farming it out to Rebecca Solnit, who from her first appearance at TomDispatch has filled the endowed Hope Chair brilliantly”); in 2011, it was the Occupy movement that preoccupied her; and this year, she returns to her most essential métier, the theme with which she changed my view of how the world works when she first arrived at TomDispatch back in May 2003 in the dismal months after the invasion of Iraq began and the antiwar movement collapsed in despair.

As for myself, on this disaster planet in 2013, let me admit to finding hope in a single young man, Edward Snowden, who in his act of disobedience, which was civil but for many here in the U.S. hard to swallow, he truly awoke a world to the dystopian possibilities lurking in the global security state that Washington has been building.  If TomDispatch were Time magazine, he would be my person of the year, a theme I’ll undoubtedly take up in 2014. Tom

The Arc of Justice and the Long Run
Hope, History, and Unpredictability
By Rebecca Solnit

North American cicada nymphs live underground for 17 years before they emerge as adults. Many seeds stay dormant far longer than that before some disturbance makes them germinate. Some trees bear fruit long after the people who have planted them have died, and one Massachusetts pear tree, planted by a Puritan in 1630, is still bearing fruit far sweeter than most of what those fundamentalists brought to this continent. Sometimes cause and effect are centuries apart; sometimes Martin Luther King’s arc of the moral universe that bends toward justice is so long few see its curve; sometimes hope lies not in looking forward but backward to study the line of that arc.

Three years ago at this time, after a young Tunisian set himself on fire to protest injustice, the Arab Spring was on the cusp of erupting. An even younger man, a rapper who went by the name El Général, was on the verge of being arrested for “Rais Lebled” (a tweaked version of the phrase “head of state”), a song that would help launch the revolution in Tunisia.’

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Lewis Lapham: Laughing into Darkness

7:25 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Mark Twain at work

Is there a Mark Twain for the modern age?

Not being Navajo, there were no “first laugh” ceremonies in my household.  But who could forget their child’s first laugh?  It’s like having one of the mysteries of life presented to you out of nowhere, right in your own house.  That laugh comes from some unknown place deep inside. It may be a response to surprise (peekaboo… now, I’m here, now I’m gone, now I’m back again!) or who knows what, but it’s granted to us, imprinted on us, with a kind of inexpressible joy. The Navajos evidently consider a baby’s first laugh the moment you become a social being, enter the human community, and join the rest of us — and the person who induces that laugh has the honor of holding the ceremony.  Anyone who has ever gotten a classic “belly laugh” out of a baby certainly has a sense that an honor has indeed been bestowed and that a ceremony should be in order.

The laugh is assumedly there to take you through a dark world without a total loss of joy, to join you to the rest of us in the conspiracy of life, and to give you a little distance on what passes for reality.  It precedes anything we would normally consider humor, reflecting the deepest comedy at our core.  Anyone who has had a child undoubtedly noticed that the laugh also precedes the punch line, that the form of the joke is somehow a pleasure even before you understand why a chicken crossing the road is funny or what that rabbi, penguin, and president were doing in a bar.  It’s far deeper and truer.

So true that Lewis Lapham in the Winter issue of his remarkable magazine, Lapham’s Quarterly, grabs his Mark Twain and steps directly into the darkness of our present gilded age with the verve that humor arms you with. As always, his magazine unites some of the most provocative and original voices in history around a single topic, in this case comedy. (You can subscribe to the Quarterly by clicking here.) As ever, TomDispatch thanks the editors of that journal for allowing us to offer an exclusive look at Lapham’s introduction to the new issue. Tom

The Solid Nonpareil
Why No Mark Twain for Our Second Gilded Age?
By Lewis H. Lapham

[This essay will appear in "Comedy," the Winter 2014 issue of Lapham's Quarterly. This slightly adapted version is posted at TomDispatch.com with the kind permission of that magazine.]

Well, humor is the great thing, the saving thing, after all. — Mark Twain

Twain for as long as I’ve known him has been true to his word, and so I’m careful never to find myself too far out of his reach. The Library of America volumes of his Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, and Essays (1852–1910) stand behind my desk on a shelf with the dictionaries and the atlas. On days when the news both foreign and domestic is moving briskly from bad to worse, I look to one or another of Twain’s jests to spring the trap or lower a rope, to summon, as he is in the habit of doing, a blast of laughter to blow away the “peacock shams” of the world’s “colossal humbug.”

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Beverly Gologorsky: My Neighbor, War

7:38 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Cover of "Stop Here"

Novelist Beverly Gologorsky on the influence of war on fiction & culture.

In the years when I was growing up more or less middle class, American war on the childhood front couldn’t have been sunnier.  True, American soldiers were fighting a grim new stalemate of a conflict in Korea and we kids often enough found ourselves crouched under our school desks practicing for the nuclear destruction of our neighborhoods, but the culture was still focused on World War II.  Enter a movie theater then and as just about any war flick ended, the Air Force arrived in the nick of time, the Marines eternally advanced, and victory was ours, a God-given trait of the American way of life.

