Memetic Narratives of War and Paranoia

The amount of entertainment media is immense these days, even limiting it to big biz media in the United States: Hollywood, cable, television, Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu. I try to be discerning in what I watch, but I also have a curiosity to sample what is being produced. Viewing entertainment media offers a glimpse into the national psyche. It’s the moral imagination that Edmund Burke could never have imagined, the mental furniture of media-saturated late modernity.

I look for the narratives and tropes that are popular or for whatever reason are being pushed by media companies. As others have noted, the Cold War had re-entered or been re-introduced into the cultural imagination. It began with the 9/11 terrorist attack because our actions during the Cold War era were coming back to haunt us. In the fight against the Soviets, it was the U.S. that trained, armed, and allied with Osama bin Laden and in the process helped create al-Quaida. It was the U.S. that purposely destroyed so many secular democratic governments in order to replace them with theocracies, dictatorships, and fascist states. And it was the U.S. that, as allies with the Iraqis, gave Saddam Hussein chemical weapons (i.e., weapons of mass destruction) that he used against his own people while we watched and did nothing.

The sins of the father fell upon the sons. It was Generation X that fought in Iraq during Desert Storm and once again in the Iraq War. These GenXers and their non-military generational peers were bottle fed on Cold War media and ideology. It was maybe natural that, as this generation began careers in entertainment media, they (along with the older generations) inserted the Cold War mentality back into the mainstream. Once again, we started seeing Russians portrayed as enemies in movies and shows.

Recent political events during and following the 2016 presidential campaign brought back many of the dark fantasies of the Cold War. And the fear about media meddling struck a chord that resonated with the early Cold War. Russia has returned to the world stage as a major political power. And the U.S. corporate media have given the Russian elite all the attention and coverage they were seeking. Putin’s purpose was unlikely to elect any particular candidate and more simply to regain the respect of being treated as a real threat. As nothing else could, the fear-mongering of U.S. media boosts Putin’s ego and his popularity among Russians. They were back in their Cold War role.

I hadn’t given this much thought recently. But it all came back to my attention while watching a relatively new show, TNT’s Legends. It originally aired a few years ago and the rights to show it were purchased by Hulu. I mention it not because it is great entertainment, rather because it is an expression of the cultural moment. It’s likely Hulu wouldn’t have had any interest in it, if not for recent political events and investigations involving Russia. After watching a few episodes, it immediately felt familiar. I realized that, although outwardly about the Iraq War and the War on Terror, the basic story came from my youth. It’s a revamped Vietnam War show. There is the traumatized war experience that the protagonist can’t remember and some kind of secret government operation or experiment that involved combat soldiers. The protagonist has been brainwashed somehow and he is trying to remember who he was and what happened.

Legends has hints of Cold War movies like the Manchurian Candidate, although more heavily leans on the tropes of Vietnam War movies, specifically Rambo and Jacob’s Ladder. The latter movie, Jacob’s Ladder, came a bit later in 1990 when the Cold War mood was declining but still much in the air. All of these movies weren’t limited to the imagination of screenwriters and producers. They express the paranoid mindset that had taken hold back then. Also, the U.S. government really was doing some crazy shit, from brainwashing experiments to drug experiments. Jacob’s Ladder was a fictionalized account of an actual government experiment, although the source material of Rambo was a popular conspiracy theory that had no basis in reality.

Whether inspired by truth or paranoia, such narratives spoke and in new forms continue to speak to the public imagination. What do such narratives mean? And why do they keep coming back? The have become part of a deep-seated American mythos that continually gets introduced to new generations.

The Legends show was based on a novel by Robert Littell (two of his other works were earlier made into a movie and series). He grew up during the World War II period, was in the Navy during the early Cold War, worked as a journalist and foreign correspondent during the Vietnam War, and began his fiction writing in the last years of the Vietnam War with his second novel being about that war. He is one of the authors who helped popularize the American spy novel, one of the main expressions of Cold War paranoia where truth and conspiracy were mingled. Although an old guy at this point, he is still writing and was last published in 2016 (a professional writing career that has lasted a half century).

The novel that was the source of the Legends was written in 2005, at the height of ramping up public opinion for the War on Terror. It was a time of the return of the paranoid mind with the likes of Alex Jones gaining mainstream attention. Interestingly, the developers of the show were three older GenXers: Howard Gordon, Jeffrey Nachmanoff, and Mark Bomback. And all of them were born during the Vietnam War. These producers have been involved in other shows that embody the mindset of paranoia and the war state, such as Gordon having co-developed and written scripts for Showtime’s Homeland while Nachmanoff was a director for that show. Gordon had done earlier work for years as a supervising producer and scriptwriter for The X-Files, the original show that made conspiracy theory fully mainstream.

If these narratives, these collective fantasies didn’t have such staying power, it would be a lot harder for them to be constantly used as propaganda tools. The Bush administration was able to use them to great effect in drumming up support. And that persistent paranoia has taken on new life and new uses during this Trump era. It’s because the public and politicians are constantly being fed this kind of entertainment that we get this world we find ourselves in. They are powerful narratives, capturing the moral imagination through visions of power and greatness, paranoia and terror. We get trapped in the stories we tell. There is no way to rationally respond to them. They are mind viruses that get passed on from generation to generation.

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State and Non-State Violence Compared

There is a certain kind of academic that simultaneously interests me and infuriates me. Jared Diamond, in The World Until Yesterday, is an example of this. He is knowledgeable guy and is able to communicate that knowledge in a coherent way. He makes many worthy observations and can be insightful. But there is also naivete that at times shows up in his writing. I get the sense that occasionally his conclusions preceded the evidence he shares. Also, he’ll point out the problems with the evidence and then, ignoring what he admitted, will treat that evidence as strongly supporting his biased preconceptions.

Despite my enjoyment of Diamond’s book, I was disappointed specifically in his discussion of violence and war (much of the rest of the book, though, is worthy and I recommend it). Among the intellectual elite, it seems fashionable right now to describe modern civilization as peaceful — that is fashionable among the main beneficiaries of modern civilization, not so much fashionable according to those who bear the brunt of the costs.

In Chapter 4, he asks, “Did traditional warfare increase, decrease, or remain unchanged upon European contact?” That is a good question. And as he makes clear, “This is not a straightforward question to decide, because if one believes that contact does affect the intensity of traditional warfare, then one will automatically distrust any account of it by an outside observer as having been influenced by the observer and not representing the pristine condition.” But he never answers the question. He simply assumes that that the evidence proves what he appears to have already believed.

I’m not saying he doesn’t take significant effort to make a case. He goes on to say, “However, the mass of archaeological evidence and oral accounts of war before European contact discussed above makes it far-fetched to maintain that people were traditionally peaceful until those evil Europeans arrived and messed things up.” The archaeological and oral evidence, like the anthropological evidence, is diverse. For example, in northern Europe, there is no evidence of large-scale warfare before the end of the Bronze Age when multiple collapsing civilizations created waves of refugees and marauders.

All the evidence shows us is that some non-state societies have been violent and others non-violent, no different than in comparing state societies. But we must admit, as Diamond does briefly, that contact and the rippling influences of contact across wide regions can lead to greater violence along with other alterations in the patterns of traditional culture and lifestyle. Before contact ever happens, most non-state societies have already been influenced by trade, disease, environmental destruction, invasive species, refugees, etc. That pre-contact indirect influences can last for generations or centuries prior to final contact, especially with non-state societies that were more secluded. And those secluded populations are the most likely to be studied as supposedly representative of uncontacted conditions.

We should be honest in admitting our vast ignorance. The problem is that, if Diamond fully admitted this, he would have little to write about on such topics or it would be a boring book with all of the endless qualifications (I personally like scholarly books filled with qualifications, but most people don’t). He is in the business of popular science and so speculation is the name of the game he is playing. Some of his speculations might not hold up to much scrutiny, not that the average reader will offer much scrutiny.

