Friday, July 20, 2018

Military Expenditure: The Hard Numbers CNN recently published an article on its website in relation to Trump’s aggressive stance against NATO allies who have failed to meet the agreed spending target of 2% of GDP. The article includes two charts. The first chart shows spending among the NATO members as a percentage of GDP. This chart is directly related to the text of the article. It also addresses the issue that Trump (as prior Presidents had) raised at the NATO summit. The second chart shows total military expenditure for the top ten countries in the world. This second chart is highly illuminating and yet the article fails to address it at all. Hence there is an unwritten article that begs to be composed and published. The US spending on military readiness dwarfs that of all nations worldwide. As many have stated before (yet surprisingly few have heard), the US spends roughly twice the amount of all the countries in the world combined. How can such levels of defense spending be justified? Why does Congress continue to approve huge budgets for military spending, while bemoaning the general trend in deficit spending? What is the rationale? Before entertaining these questions, however, let’s briefly analyze two other details which raise bright red flags. Let’s reflect on the comparative levels of defense spending by Russia and China. Throughout the Cold War, US politicians vilified the Soviet Union and justified ever increasing defense spending as a bulwark against Soviet expansion. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, military spending in Russia has declined quite dramatically. Today, Russia spends far less than many other nations—less, in fact, than Saudi Arabia, according to CNN’s chart. Yet military leaders and the press continue to paint Russia as a major threat to the free world. Of course, Russia does still maintain a large nuclear arsenal. But given the condition of its economy and its oil dependence, Russia will evidently pose an ever decreasing threat. China, on the other hand, has been dramatically increasing its defense spending. It is the only nation that even remotely looks as though it could conceivably challenge the US in the future. Prior to the NATO summit President Trump chastised Germany for its purchase of natural gas from Russia. He claimed Germany was thus enhancing Russian coffers, while Germany itself spent too little on its own defense. Is there an analogy here to the US trade deficit with China? The trade deficit enriches China, which appears to be the sole nation that might challenge the US. Both the President and the press talk about the trade deficit with China, but only in economic terms. They rarely, if ever, link the trade deficit to military concerns. In reality, as the chart clearly shows, neither China (at less than half of US defense spending) nor Russia in any way challenge US military expenditure. The reality is that at past and current levels of military spending the US has no serious challenge. And yet the US continues to spend at ever increasing levels. Where is the peace dividend? Why shouldn’t it be possible for the US to reduce spending? Why are politicians and the Press leading public opinion in the direction of new Cold War confrontations? What is the justification for spending policies? The standard justifications for military spending are heard again and again. The US needs to ensure a heightened military readiness in order to maintain the status quo in world affairs, to protect its global interests, to defend democracy and open economies against the challenges to the global order and the international community. To that end there are endless warnings of threats from Russia, Iran, North Korea, and others. Yet the reality as anyone can see from the spending chart is that these threats are fallacious. The threat is hugely overblown. A second line of justification following the 9/11 tragedy is the threat of terrorism. This subject is very complex and emotionally charged. But one point is clear. Terrorists don’t have a standing army that can threaten the US or its allies. The attacks on 9/11, in Paris and London, however appalling, cannot successfully undermine Western civilization. Furthermore, the style of military expenditure that the US continues to pursue is of little help in combating the spread of terrorism. The most serious potential threat from terrorism would be the capture of nuclear weapons or nuclear materials by terrorist groups or sympathizers. This scenario is frequently noted by supporters of military and intelligence readiness. It is a major argument in favor of a hard line stance against Iran and North Korea. But, action against those two nations selectively is wholly insufficient to counter a potential terrorist threat. Pakistan has nuclear weapons and it has a long border with a failed state (Afghanistan) as well as its own domestic terror groups. The US and NATO have a large cache of nuclear weapons in Turkey. And Turkey, given the direction of its domestic politics, could be at risk in the future. Hence, the effort to limit and secure nuclear weaponry from terrorist groups is in no way, shape or form comprehensive. Rather efforts are selective and taken solely against so called rogue nations. Apparently neither of the typical justifications for military expenditure holds water. (Or should I say board water?) behind Clearly we need to look deeper, more analytically, to discover the true reasons behind the incomparable levels of US military expenditure? Two come directly to mind. First, by continuing such levels of expenditure, the US is investing in the defense of its position as global hegemon. US citizens generally find this accusation baseless. They prefer to believe that the US is a beneficent power in world affairs. But numbers don’t lie. A well-meaning, beneficent power would not need such grossly incomparable levels of military expenditure. Dramatic reduction in spending (cashing a peace dividend) coupled with negotiations, diplomacy and soft power would certainly prove more effective. The second reason is that irrational levels of expenditure are supported by the military industrial establishment. I find it odd that President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a Republican and a man with a military background, warned against such a danger and yet few heeded his warning. But why does the US electorate fail to focus on the problem? The enormous power of large corporations is evident. The widespread activity of lobbyists is well known. What are lobbyists anyway, if not an institution of legalized corruption? Again, numbers don’t lie. In fact there can be no reasonable justification for the levels of military expenditure that the US sustains. I posit that even global domination could be supported at lower levels of expenditure. But, of course, lower expenditure levels would mean lower corporate profits for the defense industry.
Link to my recent article published at Foreign Policy Journal. There is no justification for the exorbitant defense (offensive) spending by the US government.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Introductory Remarks to ‘The Story of Our People’