In those days, it was still easy to present war sunny-side up.  After all, you couldn’t go wrong with the Good War — not that anyone called it that until Studs Terkel put the phrase into the language and the culture dropped the quote marks with which he carefully encircled it.  And if your Dad, who had served in one of the great draft armies of our history, sat beside you silently in that movie theater while John Wayne saved the world, never saying a word about his war (except in rare and sudden outbursts of anger), well, that was no problem.  His silence only encouraged you to feel that, given what you’d seen at the movies (not to speak of on TV, in books, in comics, and more or less anywhere else), you already understood his experience and it had been grand indeed.

And then, of course, we boys went into the parks, backyards, or fields and practiced making war the American way, shooting commies, or Ruskies, or Indians, or Japs, or Nazis with toy guns (or sticks).  It may not sound pretty anymore, but take my word for it, it was glorious back when.

More than half a century later, those movies are relics of the neolithic era.  The toy six-shooters I once holstered and strapped to my waist, along with the green plastic soldiers that I used to storm the beaches of Iwo Jima or Normandy, are somewhere in the trash heap of time.  And in the wake of Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, who believes that America has a God-given right to victory?  Still, I have a few relics from that era, lead Civil War and Indian War-style soldiers who, more than half a century ago, fought out elaborate battles on my floor, and I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit that holding one for a moment doesn’t give me some faint wash of emotion from another age.  That emotion, so much stronger then, sent thousands of young Americans into Vietnam dreaming of John Wayne.

These days, post-Vietnam, post-9/11, no one rides to the rescue, “victory” is no longer in our possession, and for the first time in memory, a majority of the public thinks Washington should “mind its own business” globally when it comes to war-making.  Not surprisingly, in an America that’s lost its appetite for war, such conflicts are far more embattled, so much less onscreen, and as novelist Beverly Gologorsky writes today, unacknowledged in much of American fiction.

There was nothing sunny about war, even in the 1950s, for the young, working-class Gologorsky.  If my childhood was, in a sense, lit by war and by a 24/7 economy in which the same giant corporations built ever larger cars and missiles, television consoles and submarines, hers was shadowed by it.  She sensed, far more than I, the truth of war that lay in our future.  That shadowing is the essence of her deeply moving “Vietnam” novel, The Things We Do to Make It Home, and her just-published second novel, Stop Here, a book that comes to grips in a way both subtle and heart-rending with the Iraq and Afghan wars without ever leaving the environs of a diner in Long Island, New York. Tom

In the Shadow of War
Life and Fiction in Twenty-First-Century America
By Beverly Gologorsky

I’m a voracious reader of American fiction and I’ve noticed something odd in recent years. This country has been eternally “at war” and you just wouldn’t know that — a small amount of veteran’s fiction aside — from the novels that are generally published.  For at least a decade, Americans have been living in the shadow of war and yet, except in pop fiction of the Tom Clancy variety (where, in the end, we always win), there’s remarkably little evidence of it.

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Peter Van Buren: 1984 Was an Instruction Manual

7:41 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

1984 Cover

An instruction manual?

Once upon a time, you might have said that someone “disappeared.”  But in the 1970s in Argentina, Chile, and elsewhere, that verb grew eerily more active in its passive form.  He or she no longer “disappeared,” but “was disappeared” — up to 30,000 Argentineans by their own military in the course of an internal struggle that came to be known as “the dirty war.”  Those gone were the “desaparecidos.

There is something so deeply, morally repugnant about disappearing another human being, no matter how or where or why it’s done, that it’s hard to express.  Yet in twenty-first century America, the possibilities for disappearing people in new and inventive ways may be migrating online, as former State Department whistleblower and TomDispatch regular Peter Van Buren suggests in his latest post. Tom

Welcome to the Memory Hole
Disappearing Edward Snowden
By Peter Van Buren

What if Edward Snowden was made to disappear? No, I’m not suggesting some future CIA rendition effort or a who-killed-Snowden conspiracy theory of a disappearance, but a more ominous kind.

What if everything a whistleblower had ever exposed could simply be made to go away? What if every National Security Agency (NSA) document Snowden released, every interview he gave, every documented trace of a national security state careening out of control could be made to disappear in real-time? What if the very posting of such revelations could be turned into a fruitless, record-less endeavor?

Am I suggesting the plot for a novel by some twenty-first century George Orwell? Hardly. As we edge toward a fully digital world, such things may soon be possible, not in science fiction but in our world — and at the push of a button. In fact, the earliest prototypes of a new kind of “disappearance” are already being tested. We are closer to a shocking, dystopian reality that might once have been the stuff of futuristic novels than we imagine. Welcome to the memory hole.

