Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.

Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Tag:

Living Through Hard Times — And The New Era Ahead

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.

My dad was born in 1917. Somehow, he survived the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1919, but an outbreak of whooping cough in 1923 claimed his baby sister, Clementina. One of my dad’s first memories was seeing his sister’s tiny white casket. Another sister was permanently marked by scarlet fever. In 1923, my dad was hit by a car and spent two weeks in a hospital with a fractured skull as well as a lacerated thumb. His immigrant parents had no medical insurance, but the driver of the car gave his father $50 toward the medical bills. The only lasting effect was the scar my father carried for the rest of his life on his right thumb.

The year 1929 brought the Great Depression and lean times. My father’s father had left the family, so my dad, then 12, had to pitch in. He got a newspaper route, which he kept for four years, quitting high school after tenth grade so he could earn money for the family. In 1935, like millions of other young men of that era, he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a creation of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal that offered work on environmental projects of many kinds. He battled forest fires in Oregon for two years before returning to his family and factory work. In 1942, he was drafted into the Army, going back to a factory job when World War II ended. Times grew a little less lean in 1951 when he became a firefighter, after which he felt he could afford to buy a house and start a family.

I’m offering all this personal history as the context for a prediction of my dad’s that, for obvious reasons, came to my mind again recently. When I was a teenager, he liked to tell me: “I had it tough in the beginning and easy in the end. You, Willy, have had it easy in the beginning, but will likely have it tough in the end.” His prophecy stayed with me, perhaps because even then, somewhere deep down, I already suspected that my dad was right.

The COVID-19 pandemic is now grabbing the headlines, all of them, and a global recession, if not a depression, seems like a near-certainty. The stock market has been tanking and people’s lives are being disrupted in fundamental and scary ways. My dad knew the experience of losing a loved one to disease, of working hard to make ends meet during times of great scarcity, of sacrificing for the good of one’s family. Compared to him, it’s true that, so far, I’ve had an easier life as an officer in the Air Force and then a college teacher and historian. But at age 57, am I finally ready for the hard times to come? Are any of us?

And keep in mind that this is just the beginning. Climate change (recall Australia’s recent and massive wildfires) promises yet more upheavals, more chaos, more diseases. America’s wanton militarism and lying politicians promise more wars. What’s to be done to avert or at least attenuate the tough times to come, assuming my dad’s prediction is indeed now coming true? What can we do?

It’s Time To Reimagine America

Here’s the one thing about major disruptions to normalcy: they can create opportunities for dramatic change. (Disaster capitalists know this, too, unfortunately.) President Franklin Roosevelt recognized this in the 1930s and orchestrated his New Deal to revive the economy and put Americans like my dad back to work.

In 2001, the administration of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney capitalized on the shock-and-awe disruption of the 9/11 attacks to inflict on the world their vision of a Pax Americana, effectively a militarized imperium justified (falsely) as enabling greater freedom for all. The inherent contradiction in such a dreamscape was so absurd as to make future calamity inevitable. Recall what an aide to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld scribbled down, only hours after the attack on the Pentagon and the collapse of the Twin Towers, as his boss’s instructions (especially when it came to looking for evidence of Iraqi involvement): “Go massive — sweep it all up, things related and not.” And indeed they would do just that, with an emphasis on the “not,” including, of course, the calamitous invasion of Iraq in 2003.

To progressive-minded people thinking about this moment of crisis, what kind of opportunities might open to us when (or rather if) Donald Trump is gone from the White House? Perhaps this coronaviral moment is the perfect time to consider what it would mean for us to go truly big, but without the usual hubris or those disastrous invasions of foreign countries. To respond to COVID-19, climate change, and the staggering wealth inequities in this country that, when combined, will cause unbelievable levels of needless suffering, what’s needed is a drastic reordering of our national priorities.

