Full Text: Professor Kirstein Speech before The Progressive Forum, December 19, 2007

Speech at the Progressive Forum: Matteson, Illinois Dec. 19, 2007

“Towards a New Past: The Meaning of the Iraq War”*

Former assistant secretary of the navy, Theodore Roosevelt, confided to a colleague in 1897, “In strict confidence…I should welcome almost any war, for I think this country needs one.” “War is the health of the state” was the sarcastic assessment of essayist and progressive intellectual Randolph Bourne during World War I, as war frequently benefits only the ruling classes who cynically promote patriotic fervour in order to silence dissent during war.  [Quotations from Howard Zinn, The Twentieth Century.] Elite-university presidents during World War I such as Columbia University’s Nicholas Murray Butler, simply abolished academic freedom during the Great War by using his commencement address in 1917 as a “warning to any among us…who are not with whole heart and mind and strength committed to fight with us to make the whole world safe for democracy.” Ironically, this autocratic censor shared the Nobel Peace Price in 1931 with Illinois native, Jane Addams of Hull House fame.

For the United States, the development of military power and its emergence as the world’s most dominant nation has created a sense of destiny, a hubris of American exceptionalism, a belief that might makes right and confers upon it the legitimacy to assert moral and political leadership over the planet’s disparate peoples.

Most Americans are proud of their country’s hyperpower status and are convinced that their freedom and putative democracy are sustained and nourished by constant muscular vigilance, endless wars and an unrestrained worshipping of its military culture. Indeed, patriotism and love of country are to a large extent predicated on the fantasy that the American military is the sine qua non for our prosperity, protection and stability as a nation. Military academies, think tanks, specialised military universities, war-memorial monuments as prolific as McDonalds’s, veterans groups, Air Force Ones, marine presidential helicopters, colour guards, summertime glorification-of-war “air shows,” bellicose “bombs bursting in air” national anthems, p.o.w. flags, national holidays such as Memorial Day, Veterans Day, Independence Day and so-called Armed Forces Day and the universality of the American flag are constant reminders of martial attributes that prefer war and the use of force over diplomacy and non-violent conflict resolution. Washington, D.C. is virtually a military theme park that reflects the core values of the nation with scant attention to honouring those who advocate international peace and justice.

The military-industrial-complex was courageously described by President Dwight David Eisenhower in his farewell address of January 17, 1961 as a vital threat to American strategic interests. In particular the military component that even has its own privileged airspace and consumes more petroleum than any other organisation on Earth, is alienated from civil society with its separate laws, language and uniforms. Its primary interaction with society is its vainglorious effort to justify and exaggerate its importance to American national security. It is hardened by its vicious “don’t ask, don’t tell” homophobia that persecutes patriotic and courageous homosexuals, and is sustained by trillions of dollars of unlimited resources that must be reduced in the name of democracy, immense poverty and the survival of the species.

Note this robbing of the people’s treasury does not provide adequate salaries for enlisted personnel, appropriate medical treatment for injured solders and even protection from poverty as the homeless veteran population increases dramatically. There has been a huge surge in the numbers of homeless veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars alone with 400 living on the streets or in homeless shelters. About 26% of the nation’s homeless are veterans even though veterans constitute only 11% of the adult population.  (NYT: Erik Eckholm, November 8, 2007). And they say those who oppose American militarism and imperialism don’t support the troops. When a country prefers war over peace and publicly proclaims its policy to be militarily dominant, don’t expect compassion for the weak and vulnerable- -especially for military personnel once their fighting days have ended.

There are other sacrifices Americans endure for sustaining this bloated military establishment that is virtually a state within a state: these include the increasing demand for conformity and the rigid equating of patriotism with supporting American foreign policy even when destructive of America’s vital interests. Regardless of one’s assessment of the impact of the United States on world politics and civilisation, there must be lively dialogue, the tolerance of critical thinking and the presence of a radical politics that demands the demilitarisation of America in order to redeem it and spare untold millions from a terrorist nation that is contemptuous of diplomacy, multilateralism and international comity as barriers to its global imperial ambitions.