Even if some future government stepped over one of the last remaining red lines in our world and simply assassinated whistleblowers as they surfaced, others would always emerge. Back in 1948, in his eerie novel 1984, however, Orwell suggested a far more diabolical solution to the problem. He conjured up a technological device for the world of Big Brother that he called “the memory hole.” In his dark future, armies of bureaucrats, working in what he sardonically dubbed the Ministry of Truth, spent their lives erasing or altering documents, newspapers, books, and the like in order to create an acceptable version of history. When a person fell out of favor, the Ministry of Truth sent him and all the documentation relating to him down the memory hole. Every story or report in which his life was in any way noted or recorded would be edited to eradicate all traces of him.

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Max Blumenthal: Expulsion and Revulsion in Israel

10:00 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

Editor’s Note: Max Blumenthal and his book Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel will be featured in FDL’s Book Salon November 2nd. Philip Munger aka Edward Teller will host.

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

An unidentified visitor in the Negev Desert village of Umm Al Hiran

In case you hadn’t noticed, Israel has been in the news a lot lately. After all, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived at the U.N. in the midst of an Iranian “charm offensive,” just as presidents Obama and Rouhani were having the first conversation between Iranian and American heads of state since Jimmy Carter’s day, and gave the usual hellfire sermon. He said Israel would, if necessary, “stand alone,” implicitly threatening to launch an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities without Washington’s support (an act that is, in reality, increasingly unlikely), and generally acted like the odd man out. Soon after, he made a comment reflecting his ignorance of life among the Iranian young — “If the people of Iran were free, they could wear jeans, listen to Western music, and have free elections ” — and the next thing you knew, indignant Iranian tweets were going up along with photosof jeans and Western music albums. And so another round of news stories hit the wires.

Only one problem: just about all the “Israeli” news here is focused on its future policy toward Iran, and remarkably little of it on the way Israel continues to eat up Palestinian lands and displace Palestinians on the West Bank and elsewhere, or the way in which Israeli control over so much of the West Bank is stunting the Palestinian economy. Fortunately, Max Blumenthal, who previously slipped inside the Republican Party and produced a bestselling book, has spent four years researching the on-the-ground realities of Israel. Today, he offers us a powerful, if grim, glimpse of just where Israel has been and where it’s heading, the sort of up-close-and-personal reporting you’re not likely to see in the American mainstream media (not, at least, since President Obama tried — and failed — to get the Israelis to stop building new settlements and other housing on Palestinian or contested lands). But think of today’s TomDispatch post as just a snapshot. The full picture can be found in Blumenthal’s new blockbuster of a book, Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel. It’s an odyssey of a trip into a largely unknown Israel and a remarkable, as well as riveting, piece of reportage. Tom

The Desert of Israeli Democracy
A Trip Through the Negev Desert Leads to the Heart of Israel’s National Nightmare
By Max Blumenthal

From the podium of the U.N. General Assembly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seamlessly blended frightening details of Iranian evildoing with images of defenseless Jews “bludgeoned” and “left for dead” by anti-Semites in nineteenth century Europe. Aimed at U.S. and Iranian moves towards diplomacy and a war-weary American public, Netanyahu’s gloomy tirade threatened to cast him as a desperate, diminished figure. Though it was poorly received in the U.S., alienating even a few of his stalwart pro-Israel allies, his jeremiad served a greater purpose, deflecting attention from his country’s policies towards the group he scarcely mentioned: the Palestinians.

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Ann Jones: Americans Can’t Remember, Afghans Will Never Forget

6:40 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

US Army soldier in Afghanistan

Ann Jones on the ongoing, forgotten US war in Afghanistan.

The Afghan War is officially winding down. American casualties, generally from towns and suburbs you’ve never heard of unless you were born there, are still coming in. Though far fewer American troops are in the field with Afghan forces, devastating “insider attacks” in which a soldier or policeman turns his gun on his American allies, trainers, or mentors still periodically occur. Civilian casualties continue to rise. “Surgically precise” U.S. air and drone strikes still mysteriously kill Afghan civilians. And as U.S. combat troops withdraw, Afghan-on-Afghan fighting is actually increasing, with the U.S.-trained army taking almost Vietnam-level, possibly unsustainable casualties (100 or more dead a week), while the police are similarly hit hard.

Meanwhile, as TomDispatch regular Ann Jones points out, our second longest war has already played Houdini, doing a remarkable disappearing job in “the homeland.” Almost 12 years after it began, no one here, it seems, is considering how to assess American “success” on that distant battlefield. But were we to do so, what possible gauge might we use? Here’s a suggestion: how about opium production? In 1979, the year America’s first Afghan war (against the Soviets) began, that country was producing just 250 tons of opium; by the early years of the post-9/11 American occupation of the country, that figure had hit 3,400 tons. Between 2006 and the present, it’s ranged from a 2007 high of 8,200 tons to a low of just under 5,000 tons. Officials of Russia’s Federal Drug Control Service now claim that 40,000 tons of illicit opiates have been stockpiled in Afghanistan, mostly to be marketed abroad. As of 2012, it was the world’s leading supplier of opium, with 74% of the global market, a figure that was expected to hit 90% as U.S. combat troops leave (and foreign aid flees). In other words, success in an endless war in that country has meant creating the world’s first true narco-state. It’s a record to consider. Not for nothing, it seems, were all those billons of dollars expended, not without accomplishments do we leave (if we are actually leaving).

