“War? What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!”
It was the late Edwin Starr of Motown fame that popularized these song lyrics in his Vietnam War protest song back in 1970.
I may have deleted a few of his guttural orchestrations, but the song was a cultural milestone and the words still resonate today, especially for those of us that lived through the turbulent 1960s. It is amazing how modern-day policymakers have so easily glossed over the lessons learned during those passionate years. Both Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy were appalled by the atrocities of war, having witnessed them firsthand while serving in the military. Neither bought into the constant ravings of the military industrial complex and resisted repeated attempts to empower the perpetual war train.
As I proudly watched democracy in action and the inauguration of President Obama for a second term, the most compelling aspect of his speech for me was his open rebuke of perpetual war. He even went further to add that we should repeat our past behavior of becoming fast friends with our defeated enemies. Do Germany, Italy, Japan, and Vietnam come to mind? Why must we continue to act like Romans of old and prefer to dominate our opponents into unwilling submission, and then have the gall to expect them to respect us, not fight back, and want to emulate our ways of life?
During his inaugural address, Obama effectively used a “We, the People” theme to communicate his progressive agenda for the next four years. The hook was in early for me, as once again, with eloquent words and a tempered delivery, he proclaimed all that is logical and sane about serving the interests of everyone. “We do not believe that in this country, freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few,” Obama told the world today.
These ideas were not wild rants from some socialist playbook, but basic interpretations of the ideals proffered by our forefathers and embodied in our Constitution and Bill of Rights. But the perpetual war part grabbed me harder still:
“We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war. Our brave men and women in uniform, tempered by the flames of battle, are unmatched in skill and courage. Our citizens, seared by the memory of those we have lost, know too well the price that is paid for liberty. The knowledge of their sacrifice will keep us forever vigilant against those who would do us harm. But we are also heirs to those who won the peace and not just the war, who turned sworn enemies into the surest of friends, and we must carry those lessons into this time as well.”
Why is it so difficult for us to learn from our prior mistakes and to follow our good lessons successfully? During one very public session of "Hardball" last October, Chris Matthews was incensed by the notion that neoconservatives were pushing to support going to war with Iran. He had cornered Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, a former aide, with the following question, “Do they want war with Iran? Just period, do they want war with Iran no matter what Iran does henceforth, Colonel? The Neocons?”
Wilkerson admitted that he had “seen these people before, the John Boltons, the Doug Feiths, even the Donald Rumsfelds and the Dick Cheneys. And we've seen them with an inexperienced president and we've seen what they can do, lead the nation to a war that was unnecessary… No diplomacy, No solution, and then have to use the military. I can see it, it's the same sheet of music, the same sheet of music.”
Matthews has not left this topic alone since October. Following Obama’s remarks about ending perpetual war and making friends with our enemies, Matthews, having followed the bellicose discussions on neocon websites for months, chortled that they must be spitting fire after hearing the conciliatory tone of our president’s address. He also believes that neocons will fight Chuck Hagel’s appointment as Secretary of Defense, tooth and nail. As one of his guests, Sam Stein, put it recently, “Chuck Hagel's nomination represents a clean break, and I think that's scary for a lot of neocons.”
The reality is that Obama has continued many of his predecessor’s defense policies and actually expanded on a few of them, most notably, the use of unmanned drone strikes to subdue the opposition. The latter expansion has sparked global controversy and criticism due to ineffective assaults where civilian casualties are abhorrent. Public outcry is mounting, but it may only serve to push this program deeper into the shadows of national security arenas, where transparency does not exist.
But now that his second term is secure, perhaps, a clean break with the past is a real possibility. Obama’s own words outline the future: “We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully – not because we are naïve about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear.”
We Americans are often naïve about how well off we are and how little our daily lives are disrupted by small weapons’ fire, car bombs, and artillery blasts, or worse yet, foreign drones. For anyone that has frequently traveled internationally, you have witnessed what people in other countries, especially the developing ones, must accept as normal in their lives. Developed countries are no exception either. Public bombings are common all over Europe. London streets were once unsafe if the IRA was out to make a statement.
When will we learn that war “ain't nothing but a heartbreaker… friend only to the undertaker”? At least the neocons are still on the outside looking in, but the clock is ticking. Fiery rhetoric that inflames our differences and stirs the pot of racial hatred can only lead to bad outcomes. The fever-pitch level is beginning to rival that of the sixties, and none of us wants a return to that horrific transition period. Unfortunately, life’s lessons must often be experienced to be learned. School is in session. Lean Forward!
References: Embedded links provided, but points made are primarily the opinions of the author.