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'Big government' and other lies we live by: How one Orwellian concoction consumed America

"If people lived without accepting lies/ they would ripen like apples, and be scented like pippins/ in their old age," wrote D.H. Lawrence in his poem "Beautiful Old Age." Unfortunately, living with accepted lies is just an everyday part of being American.

This article first appeared in Salon.

Patently misleading words and phrases that could have come straight out of Orwell's "1984" have long polluted our political language, yet continue to be taken at face value and used routinely. The most consequential has been the replacement of "war" by "defense" in the titles of the War Department and the secretary of war cabinet post in 1949, a change practically simultaneous with the publication of Orwell's novel and one that, in effect, defined all of our subsequent military actions as defensive — hence justified and not open to question. We stretched the idea of defense with regard to our own actions to cover aggression. By changing a single word, we authorized ourselves to transform a perceived or alleged threat into an actual one, justifying any response we chose to make. (Later we extended the same privilege to Israel.)

Nineteen forty-nine was a watershed year, a kind of clincher for the Cold War, its covert actions, its hot war interludes, and its various sequels. Immediately preceded by Harry Truman's upset victory over Thomas Dewey and the rout of Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace, it was the year we lost our monopoly on nuclear weapons to the Soviet Union, the year we "lost" China to the Communists led by Mao Zedong, and the year we formed NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) with Canada, Iceland and nine European countries, The next year came the Korean War and Sen. Joe McCarthy.

"1984," which introduced the term "newspeak," quickly became a propaganda weapon for our side, that of the "free world." So it was understood from the outset that we could never countenance the abuses of language and human decency the novel depicts. We were immune — at the end of ideology, if not yet of history. Appropriating Orwell, we secured ourselves from him.

Compare the knee-jerk howls of derision over "political correctness" in language — such facers of facts we are! such disciples of St. George! away with the "thought police"! no liberal prissiness for us! (ignore that mealy-mouthed "defense" or, better, savor it as a delicious joke, a word with invisible quotation marks) — compare those howls to the virtual silence over the older, more extensive and deadly abuse of language for propaganda by government and the media — language not to be questioned, much less derided, language that is politically mandatory, the empire's clothes.

Noam Chomsky likes to refer to official euphemisms and pejoratives, rather coyly, as "technical terms." ("Fatal fictions" would be more like it.) The wonder is that we have accumulated so many of them, that a political culture full of professing Orwellians should be awash in newspeak. But such is the establishment's need to confuse the public to make it more malleable — or, on a more generous view, to pull the wool over its own eyes, the better to deceive and manipulate the public with a good conscience. So it fell to us to devise the perfect cover for the Big Brother of Orwell's novel — a government-orchestrated campaign against "big government." We paid the novel the supreme compliment.

The term "big government," a choice example of newspeak American-style, involves putting forward a false distinction to conceal the true one. The campaign against "big government" does not reflect a disagreement over the proper size and reach of government, as the issue is always framed, but a more basic one over whose interest government exists to serve, those at the top or the population as a whole. As an epithet, "big government" serves as a big stick with which politicians, in service to a corporate/military state, beat up on the derisively named "nanny state," which is alleged to squander taxpayer dollars on the undeserving, breed dependency, stifle initiative, constrain business and individual liberty, and generally emasculate. (Somehow, the doom of dependency does not hang over those who inherit wealth. Opponents of the estate tax never heard of it.)

In other words, the campaign against "big government" is a means for government to marshal public support for shedding its responsibility to the public (enlarged so recklessly during the last century!) so as to devote itself even more to its biggest and most important clients. As if we shared a common interest, the leaders of this campaign invite us to join forces against them, the freeloaders using government to pick our pockets.

This, then, is the real meaning of the "small" or "limited" government ideal, though such a government is small only in the sense of the constituency to be served, which in turn requires that it be highly intrusive, coercive and manipulative as well, in order to keep everyone else in line.

For the interests of the few to prevail, they must have government behind them, and a government powerful and resourceful enough to neutralize dissent. At the same time, the few and their government and media allies agitate against "big government": 1) to hide their dependence on it; (2) to undermine government social programs, disparaged as "entitlements," seen both as rivals for government dollars and as potential source of booty; (3) to pose as champions of the people; and (4) to remind government to watch its step. Their fear of big government is real, because government can act against their interests, should it become so inclined, as well as for them. The stakes are real even if the issue, as posed, is not.