Today, Ann Jones, who spent years in Afghanistan working with Afghan women and wrote a striking book, Kabul in Winter, based on her experiences, considers the Afghan end game and what to make of it. In 2010-2011, she put on her combat boots and headed back to that country, embedding with U.S. troops. Then, having previously focused on the toll the war had taken on Afghan civilians, she decided to see for herself, up close and personal, what that war’s cost was for American soldiers. The result, I believe, is a signal achievement and one of the best pieces of reportage from that war. She followed American war-wounded from a trauma hospital at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan to medical facilities in Germany, then on to Walter Reed Hospital, and — for those who made it — finally back to their homes. The result is the first original offering from this website’s publishing arm, Dispatch Books: They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars — the Untold Story. Believe me, it’s groundbreaking, it’s breathtaking, and I’m proud that, in conjunction with Haymarket Books, we will be publishing it this November 7th.

Nothing like her account exists. Of it, Jonathan Schell, no stranger to the costs of war, wrote: “For a decade, the independent journalist Ann Jones has, through her firsthand reporting of war and life on the ground in Afghanistan, given us more of the reality of that conflict than any dozen of her well-connected colleagues in the established media, attuned as they have been to the cant and spin pouring out of official mouths. Now, she has turned her shrewd, wise, compassionate, reality-bound eye to some of the bitterest facts of all: the almost unimaginable suffering of the American soldiers wounded and otherwise impaired in the conflict. The result is a harrowing and compelling tale that is hard to bear but must be borne if we are to understand the rolling disaster this country unleashed in Afghanistan more than a decade ago.” Tom

The Forgotten War 
12 Years in Afghanistan Down the Memory Hole 
By Ann Jones

Will the U.S. still be meddling in Afghanistan 30 years from now? If history is any guide, the answer is yes. And if history is any guide, three decades from now most Americans will have only the haziest idea why.

Since the 1950s, the U.S. has been trying to mold that remote land to its own desires, first through an aid “war” in the midst of the Cold War with the Soviet Union; then, starting as the 1970s ended, an increasingly bitter and brutally hot proxy war with the Soviets meant to pay them back for supporting America’s enemies during the war in Vietnam. One bad war leads to another.

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Dilip Hiro: The Mystery of Washington’s Waning Global Power

6:43 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

The pentagon rendered to look like a toy.

Washington’s power is waning.

Among the curious spectacles of our moment, the strangeness of the Obama presidency hasn’t gotten its full due. After decades in which “the imperial presidency” was increasingly in the spotlight, after two terms of George W. Bush in which a literal cult of executive power – or to use the term of that moment, “the unitary executive” — took hold in the White House, and without any obvious diminution in the literal powers of the presidency, Barack Obama has managed to look like a bystander at his own funeral.

If I had to summarize these years, I would say that he entered the phone booth dressed as Superman and came out as Clark Kent. Today, TomDispatch regular Dilip Hiro, author most recently of the invaluable A Comprehensive Dictionary of the Middle East, points out that, as far as Obama’s foreign (and war) policy, it’s almost as if, when the American president speaks, no one in the Greater Middle East — not even our closest allies or client states — is listening. And true as it may be for that region, it seems, bizarrely enough, no less true in Washington where the president’s recent attempts to intervene in the Syrian civil war were rejected both by Congress (though without a final vote on the subject) and by the American people via opinion polls.

It should be puzzling just how little power the present executive is actually capable of wielding. He can go to the U.N. or Kansas City and make speeches (that themselves often enough implicitly cast him as a kind of interested observer of his own presidency), but nothing much that he says in Washington seems any longer to be seriously attended to. In the foreign policy arena, he is surrounded by a secretary of defense who ducks for cover, a secretary of state who wanders the world blowing off steam, and a national security advisor and U.N. ambassador who seem like blundering neophytes and whose basic ideological stance (in favor of American — aka “humanitarian” — interventions globally) has been rejected in this country by almost any constituency imaginable. Unlike previous presidents, he evidently has no one — no Brent Scowcroft, Jim Baker, or even Henry Kissinger — capable of working the corridors of power skillfully or bringing a policy home.

Domestically, who ever heard of a presidency already into its second term that, according to just about all observers, has only one significant achievement — Obamacare (whatever you think of it) — and clearly hasn’t a hope in hell of getting a second one? Just as he’s done in Syria, Obama will now be watching relatively helplessly as Republicans in Congress threaten to shut the government down and not raise the debt ceiling — and whatever happens, who expects him to be the key player in that onrushing spectacle? America’s waning power in the Greater Middle East is more than matched by Obama’s waned power in this country. In our lifetime, we’ve never seen a president — not even the impeached Clinton — so drained of power or influence. It’s a puzzle wrapped in an enigma swaddled by a pretzel. Go figure. Tom

A World in Which No One Is Listening to the Planet’s Sole Superpower

The Greater Middle East’s Greatest Rebuff to Uncle Sam

By Dilip Hiro

What if the sole superpower on the planet makes its will known — repeatedly — and finds that no one is listening? Barely a decade ago, that would have seemed like a conundrum from some fantasy Earth in an alternate dimension. Now, it is increasingly a plain description of political life on our globe, especially in the Greater Middle East.