He continues to claim that, “the evidence of traditional warfare, whether based on direct observation or oral histories or archaeological evidence, is so overwhelming.” And so asks, “why is there still any debate about its importance?” What a silly question. We simply don’t know. He could be right, just as easily as he could be wrong. Speculations are dime a dozen. The same evidence can and regularly is made to conform to and confirm endless hypotheses that are mostly non-falsifiable. We don’t know and probably will never know. It’s like trying to use chimpanzees as a comparison for human nature, even though chimpanzees have for a long time been in a conflict zone with human encroachment, poaching, civil war, habitat loss, and ecosystem destabilization. No one knows what chimpanzees were like pre-contact. But we do know that bonobos that live across a major river in a less violent area express less violent behavior. Maybe there is a connection, not that Diamond is as likely to mention these kinds of details.

I do give him credit, though. He knows he is on shaky ground. In pointing out the problems he previously discussed, he writes that, “One reason is the real difficulties, which we have discussed, in evaluating traditional warfare under pre-contact or early-contact conditions. Warriors quickly discern that visiting anthropologists disapprove of war, and the warriors tend not to take anthropologists along on raids or allow them to photograph battles undisturbed: the filming opportunities available to the Harvard Peabody Expedition among the Dani were unique. Another reason is that the short-term effects of European contact on tribal war can work in either direction and have to be evaluated case by case with an open mind.” In between the lines, Jared Diamond makes clear that he can’t really know much of anything about earlier non-state warfare.

Even as he mentions some archaeological sites showing evidence of mass violence, he doesn’t clarify that these sites are a small percentage of archaeological sites, most of which don’t show mass violence. It’s not as if anyone is arguing mass violence never happened prior to civilization. The Noble Savage myth is not widely supported these days and so there is no point in his propping it up as a straw man to knock down.

From my perspective, it goes back to what comparisons one wishes to make. Non-state societies may or may not be more violent per capita. But that doesn’t change the reality that state societies cause more harm, as a total number. Consider one specific example of state warfare. The United States has been continuously at war since it was founded, which is to say not a year has gone by without war (against both state and non-state societies), and most of that has been wars of aggression. The US military, CIA covert operations, economic sanctions, etc surely has killed at least hundreds of millions of people in my lifetime — probably more people killed than all non-states combined throughout human existence.

Here is the real difference in violence between non-states and states. State violence is more hierarchically controlled and targeted in its destruction. Non-state societies, on the other hand, tend to spread the violence across entire populations. When a tribe goes to war, often the whole tribe is involved. So state societies are different in that usually only the poor and minorities, the oppressed and disadvantaged experience the harm. If you look at the specifically harmed populations in state societies, the mortality rate is probably higher than seen in non-state societies. The essential point is that this violence is concentrated and hidden.

Immensely larger numbers of people are the victims of modern state violence, overt violence and slow violence. But the academics who write about it never have to personally experience or directly observe these conditions of horror, suffering, and despair. Modern civilization is less violent for the liberal class, of which academics are members. That doesn’t say much about the rest of the global population. The permanent underclass lives in constant violence within their communities and from state governments, which leads to a different view on the matter.

To emphasize this bias, one could further note what Jared Diamond ignores or partly reports. In the section where he discusses violence, he briefly mentions the Piraha. He could have pointed out that they are a non-violent non-state society. They have no known history of warfare, capital punishment, abuse, homicide, or suicide — at least none has been observed or discovered through interviews. Does he write about this evidence that contradicts his views? Of course not. Instead, lacking any evidence of violence, he speculates about violence. Here is the passage from Chapter 2 (pp. 93-94):

“Among still another small group, Brazil’s Piraha Indians (Plate 11), social pressure to behave by the society’s norms and to settle disputes is applied by graded ostracism. That begins with excluding someone from food-sharing for a day, then for several days, then making the person live some distance away in the forest, deprived of normal trade and social exchanges. The most severe Piraha sanction is complete ostracism. For instance, a Piraha teen-ager named Tukaaga killed an Apurina Indian named Joaquim living nearby, and thereby exposed the Piraha to the risk of a retaliatory attack. Tukaaga was then forced to live apart from all other Piraha villages, and within a month he died under mysterious circumstances, supposedly of catching a cold, but possibly instead murdered by other Piraha who felt endangered by Tukaaga’s deed.”

Why did he add that unfounded speculation at the end? The only evidence he has is that their methods of social conformity are non-violent. Someone is simply ostracized. But that doesn’t fit his beliefs. So he assumes there must be some hidden violence that has never been discovered after generations of observers having lived among them. Even the earliest account of contact from centuries ago, as far as I know, indicates absolutely no evidence of violence. It makes one wonder how many more examples he ignores, dismisses, or twists to fit his preconceptions.

This reminds me of Julian Jaynes’ theory of bicameral societies. He noted that these Bronze Age societies were non-authoritarian, despite having high levels of social conformity. There is no evidence of these societies having written laws, courts, police forces, formal systems of punishment, and standing armies. Like non-state tribal societies, when they went to war, the whole population sometimes was mobilized. Bicameral societies were smaller, mostly city-states, and so still had elements of tribalism. But the point is that the enculturation process itself was powerful enough to enforce order without violence. That was only within a society, as war still happened between societies, although it was limited and usually only involved neighboring societies. I don’t think there is evidence of continual warfare. Yet when conflict erupted, it could lead to total war.

It’s hard to compare either tribes or ancient city-states to modern nation-states. Their social orders and how they maintained them are far different. And the violence involved is of a vastly disparate scale. Besides, I wouldn’t take the past half century of relative peace in the Western world as being representative of modern civilization. In this new century, we might see billions of deaths from all combined forms of violence. And the centuries earlier were some of the bloodiest and destructive ever recorded. Imperialism and colonialism, along with the legacy systems of neo-imperialism and neo-colonialism, have caused and contributed to the genocide or cultural destruction of probably hundreds of thousands of societies worldwide, in most cases with all evidence of their existence having disappeared. This wholesale massacre has led to a dearth of societies left remaining with which to make comparisons. The survivors living in isolated niches may not be representative of the societal diversity that once existed.

Anyway, the variance of violence and war casualty rates likely is greater in comparing societies of the same kind than in comparing societies of different kinds. As the nearby bonobos are more peaceful than chimpanzees, the Piraha are more peaceful than the Yanomami who live in the same region — as Canada is more peaceful than the US. That might be important to explain and a lot more interesting. But this more incisive analysis wouldn’t fit Western propaganda, specifically the neo-imperial narrative of Pax Americana. From Pax Hispanica to Pax Britannica to Pax Americana, quite possibly billions of combatants have died in wars and billions more of innocents as casualties. That is neither a small percentage nor a small total number, if anyone is genuinely concerned about body counts.

* * *

Rebutting Jared Diamond’s Savage Portrait
by Paul Sillitoe & Mako John Kuwimb, iMediaEthics

Why Does Jared Diamond Make Anthropologists So Mad?
by Barbara J. King, NPR

In a beautifully written piece for The Guardian, Wade Davis says that Diamond’s “shallowness” is what “drives anthropologists to distraction.” For Davis, geographer Diamond doesn’t grasp that “cultures reside in the realm of ideas, and are not simply or exclusively the consequences of climatic and environmental imperatives.”

Rex Golub at Savage Minds slams the book for “a profound lack of thought about what it would mean to study human diversity and how to make sense of cultural phenomena.” In a fit of vexed humor, the Wenner-Gren Foundation for anthropological research tweeted Golub’s post along with this comment: “@savageminds once again does the yeoman’s work of exploring Jared Diamond’s new book so the rest of us don’t have to.”

This biting response isn’t new; see Jason Antrosio’s post from last year in which he calls Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel a “one-note riff,” even “academic porn” that should not be taught in introductory anthropology courses.

Now, in no way do I want to be the anthropologist who defends Diamond because she just doesn’t “get” what worries all the cool-kid anthropologists about his work. I’ve learned from their concerns; I’m not dismissing them.

In point of fact, I was startled at this passage on the jacket of The World Until Yesterday: “While the gulf that divides us from our primitive ancestors may seem unbridgably wide, we can glimpse most of our former lifestyle in those largely traditional societies that still exist or were recently in existence.” This statement turns small-scale societies into living fossils, the human equivalent of ancient insects hardened in amber. That’s nonsense, of course.

