November 4, 2005


Changing the face of the United States:
A national defense based on good will

by Patrick Dobson

There was a serpent who had to sing.
There was. There was.
He simply gave up Serpenting.
Because. Because.

— Theodore Roethke from “The Serpent” in Words for the Wind,

It’s time to say it: The American Military Machine is a tool of oppression.

Yes, that’s right. Politicians in league with capitalists and military men use this tool to oppress other nations, people and ethnicities.

More importantly, these players use the military and its supporting rhetoric to oppress Americans — through taxes that bring no social gain, the ways militarism divides Americans, and the prescription, and, indeed, normalization of thought and behavior through jingoistic appeals to American “Pride.”

A better idea, at least for democracy, is to shift all the energy, money and intellect to create a national defense based on plain good will.

Few Americans can conceive good will as a tool of national defense. Might has always meant guns and violence, or threat of violence. And when it comes to spreading good will at home and abroad, most Americans think of engendering relationships that afford increased opportunity to buy and sell more stuff.

At the heart of this proposal is making an intellectual and cultural turn-around. Good will at home and abroad must be loosed from the constraints of violence and capital.

Such is hard to imagine. Everything American has a dollar value. The life of a dying person who needs treatment but has no way to pay for it. Equity building in a house. Trinkets in the attic that can’t be just given away but, instead, must be sold. The repair of roads. The encouragement of life in a dying town. Everything comes under the umbrella of capital endeavor. How much does altruism cost in dollars? Donations turn into services that afford people entry into a system of capital and exchange? What about time taken from work? Even a simple walk in the woods carries a dollar figure. How much are trees in the national forest worth in terms of real dollars, corporate opportunity and employment for the few men who drive the scissor machines?

But when it comes to the military’s usefulness to corporate profiteers, the worth/dollar value belief shorts out. A $400 billion-a-year military is the nation’s largest transfer of wealth from the general taxpayer to the profits of a few handfuls of corporate suppliers. It’s bigger than oil. Bigger than grain. As far as military expenditures go, it would be nice if the $400 billion investment returned 10 percent. But it doesn’t. It is the nation’s largest work program, providing rural populations and urban poor outlets for bad education, lack of opportunity and poverty — but at rates that do not reflect the investment.

The military is socially detrimental, not merely because it kills people and is based wholly on the ability to kill people. It demands huge amounts of human and financial capital, and produces nothing except the language, if not the behavior, of social control.

Americans, outside of a few Quakers and pacifists, don’t think in these terms. Rather, the military as embodied in the American fighting man and woman becomes a sacred institution above reproach.

As an example, “Support the Troops” is an admonition not to criticize the military, American foreign policy or corporate capital’s agenda. But supporting the troops means to support what they are doing — in what many think is unjust violence. The vilification, castigation and denigration that come with not supporting the work of the troops snuff all criticism of both the American militarism and the military.

In fact, “support the troops” posters, signs and car magnets do more to oppress and discourage dissent than to cultivate good feelings about “our boys.”

So, “support the troops” is fundamentally un-American, in the sense that a free democracy depends on independence of opinion and the expression of it. Our boys and girls in the military have almost no role in the rhetoric of supporting troops. Instead, supporting troops means believing in what they are doing and the reasons they are doing it. And for those who don’t believe what the military does is right, moral or ethical, “support the troops” rhetoric subverts any critique of American militarism. The signs, magnetic stickers and language are moral and social prescriptions against stepping out of a line and march dangerously close to fascism — one not ruled by a single dictator but, rather, a dictatorship of ideology supporting a capital elite..

The military, however, can provide Americans a less costly defense, a way to overcome the oppression of some Americans by others, stop American oppression of people and nations who do not fit into the capitalist paradigm and get around everyone’s hurt feelings.

This new defense paradigm goes like this: Use American money, will and technology to create the world’s largest search-and-rescue, demolition-and-reconstruction, and humanitarian aid force. Relieving people from the injury of natural disaster becomes the focus of our Great American Militarism, and the means of our redemption in the eyes of people who have become bitter at American and capital hegemony.

In the recent spate of natural occurrences that disturbed the life of our species, it was sad to see opportunities slip by. Not only did the military miss its calling at home with hurricanes, but also abroad with the recent earthquakes in Pakistan, Iran and Guatemala. With a disciplined military force focused on humanitarian aid, the United States could have quickly increased its visibility and reputation as a good, compassionate, moral nation.