The Story of Our People is a poetic drama. It presents a contemporary picture of the universe, one in which Nature is not cruel or threatening, but simply indifferent to human society. Of course life arose within this natural environment. And humans evolved as a species within a crucible of living organisms here on earth. But a detached observation of the human condition may need to accept that we are mere chance happenings within the expanse of the universe, brief chances in Nature’s expanse. Furthermore, The Story portrays the depth of tragic moments within human history. The human story is replete with wars and civil strife and the sufferings of people within this continuing march of tragedy. Religions have been founded offering explanations and consolation. Political theories and ideologies have been proposed as remedies to the ongoing human struggle. But these attempts have too often ended in new and renewed suffering. The only rational guide toward a humane society is to encourage people to embrace social responsibility. These are the themes that The Story embraces in this short drama. The format of the work is that of a cross genre dramatic story. The body of the work is a group of tenuously linked poems. The initial poems describe three characters, the protagonists in the drama, and their personal development. These three characters then join in the demonstrations of their time. And the demonstration turns into an uprising complete with barricades and further civil confrontation. Later two of the characters escape and retire to safety where they enjoy a period of reflection and companionship. The poems are organized into four scenes. These scenes are introduced by narratives within a parallel drama where a grandmother relates The Story to a group of children whom she is leading to safety, once again from civil strife. Hence, the cross genre structure of the drama creates an impression of a myth or historical archetype. But the images within the poems themselves present this human storyline as a stark reality without the slightest benefit of fairy tale escape. No myths swaddle our births… My hope is that the form of The Story may render palatable some of the disagreeable ideas and images that emerge from the drama. The inception of the drama was in fact a single poem, the final poem. I attempted in that poem, titled as The Slaying of a Poet, to capture the scene of Lorca’s murder during the Spanish Civil War. (Hence the dedication.) After composing that poem I began to look backward and to develop the broader story culminating in that final scene. The result is this poetic drama, which hopefully captures the philosophical and political themes I described in the previous paragraphs. But I should also add two further comments. First, the title may raise some confusion. The Story of Our People would seem to suggest that the drama is about a specific cultural group or nation. That is not my intention at all. The drama embraces all of humanity within our shared tragedy. Upon a closer reading however, one could argue that ‘our people’ refers to those chosen few who remain optimistic that a more humane and peaceful society is possible. The second comment I want to make is to correct a mistaken interpretation on the part of some of my readers to date. There are several references to Marxist texts, which the reader of this edition will find in the footnotes and commentary. In fact what I have done is to paraphrase those references and that is the operative word. There is no intent to glorify socialist revolution. But, all of these civil uprisings are undeniably part of our history. They have contributed to the story of human tragedy, yet have also quite frequently raised reasonable demands. And in the grandmother’s words …kept hope alive. So, no I am not a communist offering a new volume of literary subversion. Nor am I a fellow traveller. A more apt description of my lot would be that of a lonely traveller. David Hillstrom

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Snapchat Blues

The Juggernaut 
Churns the waves under its bow
Into the rusted lard in its wake
Rips apart foreign land
Without raison d'etre or regret.

The electorate 
Girded with its love for Jesus
Oblivious to refugees
Trudging through burgeoning wars
Cheers the Embassy in Jerusalem.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

George Carlin is one of my favorite comedians. Always sharp, sarcastic commentary on society. This clip from an interview shows how very insightful he was indeed.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

The Post: Film Review and Reflections on History

The Post is a well crafted film. The actors, Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks turn in excellent performances as does the cast of supporting actors. The story line centers around the decision by the NYT and the Washington Post to publish excerpts from the Pentagon Papers. Meryl, portraying Katherine Graham, manages a dramatic transformation from a reserved housewife over her head in corporate and newsroom politics into a decisive, courageous executive with a responsible, historic perspective on current events.