Remember, the Fed’s first move was to inject $1.5 trillion into the stock market. (That would have been enough to forgive all current student debt.) The Trump administration has also promised to help airlines, hotels, and above all oil companies and the fracking industry, a perfect storm when it comes to trying to sustain and enrich those upholding a kleptocratic and amoral status quo.

This should be a time for a genuinely new approach, one fit for a world of rising disruption and disaster, one that would define a new, more democratic, less bellicose America. To that end, here are seven suggestions, focusing — since I’m a retired military officer — mainly on the U.S. military, a subject that continues to preoccupy me, especially since, at present, that military and the rest of the national security state swallow up roughly 60% of federal discretionary spending:

1. If ever there was a time to reduce our massive and wasteful military spending, this is it. There was never, for example, any sense in investing up to $1.7 trillion over the next 30 years to “modernize” America’s nuclear arsenal. (Why are new weapons needed to exterminate humanity when the “old” ones still work just fine?) Hundreds of stealth fighters and bombers — it’s estimated that Lockheed Martin’s disappointing F-35 jet fighter alone will cost $1.5 trillion over its life span — do nothing to secure us from pandemics, the devastating effects of climate change, or other all-too-pressing threats. Such weaponry only emboldens a militaristic and chauvinistic foreign policy that will facilitate yet more wars and blowback problems of every sort. And speaking of wars, isn’t it finally time to end U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan? More than $6 trillion has already been wasted on those wars and, in this time of global peril, even more is being wasted on this country’s forever conflicts across the Greater Middle East and Africa. (Roughly $4 billion a month continues to be spent on Afghanistan alone, despite all the talk about “peace” there.)

2. Along with ending profligate weapons programs and quagmire wars, isn’t it time for the U.S. to begin dramatically reducing its military “footprint” on this planet? Roughly 800 U.S. military bases circle the globe in a historically unprecedented fashion at a yearly cost somewhere north of $100 billion. Cutting such numbers in half over the next decade would be a more than achievable goal. Permanently cutting provocative “war games” in South Korea, Europe, and elsewhere would be no less sensible. Are North Korea and Russia truly deterred by such dramatic displays of destructive military might?

3. Come to think of it, why does the U.S. need the immediate military capacity to fight two major foreign wars simultaneously, as the Pentagon continues to insist we do and plan for, in the name of “defending” our country? Here’s a radical proposal: if you add 70,000 Special Operations forces to 186,000 Marine Corps personnel, the U.S. already possesses a potent quick-strike force of roughly 250,000 troops. Now, add in the Army’s 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions and the 10th Mountain Division. What you have is more than enough military power to provide for America’s actual national security. All other Army divisions could be reduced to cadres, expandable only if our borders are directly threatened by war. Similarly, restructure the Air Force and Navy to de-emphasize the present “global strike” vision of those services, while getting rid of Donald Trump’s newest service, the Space Force, and the absurdist idea of taking war into low earth orbit. Doesn’t America already have enough war here on this small planet of ours?

4. Bring back the draft, just not for military purposes. Make it part of a national service program for improving America. It’s time for a new Civilian Conservation Corps focused on fostering a Green New Deal. It’s time for a new Works Progress Administration to rebuild America’s infrastructure and reinvigorate our culture, as that organization did in the Great Depression years. It’s time to engage young people in service to this country. Tackling COVID-19 or future pandemics would be far easier if there were quickly trained medical aides who could help free doctors and nurses to focus on the more difficult cases. Tackling climate change will likely require more young men and women fighting forest fires on the west coast, as my dad did while in the CCC — and in a climate-changing world there will be no shortage of other necessary projects to save our planet. Isn’t it time America’s youth answered a call to service? Better yet, isn’t it time we offered them the opportunity to truly put America, rather than themselves, first?

