The slumbering giant of American democracy

Most Americans want an end to war and more money spent on healthcare – could this be the beginning of their awakening?

vietnam protest
'The coming out against the war in Vietnam by WWII veterans - veterans who had the cachet of having won their war, a popular war - was a positive influence in the 60s-generation of soldiers', argues author [GALLO/GETTY]

San Pedro, CA – Last week, I wrote about the significant overlap between neo-conservatism and neoliberalism as failing ideologies of the faltering American empire – and I wrote about veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who gave back their medals to NATO, just like an earlier generation of Vietnam War veterans had done at the White House in May, 1971.

Now, as then, I wrote, the anti-war veterans have the support of most Americans – roughly two-thirds now want America to withdraw from Afghanistan, the same as wanted out of Vietnam in 1971. And yet, the elite media not only ignores both groups, it actively divides them – both against one another and against themselves.

No amount of medals, ribbons or flags can cover the amount of human suffering caused by these wars. We don’t want this garbage.

– Sgt Maggie Martin

The veterans returning their medals to NATO were generally blunt and to the point. “I did two tours in Iraq,” Sgt Maggie Martin told the crowd. “No amount of medals, ribbons or flags can cover the amount of human suffering caused by these wars. We don’t want this garbage. We want our human rights. We want our right to heal.”

“I am deeply sorry for the destruction that we have caused in those countries and around the globe,” said Jason Hurd, who spent 10 years as an Army combat medic. “I am proud to stand on this stage with my fellow veterans and my Afghan sisters. These were lies. I’m giving them back.”

These were just two of the dozens and dozens of veterans who returned their medals that day. A number of others cited Private Bradley Manning, imprisoned and awaiting trial for allegedly “aiding the enemy” by passing on classified material later published by the whistleblower website, WikiLeaks. The celebrated Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg has also spoken out on Manning’s behalf.

“Bradley Manning is acting in the interest of the United States and against the interest of our enemy al-Qaeda,” Ellsberg said last year. “There’s a campaign here against whistleblowing that’s actually unprecedented in legal terms.” From Ellsberg’s perspective, there is no basic difference between what he did in releasing the Pentagon Papers – which made him a hero to a generation of Americans – and what Bradley Manning is accused of, releasing a treasure trove of embarrassing and illuminating classified cables via Wikileaks – which could end up keeping him in prison for the rest of his life. The difference in the two men’s treatment reflects how much elite assumptions and opinion have changed in 40 years, particularly within the Democratic Party.

Anti-war veterans

But elite ideas have tremendous trickle-down influence as well – a point that emerged with particular clarity when I spoke about Iraq and Afghanistan veterans returning their medals with Vietnam veteran Jerry Lembcke. He is the author of The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam, a book that first debunks the myth that anti-war protesters typically spit on veterans returning from the Vietnam War, and then goes on to explore the multiple reasons why that myth has such enduring power. Lembcke is as tightly attuned as anyone to the psychological and sociological labyrinths of how Vietnam’s legacy continues echoing through our politics today. In our conversation, Lembcke highlighted two contrasting dynamics in terms of how much more sophisticated resisting veterans were today, the other in terms of how much more handicapped they are.

Thus, the legacy of Vietnam veterans in resistance to their own war may, in fact, have been an impediment to the Iraq-Afghanistan generation’s embrace of dissent and pacifism.

– Jerry Lembcke, Vietnam veteran

“The veterans in Chicago addressed their returned medals to NATO, words indicating a consciousness about the international scope of today’s conflicts that was not present during the Vietnam years,” Lembcke first told me, “The turning of Vietnam veterans and in-service resisters that had began as early as 1965 when Green Beret Sergeant Donald Duncan ‘quit’ the military was a huge catalyst to the antiwar movement.” Lembcke then described how today’s anti-war veterans face a unique set of difficulties.

“Viewed by some observers as the successor to Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Iraq Veterans Against the War has had a hard time getting traction with fellow veterans and the general public,” he said. “On the one hand, it does seem that the modelling of veteran GI resistance by the Vietnam-era soldiers should have spurred quicker, earlier and more successful mobilisation by the current generation. But the disparagement of Vietnam veterans in popular culture (film in particular) and the news media (which came to psychologise their dissent, even pathologise it), smooched the images of political veterans together with that of strung-out trauma-stricken veterans to create a singular image of deviance to stay clear of. The loss of the war in Vietnam, moreover, undermined the cachet that that generation of veterans may have had with the next.”

There’s an irony here that’s not lost on Lembcke: “Thus, the legacy of Vietnam veterans in resistance to their own war may, in fact, have been an impediment to the Iraq-Afghanistan generation’s embrace of dissent and pacifism. By contrast, the coming-out against the war in Vietnam by World War II veterans – veterans who had the cachet of having
won their war, a popular war – was a positive influence in the 60s-generation of soldiers.”

