Saturday, November 26, 2011

Vow to Hire Heroes




Steven Johnston
University of South Florida

Three days before Thanksgiving, Barack Obama signed into law the VOW to Hire Heroes Act, a piece of political legislation of, at best, dubious economic value. It offers tax credits to employers who hire veterans. Both parties lined up to support the bill knowing full well that it amounted to little more than political pandering. Despite the fiscal crisis supposedly plaguing the American state, the legislation found few if any detractors. The debt owed the brave men and women who make enormous sacrifices to keep America safe, secure, and free rendered discussion irrelevant. The United States military is perhaps the only institution that transcends the fanatical obstructionism of the Republican Party, an entity so hell-bent on free market utopianism (among others) that it continues to inflict enormous damage on the country and its future. Good patriots that they are, Republicans no doubt believe that harming the country they love is proof positive they love it (with a partial exception for Ron Paul). True, former Republican Senator and Defense Secretary William Cohen recently took the GOP to task for endangering the country’s national security with its anti-tax hysteria, but Cohen issued his rebuke not on behalf of the well-being of the United States but of the American empire.
Does the United States military deserve the plaudits routinely showered on it? This is an open question. For one thing, it is not a citizen army composed of people serving their country in the spirit of equality and mutual obligation. It is a self-selecting professional mercenary force. Too many Americans clearly prefer to have someone else shoulder the responsibility for common security. They have other and better things (the list is endless) to do with their lives.  This might seem (to them) like a free ride without repercussions, an attitude no doubt fostered by a culture of exceptionalism. Nevertheless, entrusting a free way of life to guns-for-hire enables adventurist presidents like George W. Bush to endanger the country at will without genuine fear of domestic blowback. The military draws for support on regional cultures, perhaps especially in the south, that thrive on war and the warrior ethos. They tend to support overwhelmingly the very party and policies that place them in harm’s way and exact such staggering tolls on them and their families. It’s a tangled web of narcissism, masochism, and sadism, which I cannot explore here.
The imperial adventures they authorize, whether deposing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq or fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, do not involve American safety, security, or liberty, widespread legitimizing rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding. To keep American forces deployed worldwide for longer and pointless engagements, the country keeps throwing an increasing number of benefits in their direction, both material and symbolic. Mercenaries must be compensated.

Meanwhile, Occupy Wall Street participants offer and risk their lives in the name of democracy. They do so not only without prior promise of remuneration from an obliging state but also with a reasonable expectation of downright indifference from a highly depoliticized country. Such indifference enables, even encourages police forces from coast to coast to abuse and assault fellow citizens with a sense of impunity.


Mayors from New York to California invoke concerns for public hygiene and equal access to public space to justify their militarized responses to democracy in action. New York’s mayor, learning from a previous public relations disaster, planned, in secret, a late night raid on Zuccotti Park to clear Occupy Wall Street activists. Bloomberg’s late night pincer movement resembled the totalitarian tactics of the secret police in the Soviet Union depicted so brilliantly by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. It’s not that the thuggish behavior of American mayors, high-ranking campus officials, and their police auxiliaries doesn’t provoke outrage: witness the effective response to the UC-Davis Chancellor, the suspension of the Davis Police Chief, and the Berkeley Academic Senate’s vote of no confidence scheduled for Monday, November 28 against that school’s chancellor for police violence against students of Occupy Cal.
Still, the outrage tends to be unduly confined to the already like-minded. It does not produce widespread disgust followed by real political consequences. We are not (yet) Egypt. Bloomberg’s career should have ended with this vicious middle-of-the-night assault on citizens. Of course, it should also have ended following the 2004 GOP Convention in New York where similar police state tactics were implemented against citizens enacting democracy as George Bush waged his personal war of choice in Iraq, but as the recent GOP debate in Washington suggests, no politician will pay a price for sacrificing civil and political liberties in the name of security. Why is it that most Americans tolerate, even cheer, police violence against citizens? Is it that identification with gratuitous displays of state power allows them to imagine that they themselves also possess agency in a world that routinely and rudely reminds them they are impotent?
Occupy Wall Street protestor & USMC Sgt. Shamar Thomas shares his views on police repression with NYPD officers (full video here).
Back to patriotism and economics: You would think the Occupy Wall Street movement might generate a jobs bill to assist the unemployed millions who are entitled to as much consideration as war veterans. No, they are entitled to greater consideration, for these activists actually contribute to democracy by bringing it to life. They do not spread death across the globe in the name of freedom or nation-building. The students who were brutalized at UC-Davis need no lessons in courage from camouflaged warriors who won’t hesitate to go into battle as long as thousands of others are willing to do likewise, as William James famously claimed. (This is one reason James scorned traditional war memorials.) If heroes should be employed, start with the courageous citizens who risk life and limb and occupy space in America’s major cities on behalf of the 99%. A major jobs bill might even stave off the economic collapse that looms on the horizon, thanks in part to European recklessness and intransigence. Such collapse would likely be accompanied by widespread state coercion singling out the usual political suspects for blame, applauded by a majority always in need of scapegoats. Think of it as Sinclair Lewis’s nightmare come true.

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