Don't leaders in business and finance, arch-foes of "big government," shuttle in and out of top government posts all the time? Don't corporate lawyers sit on the Supreme Court? Who runs the Commerce Department? Treasury? The Federal Reserve? Even, on occasion, the War Department and State? Who advises the president on economic matters? Who sets trade policy? Energy policy? Don't top brass regularly leave government service to enlist with military contractors and other private firms? But perhaps those who move in and out of top federal posts are viewed as uncontaminated by government service, unlike career civil servants, disparaged as "government bureaucrats."

Ah, the power of government, business and the military marching in lockstep! There is "small government" for you! The War Department, the costliest government department by far, the very model of a bloated, wasteful bureaucracy; the National Security Agency; the CIA; the Department of Homeland Security, the newest and third largest department — after War and Veterans Affairs — legacy of a "small government" Republican administration; the DEA, another Republican bequest to "small government" — Republicans have no objection to "alphabet soup" when the government agencies are the right sort; the FBI; the world's largest prison system; the Agribusiness Department (aka the USDA); the U.S.-led World Bank and International Monetary Fund — but then, how can government be small and still keep all those billions in line at home and abroad, those un-Americans and non-Americans and anti-Americans? "Getting government off our backs" — getting and keeping the public off government's back — translates into replacing a monkey with a gorilla.

Beginning with Jimmy Carter's presidency, disparagement of "big government" has become bipartisan. Ditto the attack on, and whittling away of, the welfare and regulatory state.

Bipartisan allegiance to the warfare state is of even longer standing and has only grown stronger over time, becoming almost impregnable. The imperative for Republicans and Democrats to compete over fealty to U.S. power and business interests, taking turns accusing each other of being weak on "defense," of allowing the U.S. to fall behind, of being "soft" in foreign policy, dates from the end of World War II, when our military and economic dominance was, briefly, beyond challenge.

Why do liberals respond to attacks on "big government" by defending it, playing into their opponents' hands, instead of exposing the utter fraudulence of the attacks? Liberals have been committed to the warfare state longer than conservatives, their warrior credentials are better and their commitment to the warfare state remains as solid as their commitment to the welfare state has become shaky. In addition, liberals find it hard to admit that democracy has so many enemies (witting and unwitting), some of them very powerful — an admission tantamount to questioning American exceptionalism and thus risking influence. Better to go along with the pretense that what agitates the anti-democracy crowd, Trump's constituency, is big government. They are good democracy-loving Americans all, if somewhat misguided.

Foes of "big government" want a government that rules in the name of some higher power that bends wayward humans to its will — be it God, America, the market or natural selection. (The first three are almost interchangeable, and all four complement each other.) They want a government that disdains and overrides or controls the will of the people, not one that, however imperfectly, serves it. For them, any government without the sanction of some absolute authority — blessed and interpreted by them — lacks legitimacy. Bottom line: They want a government that keeps inferiors (people lower in the social and racial scale) in their place. If it fails to do so, they are prepared to step in and play vigilante. For them, big corporations offer a better model of social organization than democracy; the military, a better one still.

Authoritarians say, "You can't change human nature" (understood as basically bad or sinful), and therefore you can't do much to improve human societies. Even to attempt it is to defy God or the natural order. Christ was not concerned with anything as illusory or transitory as earthly justice but with saving souls for the afterlife. We are born to suffer and should be grateful to our supposed oppressors. They are really salvation facilitators and the prime movers of civilization and progress. Freedom for the few, servitude for the many — that is the right and inescapable condition (given proper policing) of humankind. The will of the people is just the opiate of the people.

God, America (aka the "country" or the "nation"), the market or natural selection vs. the Will of the People. The first four seem awesomely impersonal but are only giant scarecrows shielding a privileged, supposedly superior few. At the same time, those below this ruling elite may enjoy a measure of privilege themselves owing to nationality, gender, race, ethnicity, class and/or religion, to say nothing of the vicarious pleasure of identifying with wealth and power. Rule by a few, in their own interest, has been the norm in history. It is natural, in that it is easy. The will of the people, by contrast, stands for faith in our ability to resist manipulation and to work together, as equals, across all dividing lines, to improve society. It's a daunting task.