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Tomgram: Engelhardt, The American Exceptionalism Sweepstakes

6:18 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

[Note for TomDispatch Readers: I’m proud to say that Andrew Bacevich’s new book, Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country, hits the New York Times bestseller list this Sunday (#16)! It couldn’t be more deserved. The offer we made recently -- a signed, personalized copy of the book in return for a $100 (or more) donation to this site -- is still open. Check out our donation page for the details. Tom]

Bragging Rights
Eight Exceptional(ly Dumb) American Achievements of the Twenty-First Century
By Tom Engelhardt

But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act.  That’s what makes America different.  That’s what makes us exceptional.  With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth.”

– Barack Obama, address to the nation on Syria, September 10, 2013

Let’s be Americans, which means being exceptional, which also means being honest in ways inconceivable to the rest of humanity.  So here’s the truth of it: the American exceptionalism sweepstakes really do matter. Here. A lot.

Barack Obama is only the latest in a jostling crowd of presidential candidates, presidential wannabes, major politicians, and minor figures of every sort, not to speak of a raging horde of neocons and pundits galore, who have felt compelled in recent years to tell us and the world just how exceptional the last superpower really is.  They tend to emphasize our ability to use this country’s overwhelming power, especially the military variety, for the global good — to save children and other deserving innocents.  This particularly American aptitude for doing good forcibly, by killing others, is considered an incontestable fact of earthly life needing no proof.  It is well known, especially among our leading politicians, that Washington has the ability to wield its military strength in ways that are unimaginably superior to any other power on the planet.

The well-deserved bragging rights to American exceptionalism are no small matter in this country.  It should hardly be surprising, then, how visceral is the distaste when any foreigner — say, Russian President Vladimir Putin — decides to appropriate the term and use it to criticize us.  How visceral?  Well, the sort of visceral that, as Democratic Senator Bob Menendez put it recently, leaves us barely repressing the urge to “vomit.”

Now, it’s not that we can’t take a little self-criticism.  If you imagine an over-muscled, over-armed guy walking into a room and promptly telling you and anyone else in earshot how exceptionally good he is when it comes to targeting his weapons, and you notice a certain threatening quality about him, and maybe a hectoring, lecturing tone in his voice, it’s just possible that you might be intimidated or irritated by him.  You might think: narcissist, braggart, or blowhard.  If you were the president of Russia, you might say, “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.”

Yes, if you’re a foreigner, this country is easy enough to misunderstand, make fun of, or belittle.  Still, that didn’t stop the president from proudly bringing up our exceptionalism two weeks ago in his address on the Syrian crisis.  In that speech, he plugged the need for a U.S. military response to the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian military.  He recommended launching a “limited strike,” assumedly Tomahawk missiles heading Damascus-wards, to save Syria’s children, and he made sure the world knew that such an attack would be no passing thing.  (“Let me make something clear: the United States military doesn’t do pinpricks.”)

Then, in mid-speech, in a fashion that was nothing short of exceptional (if you were considering the internal logic of the address), he suddenly cast that option aside for another approach entirely. But just because of that, don’t let first impressions or foreign criticism blind you to the power of the president’s imagery.  In this century, as he suggested then and in an address to the U.N. two weeks later, American exceptionalism has always had to do with Washington’s ability to use its power for the greater planetary good.  Since, in the last decade-plus, power and military power have come to be essentially synonymous in Washington, the pure goodness of firing missiles or dropping bombs has been deified.

On that basis, it’s indisputable that the bragging rights to American exceptionalism are Washington’s. For those who need proof, what follows are just eight ways (among so many more) that you can proudly make the case for our exceptional status, should you happen to stumble across, say, President Putin, still blathering on about how unexceptional we are.

1. What other country could have invaded Iraq, hardly knowing the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite, and still managed to successfully set off a brutal sectarian civil war and ethnic cleansing campaigns between the two sects that would subsequently go regional, whose casualty counts have tipped into the hundreds of thousands, and which is now bouncing back on Iraq?  What other great power would have launched its invasion with plans to garrison that country for decades and with the larger goal of subduing neighboring Iran (“Everyone wants to go to Baghdad; real men want to go to Tehran”), only to slink away eight years later leaving behind a Shiite government in Baghdad that was a firm ally of Iran?  And in what other country, could leaders, viewing these events, and knowing our part in them, have been so imbued with goodness as to draw further “red lines” and contemplate sending in the missiles and bombers again, this time on Syria and possibly Iran?  Who in the world would dare claim that this isn’t an unmatchable record?

