Dual Paths in Dark Times: Despair or Hope for Antiwar Dreamers

"Red" (Morgan Freeman): "Hope is a dangerous thing my friend, it can kill a man…"

Andy (Tim Robbins): "Remember, Red. Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies."

~ The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Two futures lie before us. Like the classic visions of late-Old Testament prophets, contemporary observers – perhaps voyeurs – of U.S. national security policy can, at this precipice of pandemic, discern, however vaguely, as dual, dichotomous prospective paths unfurl. The first, and Washington’s long-preferred, course is one of militarist escalation. It’s contours are there for us to see.

In the past couple of weeks, the Pentagon has unapologetically ramped up its proxy war with Iran – on the soil of an unmistakably unwilling "sovereign" state which has politely, if futilely, asked the US military to leave – by bombing, and killing, third-party "allies" of the Islamic Republic.

Then, though it was hardly covered or noticed, Washington killed a Somali child and an elderly disabled man in an airstrike: the 31st such US attack-from-the-sky in a Trump-accelerated campaign upon yet another country we are not at war with. US Africa Command announced, of course, that five "terrorists" had been killed in the strike with zero reports of civilian casualties. Well, naturally, it helps to have folks on the ground (hardly the norm for America’s techno-killers) to accurately access victim-status. Which is probably one reason – besides flagrant duplicity – that a UK-based airstrike monitoring group’s relevant report estimates Somali civilian casualties in US attacks since 2007 may be 73 times higher than official Pentagon claims.

Nor should anyone forget that the U.S.-backed and critically enabled Saudi/UAE terror war on, and blockade of, Yemen hasn’t ceased. Back when most folks thought "Corona" was just a cheap brand of cerveza, that unlucky nation – already the Arab World’s poorest – had the ignoble distinction of being the globe’s grimmest humanitarian disaster area. With more than 100,000 war-related deaths and counting, Yemen still faces the world’s worst cholera outbreak. Now, hidden under the veil of pandemic-media-blackout, America’s ostensible Saudi and Emirati "allies" – I think the kids call them frenemies – have just violently turned on each other in South Yemen. It seems a predictably failed US policy on the Arabian Peninsula has finally reached it’s absurd destined denouement, as Washington’s treasured, theocratic, authoritarian, Arab state "partners" turn fratricidal.

Finally, in a fit of remarkable sadism – even for him, and the late-stage empire he "diplomatically" represents – last week Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reportedly (unsuccessfully) urged President Trump to use this pandemic opportunity to bomb Iran. For this former military academy valedictorian – the current administration is literally loaded with members of Pompeo’s Class of 1986, calling themselves the "West Point Mafia" – chickenhawk who never saw a shot fired in anger, waging proxy war with Iran isn’t sufficient. That’s right: Mr. Pompeo sought to attack a sovereign state the congress has not declared war upon, which is riddled with Corona, and has already had its public health response crippled by brutal US economic sanctions.

Sanctions are usually – as is empirically provable – ineffective, and always tantamount to murder (of innocents), especially in times of disease-pandemic. That’s by design; the inherent nature of the blockade beast. Need proof? Consider the case of Iraq: the absolute gold standard of U.S.-imposed (1990-2003) sanctions-cruelty. We now know – actually have long known – that, according to a widely cited UNICEF report, economic sanctions killed more than 500,000 children there, by increasing the infant mortality rate. Lest one naively suppose this to be the unintended cost of doing business, recall that Defense Intelligence Agency documents (DIA) uncovered in 2001, proved that the US purposefully "used sanctions against Iraq to degrade the country’s water supply after the [1991] Gulf War," and admitted that "This could lead to increased incidences, if not epidemics, of disease."

So, sure, one potential path is to tighten the embargo-noose on Cuba, Iran, Venezuela, Yemen, and other states that Uncle Sam deems disagreeable. Recent events and administration pronouncements indicate that to be the Trump team’s opportunistic inclination. This in spite of a litany of credible reports showing such sanctions have killed, and will kill, thousands upon thousands of innocents. What’s certain is that "maximum pressure,” applied to Iran or others, will doom countless more.

All of which is to say nothing about the final – and perhaps most treacherous – threat on the potential Corona-contemporaneous path: that of government’s proven penchant for opportunistic domestic suppression. The disturbing writing is already on the wall in reports that the US military plans to temporarily seize power in a Corona-pinch, and that the Justice Department seeks indefinite detention authority in this, or a similar, emergency. And why not? We’ve seen it before.