5. And speaking of “America First,” that eternal Trumpian catch-phrase, isn’t it time for all Americans to recognize that global pandemics and climate change make a mockery of walls and go-it-alone nationalism, not to speak of politics that divide, distract, and keep so many down? President Dwight D. Eisenhower once said that only Americans can truly hurt America, but there’s a corollary to that: only Americans can truly save America — by uniting, focusing on our common problems, and uplifting one another. To do so, it’s vitally necessary to put an end to fear-mongering (and warmongering). As President Roosevelt famously said in his first inaugural address in the depths of the Great Depression, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Fear inhibits our ability to think clearly, to cooperate fully, to change things radically as a community.

6. To cite Yoda, the Jedi master, we must unlearn what we have learned. For example, America’s real heroes shouldn’t be “warriors” who kill or sports stars who throw footballs and dunk basketballs. We’re witnessing our true heroes in action right now: our doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel, together with our first responders, and those workers who stay in grocery stores, pharmacies, and the like and continue to serve us all despite the danger of contracting the coronavirus from customers. They are all selflessly resisting a threat too many of us either didn’t foresee or refused to treat seriously, most notably, of course, President Donald Trump: a pandemic that transcends borders and boundaries. But can Americans transcend the increasingly harsh and divisive borders and boundaries of our own minds? Can we come to work selflessly to save and improve the lives of others? Can we become, in a sense, lovers of humanity?

7. Finally, we must extend our loveto encompass nature, our planet. For if we keep treating our lands, our waters, and our skies like a set of trash cans and garbage bins, our children and their children will inherit far harder times than the present moment, hard as it may be.

What these seven suggestions really amount to is rejecting a militarized mindset of aggression and a corporate mindset of exploitation for one that sees humanity and this planet more holistically. Isn’t it time to regain that vision of the earth we shared collectively during the Apollo moon missions: a fragile blue sanctuary floating in the velvety darkness of space, an irreplaceable home to be cared for and respected since there’s no other place for us to go? Otherwise, I fear that my father’s prediction will come true not just for me, but for generations to come and in ways that even he couldn’t have imagined.

A retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and professor of history, William Astore is a TomDispatch regular. His personal blog is Bracing Views.

Copyright 2020 William J. Astore

What Makes Coronavirus So Different From Earlier Crises?

The coronavirus pandemic is hardly the first national crisis that Americans have faced in this century. But it’s different from the previous ones, and we are not ready for it.

What sets it apart from the 9/11 attacks, the wars in Afghanistan and the Great Recession is that it will require us to make unwanted sacrifices. Absorbing that stark necessity has taken time and sapped our willingness to act.

After the 9/11 attacks, the message Americans got was not to hunker down in fear. “The American people have got to go about their business,” said President George W. Bush. “We cannot let the terrorists achieve the objective of frightening our nation to the point where we don’t conduct business, where people don’t shop.”

He urged “the traveling public” not to be deterred: “Fly and enjoy America’s great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.”

His recommendations made perfect sense. The danger of any particular American dying at the hands of terrorists was close to zero, and it would only have cheered Osama bin Laden if people were terrified of boarding planes or gathering in crowds. Going on with our usual routines was the right thing to do.

It was also easy. The same was true of what was demanded of ordinary citizens after the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Ad Feedback

These weren’t World War II. We didn’t have to endure rationing of gasoline, meat and other goods; we didn’t have to worry about ourselves or our kids being drafted; we weren’t exhorted to buy war bonds. Our patriotic duty was to fly the flag, support the troops, sing “God Bless America” at ballgames and not much else.

The only real sacrifices came from the small share of families with members serving in the armed forces. The line heard then was: “Marines are at war. Americans are at the mall.” And why not? Depriving ourselves of shopping, movies and dinners out would have been no help in defeating our enemies.

We also had the money to spend, because these were the rare wars that didn’t require us to pay higher taxes. In fact, Bush got a tax cut enacted while they were going on.

Spending money was also good citizenship during the Great Recession. When businesses are going under and workers are losing their jobs, the last thing economists would prescribe is a frenzy of frugality – which would make the downturn longer and more severe.

Ad Feedback

Those Americans who were unemployed or underemployed had to scrimp and do without, but everyone else was morally justified in doing just the opposite. The less people changed their habits, the better for the economy.