Lest we think to blame a publicist (rather than the author) for that lapse, consider the text itself. Near the start, Diamond offers a chronology: until about 11,000 years ago, all people lived off the land, without farming or domesticated animals. Only around 5,400 years ago did the first state emerge, with its dense population, labor specialization and power hierarchy. Then Diamond fatally overlays that past onto the present: “Traditional societies retain features of how all of our ancestors lived for tens of thousands of years, until virtually yesterday.” Ugh.

Another problem, one I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere, bothers me just as much. When Diamond urges his WEIRD readers to learn from the lifeways of people in small-scale societies, he concludes: “We ourselves are the only ones who created our new lifestyles, so it’s completely in our power to change them.” Can he really be so unaware of the privilege that allows him to assert — or think — such a thing? Too many people living lives of poverty within industrialized nations do not have it “completely in their power” to change their lives, to say the least.

Patterns of Culture by Ruth Benedict (1934) wins Jared Diamond (2012)
by Jason Antrosio, Living Anthropologically

Compare to Jared Diamond. Diamond has of course acquired some fame for arguing against biological determinism, and his Race Without Color was once a staple for challenging simplistic tales of biological race. But by the 1990s, Diamond simply echoes perceived liberal wisdom. Benedict and Weltfish’s Races of Mankind was banned by the Army as Communist propaganda, and Weltfish faced persecution from McCarthyism (Micaela di Leonardo, Exotics at Home 1998:196,224; see also this Jon Marks comment on Gene Weltfish). Boas and Benedict swam against the current of the time, when backlash could be brutal. In contrast, Diamond’s claims on race and IQ have mostly been anecdotal. They have never been taken seriously by those who call themselves “race realists” (see Jared Diamond won’t beat Mitt Romney). Diamond has never responded scientifically to the re-assertion of race from sources like “A Family Tree in Every Gene,” and he helped propagate a medical myth about racial differences in hypertension.

And, of course, although Guns, Germs, and Steel has been falsely branded as environmental or geographical determinism, there is no doubt that Diamond leans heavily on agriculture and geography as explanatory causes for differential success. […]

Compare again Jared Diamond. Diamond has accused anthropologists of falsely romanticizing others, but by subtitling his book What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies, Diamond engages in more than just politically-correct euphemism. When most people think of a “traditional society,” they are thinking of agrarian peasant societies or artisan handicrafts. Diamond, however, is referring mainly to what we might term tribal societies, or hunters and gatherers with some horticulture. Curiously, for Diamond the dividing line between the yesterday of traditional and the today of the presumably modern was somewhere around 5,000-6,000 years ago (see The Colbert Report). As John McCreery points out:

Why, I must ask, is the category “traditional societies” limited to groups like Inuit, Amazonian Indians, San people and Melanesians, when the brute fact of the matter is that the vast majority of people who have lived in “traditional” societies have been peasants living in traditional agricultural civilizations over the past several thousand years since the first cities appeared in places like the valleys of the Nile, the Tigris-Euphrates, the Ganges, the Yellow River, etc.? Talk about a big blind spot.

Benedict draws on the work of others, like Reo Fortune in Dobu and Franz Boas with the Kwakiutl. Her own ethnographic experience was limited. But unlike Diamond, Benedict was working through the best ethnographic work available. Diamond, in contrast, splays us with a story from Allan Holmberg, which then gets into the New York Times, courtesy of David Brooks. Compare bestselling author Charles Mann on “Holmberg’s Mistake” (the first chapter of his 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus):

The wandering people Holmberg traveled with in the forest had been hiding from their abusers. At some risk to himself, Holmberg tried to help them, but he never fully grasped that the people he saw as remnants from the Paleolithic Age were actually the persecuted survivors of a recently shattered culture. It was as if he had come across refugees from a Nazi concentration camp, and concluded that they belonged to a culture that had always been barefoot and starving. (Mann 2005:10)

As for Diamond’s approach to comparing different groups: “Despite claims that Diamond’s book demonstrates incredible erudition what we see in this prologue is a profound lack of thought about what it would mean to study human diversity and how to make sense of cultural phenomenon” (Alex Golub, How can we explain human variation?).

Finally there is the must-read review Savaging Primitives: Why Jared Diamond’s ‘The World Until Yesterday’ Is Completely Wrong by Stephen Corry, Director of Survival International:

Diamond adds his voice to a very influential sector of American academia which is, naively or not, striving to bring back out-of-date caricatures of tribal peoples. These erudite and polymath academics claim scientific proof for their damaging theories and political views (as did respected eugenicists once). In my own, humbler, opinion, and experience, this is both completely wrong–both factually and morally–and extremely dangerous. The principal cause of the destruction of tribal peoples is the imposition of nation states. This does not save them; it kills them.

[…] Indeed, Jared Diamond has been praised for his writing, for making science popular and palatable. Others have been less convinced. As David Brooks reviews:

Diamond’s knowledge and insights are still awesome, but alas, that vividness rarely comes across on the page. . . . Diamond’s writing is curiously impersonal. We rarely get to hear the people in traditional societies speak for themselves. We don’t get to meet any in depth. We don’t get to know what their stories are, what the contents of their religions are, how they conceive of individual selfhood or what they think of us. In this book, geographic and environmental features play a much more important role in shaping life than anything an individual person thinks or feels. The people Diamond describes seem immersed in the collective. We generally don’t see them exercising much individual agency. (Tribal Lessons; of course, Brooks may be smarting from reviews that called his book The Dumbest Story Ever Told)

[…] In many ways, Ruth Benedict does exactly what Wade Davis wanted Jared Diamond to do–rather than providing a how-to manual of “tips we can learn,” to really investigate the existence of other possibilities:

The voices of traditional societies ultimately matter because they can still remind us that there are indeed alternatives, other ways of orienting human beings in social, spiritual and ecological space. This is not to suggest naively that we abandon everything and attempt to mimic the ways of non-industrial societies, or that any culture be asked to forfeit its right to benefit from the genius of technology. It is rather to draw inspiration and comfort from the fact that the path we have taken is not the only one available, that our destiny therefore is not indelibly written in a set of choices that demonstrably and scientifically have proven not to be wise. By their very existence the diverse cultures of the world bear witness to the folly of those who say that we cannot change, as we all know we must, the fundamental manner in which we inhabit this planet. (Wade Davis review of Jared Diamond; and perhaps one of the best contemporary versions of this project is Wade Davis, The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World)

[…] This history reveals the major theme missing from both Benedict’s Patterns of Culture and especially missing from Diamond–an anthropology of interconnection. That as Eric Wolf described in Europe and the People Without History peoples once called primitive–now perhaps more politely termed tribal or traditional–were part of a co-production with Western colonialism. This connection and co-production had already been in process long before anthropologists arrived on the scene. Put differently, could the Dobuan reputation for being infernally nasty savages have anything to do with the white recruiters of indentured labour, which Benedict mentions (1934:130) but then ignores? Could the revving up of the Kwakiutl potlatch and megalomaniac gamuts have anything to do with the fur trade?

The Collapse Of Jared Diamond
by Louis Proyect, Swans Commentary

In general, the approach of the authors is to put the ostensible collapse into historical context, something that is utterly lacking in Diamond’s treatment. One of the more impressive record-correcting exercises is Terry L. Hunt and Carl P. Lipo’s Ecological Catastrophe, Collapse, and the Myth of “Ecocide” on Rapa Nui (Easter Island). In Collapse, Diamond judged Easter Island as one of the more egregious examples of “ecocide” in human history, a product of the folly of the island’s rulers whose decision to construct huge statues led to deforestation and collapse. By chopping down huge palm trees that were used to transport the stones used in statue construction, the islanders were effectively sealing their doom. Not only did the settlers chop down trees, they hunted the native fauna to extinction. The net result was a loss of habitat that led to a steep population decline.

Diamond was not the first observer to call attention to deforestation on Easter Island. In 1786, a French explorer named La Pérouse also attributed the loss of habitat to the “imprudence of their ancestors for their present unfortunate situation.”