Natural and human disaster provides a fantastic outlet for Americans, who admire uniforms, metals and shiny boots, to prepare, march and practice their military skills. Delivering humanitarian aid, sawing and cutting people out of buildings, finding, identifying and burying the dead. Providing law enforcement. Flying construction supplies into devastate regions. Delivering heat, water and food. Setting up tents. It’s all here. Deliverance rather than slaughter would create national idols of those fighting men and women who did the most, built the most, carried the most. Those who would die trying would become national heroes.

And every bit of it would increase American good will toward other nations — making a dent in our own xenophobia and distrust of dark, different, impoverished or turbaned people. Americans would come to know them, see them as members of the same species that bleed, cry, hurt and persevere, and have families, friends and communities just like they do.

Making the military a responsive and dedicated force — a go-to group of men and women, and American know-how and technology — now that would be something every American, rich or poor, militarist or pacifist, religious or spiritual, atheist and deist, pious or iconoclast could be proud of. We would help other people together. Other nations would envy our position it the world, maybe even compete to do it better. We would be a nation whose primary purpose would be concern for all humanity. Globalization would come to mean more than exploitation.

Such a force would need the minimum amount of weaponry for its own security. American military hardware of heavy guns, tanks, missiles, etc. could be recycled into building struts, mess kits, prefabricated buildings, travel trailers, and even washing machines, refrigerators and toasters. Helicopters and ships transport everything. Cargo planes move troops and supplies, medical and infrastructural triage experts, and food and water into devastated areas.

Even nuclear weapons — dismantled, their parts used for medical equipment. The infrastructure of missile and bomb management, as well as command and control, turned over to a Pentagon reconfigured to send 1.5 million American troops to all corners of the world with food, fuel and supplies. And it would be cheaper. A B-2 bomber costs about $2.5 billion these days. How much of a C-47 Cargo Ship’s airtime, troop labor, and food and water could that buy?

The U.S. sent eight helicopters, a medical unit, and fraction of other nations’ monetary donations to the Pakistani Kashmir in the Oct. 8 earthquake that killed over 70,000. That’s it. And the opportunity to increase the idea of the good-spirited Yank was lost. Another couple of million bucks and some troops might have helped. But even if the moment has gone, opportunity still exists — some 300,000 Pakistanis still don’t have shelter, food, and water. Pakistan officials say it will cost $5 billion to rebuild. Imagine, for the cost of two B-2s, ranks of American soldiers, administrators and hard hats could become the next phalanx of Pakistani national heroes.

Thousands of uniforms helping people in ways inefficient and unrepresentative governments cannot would take the place of a lifetime of American violent hegemony in the name of capital accumulation. Americans, of course, would have to forego their imperialist compulsions. After all, one’s not really generous if he or she quit giving at the first slap. Americans would have to employ local people, put their brainpower to work, leave other religions and ways of life alone. But it would be easy. The Halliburtons, General Electrics, Raytheons and Wackenhuts of the nation would find opportunity in troop reinforcement, manufacturing the material of relief and the means to deliver it, and training. New paradigms mean need for new products, and new products mean money, money, money in ways that enhance, rather than burden, the American economy.

Ironically, altruism does carry a profit. The U.S. stops killing for the sake of profit to make lots of money. In the meantime, it stops oppressing others. It has only a few light arms and police among its military but creates huge opportunity in other products. Corporations gain broad new markets and opportunities for the spread of capitalism. Most importantly, Americans no longer have to make each other behave.

What protects us if we don’t have guns, bombs and missiles? What keeps horses from breeding with cows and the sun from rising in the West?

Just this: Our reputation as the one superpower that can deliver when the chips are down, people are hurt and when food, supplies and water become valuable enough for people with disaster-in-common to kill each other. No one, not even the wildest, most sociopathic terrorist organization would want to risk global disapproval, economic sanction and exclusion from the profits of capital endeavor in attacking Americans at home or abroad.

More and more, militarism and military spending fills corporate coffers in ways that John Maynard Keynes and Franklin Delano Roosevelt would not recognize. With the New Deal, government money spent was money Americans earned. The New Deal shifted the cost of capitalism to those who the system privileged. For Americans to stop killing tens of thousands civilians in defense of capitalism (41,000 in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the Pentagon’s own numbers) and oppressing themselves and others, a cultural shift has to happen. Such a shift demands American admission that their way of life is costly, deadly and toxic to themselves and others.

In short, militarism may unite Americans against “bad” guys, if that. But $400-plus billion is a hefty price tag for a questionable foundation of national identity.

Better to put our fighting men and women to work for good purpose. Something they can be proud of without the contradiction of taking life to defend rhetoric. A military as a humanitarian giant — cheap, disciplined and creating the greatest defense Americans can have: An altruistic reputation beyond reproach.

Patrick Dobson can be contacted at


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