And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there:
Oh, say! does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
Francis Scott Key
It’s several mornings after the 4th of July holiday, which marks the founding of our nation, the United States of America. Last Thursday, our national security state celebrated its two-hundred-and-thirty-seventh birthday. In the past three decades, we have become the world’s sole super power, somewhat hollow on the inside in a steady state of decline, but mighty on the outside, boosting a military power that spends a gargantuan amount of our national resources on military costs.
What we spend on maintaining US military forces around and over the globe, while providing the troops, sailors and airpersons with leading-edge weaponry, is equal to 45% of the world’s total amount of combined military expenditures. To put it another way, we spend more on US military might than the combined military expenditures of the next 14 nations, which includes China and Russia, our foremost adversaries for global influence over the past 50 or so years. Geez, does anyone else think we engage in just a wee-bit of overkill?
4th of July is my least favorite holiday. It is most tedious for me to be reminded so viscerally of what I experienced for real 45 years ago in the jungles of Vietnam, especially during the devastating Tet Offensive in early 1968. As a veteran with a PTSD disability from that military adventure in Vietnam, which includes a heightened startle response to the sounds of “bombs bursting in air,” it is a great relief when I wake up to silence on July 5th. That is, if I’ve been able to sleep at all through the long, dark night. Though it wasn’t from battle, I did have a terrifying dream that early morning of dying, drowning inside a car that ran off the road and was submerged in water. I awoke heart pounding with a cry that startled my wife, Jill.
It has always puzzled me that we as a people are so compelled to recreate on the 4th of July holiday what we Americans have best been doing all over the globe increasingly since World War II — blowing the shit out of stuff to smithereens. This, of course, includes people, some enemy combatants for sure, but mostly non-combatant civilians, men, women, children and infants. Oh yes, also included are their pets and farm animals.
You’d think by now I’d gotten used to and accepted the numbing power of propaganda spun off by our National Security State. The “Big Six” media conglomerates in the US effectively control and shape the message of what their owners, prominent members of the 1% want “we the people” not only to know, but also how to feel about it.
In the last 30 years, the ownership of mass media companies has been consolidated and reduced from some 50 companies in 1983 to six today. Even these six mega-media companies are interlinked with the same board of director members and co-ownership of each other’s stock. In truth, it’s not the “Big Six”, but the Big Five because National Amusements, privately owned by Sumner Redstone and his daughter, Shelia, have controlling interests in both CBS and Viacom.
To my mind, perhaps the most pernicious aspect of how we are controlled to think and feel only about what our privileged oligarchy wants us to think and feel about is how they numb our minds and sensibilities to the devastating reality of war. Military flyovers and the ritualistic spreading of huge flags by active duty members of the armed forces over sports playing fields have become ubiquitous. Slickly produced commercials portraying happily adjusted lives of veterans from every era are prominently displayed during the Super Bowl and national sports championships. As well, even college and high school sports events are filled with syrupy patriotic symbolism and blatant glorification of America’s military might.
Last week I received from my best buddy in high school a video clip from ESPN, owned by Disney, that struck to the marrow of my saddened heart. It demonstrates just how effectively propaganda wielded by TPTB (the powers that be) numbs us to the reality of war. This ESPN video most slickly portrays every trope and illusion of what life in America is ideally supposed to be all the time. It portrays happy family encounters via the wonders of modern technology, children gleefully playing, ecstatic reunions, shopping malls, victorious sports competitions, smiling faces, screams of joy, tears of gratitude, etc., etc., etc. ad infinitum, all underscored by most moving and rousing music, even if it is mostly country.
According to the January 2011 White House initiative, Strengthening Our Military Families, it is reported that, “Less than 1 percent of Americans serve in uniform today, but they bear 100 percent of the burden of defending our Nation.” They and their families are, of course, directly impacted by our endless wars in the Middle East. Most likely they fully support our martial adventures and the expenditure of government funds for such military actions. However, the vast majority of the rest of us must be convinced through the propaganda of corporate mainstream media outlets just how grand and noble the current fight is. Thus, we have travesties such as the ESPN video, which though truthful as far as it goes, only relates a tiny part of the total picture.
What it doesn’t deal with is as instructive as what it most successfully does deal with. Indeed, I was mightily moved by it’s effective tugging of every emotional response while portraying the grandeur and glory of the myth of American Exceptionalism. My eyes, too, were flooded with tears of mounting emotional response at the sentiments depicted. On a flight of macabre fancy, I envisioned somewhere in the Kosmos the stardust remains of Goebbels, furiously spinning around themselves, bright green with envy.
Yet, I was also profoundly disturbed, both saddened and enraged, for two reasons:
First, the homecomings depicted were so vastly different from the one I experienced on April 4, 1968, when I returned home from the war of my generation in Vietnam. I landed alone in Washington, DC’s National Airport several hours after Martin Luther King had been assassinated. I watched in numbed amazement from the window of the landing 707 much of DC burning beneath me like the devastation I thought I had left in Vietnam 12,000 miles behind me a couple of days previously. I wore civvies because just before I boarded an Army bus to SeaTac International Airport to get a flight to the east coast, an Army Captain at McCord Air Force Base had warned me that soldiers in uniform were being harassed by the “f–king hippie commies” of our college-aged generation.
The major reason I was disturbed, however, is that in the ESPN video there is only the slightest hint in one drive-by scene, as a soldier returning from Afghanistan passes a veterans cemetery, of the true costs of the endless wars we wage. No mention of suicides averaging 22 veterans every day. No mention of domestic abuse by returning soldiers. No mention of high rates of unemployment among returning soldiers. No mention of increased rates of alcohol and drug addiction. No images depicting burnt bodies, lost limbs, struggles with prosthetic devices. No mention of the mental and emotional suffering due to awful memories of combat. No mention of the rising economic costs for providing care and compensation to thousands of veterans, many who have served multiple tours in combat environments that renders them most susceptible to readjustment difficulties.
Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies is effectively cataloguing these mounting “Costs of War”. First released in 2011, this ongoing research not only deals with the costs we Americans are currently paying, it projects as well the billions we shall continue to pay indefinitely. A recent report detailed that the US is still paying disability compensation to two surviving relatives of Civil War soldiers, as well as to survivors and relatives from all other wars since, to include our current wars. In addition, the Costs of War report catalogues the costs, both human and economic, for the millions of inhabitants of the countries we have invaded since 2001.
Perhaps the most disturbing section of the Brown University study is entitled “Erosion of civil liberties.” It discusses the draconian impact of illegal detention, torture, and racial profiling, along with the increasing surveillance of American citizens and massive data collection about every aspect of our lives. Privacy? What privacy? Most of us activists for peace with justice have been aware of such surveillance and data collection for decades, but the general public is again made aware of the massive degree of government snooping on the part of NSA and the FBI along with other units of the national security state. This has been highlighted once more by the recent revelations of alleged whistleblower Edward Snowden.
It makes me deeply question if we Americans any longer truly live in “the land of the free, the home of the brave.” It also makes me really grateful that at age 70 I am in the autumn of my life, because I find it increasingly difficult to be at peace within the country I fought for in Vietnam. I am, therefore, exceedingly grateful for some small comfort I derive from the Serenity Prayer that I have practiced for over forty years of recovery in 12-Step programs:
God/Goddess grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change
To change the things I can
And the wisdom to know the difference.