Referring to research about Easter Island by scientists equipped with the latest technologies, the authors maintain that the deforestation had nothing to do with transporting statues. Instead, it was an accident of nature related to the arrival of rats in the canoes of the earliest settlers. Given the lack of native predators, the rats had a field day and consumed the palm nuts until the trees were no longer reproducing themselves at a sustainable rate. The settlers also chopped down trees to make a space for agriculture, but the idea that giant statues had anything to do with the island’s collapse is as much of a fiction as Diamond’s New Yorker article.

Unfortunately, Diamond is much more interested in ecocide than genocide. If people interested him half as much as palm trees, he might have said a word or two about the precipitous decline in population that occurred after the island was discovered by Europeans in 1722. Indeed, despite deforestation there is evidence that the island’s population grew between 1250 and 1650, the period when deforestation was taking place — leaving aside the question of its cause. As was the case when Europeans arrived in the New World, a native population was unable to resist diseases such as smallpox and died in massive numbers. Of course, Diamond would approach such a disaster with his customary Olympian detachment and write it off as an accident of history.

While all the articles pretty much follow the narrowly circumscribed path as the one on Easter Island, there is one that adopts the Grand Narrative that Jared Diamond has made a specialty of and beats him at his own game. I am referring to the final article, Sustainable Survival by J.R. McNeill, who describes himself in a footnote thusly: “Unlike most historians, I have no real geographic specialization and prefer — like Jared Diamond — to hunt for large patterns in the human past.”

And one of those “large patterns” ignored by Diamond is colonialism. The greatest flaw in Collapse is that it does not bother to look at the impact of one country on another. By treating countries in isolation from one another, it becomes much easier to turn the “losers” into examples of individual failing. So when Haiti is victimized throughout the 19th century for having the temerity to break with slavery, this hardly enters into Diamond’s moral calculus.

Compassion Sets Humans Apart
by Penny Spikins, Sapiens

There are, perhaps surprisingly, only two known cases of likely interpersonal violence in the archaic species most closely related to us, Neanderthals. That’s out of a total of about 30 near-complete skeletons and 300 partial Neanderthal finds. One—a young adult living in what is now St. Césaire, France, some 36,000 years ago—had the front of his or her skull bashed in. The other, a Neanderthal found in Shanidar Cave in present-day Iraq, was stabbed in the ribs between 45,000 and 35,000 years ago, perhaps by a projectile point shot by a modern human.

The earliest possible evidence of what might be considered warfare or feuding doesn’t show up until some 13,000 years ago at a cemetery in the Nile Valley called Jebel Sahaba, where many of the roughly 60 Homo sapiens individuals appear to have died a violent death.

Evidence of human care, on the other hand, goes back at least 1.5 million years—to long before humans were anatomically modern. A Homo ergaster female from Koobi Fora in Kenya, dated to about 1.6 million years ago, survived several weeks despite a toxic overaccumulation of vitamin A. She must have been given food and water, and protected from predators, to live long enough for this disease to leave a record in her bones.

Such evidence becomes even more notable by half a million years ago. At Sima de los Huesos (Pit of Bones), a site in Spain occupied by ancestors of Neanderthals, three of 28 individuals found in one pit had severe pathology—a girl with a deformed head, a man who was deaf, and an elderly man with a damaged pelvis—but they all lived for long periods of time despite their conditions, indicating that they were cared for. At the same site in Shanidar where a Neanderthal was found stabbed, researchers discovered another skeleton who was blind in one eye and had a withered arm and leg as well as hearing loss, which would have made it extremely hard or impossible to forage for food and survive. His bones show he survived for 15 to 20 years after injury.

At a site in modern-day Vietnam called Man Bac, which dates to around 3,500 years ago, a man with almost complete paralysis and frail bones was looked after by others for over a decade; he must have received care that would be difficult to provide even today.

All of these acts of caring lasted for weeks, months, or years, as opposed to a single moment of violence.

Violence, Okinawa, and the ‘Pax Americana’
by John W. Dower, The Asia-Pacific Journal

In American academic circles, several influential recent books argue that violence declined significantly during the Cold War, and even more precipitously after the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991. This reinforces what supporters of US strategic policy including Japan’s conservative leaders always have claimed. Since World War II, they contend, the militarized Pax Americana, including nuclear deterrence, has ensured the decline of global violence.

I see the unfolding of the postwar decades through a darker lens.

No one can say with any certainty how many people were killed in World War II. Apart from the United States, catastrophe and chaos prevailed in almost every country caught in the war. Beyond this, even today criteria for identifying and quantifying war-related deaths vary greatly. Thus, World War II mortality estimates range from an implausible low of 50 million military and civilian fatalities worldwide to as many as 80 million. The Soviet Union, followed by China, suffered by far the greatest number of these deaths.

Only when this slaughter is taken as a baseline does it make sense to argue that the decades since World War II have been relatively non-violent.

The misleading euphemism of a “Cold War” extending from 1945 to 1991 helps reinforce the decline-of-violence argument. These decades were “cold” only to the extent that, unlike World War II, no armed conflict took place pitting the major powers directly against one another. Apart from this, these were years of mayhem and terror of every imaginable sort, including genocides, civil wars, tribal and ethnic conflicts, attempts by major powers to suppress anti-colonial wars of liberation, and mass deaths deriving from domestic political policies (as in China and the Soviet Union).

In pro-American propaganda, Washington’s strategic and diplomatic policies during these turbulent years and continuing to the present day have been devoted to preserving peace, defending freedom and the rule of law, promoting democratic values, and ensuring the security of its friends and allies.

What this benign picture ignores is the grievous harm as well as plain folly of much postwar US policy. This extends to engaging in atrocious war conduct, initiating never-ending arms races, supporting illiberal authoritarian regimes, and contributing to instability and humanitarian crises in many part of the world.

Such destructive behavior was taken to new levels in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon by nineteen Islamist hijackers. America’s heavy-handed military response has contributed immeasurably to the proliferation of global terrorist organizations, the destabilization of the Greater Middle East, and a flood of refugees and internally displaced persons unprecedented since World War II.

Afghanistan and Iraq, invaded following September 11, remain shattered and in turmoil. Neighboring countries are wracked with terror and insurrection. In 2016, the last year of Barack Obama’s presidency, the US military engaged in bombing and air strikes in no less than seven countries (Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, and Syria). At the same time, elite US “special forces” conducted largely clandestine operations in an astonishing total of around 140 countries–amounting to almost three-quarters of all the nations in the world.

Overarching all this, like a giant cage, is America’s empire of overseas military bases. The historical core of these bases in Germany, Japan, and South Korea dates back to after World War II and the Korean War (1950-1953), but the cage as a whole spans the globe and is constantly being expanded or contracted. The long-established bases tend to be huge. Newer installations are sometimes small and ephemeral. (The latter are known as “lily pad” facilities, and now exist in around 40 countries.) The total number of US bases presently is around 800.

Okinawa has exemplified important features of this vast militarized domain since its beginnings in 1945. Current plans to relocate US facilities to new sites like Henoko, or to expand to remote islands like Yonaguni, Ishigaki, and Miyako in collaboration with Japanese Self Defense Forces, reflect the constant presence but ever changing contours of the imperium. […]

These military failures are illuminating. They remind us that with but a few exceptions (most notably the short Gulf War against Iraq in 1991), the postwar US military has never enjoyed the sort of overwhelming victory it experienced in World War II. The “war on terror” that followed September 11 and has dragged on to the present day is not unusual apart from its seemingly endless duration. On the contrary, it conforms to this larger pattern of postwar US military miscalculation and failure.

These failures also tell us a great deal about America’s infatuation with brute force, and the double standards that accompany this. In both wars, victory proved elusive in spite of the fact that the United States unleashed devastation from the air greater than anything ever seen before, short of using nuclear weapons.

This usually comes as a surprise even to people who are knowledgeable about the strategic bombing of Germany and Japan in World War II. The total tonnage of bombs dropped on Korea was four times greater than the tonnage dropped on Japan in the US air raids of 1945, and destroyed most of North Korea’s major cities and thousands of its villages. The tonnage dropped on the three countries of Indochina was forty times greater than the tonnage dropped on Japan. The death tolls in both Korea and Indochina ran into the millions.

Here is where double standards enter the picture.