So, my quick critique of the film is a definite thumbs up. It is indeed well worth seeing. But, my 
reflections following focused much much more on the historical events, the evolution of government policy and the nuances implicit in such reflections. 

The Vietnam War was a painful and contentious period in recent American history. It remains a divisive issue still today. Yet I find myself asking why? Surely the release of the Pentagon Papers and the closure of the war (albeit in defeat) should have lead to an acceptance of some measure of collective guilt. Yet it hasn't. The 'progressives' talk about the war in terms of a mistake. The conservatives still insist that we failed to use our military capability decisively in order to achieve victory. The fact though, as Tom Hanks says in the film, is that a series of governments from the Eisenhower Presidency through Nixon's, were "lying to the American people." 

Personally I have no doubt about the consensus historical perspective which will emerge in the future. Historians will conclude that successive US administrations following WWII, while facing down a perceived communist threat, fell into the trap of continuing the interventionist policies of the English and the French during the colonial era. The French attempted to return to Indochina after the war. The US supported them and provided military assistance. Ho Chi Minh decisively defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu. The negotiated settlement following their defeat resulted in their withdrawal. The settlement temporarily divided Vietnam into northern and southern regions. Elections were to be held to unify the country under one government. The US then stepped in and refused to allow elections, because it was evident that Uncle Ho would win them in a landslide victory. During the following two decades US governments concealed information from the American electorate, while progressively escalating the level of military violence. Terming this history a 'mistake' is tragically euphemistic.

There are additional subtleties that the film brings to light. The successive administrations that pursued these policies were both Republican and Democratic. Furthermore, Katherine Graham  and Ben Bradlee (the owner and the editor of the newspaper) were decidedly partisan in their politics. They had close personal relationships with President Kennedy and Secretary MacNamara. They had to come to terms with those personal conflicts when they took the decision to publish top secret government documents. But I am left with a nagging doubt here. If a Democratic Administration had continued in power rather than President Nixon, would they still have published? The film ends in platitudes about the victory for a free press. But have things really changed? The fabric of influence from corporate interests to cosy, partisan relations between politicians and journalists remains fundamentally intact. During the second Iraq War the press was embedded with the US army. The Washington Post is now owned by Jeff Bezos of Amazon.

And I have another nagging concern. For those of us who embrace a guilty verdict on US policy in Vietnam (still a minority opinion) Daniel Ellsberg was the true hero. He was the most principled player in the historic cast of characters. He was by far the most courageous. Recently some have suggested that Edward Snowden is also such a hero. The sad commentary though is that secret government policies and intrigue are ongoing. Daniel Ellsberg was acquitted of espionage charges. But Edward Snowden is living in exile.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Something there is that doesn't love a wall

Garrett Carr's book, The Rule of the Land, is quite simply beautiful. It is written with style, immediacy and depth. The author has a novel idea: to walk along the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic and to map and describe the detail along his journey. He relates memories from his childhood traveling with his father across the border into the north to buy cheaper goods and then shuttle them back to the south through customs. His father and others risked such trips despite the 'Troubles' and the presence of British troops then at border posts. Now, as Carr undertakes his journey, he reflects on the history of the borderland and its future, challenged by Brexit.

He begins his journey by boat paddling into the Carlingford  Lough in the east and ends when he reaches Lough Foyle above Derry/Londonderry. In between these two seas Carr tells us the stories of Ireland. He relates conversations with borderlanders he meets along the way. He tells us stories of achievement and conflict both recent and ancient. He sketches and photographs landmarks from prehistory and modern industry. And he weaves all of these tales into a poetic odyssey. 

The borderlands have witnessed both tragedy and human ingenuity. And the forensics are there to prove it. All the facts lie buried and preserved in the bogs, which the author crosses during his trek. Seamus Heaney's observation of the bogs' role as a  chronicle of history is the Bard's truth. 

Since the end of the 'Troubles' with the Good Friday Agreement, the borders have opened. Best they should remain that way. As Carr muses at the outset of his journey, (my summary of the author’s words) ’If only the Lighthouse in Lough Calingford could turn like a spool and gather up the border's twisting black line across the island, it would be a benign act indeed.’

Buy, read and savor this book. Borders the world over beware.

David Hillstrom