2.  What other country could magnanimously spend $4-6 trillion on two good wars in Afghanistan and Iraq against lightly armed minority insurgencies without winning or accomplishing a thing?  And that’s not even counting the funds sunk into the Global War on Terror and sideshows in places like Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen, or the staggering sums that, since 9/11, have been poured directly into the national security state.  How many countries, possessing “the finest fighting force in the history of the world,” could have engaged in endless armed conflicts and interventions from the 1960s on and, except in unresisting Panama and tiny Grenada, never managed to definitively win anything?

3.  And talking about exceptional records, what other military could have brought an estimated 3.1 million pieces of equipment — ranging from tanks and Humvees to porta-potties, coffee makers, and computers — with it into Iraq, and then transported most of them out again (while destroying the rest or turning them over to the Iraqis)?  Similarly, in an Afghanistan where the U.S. military is now drawing down its forces and has already destroyed “more than 170 million pounds worth of vehicles and other military equipment,” what other force would have decided ahead of time to shred, dismantle, or simply discard $7 billion worth of equipment (about 20% of what it had brought into the country)?  The general in charge proudly calls this “the largest retrograde mission in history.” To put that in context: What other military would be capable of carrying a total consumer society right down to PXs, massage parlors, boardwalks, Internet cafes, and food courts to war?  Let’s give credit where it’s due: we’re not just talking retrograde here, we’re talking exceptionally retrograde!

4. What other military could, in a bare few years in Iraq, have built a staggering 505 bases, ranging from combat outposts to ones the size of small American towns with their own electricity generators, water purifiers, fire departments, fast-food restaurants, and even miniature golf courses at a cost of unknown billions of dollars and then, only a few years later, abandoned all of them, dismantling some, turning others over to the Iraqi military or into ghost towns, and leaving yet others to be looted and stripped?  And what other military, in the same time period thousands of miles away in Afghanistan, could have built more than 450 bases, sometimes even hauling in the building materials, and now be dismantling them in the same fashion?  If those aren’t exceptional feats, what are?

5. In a world where it’s hard to get anyone to agree on anything, the covert campaign of drone strikes that George W. Bush launched and Barack Obama escalated in Pakistan’s tribal areas stands out.  Those hundreds of strikes not only caused significant numbers of civilian casualties (including children), while helping to destabilize a sometime ally, but almost miraculously created public opinion unanimity.  Opinion polls there indicate that a Ripley’s-Believe-It-or-Not-style 97% of Pakistanis consider such strikes “a bad thing.”  Is there another country on the planet capable of mobilizing such loathing?  Stand proud, America!

6. And what other power could have secretly and illegally kidnapped at least 136 suspected terrorists — some, in fact, innocent of any such acts or associations — off the streets of global cities as well as from the backlands of the planet?  What other nation could have mustered a coalition-of-the-willing of 54 countries to lend a hand in its “rendition” operations?  We’re talking about more than a quarter of the nations on Planet Earth!  And that isn’t all.  Oh, no, that isn’t all.  Can you imagine another country capable of setting up a genuinely global network of “black sites” and borrowed prisons (with local torturers on hand), places to stash and abuse those kidnappees (and other prisoners) in locations ranging from Poland to Thailand, Romania to Afghanistan, Egypt and Uzbekistan to U.S. Navy ships on the high seas, not to speak of that jewel in the crown of offshore prisons, Guantanamo?  Such illegality on such a global scale simply can’t be matched!  And don’t even get me started on torture.  (It’s fine for us to take pride in our exceptionalist tradition, but you don’t want to pour it on, do you?)

7. Or how about the way the State Department, to the tune of $750 million, constructed in Baghdad the largest, most expensive embassy compound on the planet — a 104-acre, Vatican-sized citadel with 27 blast-resistant buildings, an indoor pool, basketball courts, and a fire station, which was to operate as a command-and-control center for our ongoing garrisoning of the country and the region?  Now, the garrisons are gone, and the embassy, its staff cut, is a global white elephant.  But what an exceptional elephant!  Think of it as a modern American pyramid, a tomb in which lie buried the dreams of establishing a Pax Americana in the Greater Middle East.  Honestly, what other country could hope to match that sort of memorial thousands of miles from home?

8. Or what about this?  Between 2002 and 2011, the U.S. poured at least $51 billion into building up a vast Afghan military.  Another $11 billion was dedicated to the task in 2012, with almost $6 billion more planned for 2013.  Washington has also sent in a legion of trainers tasked with turning that force into an American-style fighting outfit.  At the time Washington began building it up, the Afghan army was reportedly a heavily illiterate, drug-taking, corrupt, and ineffective force that lost one-third to one-half of its personnel to casualties, non-reenlistment, and desertion in any year.  In 2012, the latest date for which we have figures, the Afghan security forces were still a heavily illiterate, drug-taking, corrupt, and inefficient outfit that was losing about one-third of its personnel annually (a figure that may even be on the rise).  The U.S. and its NATO allies are committed to spending $4.1 billion annually on the same project after the withdrawal of their combat forces in 2014.  Tell me that isn’t exceptional!