If "government" is an object of distrust, contempt and resistance — for taxing away our hard-earned dollars to support people unwilling to support themselves, for example — "America" is where all the good people live, the "real Americans," people who take care of themselves and ask nothing of others, people who have nothing to hide or fear from Big Daddy. "America," which is not to be confused with the well favored but flawed country invoked in "America the Beautiful," is an object of devotion and sacrifice, a source of identity and pride. It is a bastion of the white race, perfect, incorruptible and blessed by God. Especially in time of war, and that for us now is all the time.

The insistent, contrived opposition between venerated "America" and detested "government" is useful to maintaining the status quo because otherwise a citizen might begin to wonder, as wars and military interventions go on and on, with accompanying infringement of civil liberties, whether constantly being called to rally 'round the flag is any different in effect from the dread "collectivism" and regimentation associated with the term "state," as in "totalitarian state" or "deep state." We might realize that government, corporations — including the media corporations ever ready to beat the drums for war — financial institutions and the military make a truly fearsome foursome. Happily, the opposition between "America" and "government" helps conceal and make palatable the reality of a Big Daddy state.

This opposition plays well because distrust of government and idolatry of country go hand in hand. "America" can do no wrong; "government" can do nothing but wrong (particularly if the Democrats are in charge). "Government" is the flak-catcher for "America." A citizen's doubts and misgivings about the U.S. can be offloaded onto "government," leaving "America" untarnished and fully charged. Hence the slogan "Love My Country/Fear My Government." Distrust "government," which taxes workers to support shirkers, illegal immigrants and high-living seniors depriving later generations of their future. Follow "country," which is not afraid to crack heads and keeps order in the world, blindly.

In addition, the country/government opposition allows a citizen to submit to Big Daddy without forfeiting his sense of pride and independence. He can even make a show of pride and independence by weaponing up — hence the castration anxiety over gun control — though patriotism alone is often sufficiently belligerent to serve both purposes, especially in a condition of permanent war. Under Trump, the armed wing of the supposedly anti-government constituency, puffed up by the leader's flattery, showed its true colors as the bully boys of authoritarian government. But who pointed out the contradiction?

The highest officials of government play the Anti-Big-Government Game, which should be a tip-off that it is a cover for the true intention. "Government is the problem": such sublime duplicity from a president, a former actor, FBI informant and corporate mouthpiece for General Electric bespeaks a huge sense of entitlement, a contempt for the intelligence of ordinary citizens or a brain washed clean. Politicians must have an even greater than normal capacity for self-delusion, as Ronald Reagan apparently did. Donald Trump may have been the most self-deluded yet.

If small or limited government is the aim, why the effort, under George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Trump, to give ever greater power to the president, the chief executive, the commander in chief, the most powerful government official, Mr. Government himself, on the pretext of an everlasting war on terror and other evil forces? Anti-government rhetoric has helped government, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, grow and insulate itself even more from the public it is supposed to serve. No wonder government and the media do everything to perpetuate such misleading rhetoric. The problem is democracy — serving the people — when it is so much easier and more remunerative to serve the few. After all, serving the people inverts the Natural or Divine Order.

The disparaging term "government bureaucrats," also associated with Reagan, doubtless refers to those in government who persist in taking their responsibility to the public seriously. Consider this as a case of self-serving higher-ups laughing up their sleeves at their little joke on the rest of us. Their contempt for conscientious underlings includes us as well. Should those underlings turn whistleblower, however, God help them!

The likes of Juan Guaido and Alexei Navalny are held up as heroes while Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, John Kiriakou and Reality Winner have faced torture, prison or exile, to say nothing of the persecution of Julian Assange by both the U.S. and British governments, with Sweden's assistance. Assange languishes in a London prison after seven years of forced confinement in the Ecuadorian embassy. He is a journalist rather than a civil servant, but we don't much like journalists, either — no more than do Honduras, Saudi Arabia and other so-called allies. And we wonder why the idea of the press as the "enemy of the people" caught on for Trump and his supporters!

The reality of our Big Daddy state is further obscured by another false opposition, that between "government" and "free enterprise," the preferred term for capitalism. "Government" is the enemy of "free enterprise," which is the friend of "freedom" and "democracy," as the name itself suggests. Rhetorical opposition aside, however, government and "free enterprise" are old allies. One way U.S. corporations have traditionally shown their love of liberty, with the full diplomatic and military support of government, is by partnering with repressive regimes abroad, almost always the client regimes of said government. Free enterprise has always counted on government to provide optimum conditions for its expansion both at home and abroad through anti-labor laws and practices, trade agreements, judicial injunctions, police and military interventions and, when necessary, even war.