As Harvard Law Professor Laurence Tribe has written: “Free speech is an empty freedom if not possessed by a free mind.” Free minds that challenge the glorification of United States military power and the use of force as a legitimate expression of national policy are also casualties of the “War on Terrorism” with its notable lack of an exit strategy and even a desire for rapprochement with Islamic liberation forces. While wars may be waged for a variety of reasons, greater attention should be devoted to their threat to civil liberties and First Amendment rights of free speech and petitioning one’s government for a redress of grievances. A call to arms against the latest designer enemy abroad is also fought on the home front against those very freedoms we are told war is supposed to preserve. As seen during World War I, McCarthyism and the Iraq War/”War on Terrorism,” organised state violence unleashes collateral damage on democracy in America.

One of the few remaining institutions that retain even a modicum of independence from the warrior kingdom of America is higher education. A few of us dare challenge the acceptable centre. America is smothered by a vital centre, which historians such as the late Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. adulated in The Vital Center as essential for stability and freedom: “The center is vital; the center must hold.” In military affairs, the center debates strategy and tactics, not ethics and morality. How many troops should have invaded Iraq? What is the best way to achieve regime change in Iran? How do we sustain the capacity to fight multiple wars simultaneously? What are the proper tactics in waging counterinsurgency? How do we insure the viability of our strategic nuclear forces? These questions are tactical and do not challenge the ethical mayhem that war and militarism cause.

The center, with its Democratic and Republican wings, argues whether Iraq is a central front or a diversion from the bumper sticker “war against terrorism?” As true debate and radical alternatives are increasingly suppressed in the United States, academia is under considerable coercion and pressure to toe the line, to reject a dialectics of liberation that denounces U.S. crimes against peace, crimes against humanity and the projection of illegitimate military power against weaker and non-threatening states with wanton destruction of cities and non-combatants. A pall of silence obscures the reality, for example, of America’s use of weapons of mass destruction in the very Iraq War it claims it waged for counterproliferation against W.M.D.

Conformist thinking vilifies any reasoned opposition to the United States unwavering support of Israeli apartheid with its Jewish-only settlements spreading throughout the occupied West Bank. Few protest the unseemly and dishonest assertion that Iran has a nuclear weapon’s programme but nary a complaint about Israel’s possession of both atomic and thermonuclear weapons. A Jewish bomb is acceptable; a Middle East Muslim bomb is not. I state nuclear weapons must be eliminated from the world’s arsenals and in the short term, certainly a nuclear weapons free zone from Tel Aviv to Tehran should be pursued with robust diplomacy.

The end of the Cold War changed nothing. There was no peace dividend, for the demise of the Soviet Union on December 25, 1991 was sold as the result of its financial incapacity to compete for military supremacy. There was no end of history as predicted by the erstwhile neoconservative Francis Fukuyama. Instead there emerged according to Noam Chomsky in Government in the Future, “[A] technique of domestic control, a technique for developing the climate of paranoia and psychosis in which the taxpayer will be willing to provide an enormous, endless subsidy…” to the warfare, corporate state.

The price of being the world’s primary sponsor of state terrorism and the principal threat to international peace and security is very costly to the American people. It is difficult to have guns and butter when the guns become so costly to maintain. According to the Associated Press (New York Times, August 12, 2007), the U.S. is now ranked forty-second in the world in life expectancy (77.9). African-Americans have a life expectancy five years shorter than whites. (73.2 v. 78.3). A record number of Americans, some 10%, are starving to death or malnourished and require Food Stamps for their survival. Some 23,600,000 received Food Stamps in August 2007 which is a record number since their inception during President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society of the 1960s. In 1970 only about 2 in 100 Americans received them. In 1980 the number had reached 9 out of every 100. Now it is 10%. Half of the Department of Agriculture budget is devoted to food assistance programmes (New York Times, December 9, 2007). It is perhaps the biggest welfare agency in the world which may come as a surprise to some.

Yet the nation’s finite resources are increasingly being squandered in its paranoid pursuit of total security. When a nation seeks empire and global dominance, it ironically feels less secure as its hyperpower status compulsively requires total control over the world’s political, economic and raw material resources. An empire can never feel secure as the slightest threat to its domination anywhere leads to criminal war everywhere such as Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Nicaragua, Bosnia, the Persian Gulf War of 1990, the baby-killing Iraq sanctions from 1991-2003 and the subsequent Nazi-style invasion of Iraq that commenced on March 19, 2003.