This routine US targeting of civilian populations between the 1940s and early 1970s amounted to state-sanctioned terror bombing aimed at destroying enemy morale. Although such frank labeling can be found in internal documents, it usually has been taboo in pro-American public commentary. After September 11, in any case, these precedents were thoroughly scrubbed from memory.

“Terror bombing” has been redefined to now mean attacks by “non-state actors” motivated primarily by Islamist fundamentalism. “Civilized” nations and cultures, the story goes, do not engage in such atrocious behavior. […]

Nuclear weapons were removed from Okinawa after 1972, and the former US and Soviet nuclear arsenals have been substantially reduced since the collapse of the USSR. Nonetheless, today’s US and Russian arsenals are still capable of destroying the world many times over, and US nuclear strategy still explicitly targets a considerable range of potential adversaries. (In 2001, under President George W. Bush, these included China, Russia, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Libya.)

Nuclear proliferation has spread to nine nations, and over forty other countries including Japan remain what experts call “nuclear capable states.” When Barack Obama became president in 2009, there were high hopes he might lead the way to eliminating nuclear weapons entirely. Instead, before leaving office his administration adopted an alarming policy of “nuclear modernization” that can only stimulate other nuclear nations to follow suit.

There are dynamics at work here that go beyond rational responses to perceived threats. Where the United States is concerned, obsession with absolute military supremacy is inherent in the DNA of the postwar state. After the Cold War ended, US strategic planners sometimes referred to this as the necessity of maintaining “technological asymmetry.” Beginning in the mid 1990s, the Joint Chiefs of Staff reformulated their mission as maintaining “full spectrum dominance.”

This envisioned domination now extends beyond the traditional domains of land, sea, and air power, the Joint Chiefs emphasized, to include space and cyberspace as well.

 

The Violent Narcissism of Small Differences

“As a kid, I saw the 1968 version of Planet of the Apes. As a future primatologist, I was mesmerized. Years later I discovered an anecdote about its filming: At lunchtime, the people playing chimps and those playing gorillas ate in separate groups.”
~ Robert Sapolsky

There are “many features of… warfare that turn out to be shared with wars in many other traditional societies… Those shared features include the following ones… So-called tribal warfare is often or usually actually intra-tribal, between groups speaking the same language and sharing the same culture, rather than inter-tribal. Despite that cultural similarity or identity between the antagonists, one’s enemies are sometimes demonized as subhuman.” (Jared Diamond, The World Until Yesterday, p. 120)

That isn’t something I’ve heard before. I’m surprised it isn’t a point brought up more often. It entirely undermines the case for racism being biological and instinctual. This intra-tribal warfare involves people who are extremely similar — in terms of ethnicity/culture, linguistics, lifestyle, diet, health, genetics, etc (and one would presume also in terms of epigenetics and microbiome). They are more similar to one another than is the rather diverse population of white Americans. Yet these basically identical tribal bands are able to not just see each other as different but even as subhuman, not that ‘subhuman’ has a scientific meaning in this context. It gives credence to Freud’s theory of the narcissism of small differences.

In modern nation-states, we forget how abnormal is every aspect of our society. Based on unrepresentative WEIRD research, we’ve come to some strange conclusions about human nature. Looking at the anthropological record demonstrates how far off from reality is our modern understanding. We think of warfare as only or primarily occurring between nation-states and we think of nation-states in ethno-racial terms. The world wars were fought with rhetoric declaring the other side to be of a different race or not fully human. That happened between the English and Germans who today are thought of as being so similar, what we now think of as white Westerners. But perceived differences has never had much to do with objective reality.

We should also put violence in perspective. We obsess over some violence while ignoring other violence. Most killings happen within societies, not between societies (unless your one of the populations historically targeted by Western imperialism). And most killings happen within specific demographics, not between demographics. For example, most American whites are killed by American whites, not by foreign terrorists or American blacks. About terrorism, most of it is committed by Americans against Americans; in fact, often whites against whites.

Race is as much a rationalization of violence than it is a cause. Westerners wanted to steal land and resources, to exploit populations. So, they invented racial ideology to justify it. But this basic tendency toward justification of violence is nothing new. As Jared Diamond describes, even groups that are essentially the same will use othering language in order to psychologically distance themselves. Otherwise, it would be harder to kill people. But creating perceived differences is quite simple (as shown numerous times: Jane Elliott’s eye color experiment, Rebecca Bigler’s shirt color experiment, Muzafer Sherif’s Robbers Cave experiment*, etc).

Race is a social construct and a rather recent invention at that — for certain, it didn’t exist in the ancient world. There is nothing in human nature that demonstrates an instinct for racism. Rather, what humans are talented at is seeing differences and turning them into categories. This could be as simple as where one lives, such as two tribal bands or two neighborhood gangs fighting. Or it could be based on what clothes are worn and, when people are too similar, they will create artificial differences such as gang colors. But once we’ve created these differences, our minds treat them as essential. We need to learn to step back from our learned biases.

* * *

* For additional insight, there is more recent analysis of the Robbers Cave experiment. It is The Lost Boys: Inside Muzafer Sherif’s Robbers Cave Experiment by Gina Perry. Along with a book excerpt at The Guardian, David Shariatmadari has a book review of it, A real-life Lord of the Flies: the troubling legacy of the Robbers Cave experiment.

It isn’t only that the researchers were partly, albeit questionably, successful in creating perceived differences but that it took a second attempt in highly manipulating the boys to finally get them to see the others as ‘other’. The moral of the story is it can require immense effort to creative divisiveness and conflict because, without intervening factors such as severe external stressors, humans naturally seek to bond with one another. Separate identities based on social categories often don’t emerge organically but typically have to be enforced upon a population by those with power, authority, and influence.

As Shariatmdari wrote:

The robustness of the boy’s “civilised” values came as a blow to Sherif, making him angry enough to want to punch one of his young academic helpers. It turned out that the strong bonds forged at the beginning of the camp weren’t easily broken. Thankfully, he never did start the forest fire – he aborted the experiment when he realised it wasn’t going to support his hypothesis. […]

If Middle Grove and Robbers Cave aren’t scientifically rigorous, does that mean they’re of no value? Perry doesn’t think so. “There was a kind of breadth of vision about Robbers Cave that is very much missing in that tightly controlled laboratory deception of something like Milgram. He was trying to tackle big issues.”

And, from today’s perspective, perhaps there is some reassurance to be gleaned from boys’ behaviour at Middle Grove. Despite attempts to influence them that a Russian troll farm would be proud of, they remained independent-minded and did what they thought was best.

“I do think it is a kind of optimistic view,” says Perry. “It makes you smile, doesn’t it? The fact that they mutinied against these guys, really, and refused to be drawn into it.”

* * *

Why Your Brain Hates Other People
by Robert Sapolsky, Nautilis

We all have multiple dichotomies in our heads, and ones that seem inevitable and crucial can, under the right circumstances, evaporate in an instant.

Lessening the Impact of Us/Them-ing

So how can we make these dichotomies evaporate? Some thoughts:

Contact: The consequences of growing up amid diversity just discussed bring us to the effects of prolonged contact on Us/Theming. In the 1950s the psychologist Gordon Allport proposed “contact theory.” Inaccurate version: bring Us-es and Thems together (say, teenagers from two hostile nations in a summer camp), animosities disappear, similarities start to outweigh differences, everyone becomes an Us. More accurate version: put Us and Thems together under narrow circumstances and something sort of resembling that happens, but you can also blow it and worsen things.

Some of the effective narrower circumstances: each side has roughly equal numbers; everyone’s treated equally and unambiguously; contact is lengthy and on neutral territory; there are “superordinate” goals where everyone works together on a meaningful task (say, summer campers turning a meadow into a soccer field).

Even then, effects are typically limited—Us-es and Thems quickly lose touch, changes are transient and often specific—“I hate those Thems, but I know one from last summer who’s actually a good guy.” Where contact really causes fundamental change is when it is prolonged. Then we’re making progress.