Free enterprise is hostile to programs or laws that interfere, or might interfere, with maximizing profit, such as taxes, social programs or protections for workers (especially the right to organize), consumers and the environment. It is hostile even to free trade or competitive markets, when those ma hurt the interests of the privileged.

People argue for free enterprise on the grounds of social utility. What other grounds could there be? They say it serves human well-being better than any other system, if government just leaves it alone. That is their mantra. At the same time, advocates rely on government for patronage and protection, and for insurance against collapse. Their goal is to capture government for themselves, which they disguise as "shrinking government" or "cutting it down to size," just as they try to concentrate whatever wealth the system generates in as few hands as possible under the guise of protecting "incentives."

"Free trade" is the obligatory euphemism for trade agreements that promote wage competition between manufacturing workers across national borders and that override or discourage national health and safety regulations and environmental protections, keeping prices low for the finished goods and doing the same for the cost of labor. As Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research never fails to point out, these agreements, as opposed to actual free trade, often cost consumers dearly by extending the reach of patent and copyright protections that are very lucrative for the corporations holding them. Maximum vulnerability ("flexibility") for workers, maximum protection and opportunities for corporations and investors; servitude for the one, freedom for the other: That is the essence of "free trade."

Notice also that using government to increase corporate profits and make managers and shareholders richer does not constitute government intervention in the market, according to the custodians of political speech. Only measures that would interfere with maximizing profit count as government intervention. The magic of "free trade," like that of the "free market," renders the strong hand of government invisible.

Adding to our perpetual mental fog is the stupefying disconnect between the ideals of liberty and equality and the realities of the civilian workplace and the military. Yet, of course, we venerate free enterprise and the military right alongside democracy. An unrelated but current example is the Biden administration's sanctimonious effort to preach against anti-Asian bigotry while seeking to arouse the public against China. The preachment follows a mass shooting by a supposedly religious young man bedeviled by sexual temptation but untroubled by killing.

The "common good," the "commonweal," the "general welfare," the "greatest good of the greatest number," the "public interest" — terms which once had positive connotations — have become terms of derision, synonymous with "socialism," which in America is used to describe any policy or proposal that puts a constraint on the accumulation and political power of capital. In fact, for ordinary people to press their claim to a better life through "entitlements," labor unions and so on is considered petty and selfish. In a warfare state, the national interest comes first — the "national" interest, that is, as opposed to the public interest. If our betters serve themselves first, that is only as it should be: They are the embodiment of national greatness.

When I was growing up, the labor movement was still strong, and the public interest (aka "John Q. Public") was routinely invoked against striking unions in outraged editorials and editorial cartoons. The media were pro-business and anti-union, then as now, but were forced to invoke a public interest they did not really believe in to try to counteract organized labor's strength in numbers. Today, when corporations, big banks and their political allies hold the country hostage, appealing to the public interest is "class warfare" or quaint leftist nostalgia.

The U.S. Postal Service does the public's bidding and is looked down upon, but we look up to law enforcement and the military. They too are part of government, but they give orders. They hold the power of life or death. Our presidents now claim this power — on our behalf, of course — over every person on the planet. The Nazis, with their doctrine of racial and military supremacy, still have admirers and emulators in the U.S., whereas the communists, with their proletarian ideology, have almost none. To rephrase Samuel Johnson's famous question: How is it that a country that flaunts its love of liberty contains so many people who fear or despise it? How is it that Johnson's actual question — "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?" — is still as pertinent as when he posed it more than 240 years ago?

Toxic combination of militarism and market ideology has poisoned America

Many of us who support government social programs still feel ambivalent about them — largely because we buy into, or are cowed by, the ideologies of free enterprise and militarism. The first holds that we alone determine our lot in life through competition and have no obligation toward others beyond taking care of ourselves and our families and obeying the law. The second exalts the soldier, who risks life itself in combat for God and country, who will sacrifice his own life for the sake of comrades (but who will also kill any member of an enemy population, man, woman or child, who might pose a threat).

This article originally appeared at Salon.

Proponents of these seemingly incompatible but actually closely aligned ideologies — self-interest versus self-sacrifice, mercenary versus military — may pose as defenders of traditional Judeo-Christian morality when it suits their purpose, but will also abandon it without fanfare when it does not. In contests of arms or money, the categorical imperative gives way to its opposite: beggar thy neighbor, do unto others or be done by, the law of the jungle, survival of the fittest, the war of each against all, my country right or wrong, etc. This turning of traditional morality on its head is passed over in silence, leaving the morality intact to serve as bluff and intimidation but also as a sop to conscience.