No one, of course, loves a braggart; so, easy as it might be to multiply these eight examples by others, the winner of the American exceptionalism sweepstakes is already obvious.  In other words, this is a moment for exceptional modesty, which means that only one caveat needs to be added to the above record.

I’m talking about actual property rights to “American exceptionalism.”  It’s a phrase often credited to a friendly nineteenth century foreigner, the French traveler Alexis de Tocqueville.  As it happens, however, the man who seems to have first used the full phrase was Russian dictator Joseph Stalin.  In 1929, when the U.S. was showing few signs of a proletarian uprising or fulfilling Karl Marx’s predictions and American Communists were claiming that the country had unique characteristics that left it unready for revolution, Stalin began denouncing “the heresy of American exceptionalism.”  Outside the U.S. Communist Party, the phrase only gained popular traction here in the Reagan years.  Now, it has become as American as sea salt potato chips.  If, for instance, the phrase had never before been used in a presidential debate, in 2012 the candidates couldn’t stop wielding it.

Still, history does give Vladimir Putin a claim to use of the phrase, however stomach-turning that may be for various members of Congress.  But maybe, in its own way, its origins only attest to… well, American exceptionalism.  Somehow, through pureness of motive and the shining radiance of the way we exercise power, Washington’s politicians have taken words wielded negatively by one of the great monsters of history and made them the signature phrase of American greatness.  How exceptional!

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture (recently published in a Kindle edition), runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook or Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.

Copyright 2013 Tom Engelhardt

Calabrese and Harwood, Privacy Down the Drain

6:41 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

DEA Vehicle

The NSA isn’t the only agency destroying our privacy.

In the U.S. these days, privacy is so been-there-done-that. Just this week, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a secret outfit that hears only the government side of any argument and has generally been a rubberstamp for surveillance requests, declassified an opinion backing the full-scale collection and retention of the phone records (“metadata”) of American citizens. That staggering act was, the judge claimed, in no way in violation of the Fourth Amendment or of American privacy. She also gave us a little peek at corporate courage in our brave new surveillance world, writing that “no holder of records [i.e., telecommunications company] who has received an order to produce bulk telephony metadata has challenged the legality of such an order.”

That story, like so many others in recent months, arrived thanks to the revelations of Edward Snowden about the ever-widening powers of the National Security Agency (NSA), led by a general who, we now know, lives in a world of intergalactic fantasies of power and control out of Star Trek: The Next Generation and once even worked in an Army intelligence war room created by a Hollywood set designer in the style of that show. As Christopher Calabrese and Matthew Harwood indicate today, however, gigantic as the NSA’s intrusions on privacy might be, they are only part of an uncomfortably large story in which many U.S. agencies and outfits feel free to take possession of our lives in ever more technologically advanced and intrusive ways.

Just this week, in fact, the American Civil Liberties Union (for which both Calabrese and Harwood work) released an important new report on the post-9/11 morphing of the FBI into a “secret domestic intelligence agency.” In addition to the subterranean surveillance of protesters and religious groups, the Washington Post offered this summary list of the ways in which, according to that report, the Bureau has expanded in the twenty-first century: “The changes highlighted in the report include the FBI’s racial and ethnic mapping program, which allows the FBI to collect demographic information to map American communities by race and ethnicity; the use of secret National Security Letters, which asked for account information from telecommunications companies, financial institutions, and credit agencies and required no judicial approval; warrantless wiretapping; and the recent revelations about the government’s use of Section 215 of the Patriot Act to track all U.S. telephone calls.”

All of this and, as you’ll see in today’s piece, so much more has been done in the name of American “safety,” the mantra with which Washington has funded and built its new version of a global surveillance stateTom

Destroying the Right to Be Left Alone
The NSA Isn’t the Only Government Agency Exploiting Technology to Make Privacy Obsolete
By Christopher Calabrese and Matthew Harwood

For at least the last six years, government agents have been exploiting an AT&T database filled with the records of billions of American phone calls from as far back as 1987. The rationale behind this dragnet intrusion, codenamed Hemisphere, is to find suspicious links between people with “burner” phones (prepaid mobile phones easy to buy, use, and quickly dispose of), which are popular with drug dealers. The secret information gleaned from this relationship with the telecommunications giant has been used to convict Americans of various crimes, all without the defendants or the courts having any idea how the feds stumbled upon them in the first place. The program is so secret, so powerful, and so alarming that agents “are instructed to never refer to Hemisphere in any official document,” according to a recently released government PowerPoint slide.

