‘Waist Deep in the Big Muddy’
– American Empire, R.I.P.
‘Waist Deep in the Big Muddy’
American Empire, R.I.P.
By Thomas Adcock
Copyright © 2015 – Thomas Adcock
NEW YORK CITY, near America
Wither the United States of America?
Apparently, the linchpin of U.S. foreign policy is inchoate war; it seems hardly to matter where. And here at home, one-half the longstanding governing structure of two broad-based political institutions implodes before our eyes. As world history suggests, these may be heralds of an end to imperial America.
Tellingly, the most recent herald came in a telephone exchange on the night of October 19 between President Barack Obama and Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister in waiting. With federal elections returns completed that evening, Mr. Trudeau’s Liberal Party had trounced the decade-long Conservative Party government of Canada—a staunch ally of America’s disastrous military incursions in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere. As a pro forma courtesy, Mr. Obama called to congratulate Mr. Trudeau, whereupon Mr. Trudeau informed the “leader of the free world” that his own new government would soon withdraw Royal Canadian Air Force support for U.S. quagmires in the Middle East.
We have been warned about quagmires—notably when the late President Dwight Eisenhower delivered his farewell address in 1961. In it, he identified the dangers of the “military-industrial complex” that we now see as an obvious beneficiary of the American war in Vietnam, the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, and a resultant vortex of slaughter and shame.
Six years later came troubadour Pete Seeger (1919-2014) with his famous antiwar ballad, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.” His premiere performance, on network television, was censored at the halfway point—and ignored by President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973), whose insistence on pointless war sent fifty-eight thousand American soldiers to their graves. Hear Mr. Seeger now:
One night by the light of the moon,
The captain told us to ford a river.
That’s how it all began.
We were—knee deep in the Big Muddy,
but the big fool said to push on.
The sergeant said, ‘Sir, are you sure
this is the best way back to the base?’
‘Sergeant, go on! I forded this river
‘bout a mile above this place.
It’ll be a little sloggy, but just keep slogging.
We’ll soon be on dry ground.’
We were—waist deep in the Big Muddy
and the big fool said to push on.
The sergeant said, ‘Sir, with all this equipment
no man will be able to swim.’
‘Sergeant, don’t be a Nervous Nellie,’
the captain said to him.
‘All we need is a little determination;
men, follow me—I’ll lead on!’
We were—neck deep in the Big Muddy
and the big fool said to push on.
All at once, the moon clouded over,
we heard a gurgling cry.
A few seconds later, the captain’s helmet
was all that floated by.
…Every time I read the papers,
that old feeling comes on:
We’re—waist deep in the Big Muddy
and the big fool says to push on.
…Waist deep! Neck deep!
And the big fool says to push on.
Quagmires have sunk the mightiest empires into mud of their own fatal making. At the moment, we Americans are at least waist deep in two big muddies—one abroad, the other right here at home.
Among other misadventures abroad, we now wage seemingly endless war in Afghanistan—the very place where recorded history since the days of Alexander the Great the Genghis Khan informs us is where empires go to die. Domestically, we are witnessing the meltdown of a once respectable Republican Party—overtaken today by bigots, Babbits, bible slammers, and buffoons united in the nihilistic causes of preventing the Congress from functioning and thwarting the president at every turn.
Mushrooms in a dank forest
A recent headline in Der Spiegel pegged America’s last victory to the close of World War II in 1945. While the defeated Germany and Japan and America’s allies in Europe attended to urban destruction and financial chaos, the U.S. emerged as the most powerful economic and military force in a new world. Briefly, America savored its righteous triumph over fascism and set about building economic security for most, if not all its citizens. White, working-class families such as my own knew their first taste of middle-class comfort; blacks, as usual, stood at the back of the line.
Then came 1950 and the Korean “police action,” in which an American-led United Nations force in the south sided against joint Soviet-Chinese armies in the north. America rapidly devolved into anti-communist hysteria, largely whipped up by the late Senator Joseph McCarthy, a Republican drunkard, and affiliated rightists in the Congress and corporate media.