The US warfare state has run amok since the end of the Second World War, and veritably gone "off-the-rails" since September 11, 2001. It is behaving as badly as ever in the wake of this Corona-outbreak. That much is undeniable. Still, reasons remain to not slip into apathy or despair. As the great Leonard Cohen once sang, "There is a crack, a crack in everything; That’s how the light gets in." Staring straight into the ugly face of COVID-19, a growing number of antiwar scholars and activists are today widening those very fissures in the edifice of American militarism.

Despite the impending darkness, there have been (exponentially) growing – domestic and internationalcalls for the US military to finally march out of Iraq. There’s even been unprecedented talk of the need to evacuate and close American bases in the Mideast writ large. The severity of the Corona-plague is such that it appears the military is even quietly "repositioning” (read: leaving) some of its smaller bases in Iraq, as part of an unprecedented DOD-wide response to the pandemic.

Most vitally, the activist (and to some degree policymaker) appetite for a complete moratorium on worldwide US sanctions (which, until now, have rarely raised any meaningful public ire) is particularly encouraging. What’s remarkable, and potentially decisive, is that the rationalizations raised for a demilitarized foreign policy hold the weight of both prudence and morality.

Traditionally, policy arguments centered solely on "sensible" strategy, or "emotional" ethics, respectively, rarely garner mass appeal. This reality reflects the nature of the human condition. Homo sapiens are a rather peculiar species, driven by neither reason nor passion, exclusively. Such is the duality of Man. Usually, the positions that ultimately carry the day – for good or ill – appeal to both the cerebral cortex (or "Mammal“) and limbic (or "Lizard") portions of the collective brain. There are hopeful signs that such dual-rationales are available with respect to ending America’s deadly sanctions regime.

In the midst of the current pandemic, twin-track arguments for relief range (quite effectively) from ethical clamors for mercy – consider it a form of Love in the Time of Cholera Corona – to tactical self interest. After all, mass outbreaks in one country inevitably affect public health in our own; as even the most stringent travel-bans and blockades inescapably leak like sieves in this increasingly interconnected, technologically-advanced, world. Straddling both lines of argument, are a respected group of economists – hardly known as a particularly emotive lot – who recently called for the lifting of all US sanctions worldwide. Such penalties on Iran, Cuba, Venezuela and others, they astutely asserted, have the effect of "feeding the coronavirus epidemic," and that the prevailing "policy is unconscionable and flagrantly against international law." Whether such arguments will ultimately prevail remains uncertain, but this is nevertheless a powerful, persuasive line of reasoning.

This sort of uncomfortable self-awareness and conscience-consistency would demonstrate a level of national policy maturity that could serve as an example to the world from a country that (generally) has been historically hypocritical as a self-styled democratic "beacon," and "indispensable,” shining "City on a Hill.” Words matter; so do their meanings. Never underestimate the potency of semantics in public policy.

Consider one more, somewhat ideological, aperture for an antiwar positional explication. The increasingly self-evident necessity of interstate cooperation, for global responses to a global calamity, presents a unique opportunity for scholars, sympathizers, and street activists to forcefully shrug-off the pejorative poundage of the "isolationism" label – a convenient descriptive cudgel to dismiss all war critics – and avow their own internationalism, of sorts. An antiwar movement which necessarily spans the spectrum from the faintly socialist to vaguely libertarian, need not tip towards extreme, much-maligned (with some reason) positions of "globalism" to effectively counter the security-state establishments go-to accusational canard that such opposition is wholly "isolationist." That would be a victory in itself.

Whatever one thinks about the severity of this pandemic, its logical conclusion, or the evolving government (and global) response, these are unquestionably crucial times. Folks are really frightened and downright dying. Understandable, this, but all must remain critically cognizant that History shall not end, that the force of events will carry on. The Empire will act out, in these tumultuous times, like the petulant child it truly is.

History is ceaselessly contingent; human beings are inherently imbued with agency; and nothing is inevitable. What is certain, is that the American Republic, and its people, are about to be tested on a grand, epochal scale.

Let us hope, or pray, that they are not found wanting…

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Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer and contributing editor at Antiwar.com. His work has appeared in the LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Truthdig, Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. His forthcoming book, Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War is now available for pre-order. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet. Check out his professional website for contact info, scheduling speeches, and/or access to the full corpus of his writing and media appearances.

Copyright 2020 Danny Sjursen