Moral posturing, in other words, provides cover for amoral policies. All the professed concern for our moral peril from "entitlements" such as Social Security and Medicare (earned through wage work) — they make us soft, dependent, rob us of initiative — may sound strange coming from people who have no hesitation about flattering us, out of the other side of their mouths, as paragons of virtue and rightful rulers of the world. But they are not in fact being hypocritical. When they fear for our virtue, it is because they long to lay that huge "entitlement" pot of gold at the feet of their Wall Street patrons. Similarly, when they flatter our virtue, it is calculated to rouse us against the country's designated enemies, keeping the skids greased for national security expenditures that dwarf those of other countries — for the benefit of defense contractors and their servants in Congress.

"Entitlements" are charged with "breeding dependency" or being "demoralizing." Were this really the case, the people who make the charge would be all for them. Nothing suits them better than a passive, fearful and submissive — in other words, demoralized — population. The real trouble with "entitlements" is that they encourage not idleness, but uppityness, as who should know better than the most entitled among us? "Entitlements" are empowerments. And uppityness breeds insubordination, the antithesis of the blind loyalty a warfare state like ours desires. An American should support his or her country unquestioningly — although not, of course, "the government."

Mammoth national security expenditures serve to justify harmful cuts to "entitlements" and other social spending. The old false pieties never die: Social programs demoralize or emasculate; morality equals hardness or toughness, equals readiness for war.

To our moral-guardian impersonators the highest embodiments of virtue, apart perhaps from the rare saint, are the entrepreneur and the soldier — "warriors" both — not the ordinary person wrestling with his or her conscience or better angel. D.H. Lawrence championed the latter ideal of moral heroism as almost the antithesis of the former. In an article on "Hymns in a Man's Life," Lawrence says the "battle-cry of a stout soul" he hears and admires in English Nonconformist hymns is "far, far from any militarism or gun-fighting." Lawrence also characterizes the hymns as expressing "the fight for life and the fun of it," whereas to those who denigrate "entitlements," virtue consists precisely in combat with others, military or economic, and conscience is what makes cowards of us all.

People who start businesses are now referred to, in all seriousness, as "job creators." The term implies that our attitude toward them should be reverential, as if creating jobs were the purpose of having a business instead of a necessary expense and, as such, to be minimized. Venerated as beneficent "job creators," employers are free to revert openly to exploitative labor practices. Shouldn't workers then be called "wealth creators," wealth being founded quite openly and unabashedly on their exploitation?

After all, the promoters of this "job creator" cant are the very people who oppose a higher minimum wage as a job-killer. That appears to include all Republicans and several Democrats in Congress. To them, negative incentives, like avoiding destitution, will do for workers: There is no need for a popular and overdue minimum wage hike. These are the same people who will, when occasion demands, sneer at the idea that corporations have any responsibility other than to their bottom line and their shareholders. Now noblesse oblige, now "Let them eat cake." (Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat, brought a cake for Senate staffers to the session in which she gave a theatrical thumbs-down to a minimum wage increase, inviting comparisons to both Marie Antoinette and Roman emperors.)

However, the idea of "job creators" as by turns beneficent or cruel — today's job creators are tomorrow's outsourcers — fits nicely with the conceit that they represent some Supreme Authority that giveth and that taketh away. Blessed be the "job creators"!

The now-commonplace public flaunting of religious belief is matched by regular pious tributes to the military, although Americans once boasted of not being militaristic. It was the Nazis and Soviets who paraded their military might, and we were supposed to find such displays both crude and menacing. We eschewed regimentation and the worship of force. Now it is our military leaders who flaunt their medals like the buffoonish Cold War cartoon figures of Soviet "People's Heroes." Cars serve as billboards for their owner's connection to veterans and those on active duty, among other in-your-face boasts.

A complement to "job creators" on the military side is the bumper sticker that equates the American soldier with Christ — no longer an average Joe, an ordinary citizen, but a "warrior," a kind of superhero or Christ-like figure. The entrepreneur or CEO as God the Father, the soldier as God the Son: the humble citizen's saviors. Moral posturing on behalf of militarism does not shy away from outright blasphemy.