You’re probably assuming that we’re talking about another blanket National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance program focused on the communications of innocent Americans, as revealed by the whistleblower Edward Snowden. We could be, but we’re not. We’re talking about a program of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), a domestic law enforcement agency. Read the rest of this entry →

Tomgram: Kramer and Pemberton, Downsizing the Military Mission, Upsizing the Peacetime One

6:37 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Would you rather have butter or guns

Would you rather have butter or guns

In the preface to his 1974 classic, The Permanent War Economy, Seymour Melman decried America’s choice of guns over butter.  He wrote:

“Traditional economic competence of every sort is being eroded by the state capitalist directorate that elevates inefficiency to a national purpose, that disables the market system, that destroys the value of the currency, and that diminishes the decision power of all institutions other than its own. Industrial productivity, the foundation of every nation’s economic growth, is being eroded by the relentlessly predatory effects of military economy.”

The time couldn’t have looked riper for beating swords into plowshares. After more than 10 years, U.S. combat in Vietnam had ended and President Nixon had recently begun normalizing relations with China, that Communist behemoth.  And yet, in 1986, more than a decade later, Melman surveyed the governmental landscape and saw the same forces at play in the same ways.  By then, however, deindustrialization had obliterated whole American industries — especially in what came to be called the Rust Belt — that had once produced durable goods and offered well-paying jobs that had once been the pride of the planet.  “Instead of enjoying guns and butter, we are suffering a national blight of street begging, homelessness, and hunger, unseen since the Great Depression,” he wrote then.

In the years since, the primary Communist behemoth on the planet, the Soviet Union, went belly up and its satellite states in Eastern Europe and Central Asia spun out of its orbit.  Still, even with no real enemies on the horizon, talk of a “peace dividend” in Washington came and went in the blink of an eye.  A smoldering war with Iraq, combat in the former Yugoslavia, an abortive intervention in Somalia, and attacks in Sudan and Afghanistan followed.  Not long after, the permanent war economy, still thriving, found itself profitably joined to the idea of permanent war, aka the Global War on Terror.  A decade of disaster followed, in which successful invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan devolved into ruinous, wheel-spinning occupations, and interventions in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, and elsewhere produced at best dubious, at worst disastrous, results.  Meanwhile, the military-industrial complex and the national security state continued to engorge themselves on taxpayer dollars.

In 2004, Melman died without ever seeing his dream of converting any significant part of the American war economy into a peace economy get the slightest traction.  Today, however, Washington has recently quit one major war and is winding down another.  For the first time in memory, a bipartisan coalition in Congress has also pushed back against a presidential rush to war.  In addition, and to the amazement of Washington watchers of every stripe, a bipartisan agreement in Congress will, albeit modestly, ratchet down runaway Pentagon spending.  Were Melman still alive, he would no doubt be writing with increased vigor about converting the military economy to a civilian one.  In his stead, TomDispatch regular Mattea Kramer of the National Priorities Project and Miriam Pemberton of the Institute for Policy Studies pick up the banner and suggest how America’s overabundance of swords might, in the foreseeable future, be beaten into wind turbines. -Nick Turse

Beating Swords Into Solar Panels
Re-Purposing America’s War Machine
By Mattea Kramer and Miriam Pemberton

A trillion dollars.  It’s a lot of money.  In a year it could send 127 million college students to school, provide health insurance for 206 million people, or pay the salaries of seven million schoolteachers and seven million police officers.  A trillion dollars could do a lot of good.  It could transform or save a lot of lives.  Now, imagine doubling the money; no, tripling it.  How about quadrupling it, maybe quintupling it, or even sextupling it?  Unfortunately, you really will have to imagine that, because the money to do it isn’t there.  It was (or will be) spent on Washington’s disastrous post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

War, the military-industrial complex, and the national security state that go with it cost in every sense an arm and a leg.  And that, in the twenty-first century, has been where so many American tax dollars have gone.

That’s because the cost of war always turns out to be more than estimated.  Who could forget the $60 billion high-end figure the Bush administration offered in early 2003 as its estimate for its coming invasion of Iraq? A decade later, we’ve spent $814 billion in Iraq to date with the full price tag yet to come in. Recently, when the Obama administration was planning to launch Tomahawk missiles against Syria, just about nobody even bothered to talk about what it would have cost. (Before Washington even considered such a strike, the Tomahawk program was already costing U.S. taxpayers $36,000 per hour all year long.)

This reality has slowly sunk into American consciousness, which may be why the public in opinion polls has proven so clearly opposed to jumping into another overseas conflict when tax dollars are desperately needed at home.

And those Tomahawk missiles are just icing on the cake of what this country spends on its military and the national security state that goes with it, estimated at nearly a trillion dollars a year. A fire hose of taxpayer cash — to the tune of around $600 billion — gets pumped into the Department of Defense each year (and that doesn’t include the “civilian” intelligence community or the Department of Homeland Security).

The spending on that war machine is so profligate, in fact, that the Pentagon has never successfully completed an audit; its officials can’t even tell you where all that money goes. The U.S. accounts for a staggering 40% of all military expenditures globally. And some members of Congress — their bread buttered by military contractors — are ready to use the next war, whether in Syria or elsewhere, as a pretext to sustain or even expand our current wartime military budget.

Early Experiments in Civilianizing the Military Economy
Read the rest of this entry →