The coronavirus doesn’t fit the old templates, which explains the reluctance of government officials and citizens to do what has to be done. Its arrival in the United States was only a matter of time, but weeks went by without serious action. The impulse was to wait and hope the disease wouldn’t amount to much — an impulse that served to magnify the epidemic.

Only in recent days have political and business leaders faced up to the need to stop people from going about their normal lives. St. Patrick’s Day parades, Broadway shows and sports events have had to be canceled or postponed. Otherwise, people would jam together in obstinate disregard of the risks to their own health and the public’s. Employers have just begun allowing, or ordering, employees to work from home.

The epidemic has sent the stock market tumbling, and it may cause a recession. But this time, shopping, traveling and eating out are not the solution.

Millions of Americans have grown up without ever being asked to deprive themselves of much of anything for the greater good. One reason is that back in the 1970s, a couple of presidents requested sacrifices, only to find that they had made a burnt offering of their political futures.

In his 1974 “Whip Inflation Now” campaign, Gerald Ford asked Americans to join carpools, cut down on food waste and lower the heat in their homes. In 1979, faced with an energy crisis, Jimmy Carter urged those steps and more. Neither appeal went over well. Voters evicted them at their first opportunity.

But this time, we can’t afford to go on as before. We’ve often been told that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. This time, the lack of fear is scarier.

Steve Chapman blogs at http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chapman. Follow him on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at https://www.facebook.com/stevechapman13. To find out more about Steve Chapman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.


On D-Day, Military Service Was More ‘Inclusive’

.

Beneath the perfectly manicured lawns and under the pines and elm trees at the Normandy cemetery lie 9,388 Americans who died during D-Day or in the liberation of France that followed. Among them is a most unlikely combatant, a 56-year-old Army officer who was a wounded veteran of World War I also suffering from a heart condition and arthritis. With his cane, he was the only general in the first wave under heavy Nazi fire on the beach that day. His name was Theodore Roosevelt Jr., the son of the Republican president. One month later, he would die of a heart attack.

In my home state of Massachusetts, both U.S. senators were Republicans. Henry Cabot Lodge became the first senator since the Civil War to resign to go into military service, as a tank commander fighting in North Africa. Sen. Leverett Saltonstall’s son Peter left Harvard to become a Marine sergeant and was killed in the battle of Guam.

This was a time when the children of privilege and power served and sacrificed: 18-year-old Stephen Hopkins — whose father lived in the White House, where he was the president’s closest adviser — joined the Marine Corps and was killed in the Pacific. Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., the son of President Franklin Roosevelt’s ambassador to England, died flying a dangerous mission in Europe. FDR had four sons: Elliott became an Army Air Corps pilot and flew 130 combat missions; Jimmy joined the Marines and, in combat against the Japanese, earned both the Navy Cross and a Silver Star. Navy Lt. John Roosevelt earned a Bronze Star while Lt. Commander Franklin Roosevelt, Jr. won the Silver Star for bravery under heavy enemy fire. One sickly young man used his father’s influence to pull strings so that the Navy would permit him go into combat and captain a PT boat in the Pacific. Sixteen years later, he would be President John F. Kennedy.

Americans once did believe that “war demands equality of sacrifice.” We had accepted our first income tax to pay for the Civil War and enacted a permanent income tax on the eve of World War I. After Pearl Harbor, Americans accepted the rationing of sugar, butter, meat, alcohol, gasoline, cigarettes. Civilians in their neighborhoods planted 20 million “victory gardens” which collectively provided 40 percent of the nation’s vegetables. One out of 4 American men wore his country’s military uniform. In the 1950s, 3 out of 4 male high school graduates and 3 out of 4 male college graduates served in the military.

That had, sadly, changed by Vietnam. Prominent sons of influence so often used their family’s contacts to avoid military service. The all-volunteer military, ending the draft, all but guaranteed that America’s upper classes would be spared the burden of defending their country. As eminent historian David Kennedy pointed out, among American males ages 18 to 24, some 36 percent had some college, while in the same age group in the military’s enlisted ranks, fewer than three percent had ever been in college.