Another bumper sticker spells out the virtual oneness of Christ and the military and our duty to worship both: "The only forces in the world that have sacrificed their lives for you [you unworthy ordinary person!] are Jesus Christ and the American military." Celebrations of war and unbridled economic competition alike reduce average citizens to worshipers.

A certain ambivalence about democracy seems natural: Who wants to be merely equal? This makes us easy marks for people with an anti-democratic agenda, especially when they dress themselves up as champions of individual liberty. Think of the popularity (though with somewhat different audiences) of Friedrich Nietzsche and Ayn Rand, whose conceptions of individual liberty exclude, as deficient in spirit, the great majority of people. In other words, they flatter their readers extravagantly as fellow members of a natural elite. Ambivalence about democracy may help explain the longstanding receptiveness of intellectuals and academics to reactionary writers and thinkers who associate advances in the general welfare with loss of individuality and cultural decline.

Because both political parties have long found common ground in keeping the country on a war footing, war has become part of politics as usual — and not a catastrophe to be avoided, a last rather than first resort. Democrats and Republicans alike manipulate fears over "national security" to boost their party's electoral fortunes. They take turns accusing each other of being soft on defense and exposing us to mortal danger. The practice is so well established it is taken for granted. To question it marks one as politically naïve. War is domestic politics by other means, to say nothing of its place in the economy.

Consider the fact that one reason the George W. Bush administration was so eager to go to war with Iraq was the prospect of the bonanza that an expected quick victory and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein would offer the Republican Party. Fearful of letting the other party get all the glory, not to mention the money, Democrats in Congress jumped on the bandwagon and gave almost unanimous support to the administration's course.

The considerable public opposition to going to war was not reflected in Congress at all. Such is the genius of the money-driven system we have perfected. That's quite different from the congressional opposition Franklin D. Roosevelt faced in the years before Pearl Harbor, when anti-interventionist sentiment was strong both in the country at large and in Washington. But who can fault the parties for playing politics, the celebrated Art of the Possible, even if the course chosen was criminal and has metastasized into the most destructive conflict since Vietnam? It's just politics after all, no cause for outrage.

As we witnessed later, most of the Democrats who claimed to be outraged by Bush's militarized foreign policy and accompanying attacks on civil liberties and international law — including then-Sen. Barack Obama — were just posturing. When Democrats subsequently applauded, defended or minimized similar policies pursued by a president of their own party, they were being honest. They do not actually find such policies abhorrent. How could they? Democrats have been dancing to Republicans' tune on "defense" since World War II.

In fact, a few brave Democratic senators were trenchant critics of the Vietnam War, into which two Democratic presidents had waded into. They had a constituency, too, among the troops in Vietnam, college students and faculty, feminists, Black militants and the public at large. Opponents of the war succeeded in getting an antiwar senator, George McGovern, nominated for president in 1972, to the chagrin of party regulars, who proceeded to undermine McGovern's campaign and help Richard Nixon to a landslide reelection. (The party establishment's torpedoing of Bernie Sanders, followed a similar script.) That was pretty much the last gasp for antiwar sentiment in Congress, which has reduced itself to a rubber stamp.

The truth is, both parties have been war parties since 1945. Any confusion about this fact only stems from the parties' efforts to outdo each other as alarmists and warmongers. Democrats, on the defensive, fought back for decades against Republican attempts to brand them as soft on communism or whatever evil we were supposed to be fighting. Now Democrats have finally ousted Republicans as the more belligerent party, and the occasional peace noises issue from libertarian Republicans like Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky (whose politics are incoherent in other ways). Never fear, the parties come together to overwhelmingly approve bloated military budgets: Everybody wins! Along the way Democrats also began competing with Republicans over who is more friendly to corporate interests and Wall Street financiers, and Republicans have begun competing with Democrats over who is more pro-Israel.

The U.S. makes war in ways other than the boots-on-the-ground, warplanes-above kind, and those other methods can be just as devastating. Sanctions, which we deploy freely against countries that refuse to take orders from us (often referred to with the term of art "rogue nations"), should be seen as weapons of mass destruction — as they certainly would be if a militarily superior power were to use them against us. They resemble banned chemical and biological weapons in the way their effects spread and wreak havoc throughout a population. They fall short of all-out war only because – and this is the beauty part, from our perspective – only the other side gets hurt.