Hysteria provided geo-political cover for the military-industrial complex—led by the newly constituted Central Intelligence Agency—to prosecute the enormously profitable “Cold War” against the Soviet Union, an ally from 1941-45 suddenly turned mortal enemy. Washington avoided direct conflict with an equally belligerent, military-mad Moscow; the superpowers jousted with one another by way of murderous proxy wars, insinuating themselves on opposite sides of bloody battlefields in the undeveloped world.
The Berlin Wall separated a post-1945 Federal Republic Germany in the West from the German Democratic Republic, a Soviet protectorate in the East. The wall fell in 1989. The Soviet Union itself dissolved two years later. But never fear: America found a fresh crop of mortal enemies.
At last tally—in August 2014, according to a U.N. report—America fingered one hundred and eighty-one organizations as terrorist threats to its national security. They ranged alphabetically from the Abdullah Azzam Brigades (Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Gaza, Lebanon) to the World Uygur Youth Congress in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region of China. Included in the fingering, were the more familiar Taliban, al-Qaeda, Al-Nusra Front, Al-Shabaab, Ansar al-Sharia, Hezbollah, Muslim Brotherhood, Quds Force, and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
Like mushrooms in a dank forest, the enemies of America sprout in incessant fecundity. But unlike mushrooms, military adventurism is unsustainable.
If we do not cease in “freeing the world to death,” as the American author and historian William Blum puts it, some other adventurous nation is bound to take vengeance upon us. Or, much like Soviet empire, the treasury of the United States will become exhausted by the obscene expense of maintaining the Pentagon. Perhaps then we might see the wisdom of leaving the world alone, at least for a while.
Bureaucratized, industrialized warfare is pricey indeed, as Mr. Blum noted in an October 2002 address at the University of Colorado. He asked his audience of students and faculty, “Do you know what one year’s military budget is equal to? It’s equal to more than $20,000 per hour (€17,566) for every hour since Jesus Christ was born.”
Further, thundered Mr. Blum, “From 1945 to the end of the [twentieth] century, the United States attempted to overthrow more than forty foreign governments, and to crush more than thirty populist movements fighting against insufferable regimes. …[T]he U.S. bombed about twenty-five countries, caused the end of life for several million people, and condemned…millions more to agony and despair.”
Now comes the absurd “War on Terror” with ever-expanding theatres of action: Afghanistan, Kuwait, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq (twice), et cetera, et cetera.
Yet on October 15 President Barack Obama saw fit to renege on his several promises to end U.S. involvement in war during his tenure, especially in Afghanistan. Of all places, Afghanistan. Few if any ordinary Americans can explain our presence there, or even locate the country on a world map.
Promises be damned, Mr. Obama ordered the military to push on in Afghanistan—through this year, the next year, and even beyond January 2017 when he leaves office. Thus shall come more and more and more pointless death at the hands of his White House successor—and more and more and more billions for money-grubbing merchants of war.
…Waist deep! Neck deep!
By the way, let us not forget the unspeakable cruelties committed by military and Central Intelligence Agency torturers at the Bagram Air Field in Parwan Province, Afghanistan—cruelties sure to be avenged. Nor America’s brutal treatment of “detainees” at Guantánamo Bay navy base in Cuba, where the U.S. holds a lease on a godforsaken corner of the island. Or the American atrocities at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq—worthy of war crime trial at the Hague, save for the U.S. having pulled out of the World Court. Or a top-secret number of “black sites” throughout the world where Pentagon-funded goons and psychiatrists abused prisoners by way of sodomy, sexual humiliation, starvation, physical torture, and psychological “persuasion.”
For all we mere citizens are permitted to know, the abuses march on. All in the cause of protecting America from sneak attacks, such as al-Qaeda bombings of the World Trade Center in Manhattan in February 1993, and again on September 11, 2001.
Mr. Blum proposes an alternative:
If I were the president, I could stop terrorist attacks against the United States in a few days—permanently. I would first apologize…to all the widows and orphans, the tortured and impoverished, and all the many millions of other victims of American imperialism. Then I would announce that America’s global interventions have come to an end…I would then reduce the military budget at least ninety percent, and use the savings to pay reparations. There would be enough money.