LBJ’s unwanted war

Complementing Lembcke’s psycho-sociological insights is the larger history of American empire and its ideologies. Although it made precious little difference for all those who suffered or died on whichever side of the Vietnam War, it remains historically significant – if vastly under-appreciated – that Lyndon Johnson was actually anything but
enthusiastic about going to war in Vietnam. He went to war solely because he felt certain that otherwise he’d be impeached – a direct result of his long and difficult political struggles in the Senate during the 1950s, which are among the many significant aspects of senatorial history described in detail in Robert Mann’s unique history, A Grand Delusion: America’s Descent Into Vietnam.

Vietnam was Johnson’s great miscalculation, not because i was an unwinnable war… but because losing it ended up fatally crippling the social democratic political project begun by Roosevelt.

As the Publishers Weekly review of Mann’s book explains, “Mann, a former Senate aide, puts Senate-president politics at the centre of this masterful political history of America’s involvement in Vietnam, which began with Truman’s commitment to support the French in the wake of charges of ‘losing’ China to the Communists. Many of the senators who attacked the Truman administration were isolationists who voted against the realistic anti-Communist institutions such as NATO and the Marshall Plan. Yet such contradictions mattered little, as the Democrats’ disastrous political defeat in 1950 and 1952 convinced them to never let another ‘loss’ be blamed on them.”

Johnson was hardly the only Democratic politician deeply affected by this experience – he was simply, as president, far and away the most powerful and important. But Johnson remained what he had always been since his earliest days running for office – a die-hard believer in FDR’s New Deal, whose primary ambition was to complete what Roosevelt had started. He fought in Vietnam in order to preserve his opportunity to create “The Great Society”, including landmark legislation in civil rights, education, immigration, housing, nutrition, environmental protection, fighting poverty… and, of course, Medicare.

Vietnam was Johnson’s great miscalculation, not because it was an unwinnable war – which China, Japan or France could have readily told him – but because losing it ended up fatally crippling the social democratic political project begun by Roosevelt at the national level, which Johnson had hoped to complete. Neo-liberalism – a throw-back to failed 19th century market ideologies, which produced wave after wave of mass bankruptcies and depressions (which they called “panics” then) – emerged only gradually from the political wreckage of the Vietnam era, based more on running away from problems, rather than trying to solve them.

History lessons unlearned

Four decades later, so much has been lost that even the “Powell Doctrine”, the military’s conservative response to the lessons of Vietnam, is long forgotten – much to our national sorrow and detriment. It was even ignored by its namesake as he himself helped hurry us into a war utterly lacking in:

“Obama is a classic neo-liberal… expert in projecting the appearance of concern for struggles that [his] supporters are engaged in.”

  • a clear purpose directly related to our national security
  • long-term public support
  • overwhelming military resources
  • or, a plausible exit strategy

More broadly, the whole purpose of the modern Democratic Party that Johnson tragically sacrificed for has been equally forgotten. Obama is a classic neo-liberal, following in Bill Clinton’s footsteps. Both men are expert in projecting the appearance of concern for struggles that their supporters are engaged in, but their blind embrace of a failed market ideology, and a wide-ranging mish-mash of faddish, mid-level “solutions” is inherently incapable of delivering anything remotely like the decades-long robust economic success of the early post-WWII years from 1946 through 1968.

Which brings us back to another group protesting against NATO. Like the anti-war veterans, the National Nurses Union, too, have the American people on their side. As I noted last week, the NNU nurses want to fund healthcare instead of warfare.

Although you rarely hear about it, the vast majority of Americans agree. The General Social Survey is America’s most comprehensive public opinion survey. In 2010, it once again asked respondents if we, as a nation, were spending too much, too little, or about the right amount on a wide range of national needs. Conservatives as a whole answered very similarly regarding both health care and military spending, saying we were spending too little – rather than too much – by about 2-to-1 in both cases. (47.9 per cent to 24.4 per cent for health care; 39.5 per cent to 21.8 per cent for military spending). This shows that conservatives as a whole have a much more balanced viewpoint than their political representatives, who are pushing hard to severely slash health care spending, while pushing military spending even higher than the Pentagon has asked for.

But that’s only the beginning of the elite/mass disconnect. Figures for the population as a whole – closely matching the attitudes of moderates – dramatically favour more spending on healthcare and less on the military. Americans as a whole think we’re spending too little on healthcare, rather than too much by 60 per cent to 16 per cent; and – conversely – that we’re spending too much on the military rather than too little by 35 per cent to 27 per cent. Clearly, the National Nurses Union is onto something – and the entire two-party budget debate is far removed from what the American people actually want.

In short, both the anti-war veterans and the pro-health care nurses represent solid supermajority positions of the American people as a whole. Yet political and media elites treat both groups as little more than Stalinist “unpersons”. Without vast sums of money in the Citizens United era, they might as well not exist. Optimists may call America’s democracy “dysfunctional”, pessimists may say that it’s dead. But another possibility is that it’s a sleeping giant that’s only just begun to awake – along with hundreds of other democracies all around the world.

Paul Rosenberg is the Senior Editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.

You can follow Paul on Twitter: @PaulHRosenberg

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