Let's be fair: The once-accepted claim that the sanctions imposed on Iraq following its 1990 invasion of Kuwait resulted, over the next five years, in the deaths of 567,000 Iraqi children under age five has been undermined. In "Truth and Death in Iraq Under Sanctions," Michael Spagat reports that the household survey figures on which that estimate was based have been discredited and withdrawn. Even the more moderate estimates of a later study covering a longer period, of 400,000 to 500,000 deaths between 1991 and 1998, are "far too high," Spagat writes, in view of post-Saddam UN-sponsored surveys. One of them shows a child mortality rate less than half that of the report for 1991-1998 and less than one-third the rate of the one for 1990-1995.

Spagat emphasizes the Saddam regime's likely influence in exaggerating child mortality in hopes of getting the sanctions lifted or lightened, adding that survey respondents doubtless shared that interest. Accepting these lower estimates, however, does nothing to lessen the heartlessness of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's notorious response to Lesley Stahl of CBS regarding the deaths of Iraqi children under sanctions. Albright did not in fact dispute the figure at the time, saying, "We [apparently, the Clinton administration] think the price was worth it." She and her colleagues had made a "very hard choice," Albright said, and the fact that they presumably had to overcome pangs of conscience about causing enormous harm — and had not given into them like a bunch of softies — made it the moral choice.

So the sanctions on Iraq killed far fewer children than previously thought, perhaps fewer than 200,000. Sanctions are less harmful than the sanctioned would have the world believe. Is that the lesson? Or is the lesson that we can find ways to justify to ourselves killing large numbers of children, just as any other warlike nation finds ways to justify its crimes? We are no shining exception. We dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, killing about 250,000 civilians, partly to spare ourselves casualties — quite likely of lesser magnitude — from a potential invasion. The comparatively low death toll from the 9/11 attacks — about 3,000 — has inspired us to an orgy of revenge with no end in sight.

In addition, a fact too easily overlooked in the argument over numbers is that maintaining the sanctions on Iraq, after we drove Saddam's forces out of Kuwait, was entirely gratuitous. Like the later Iraq war of 2003 and after, it was based on the strenuously maintained fiction that Saddam was somehow concealing weapons of mass destruction. Sanctions remained in place, despite Iraqi compliance, until the U.S. invasion a dozen years later. Our sanctions against Iran and Venezuela have likewise been based on bogus charges.

We reconcile ourselves to using sanctions because we see them as a way of doing good, of liberating others. The end is "regime change," ideally without requiring direct military intervention. Yet 13 years of sanctions failed to do that in Iraq, as 60 years of sanctions have failed in Cuba, and as sanctions are failing in Iran, Syria and Venezuela. Why do we continue them? That sanctions don't achieve their stated goals is immaterial. They are a cheap way of reinforcing our self-image as moral arbiter for the world, our assumed role of world leadership — which too many of us, including "liberals," still find flattering — while preserving our freedom to act even more aggressively.

Finally, arguments over Iraqi casualties, whether from sanctions or war, divert attention from the basic question of justification. Put bluntly, there was no valid justification for either. At least the U.S. use of nuclear weapons occurred in a war that began with a direct attack by a foreign power, which we only entered after being attacked.

We claim we want to spread democracy but our actions tell a different story. We used the 9/11 attacks as a pretext to implement an existing plan to subdue the Middle East countries outside our control — Iraq, Syria, Libya and, the jackpot, Iran — a change Israel, our Middle East deputy, would surely welcome. (Yemen became a target, too, for us and our Saudi allies, after the Iran-linked Houthis seized control.) Despite costly catastrophe after costly catastrophe, that plan still seems to be in effect, judging by the Biden administration's actions so far. You could not ask for a more telling example of the influence of money over our politics.

Drone strikes and targeted assassinations, which are also employed by Israel, offer the same one-sided advantage as sanctions. The fact that we consider technological superiority to be a mark of moral superiority — as did the Nazis, who pioneered missiles and military jets — makes the use of these advanced weapons more palatable. Must it take the re-emergence of a rival superpower with equal capabilities to nullify our bully's arsenal?

Despite how good the chances of instant glory looked in prospect, there has been no victory in Iraq or Afghanistan these many years later. The Bush administration hedged its bets by making both conflicts part of a Global War on Terror, a longterm struggle like the "long twilight struggle" against communism, which ended in "victory" — the self-dissolution of the Soviet Union — despite stalemate in Korea, defeat in Vietnam and millions of deaths at our hands and those of the brutal anti-communist regimes and forces we backed in pursuit of victory.