A realist, Mr. Blum added, “That’s what I’d do on my first three days in the White House. On the fourth day, I’d be assassinated.”
‘One of our political parties is insane’
Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) was the first presidential candidate of the anti-slavery Republican Party, created in the 1850s. Over time, the party changed radically: economically, from its advocacy of agricultural and main street small business interests to champions of Wall Street banks and corporatism; domestically, from the party of African Americans in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to a home for white racists opposed to civil rights progress from the 1930s onward; militarily, from the party of isolationism to the party of armed intervention anywhere-anytime; culturally, from erudition to anti-science impulse, extreme Christian zealotry, misogyny, and homophobia.
Old-school conservatives such as political theorist and author Andrew Sullivan are as harshly critical of the Republican metamorphosis as Democratic Party liberals. In October, Mr. Sullivan wrote of his latest bout of exasperation with Congressional Republicans—virtually all male; to a man, insistent on making medical decisions for women. As I write, Republicans threaten to default on all government debt obligations come November 11 unless America’s foremost nonprofit women’s health organization, Planned Parenthood, is stripped of federal tax support due to the relative handful of legal abortions it provides for poor and working-class women.
Mr. Sullivan wrote:
When you see a political party that…attacks [the] country’s credit for purely partisan reasons, you begin to see how deep the rot has gone. This is not a party worthy of any role in government. It’s a destructive, self-interested faction, threatening the stability of this country’s constitution and economy. …This anti-conservative radicalism is anti-American, uncivil, and unpatriotic. It must not be appeased. It has to end.
Bruce Bartlett, who served in the cabinets of conservative Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, went further. He questioned the collective mental health of today’s Republicans: “Frankly, one of our [two] political parties is insane, and we all know which one it is. They have descended from the realm of reasonableness that was the mark of conservatism. They dream of anarchy, of ending government.”
Among the indicators of insanity, Mr. Barlett directs attention to the line-up of contenders for nomination as the Republican candidate in the presidential election next year. In descending order of preference, according to a CBS News poll released October 13, they are:
• Donald Trump at 28 percent. In announcing his candidacy, the real estate magnate denounced Mexican immigrants as murderers and rapists.
• Ben Carson, 27 percent. The retired neurosurgeon, who is African American, denounced the tepid national health care plan enacted in 2010 by Democrats then in control of Congress as “the worst thing to happen to America since slavery.”
• Rafael Eduardo “Ted” Cruz, 9 percent. One day after nine worshipers at a black church in South Carolina were massacred by a white neo-Nazi in legal possession of a semiautomatic handgun, the right-wing Senator Cruz thought it charming to quip, during a campaign stop in Iowa, “The great thing about your state is I’m pretty sure you all define gun control the same way we do in Texas—hitting what you aim at.”
• Marco Rubio, 8 percent. Last May, Mr. Rubio said convicted felons in his state of Florida should have gun ownership rights restored immediately upon release from prison, although he continues to support Florida’s lifetime prohibition on restoring voting rights to the same group.
• Carly Fiorino and John Edward “Jeb” Bush, each at 6 percent. Ms. Fiorino was forced to resign as chief executive from two large corporations, one of which she drove to near bankruptcy; none of her thousands of former employees contribute money to the Fiorino campaign. Mr. Bush, a former governor of Florida, recently declared that his brother, all-time worst U.S. President George W. Bush, “kept us safe” after terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on 9/11—presumably by launching a war against Iraq, which played no part in the attacks.
• Mike Huckabee, 2 percent. The Christian evangelist, hate radio
host, and ex-governor of Arkansas considers climate change to be a “hoax”—as do all his Republican rivals for presidential nomination.
Two more illustrative items: a) Messrs. Trump and Carson have, in the recent past, engaged in “multi-level merchandising” businesses, commonly known as get-rich-quick pyramid schemes; b) Mr. Trump is the defendant in a pending $40 million (€35.28 million) lawsuit brought by New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who claims the leading Republican presidential hopeful engaged in “persistent fraud” by running the “scam” of Trump University, now defunct.