Indeed, Americans bear a heavy burden in supporting the world’s latest empire as did the Persians, the Romans, the Chinese during the Tang Dynasty, the Mongols, the Dutch and the British in earlier hyperpower empires: Military spending, not including the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, is about $500,000,000,000 a year. The State Department budget is a mere $36 billion, and while State is basically a propaganda arm of the Pentagon, it is at least nominally inclined to prefer diplomacy over surges, cluster bombs and white phosphorous attacks in Falluja. President Bush has already received some $600 billion in supplemental appropriation for the Iraq quagmire according to New York Times op-ed columnist Bob Herbert. He estimates the costs of the Iraq and Afghan wars will soon exceed $3.5 trillion.

Why do Americans accept this perverseness and how can we go about establishing a democratic society based upon human rights and respect for international law?

Americans are convinced there are endless enemies, which have been so dehumanized by propaganda, that diplomacy and compromise are increasingly construed as useless alternatives to war. A nation constantly at war with others, as only the U.S. is, eventually convinces its populace that only war can protect our freedoms; only war can preserve our sham democracy; only war can protect our God-given status, as President Reagan would claim, as the City on a Hill-as originally invoked by Puritan leader John Winthrop.

Americans are convinced that patriotism is a positive attribute and that it must be defined in terms of accepting and supporting American military action regardless of its destructive nature and possible violation of every tenet of Just War Doctrine. Soldiers become iconic idols and while they pay the heaviest price among Americans for the death and injury that wars cause, they become the purpose of war, the celebration of war and the casus belli. Resisting war desecrates their mission, courage and tarnishes their bigger than life status as guardians of the gate. Soldiers are better dead than alive for national-security elites who benefit from the propaganda that dying in war justifies the war and that heroic sacrifice is emphasised to suppress the question as to why should there be any sacrifice to spread the religious exclusivity of Zionism, to justify preemptive aggression of malevolent neo-Conservatism, to covet other nations’ petroleum reserves, and to impose an American-style democracy that excludes forty-seven million uninsured “free” citizens from its health-care industry.

The culture of competition and greed that emanates from American capitalism, with its ethos of profit, rugged individualism, excessive liberty and unbridled market competition has fueled imperial ambitions since the racist Manifest Destiny of the 1840s. The United States sees the world not as an entity to be preserved, but a commodity to be exploited for its own ends. Al Gore, while referencing climate change in his December 10, 2007 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, asserted the need for the U.S. and China to “stop using the other’s behavior as an excuse for stalemate and instead develop an agenda for mutual survival in a shared global environment.” The U.S. does not construe its role on Earth as a custodian of its resources or as a progressive force for civilisation, but as basically a hefty challenge for domination by war planners and national-security managers. The world according to our elites must serve American interests whether it is oil, raw materials or cheap labour. Its pursuit of absolute national sovereignty blinds America from its custodial obligation to be a progressive force among the community of nations.

Competition as the primary engine of American economic culture is also its dominant ethic in approaching global affairs. No nation in the world today is as irresponsible and destructive of world aspirations and needs as the U.S. From Kyoto, to ABM termination, to the use of WMD in every war, to its parallel to Bali cynical climate change talks in Hawai’i next month, to its evil invention of nuclear weapons, the result is the same: A rogue nation incapable of self-examination due to hysterical nationalism and an obsession with the notion of power and dominance. How sad that we have become like this. How tragic that America has acquired such dominance that no other countervailing power(s) has been able to stymie with effective containment.

Yet there are some good signs. Desertions within the military have been escalating. I remember the slogan: “What if they gave a war and nobody came.” According to the Associated Press in an article written by Lolita C. Baldor, the imperialist wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are beginning to take an increasing toll on the willingness of soldiers to participate in this aggression. In the army that takes the brunt of the casualties, 9 out of every 1000 soldiers in fiscal year 2007 which ended on September 30 took to the highway. Some 4700 soldiers deserted as compared to 3300 desertions in fiscal year 2006: an increase of 42%. The military construes desertion as a period of at least one month without reporting to duty. Hopefully this will contribute to a decision on the part of the Bush-Clinton clique that their religious wars must end, and aggressive imperialism is not only a disgrace to the nation but also a disincentive for vulnerable working-class Americans to enlist in an army of imperialism and venal occupation.