Approaching the implicit: If you want to lessen an implicit Us/Them response, one good way is priming beforehand with a counter-stereotype (e.g., a reminder of a beloved celebrity Them). Another approach is making the implicit explicit—show people their implicit biases. Another is a powerful cognitive tool—perspective taking. Pretend you’re a Them and explain your grievances. How would you feel? Would your feet hurt after walking a mile in their shoes?

Replace essentialism with individuation: In one study, white subjects were asked about their acceptance of racial inequalities. Half were first primed toward essentialist thinking, being told, “Scientists pinpoint the genetic underpinnings of race.” Half heard an anti-essentialist prime—“Scientists reveal that race has no genetic basis.” The latter made subjects less accepting of inequalities.

Flatten hierarchies: Steep ones sharpen Us/Them differences, as those on top justify their status by denigrating the have-nots, while the latter view the ruling class as low warmth/high competence. For example, the cultural trope that the poor are more carefree, in touch with and able to enjoy life’s simple pleasures while the rich are unhappy, stressed, and burdened with responsibility (think of miserable Scrooge and those happy-go-lucky Cratchits). Likewise with the “they’re poor but loving” myth of framing the poor as high warmth/low competence. In one study of 37 countries, the greater the income inequality, the more the wealthy held such attitudes.

Some Conclusions

From massive barbarity to pinpricks of microaggression, Us versus Them has produced oceans of pain. Yet, I don’t think our goal should be to “cure” us of all Us/Them dichotomizing (separate of it being impossible, unless you have no amygdala).

I’m fairly solitary—I’ve spent a lot of my life living alone in a tent in Africa, studying another species. Yet some of my most exquisitely happy moments have come from feeling like an Us, feeling accepted, safe, and not alone, feeling part of something large and enveloping, with a sense of being on the right side and doing both well and good. There are even Us/Thems that I—eggheady, meek, and amorphously pacifistic—would kill or die for.

If we accept that there will always be sides, it’s challenging to always be on the side of angels. Distrust essentialism. Remember that supposed rationality is often just rationalization, playing catch-up with subterranean forces we never suspect. Focus on shared goals. Practice perspective taking. Individuate, individuate, individuate. And recall how often, historically, the truly malignant Thems hid themselves while making third parties the fall guy.

Meanwhile, give the right-of-way to people driving cars with the “Mean people suck” bumper sticker, and remind everyone that we’re in this together against Lord Voldemort and House Slytherin.

 

Investing in Violence and Death

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.
~Dwight D. Eisenhower, Chance for Peace speech (1953)

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.
~Dwight D. Eisenhower, Military-Industrial Complex Speech (1961)

It’s not the Americans, what they are doing in this country or that, or the Germans or the French or such. It’s the dominant interests in that country. If anything, the common people in these countries are themselves also the victims. It’s their taxes that are used to raise the armies. It’s their sons and brothers and now daughters and such who go in and pay the price in blood.
~Michael Parenti, Empire vs. Democracy (2005)

US Budgetary Costs of Wars through 2016: $4.79 Trillion and Counting Summary of Costs of the US Wars in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan and Homeland Security
by Neta C. Crawford, Watson Institute

As of August 2016, the US has already appropriated, spent, or taken on obligations to spend more than $3.6 trillion in current dollars on the wars in Iraq,  Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria and on Homeland Security (2001 through fiscal year 2016). To this total should be added the approximately $65 billion in dedicated war spending the Department of Defense and State Department have requested for the next  fiscal year, 2017, along with an additional nearly $32 billion requested for the Department of Homeland Security in 2017, and estimated spending on veterans in  future years. When those are included, the total US budgetary cost of the wars reaches $4.79 trillion.

But of course, a full accounting of any war’s burdens cannot be placed in columns on a ledger. From the civilians harmed or displaced by violence, to the soldiers killed and wounded, to the children who play years later on roads and fields sown with improvised explosive devices and cluster bombs, no set of numbers can convey the human toll of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or how they have spilled into the neighboring states of Syria and Pakistan, and come home to the US and its allies in the form of wounded veterans and contractors. Yet, the expenditures noted on government ledgers are necessary to apprehend, even as they are so large as to be almost incomprehensible. […]

In addition, any reasonable estimate of the costs of the wars includes the fact that each war entails essentially signing rather large promissory notes to fulfill the US obligations for medical care and support for wounded veterans. These future obligations will total approximately an additional $1 trillion in medical and disability payments and additional administrative burden through 2053.

What Has Not Been Counted
Economic Costs
Watson Institute

This total omits many other expenses, such as the macroeconomic costs to the US economy; the opportunity costs of not investing war dollars in alternative sectors; future interest on war borrowing; and local government and private war costs. […]

Spending on the wars has involved opportunity costs for the US economy. Although military spending does produce jobs, spending in other areas such as health care could produce more jobs. Additionally, while investment in military infrastructure grew, investment in other, nonmilitary, public infrastructure such as roads and schools did not grow at the same rate.

Finally, federal war costs exclude billions of dollars of state, municipal, and private war costs across the country – dollars spent on services for returned veterans and their families, in addition to local homeland security efforts.

Refugees & Health
Watson Institute

The insecurity that Iraqis, Afghans, and Pakistanis face extends far beyond the guns and blasts of the war. It includes lack of secure access to food, health care, housing, employment, and clean water and sanitation, as well as the loss of community.

For war refugees, these problems are exacerbated in the face of exile. Approximately 10.1 million people in these war zones have been displaced and are living in grossly inadequate conditions.

Post-9/11 Wars Have Cost Nearly $5 Trillion (and Counting)
by Nadia Prupis, Common Dreams

However, even if the U.S. stopped spending on war at the end of this fiscal year, the interest costs, such as debt for borrowed funds, would continue to rise. Post-9/11 military spending was financed almost entirely by borrowing, which in turn has driven debt and interest rates, the project has previously noted.

Separate reporting late last month by the U.K.-based watchdog Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) found that the Pentagon could only account for 48 percent of small arms shipped to Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11—meaning more than half of the approximately 700,000 guns it sent overseas in the past 15 years are missing.

What’s more, a recent Inspector General audit report found a “jaw-dropping” $6.5 trillion could not be accounted for in Defense spending.

The results of Crawford’s report, released last week, follow previous estimates by prominent economists like Nobel Prize-winning Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard professor Linda Bilmes, whose 2008 book The Three Trillion Dollar War made similar claims.

Crawford’s report continues: “Interest costs for overseas contingency operations spending alone are projected to add more than $1 trillion dollars to the national debt by 2023. By 2053, interest costs will be at least $7.9 trillion unless the U.S. changes the way it pays for the war.

And, Crawford notes, that’s a conservative estimate.

No set of numbers can convey the human toll of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or how they have spilled into the neighboring states of Syria and Pakistan, and come home to the U.S. and its allies in the form of wounded veterans and contractors,” the report states. “Yet, the expenditures noted on government ledgers are necessary to apprehend, even as they are so large as to be almost incomprehensible.”

War on Terror Could Be Costliest Yet
by Andrew Soergel, U.S. News

$4.79 trillion total exceeds spending on any single war the U.S. has ever fought.

The Congressional Research Service, for example, estimates the U.S. spent $4.4 trillion on World War II, when adjusted for inflation and converted to 2016 dollars. The Vietnam War is estimated to have cost $789.5 billion, while the Korean War cost $364.8 billion.

Even in terms of noncombat government expenditures, Crawford’s multitrillion-dollar price tag is daunting. The Interstate Highway System is believed to have cost $500 billion to construct, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. The Project Apollo missions that first sent men to the moon cost more than $135 billion in 2016 dollars. Digging the original Panama Canal is believed to have cost a little more than $9 billion. […]

But even if the U.S. stopped spending on war at the end of this fiscal year, interest costs alone on borrowing to pay for the wars will continue to grow apace,” she said. “Interest costs for overseas contingency operations spending alone are projected to add more than $1 trillion dollars to the national debt by 2023.”

Losing Hearts and Minds and Money

The supposed reconstruction of Iraq sounds like a key example of bureaucracy taking on a life of its own, where having the results looking good on paper became more important than ensuring actual results. Massive amounts of money were thrown around to make it look like something was being accomplished, with large numbers of troops there for almost a decade to help in the process.