Finally, we hear from conservative columnist David Brooks of the New York Times. For the October 13 edition, under the headline “The Incompetent Caucus,” he wrote:
Politics is the process of making decisions amid diverse opinions. It involves conversation, calm deliberation, self-discipline, the capacity to listen to other points of view and balance valid but competing ideas and interests. …Running a government is a craft, like carpentry. But the new Republican officials [do] not believe in government, and so [do] not respect its traditions, its disciplines, and its craftsmanship.
By the year 2025, Alfred W. McCoy predicts the American Empire will have collapsed completely. The U.S. reputation as a beacon of democratic stability at home and its status as a world-bestriding superpower will be “all over except for the shouting,” he has written. A renowned professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Mr. McCoy laid out his thesis for The Nation magazine edition of December 6, 2010:
Despite the aura of omnipotence most empires project, a look at their history should remind us that they are fragile organisms. So delicate is their ecology of power that, when things go truly bad, empires regularly unravel with unholy speed…Future historians are likely to identify the [George W. Bush] administration’s rash invasion of Iraq [in March 2003] as the start of America’s downfall. However, instead of the bloodshed that marked the end of so many past empires, with cities burning and civilians slaughtered, this twenty-first century imperial collapse [will] come relatively quietly through the invisible tendrils of economic collapse or cyber-warfare.
But have no doubt: when Washington’s global domination finally ends, there will be painful daily reminders of what such a loss of power means for Americans in every walk of life. As half a dozen European nations have discovered, imperial decline tends to have a remarkably demoralizing impact on a society, regularly bringing at least a generation of economic privation. As the economy cools, political temperatures rise, often sparking serious domestic unrest.
Already, millions of Americans beyond the fantasyland of a Republican-dominated Congress and corporate-inspired international trade pacts are aware that their employment is tenuous—that their jobs are headed somewhere overseas, where salaries and wages are low. These millions are angry. Ears pricked to cynical opportunity, Republicans offer immigrants, of all people, as scapegoats for the nation’s illness.
Conversely, millions more look to what passes for the Left in American politics—specifically to Democratic presidential aspirants Bernie Sanders, a Vermont senator, and former New York senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
An advocate of the Bush war in Iraq during her senatorial stint, Ms. Clinton currently renounces that position. Mr. Sanders, on the other hand, always opposed the violent foolishness. As secretary of state, Ms. Clinton favored the dubious Trans-Pacific Trade Pact—a job killer, according to the consensus view of American trade unions; she now opposes it. Mr. Sanders has been a stalwart for organized labor since his university days in Chicago in the 1960s.
The two Democrats are basically in tune on the need for action on climate change, expansion of renewable energy options, increased educational opportunities, and concern for personal income disparity unseen since the 1920s. They are optimistic, whereas Republicans peddle fear and paranoia.
Mr. Sanders speaks of the Wall Street crimes that brought on worldwide recession in 2008 in punitive terms; regrettably, Ms. Clinton said in a televised October candidate debate with Mr. Sanders and their three minor rivals, “As a New York senator, I represented Wall Street.”
What makes Mr. Sanders’ candidacy preferable to many, including myself, is the above-and-beyond of his campaign platform. Specifically, and at the risk of being marginalized by media, he suggests that America has much to learn from a country like Denmark—where university education and healthcare are rights of citizenship, where unemployment does not destroy families, where people are neither extremely poor nor preposterously wealthy, where there is no military-industrial complex.
Mr. Sanders suggests all this on the campaign trail, repeatedly. He suggested the same during the October debate, to which Ms. Clinton parried, regrettably, “We’re not Denmark, we’re the United States!” Whatever that means.
American Empire, resquiescat in pace.
Perhaps Mr. Sanders has identified a graceful path for sidestepping “precipitous and wrenching” decline: the United States could better serve its people, and surely by the world, by evolving to a continent-size Denmark.
— Thomas Adcock is America correspondent for CulturMag
Additional photo credits—
Pete Seeger: Columbia Record album, 1963
William Blum: williamblum.org
Andrew Sullivan, “The Conservative Soul”: amazonbooks.com
David Brooks: NBC Television