Without the real prospect that their sons might go to war, American families lost immediate personal interest in U.S. foreign engagements. Americans have now been fighting in Afghanistan for 18 years, which is longer than the Civil War, World War I, World War II and the Korean War combined. But instead of tax increases to pay for our wars, we have lobbied for and welcomed three different tax cuts at a cost to the nation of $5 trillion in accumulating debt.

That’s tragically what you get when the “we” generation is replaced by a succession of “me” generations

To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.

IMAGE: Acrylic screen print of John F. Kennedy in PT-109, the Navy patrol craft he helmed in World War II.

‘Dunkirk’ Is A Morality Story For Shared Blessings Of Peace

Reprinted with permission from Creators.

The movie Dunkirk recounts an astounding story of courage and self-sacrifice, without which Hitler might have won World War II. One can draw a straight line from Britain’s heroic solidarity in the war to the welfare state that emerged in peacetime.

Set in 1940, the movie features two sets of heroes. One is the military forces. We see British soldiers waiting in orderly lines for rescue from a French beach as German forces shoot, shell and bomb them. And we see British airmen taking tremendous losses in fierce aerial fights over the English Channel, all to protect their countrymen on the beaches.

It was of these Royal Air Force pilots that Winston Churchill said, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

The other heroes are civilians who, at Churchill’s urging, sailed their fishing boats, pleasure craft and ferries to rescue compatriots stranded in Dunkirk’s shallow waters. Churchill had expected that only 35,000 of his 400,000 soldiers would get back home. The small-boat armada evacuated 330,000.

What does this have to do with the welfare state? Three years later, when the Allies appeared headed for victory, Churchill broadcast his plan for postwar Britain. It called for, among other things, establishing a National Health Service to medically insure everyone “from cradle to grave.”

Though a Conservative, Churchill understood that the shared suffering demanded a new social compact. The rewards of peacetime also had to be shared.

The actor Mark Rylance portrays a civilian steering his boat into grave danger with steely resolve. To prepare for the part, he studied firsthand accounts of the battle.

“The tone of society was different at that time,” Rylance said in a CBS interview. “There was a selflessness and a belief in communal effort and togetherness.” British society today is much more centered on the individual, he added.

America has always been that way. But this country did create the GI Bill in 1944 for returning servicemen. It established veterans hospitals, provided low-interest mortgages, paid for college or trade schools and dispensed billions in unemployment compensation.

In 1945, President Harry Truman proposed a “universal” national health insurance program. Democrats backed the idea. Republicans killed it.

The American idea of “every man for himself” surfaced in attacks on Obamacare’s requirement that insurance plans cover a variety of conditions. Rep. John Shimkus voiced that view with radical clarity when the Illinois Republican complained that the law’s mandated benefits have forced men to purchase prenatal care.

(Suppose insurers could offer women cheaper policies that don’t cover prostate cancer. Imagine what men with the cancer would have to pay for their coverage.)

In the spring of 1945, the war in Europe had just ended, and Britain’s exhausted voters delivered a political shock. They replaced their great warrior Churchill with Clement Attlee, a Labour Party leader who called for a more comprehensive welfare state.

For all the complaints about the National Health Service, the NHS remains a third rail in British politics. When Conservative Margaret Thatcher campaigned in 1983, she said the NHS would be “safe with us.” She wanted some privatizing done but would never have uttered the words “repeal and replace.”

This country is different. But do note that once a modicum of health care security was extended to all Americans, there was no going back.

Without an acceptable replacement on the table, “repeal and replace” was obviously just “repeal.” No amount of legislative gimmickry could hide that fact. Many Americans might recoil at the term “welfare state,” but when it comes to health care, they clearly want at least some of it.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com. To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.

Header image: Wikimedia Commons.