On Not Caring About Lives Sacrificed

Did you know that about the same number of people died because of the Vietnam War as have died because of the Iraq War? That death count is a bit over a million for each war.

Endless Outrage

The illegal and unconstitutional, immoral and unjustified Iraq War has already led to the death of probably at least a half million Iraqis and possibly over a million, most of those being civilians, many of whom were women and children, and surely way more than fifty gay people died in the process—not only that, it turned a stable secular society with a thriving economy and a strong middle class into a permanent war zone where Islamic extremists have taken over, creating yet one more stronghold for terrorists.

If you take the total death toll of the War On Terror, it is in the millions. Looking at one country alone, “total avoidable Afghan deaths since 2001 under ongoing war and occupation-imposed deprivation amount to around 3 million people, about 900,000 of whom are infants under five” and “Altogether, this suggests that the total Afghan death toll due to the direct and indirect impacts of US-led intervention since the early nineties until now could be as high 3-5 million.” More broadly: “According to the figures explored here, total deaths from Western interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan since the 1990s – from direct killings and the longer-term impact of war-imposed deprivation – likely constitute around 4 million (2 million in Iraq from 1991-2003, plus 2 million from the “war on terror”), and could be as high as 6-8 million people when accounting for higher avoidable death estimates in Afghanistan.”

That is a small sampling of the kinds of things the United States and its allies have done and continue to do in the Middle East along with many other areas of the world (e.g., Latin America). In some cases, it might be a severe undercount of deaths. That doesn’t even include the crippled, traumatized, orphaned, dislocated, etc. Much of the refugee crisis right now is the result of Western actions in non-Western countries.

Cost of War

Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manners and of morals engendered by both. No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.

Those truths are well established. They are read in every page which records the progression from a less arbitrary to a more arbitrary government, or the transition from a popular government to an aristocracy or a monarchy.
~James Madison, Political Observations (1795)

Who Is To Blame?

Identity politics too often distracts from the real issues and can even make problems worse. My focus is as much on the victimization cycle as on the victims and victimizers. The victimization cycle puts into context and so offers a larger vantage point.

All of us humans all over are caught up in a globally-connected system of victimization. That isn’t to say all suffer equally, but it is to say we all are equally fucked in the long term on a shared planet with limited resources. What goes around comes around.

I’ve been arguing with one racist guy who keeps saying that American blacks are more violent. I can argue with that on one level by pointing out that whites are more likely to be child molesters, school shooters, bombers, serial killers, etc. But that misses a bigger issue. Why is the entire American society violent? Why is the world in general such a violent place? Why are the wealthiest countries so war-mongering? Why are so many of the post-colonial countries troubled by near endless internal conflict?

Limiting our view to the US, blacks do commit high rates of homicides, although most of their victims are also blacks. It is violence within a community. But how did so many poor black communities become so violent? Before someone committed murder, they were a kid being raised in a particular environment in a particular society. Some thing shaped them.

We know what some of those factors are. We also know that most victimizers were once victims themselves. If we looked at most people arrested for violent crime, we’d probably most often find a personal history of violent victimization: friends, neighbors, and family members murdered; police targeting and brutality; systemic and institutional racism; oppressive poverty and economic hopelessness; et cetera.

We can extend this argument to Native Americans. Native American communities also have high rates of violent crime that goes hand in hand with being the victims of large-scale violence across recent centuries.

As far as that goes, this argument also applies to poor white communities such as in the rural South, specifically Appalachia. They also have high rates of violent crime. All poor communities in this country have high rates of social problems, especially in places of high economic inequality.

Most Americans forget that the raw numbers of poor whites is massive. There are more whites on welfare than any other race. Some of these populations have been in a permanent state of poverty for centuries or longer, going back to the British Isles and Europe.

Race becomes a proxy for class. We talk about the problems of poor blacks when we really mean the problems of poor people, the problems of poverty and economic inequality, which goes hand in hand with historically oppressed groups, even though oppressed in vastly different ways.

Here is my main point:

Every victim has a victimizer. And likely most victimizers were once victims. You can keep going back and back. Where you stop as the original source of victimization can be arbitrary or else ideologically biased.

To focus on those in power: Who is to blame for the world’s present system of imperialism? The first empires who invented this social order? The later empires that introduced it to new populations such as into tribal Europe? The even later empires that turned it into colonialism? Can anyone today take responsibility for the past, whether imperialism forced onto Native Americans or imperialism forced onto earlier Europeans?

Instead of blame, who will take responsibility? What does it even mean to take responsibility for problems so far beyond any individual, for cycles of victimization that extend across centuries and millennia?

Us versus them mentalities are how authoritarian social orders maintain their power. Even many people who fight imperialism and oppression end up internalizing the dysfunction. This is why so many revolutions fail and end up with authoritarian states, sometimes worse than what came before.

All I know is that the world is a lot more complex and a lot more fucked up than most people want to admit. The world is complex. Humans are complex. It is impossible to put people into neat little boxes. We all have immense potential, for both good and evil. That is what many people are afraid to confront, the immense potential that lurks within.

Authoritarians couldn’t get away with most of what they do if not for all those complicit, including among the victimized groups. Take for example the history of blacks. The slave trade was dependent on Africans selling other Africans into slavery, not unusually people selling their neighbors or even family members in hope of saving themselves. Later on, many blacks who, after being freed following the Civil War, became Indian fighters and in doing so violently and genocidally promoted US imperial expansion across the continent.

Both poor whites and poor blacks have been willing participants in American power. These disadvantaged people have always been the majority of the soldiers who fight the wars for the rich and powerful. That is the power of nationalism, of patriotism and propaganda. Even the rich end up buying the rhetoric they use to manipulate others for their minds get warped by the same basic media that warps the minds of all of us. We are all stuck in the same reality tunnel, unable to see beyond it.

If not blame, how is responsibility to be taken? Who will take the first step?

American Celebration of War

I came across a claim that Mister Rogers (Fred Rogers) and Captain Kangaroo (Bob Keeshan) were war buddies.

Something about the story given made me suspicious. It fit too neatly into what uber-patriotic military supporters would like to believe. It seemed highly unlikely. I looked it up and it indeed turned out to be false. They never fought together. In fact, Keeshan never saw any military action and Rogers never served in the military.

What is the point of making up such falsehoods? I just don’t get it. Why does everything have to be made into yet more war propaganda? Come on, at least leave Mister Rogers alone. Why make such a well-loved children’s icon into a symbol of war?

All of this came up because people were posting stuff on Facebook as it was Memorial Day. This brings up a larger issue of how Memorial Day became a celebration of American patriotism and a celebration of all things related to American war and to American military power and greatness. There are various origins of the holiday, but all go back to the Civil War.

It officially began with an order given by Maj. Gen. John A. Logan. The celebration involved, among other activities, strewing flowers on both the graves of Union soldiers and Confederate soldiers. The history of the Civil War puts the celebration in context. That era of conflict was the greatest threat and undermining to American patriotism that this country has ever experienced. The first Memorial Day was in honor of Americans killing and being killed by other Americans. It wasn’t just self-sacrifice of soldiers for their country, but also the self-sacrifice of the entire country in a war that split apart the American population, that split apart communities and families.

However, many earlier celebrations happened. The earliest of them all involved former slaves in South Carolina. They went to a mass grave of Union soldiers in a Confederate prison camp. They did individual reburials and then held a massive parade of thousands. For these former slaves, what they were celebrating was freedom and the sacrifice of those who had ended slavery. But the enemies of freedom in this case were also Americans, just as the former slaves were Americans. The fight for freedom that Memorial Day represents was a struggle within American society against those who wanted mass oppression to continue.

The best way to celebrate Memorial Day would be to honor the conflict that continues to exist in American society and to fight for greater freedom for all Americans. This struggle is far from over.

As an additional thought, I was reminded of the origins of Mother’s Day. It also began with the Civil War. The meaning of Mother’s Day isn’t about some apolitical celebration of motherhood. I’m a big fan of mothers as far as that go, but it is a shame that the holiday has become so superficial. The motivation behind the first Mother’s Day was to protest the carnage of the Civil War. It was a declaration of peace and demand for pacifism. It was an honoring of the mother’s who lost their sons to pointless bloodshed.