Our national security does not require alliances, an over-bloated military establishment, a perpetuation of the hubris of American exceptionalism and American leadership of the “civilised world.” Defence of the nation does not require a Department of Homeland Security, Gestapo-type terrorist organisations such as the C.I.A., National Security Agency (N.S.A.) spying on Americans and the warrantless outlaw disregard of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (F.I.S.A. 1978). Our vital strategic interests are not enhanced by 9,938 strategic nuclear warheads of which 5,163 are actively deployed and 4,775 are “inactive” spares (data from Federation of American Scientists). The deployment of an incipient Star Wars ballistic-missile defence system in Poland and the Czech Republic, and ten nuclear powered and nuclear weaponised Ohio class S.S.B.Ns. (ballistic-missile submarines) with their obscene MIRVed Trident C-4 and D-5 Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles do not increase national security.

Another hopeful development is the global perception that the United States is considered a pariah state with a foreign policy that is one of the least respected in the world today. Increasing numbers of Americans are becoming aware that it is not enough to improve cosmetically our disinformation and propaganda activities as President Bush attempted with his appointment of long-time political crony, Karen P. Hughes as Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. Thankfully she is leaving that post and hopefully it will not be filled again with another disinformation crony. Whether the end of American prestige in the world, a remarkable phenomenon, will lead to a change in policy is an open question and one to be approached with skepticism.

However, since I am a professor and I suppose I should engage in some traditional approaches to public speaking, I will conclude these remarks with specific recommendations on how the United States can pursue a more rational and ethical foreign policy. Collectively my suggestions might lead to a more responsible projection of American soft power and enhance its status as a constructive national entity.

  1. Remove all combat troops from Iraq within six months.
  2. Attempt to establish a U.N. peacekeeping force in unstable areas of Iraq with Muslim peacekeepers.
  3. Convene a donor’s conference to forgive any Iraq foreign debt, to assist in the reconstruction of the country that the U.S. failed to do with particular attention to the everyday needs of the Iraqi people.
  4. The U.S. should cease any more military assistance to Israel until it unilaterally dismantles all settlements on occupied territory and dismantles the illegal separation barrier which is a scar in and along the West Bank. It was declared illegal by the International Court of Justice in 2004 and the U.S. must insist it be located only within the State of Israel.
  5. Seek a nuclear weapon’s free zone in the Middle East.
  6. Create a two-state solution in Palestine with Jerusalem a divided city and Israel’s return to its 1967 borders. Islamic state recognition of Israel as developed in the Saudi Plan should follow these developments with a reasonable solution to the Palestine refugee diaspora.
  7. Engage in direct high-level diplomacy with Iran and Syria, as urged by the Iraq Study Group, with the objective of ending efforts at regime change, having full I.A.E.A. inspections of Iran’s nuclear sites, repatriating all Iranian subjects under U.S. control in Iraq, ending all sanctions against that country and recognising legitimate Iranian and Syrian interests in Iraq. Of course the Golan Heights, which was ruthlessly annexed in 1981, must be returned to Syria.
  8. Close the Guantánamo Bay concentration camp and release all prisoners and repatriate them to their native lands as long as they would not be harmed.
  9.  End the blockade of Cuba and return the Guantánamo Bay naval station to Cuba.
  10. Increase dramatically our foreign assistance programmes, double the size of the Peace Corps, increase developmental programmes in Asia and Africa, pay all of our U.N. dues and become a more responsible “world citizen” within that body.
  11. Require the national leadership that prosecuted the immoral and illegal Iraq War to undergo criminal indictments and prosecution at a special Iraq War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. These would include President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, former Pentagon adviser Richard Perle, former Undersecretary of Defence for Policy Douglas Feith, former Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. The Senate should also censure and even expel all Republican and especially Democratic Senators that voted to authorize the use of force in October 2002. They have shamed the nation and do not deserve to occupy a position of trust in the Congress.
  12. The U.S. should apologise for the use of atomic weapons against civilian populations in Japan at the end of World War II in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the genocidal war in Vietnam in which approximately two million Vietnamese were exterminated by American military power.
  13. At some point, the military empire that undermines our nation’s security needs to be dismantled and downsized in a manner that would not lead to unilateral disarmament beyond legitimate self-defence, but would clearly reduce the capacity of this country to wage war.

Speaking truth to power, the United States of America is such a dangerous, irresponsible and destructive force, that for the sake of international peace and security, America must become a less powerful and a more rational-state actor. The Fate of the Earth hangs in the balance.

*Towards a New Past: Dissenting Essays in American History” was the title of a 1960s pioneer work of revisionism, edited by Barton J. Bernstein. I incorporated a portion of the title for my address.

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