Rationalizing mass killing by claiming that it serves a greater good is exactly what we accused the communists of doing? The only difference between us and them seems to be that they killed more of their own people whereas we kill more of other peoples. We insist on quantifying the death tolls from Nazism and communism, but decline to tally those for which we bear responsibility. Like former President Trump, we accept no responsibility. To dwell on those deaths would undermine support for military action and military spending, not to mention recruitment. In pursuing victory over Soviet Communism, we also helped nurture what would become our next great enemy, "terrorism."

When President George H.W. Bush said he would never apologize for America, he was just voicing a position that had remained unspoken, making it acceptable to say aloud. Bush decorated the commanding officer of the USS Vincennes for shooting down an Iranian jumbo jet with a full load of passengers during the 1980s Iran-Iraq war — as far from an apology as one can get. The U.S. also supplied Iraq, the aggressor in that war, with chemical weapons. Shouldn't Iran be sanctioning us?

In addition to its political uses, war is a money machine, and the ideal war, given a professional rather than citizen military, is indeed a self-perpetuating one. The model is the war on drugs, which has had a far longer run than Prohibition did. Weren't we supposed to have learned from that moral experiment that you can't make people give up dangerous addictive habits by outlawing them? As with our other wars, this one is not about combating the drug trade and drug addiction — we have failed as badly in that as in our military crusades — but about cashing in on them to funnel money to the right people and lock bothersome ones away. The cost in lives ruined or lost, which are disproportionately foreign, Black or Latino — is "collateral damage."

Despite, or because of, the slaughter we loosed on Vietnam and neighboring countries, we cast ourselves as the victims there. Vietnam is our Holocaust, as the siting of the Vietnam Memorial and the U.S. Memorial Holocaust Museum in the nation's capital testifies. We made a great sacrifice for the Vietnamese and Laotians and Cambodians, as we have for the Iraqis and Afghanis and Pakistanis. And what thanks do we get? What a world!

Our government encourages us to think only of our own suffering — which is never to be forgotten — and not of the suffering we inflict on others, which is never to be remembered. We Americans must never forget 9/11 or the POW/MIAs of Vietnam. If too many of us relaxed our grip on innocence, virtue and victimhood, we might begin to question war. To be ready for the next round, we must keep our collective conscience clean, no matter what. The U.S. has come to excel at creating fear of enemies who are much weaker than we are, all the way down to militarily powerless nations such as Nicaragua, Panama and tiny Grenada. Fear is the conscience-killer supreme.

Americans take credit; we never admit wrongdoing. Taking responsibility for oneself is what we preach to other people and other countries. The Navy's recruiting slogan says it all: "A Global Force for Good." That's only true in a comic book right-wing world, or one in which other countries are as forgiving of our "mistakes" as we ourselves are. In fact, that is the unspoken demand we make of them.

When Gore Vidal told an audience in 1991, the year it happened, that the Soviet Union had dissolved itself "in spite," I doubt that even he, as unsparing a critic of American arrogance as he was, could have imagined how prophetic those words would prove to be. What a mess we have made with our punitive, self-righteous and grasping foreign and domestic policies! We were never as good as we thought ourselves to be, and now our worst impulses have been freed from secrecy and can frolic in the open — as they were in the storming of the Capitol.

What a cruel joke the idea of a "Vietnam syndrome" — supposedly cured by the First Gulf War — seems today Like the "Munich syndrome" of appeasement that preceded the Vietnam war, it was a travesty of morality and a way of discrediting any public resistance to making war. When I hear these "experts" discuss in matter-of-fact, supposedly hardheaded terms the possibility of attacking this country or that, in order to save its defenseless people, I tell myself that either I'm crazy or these people are as deranged as any Trump supporter, and even more dangerous. I'd like to believe that millions of my fellow Americans — a silent majority? — share that thought.

People talk about the curse of oil or the resource curse, but military supremacy can also be a curse. We should have drawn a different lesson from the example of Israel. We have yet to learn the costly lesson that Britain, Spain, France, Germany and Japan — other countries that nursed outsize ambitions — have had to learn, that we are just one nation in a world of nations.

The attempt to impose our idea of order on the world has promoted instability and violence in many places, including here at home. While the U.S. continues to play savior to the world, it preys on the majority of its own population. Our nation continues to serve as an example — and also a teacher, patron and supplier — to militaries, paramilitaries, militias, police, and freelance warriors everywhere. A global force? Yes, unquestionably. But not in the way we like to pretend.

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