Why does everything get obscured that doesn’t contribute to simplistic patriotic propaganda? And why does everything have to serve the American war mentality or else be neutered of its criticism of the same?

The United States was founded on a violent revolution. But it wasn’t fought for patriotism. If those early colonists had cared about patriotism, they would have remained loyal British subjects.

When Memorial Day comes around, I always feel confused about what I’m supposed to be celebrating or honoring. I’m not a pacifist. The military sometimes is necessary. Some wars are started for worthy reasons and achieve worthy ends. Even so, what was so honorable about all the soldiers sent to their death in Iraq, a war that killed even larger numbers of innocent civilians? Those soldiers, sadly, didn’t die fighting for the freedom of Americans. When was the last time that American soldiers fought for anything as noble of a cause as freeing slaves?

Maybe we should spend holidays such as Memorial Day and Mother’s Day contemplating the continued violence and oppression in our own society.

Armed Americans Are the Greatest Threat to Americans

Americans are more likely to be killed by other Americans with guns than by all of our enemies across all of history combined.

That is a mind-blowing fact. It puts the issue in perspective. It also makes one wonder what people mean by guns making them feel ‘safe’. It certainly doesn’t make Americans on the other side of that gun safe. Nor does it make for a safer society, as compared to other countries.

This can be taken as a direct criticism of guns or not. I take it as a criticism of our gun-obsessed and violence-obsessed culture. There are other countries with as or higher rates of gun ownership and yet lower rates of gun homicide. Likewise, other countries don’t necessarily have less crime, just less crime that leads to homicide. It’s bad enough being robbed or raped, but being killed afterward is far worse.

In America, life is cheap.

GRITtv: Patrick Hennessey: Refighting Old Wars

I thought this was perfectly symbolic of America’s role in the world. The US government putting bases all over the world, attacking countries sometimes with little or no good reason given, the military and CIA toppling governments, allying with theocracies and supporting dictatorships when it’s convenient, funding and training foreign military and para-military groups…. and I could go on for pages.

The only difference between the American empire today and the colonial empires of past centuries is that the US government is more powerful and far-reaching than any empire in history. Britain is still a colonial empire. It’s not surprising at all that the British government is the closest ally of the US government.

Britain who has a long history of invading countries predicably supports the US invasion of Afghanistan. Business as usual. The British soldiers just return to occupy the fort in Afghanistan that they built more than a century ago.

It’s not about terrorists or even ultimately about oil. It’s simply about of power.

MSNBC w/ Cenk: Reich – Middle Class & Wages

This video reminded me of why it doesn’t help the economy to give tax cuts to the rich and generally increase the wealth of rich while leaving behind everyone who isn’t part of the ruling elite. From just an economic perspective, there are three problems:

1) Increasing the wealth of the wealthy doesn’t necessarily increase investment. At some point, a person becomes so wealthy that further wealth becomes meaningless. This leads the super rich to gamble with their excess wealth which was one of the contributing factors to our recent economic crash. Financial gambling doesn’t make for a stable economy nor does it have any social value. So, if the government genuinely wants an economy that grows with stability rather than constantly crashing, they should create regulation and taxation that helps decrease wealth disparity so that excess wealth isn’t concentrated at the very top.

2) Most new jobs are created by small businesses, but the tax cuts for the rich mostly only help big businesses. Also, the bailouts help Wall Street while leaving Main Street to suffer. Why help the rich who helped break the economy while sacrificing the working and middle classes which are simply trying to get by? A lot of the working and middle class was in debt for the reason that wages were stagnating even as the rich were getting richer. So, if the government genuinely wants to stimulate job growth, they should ensure that wages grow as the economy grows and they should give bailouts to small businesses while breaking up corporations that are too big to fail.

3) Even ignoring all that, giving more wealth to the wealthy doesn’t stimulate the economy for some simple reasons. Assuming they don’t gamble it, the other choice the rich could do with excess wealth is simply to put it into savings. The middle and working classes, however, will spend any extra money they have which invests back into the economy. For good or ill, the US economy is based on consumerism and consumerism is based on working and middle classes that have money to spend. Let me explain why. A rich person spends several hundred or even several thousand on a pair of shoes. For the same amount of money, hundreds of working and middle class people could buy shoes. The purchase of hundreds of shoes stimulates the economy more than buying one pair of shoes even if it’s the same amount of money. So, if government genuinely wants to stimulate the economy, they should give tax cuts to the working and middle classes.

All of this assumes that those in power actually care about the economy as a whole and actually care about the average American. I suspect that this is a false assumption. It’s hard for me to believe that after all these decades intelligent people (including Democrats like Obama apparently) think that trickle down economics actually works. I think these people know that it just makes the rich richer. That is why they do what they do. Politicians are of the rich and have campaigns funded by the rich. Why would they help the lower classes? So, what if the economy collapses? The rich will always maintain their wealth. If the country gets bad enough, they’ll just move to a pleasant tropical island and take their wealth with them.

Here is another video that relates, but it’s from more of a libertarian perspective:

The author interviewed, Thomas E. Woods Jr, is criticizing the US military-industrial complex. Besides the moral argument, he mentions that military is not a very good investment. When we invest in military that is less that can be invested in other things such as education or infrastructure. Also, funding goes to defense research which uses up public tax money and wastes the most brilliant minds on discovering more efficient ways to kill people. Those same dollars and those same brilliant minds could be used for research to cure cancer or research into alternative energy.

Once again, the only people who benefit from the military-industrial complex are the defense contractors and the wealthy investors in these companies. Certainly, the average American who pays for these wars and dies in these wars aren’t benefiting. The only reason we have any interest in the Middle East in the first place is because of the oil that is there and those most interested in that oil is of course the big oil companies seeking profit from a dwindling resurce.

There were some comments below that last video which gave me some hope. Here is one from a user going by the name capitalist4life:

“I am a recovering neocon. I was converted through Dr. Paul’s gentle suggestion that our foreign entanglements may cause some foreigners to want to kill us. I found that reasonable and I became more anti-war as I saw Hannity and Limbaugh vicously attack that reasonable idea. The one thing that didn’t convince me was strong anti-war rhetoric. I had to be eased into it. Just keep that in mind. Don’t be aggressive and extreme. Gently ease our “conservative” friends into the anti-war way of thinking.”

But let me end with a different quote. One of the last truly moral Republican leaders was Dwight D. Eisenhower who, of course, is famous for warning about the military-industrial complex. He was far from being a pacifist liberal and for that reason his words are all that more important. He seemed to genuinely believe that politicians should serve all Americans and not just the wealthy. Here is what he said in a 1953 speech:

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”

Gitmo: The New Rules of War

Pierre-Richard Prosper said: “We’re applying the Geneva Conventions, but he by his conduct has not earned the benefits or privileges of being labelled a prisoner of war.”

That is some evil sounding rhetoric.

It’s my understanding that, according to Geneva Conventions, either someone is or is not a prisoner of war. A person doesn’t have to earn the benefits and privileges of being a prisoner of war. If you are being detained by a government because of allegations of involvment in fighting against that government, then you are by definition a prisoner of war.

Basically, Prosper is saying that the US government doesn’t care about international law and will apply it at whim without any explanation. Prosper doesn’t even explain the US policy about how someone earns the right to be treated like a human.

Prosper in this next video argues that we’re in an unconventional war that is against a private organization rather than a state. If that is the case, why did we invade and occupy two countries? And this is further confusing since the US government and other governments are increasingly relying upon private organiztions as mercenaries. Are we getting to the point where governments are stepping away from taking any responsibility of the wars they start and the killing they cause? In the future, governments will pull the strings behind the scenes while private organizations fight other private organizations. Meanwhile, innocent citizens will be caught in the middle.

Anarcho-capitalists argue only governments can fight wars and not private organizations, but I fear they are sadly wrong. If there is another world war (not of the cold war variety), it quite likely could be between private organizations that have no loyalty to any specific nation and so would have no responsibility to any specific citizenry. The private organizations who fight the wars could be the same that own the media. Just imagine if Blackwater became an large international mercenary force and imagine that it was owned by Rupert Murdoch.