Monday, January 01, 2007

Why We Fight the Thieves of History

Last night, I was treated to the unfortunate experience of watching a thoroughly reprehensible piece of Riefenstahlian propaganda called Why We Fight. Manipulative, simple minded and slanderous, this "documentary" purported to expose the evils of "the military-industrial complex" (how long, I ask, does it take for a hideous cliche to die?) and its sinister influence on American foreign policy. While seeminly unable to make up its mind whether war itself is evil -- which would imply only a banal and useless pacifism -- or whether only American war is bad -- being, as it apparently is, the tumerous growth of an insatiable imperial project -- the film nonetheless clearly rested on a single point: all wars of the post-World War II era have been manufactured by the "military-industrial complex" in order to serve its economic interests. This is, of course, pure Chomskyite paranoiac conspiracy theory and is impossible to either prove or disprove, since it is based on theoretical conjecture and absolutely no evidence whatsoever. By definition, therefore, it is ahistorical and anti-intellectual balderdash. Which is, of course, the point. All totalitarian ideologies stand on an unfalsifiable article of faith. The ostensibly anti-war left (or right, for that matter, although this film is clearly the product of the former) is no different in this regard.

What I wish to analyze, however, is the presence in the film of a particular and much abused historical document: president Dwight David Eisenhower's farewell address. Delivered on national television on 17 January 1960, this address has, by one of the ironies inherent in history (or anti-history, depending on how you look at it) become one of the central texts of the "military-industrial complex" conspiracy theory, not least because it appears to mark the first appearence of the phrase itself. Oft-quoted by anti-war talking heads of both the left and right, excerpted for Oliver Stone's masterpiece of anti-history JFK, which charged the complex in question with the murder of the president of the United States, this address has been sanctified by Why We Fight in extraordinary fashion, the filmmakers going so far as to place a still photograph of Eisenhower giving the speech on the film's poster.

The usefulness of such a source cannot be overstated. The charges of scurrilousness, irresponsible rhetorical hysteria and flatulent radicalism are inherently undermined when faced with a personage such as a former and much revered president of the United States. And not merely that, but a former Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe. The man upon whom the great responsibility of winning World War II ultimately rested. In the presence of such a witness, gravitas is instantly bestowed upon the prosecutor.

The question, therefore, becomes a simple one. Did Eisenhower in fact say what he is purported to have said? Does his statement in fact reflect the overall ideology which is being foisted upon us by those who make use of it? The answer, and this should not be a surprise, is a resounding negative, and a simple examination of the complete document, rather than the few strategic excerpts emphasized by its hijackers, makes this eminently clear.

Eisenhower begins his speech with some statements of thanks to, among others, the Congress and the American people. He praises the bipartisanship which has marked his term, a bipartisanship, incidentally, abhorred by anti-war leftists. Radical anti-historian Howard Zinn has, in fact, spent an entire chapter of his magnum anti-opus A People's History of the United States denouncing precisely this consensus Eisenhower lauds. The body of the speech does not begin until the fifth paragraph.
We now stand ten years past the midpoint of a century that has witnessed four major wars among great nations. Three of these involved our own country. Despite these holocausts, America is today the strongest, the most influential, and most productive nation in the world. Understandably proud of this pre-eminence, we yet realize that America's leadership and prestige depend, not merely upon our unmatched material progress, riches and military strength, but on how we use our power in the interests of world peace and human betterment.

Throughout America's adventure in free government, our basic purposes have been to keep the peace, to foster progress in human achievement, and to enhance liberty, dignity and integrity among peoples and among nations. To strive for less would be unworthy of a free and religious people. Any failure traceable to arrogance or our lack of comprehension or readiness to sacrifice would inflict upon us grievous hurt, both at home and abroad.

Progress toward these noble goals is persistently threatened by the conflict now engulfing the world. It commands our whole attention, absorbs our very beings. We face a hostile ideology global in scope, atheistic in character, ruthless in purpose, and insidious in method. Unhappily, the danger it poses promises to be of indefinite duration. To meet it successfully, there is called for, not so much the emotional and transitory sacrifices of crisis, but rather those which enable us to carry forward steadily, surely, and without complaint the burdens of a prolonged and complex struggle with liberty the stake. Only thus shall we remain, despite every provocation, on our charted course toward permanent peace and human betterment.
As can be easily seen, this is hardly a call for disarmament or isolationism. It is, in fact, precisely the opposite. It calls for strength, perseverence, sacrifice and involvement. It posits America as the great hope for human peace and freedom and demands that America continue to stand against "a hostile ideology global in scope, atheistic in character, ruthless in purpose and insidious in method." In other words, communism. Its only caution is that this task be undertaken with care and intelligence. That we must not rely only upon our military and economic power, but also upon the skill with which we apply this power. Eisenhower, in other words, is not negating military power. Quite the opposite. He assumes that it will and must be applied and that we must be ready to do so with skill and willingness. He speaks fearfully of failures born of our "arrogance or our lack of comprehension or readiness to sacrifice." In other words, of isolationism and decadance. If we can credit Eisenhower with any prophetic powers, it must be in his comprehension of the dangers of weakness, cowardice and moral arrogance. In other words, of the anti-war movement.

This becomes even clearer two paragraphs later:
A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction.
As can be obviously seen, Eisenhower is hardly a pacifist. He sees the "military establishment", that permanent boogeyman of anti-warriors both past and present, as a "vital element" in attaining America's strategic goals, goals which are altruistic, noble, and of the utmost global import. It proposes, moreover, an indefinite timetable for these goals, and implies that not only current aggressors but potential, other agressors must be taken into consideration as well.

Now we come to the heart of the matter. The following paragraphs compose Eisenhower's primary statement on the "military-industrial complex" and its possible discontents. It is important to display them in full.
Our military organization today bears little relation to that known by any of my predecessors in peacetime, or, indeed, by the fighting men of World War II or Korea.

Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense. We have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security alone more than the net income of all United States corporations.

Now this conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence -- economic, political, even spiritual --is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources, and livelihood are all involved. So is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.
Far from a spluttering malcontent howling at unseen forces of sinister power, what we see here is a naunced, careful discussion well worthy of an aging and experienced statesman at the end of his career. Eisenhower is noting certain necessities: the necessity, and imperative necessity, for the armaments industry, and some elementary and quite sensible concerns about its effect on American society. He states in no uncertain terms that "We recognize the imperative need for this development." In his view, it is something "we have been compelled to create." The reasoning here, seen in historical context, is obvious. The United States has risen to global preeminence, something Eisenhower considers a highly positive development (and which the anti-war movement deplores as imperialism) and therefore cannot risk, for its own sake and for the sake of freedom and peace around the world, to be the isolationist, essentially disarmed nation it was in the past. America can no longer risk, according to Eisenhower, the state of unreadiness that led, for instance, to the early disasters of World War II in the Pacific. It is not unreasonable to imagine that he was also thinking of 1930s Europe, who's unreadiness for war certainly contributed to the policy of appeasement in regards to Hitler. The "military-industrial complex" therefore, is not a sinister plot or a war-mongerer's cabal. It is, rather, an essential "vital element" in maintaining America's position as the world's defender of peace and freedom. It is hardly a surprise that Eisenhower's hijackers regularly ignore this part of his statement and concentrate on what follows as if it took place in a vacuum of history. The vacuum, of course, where they themselves reside.

Eisenhower does indeed render some cautions. They are not, however, criticisms. They are warnings, calls for a measure of reasoned vigilance. He understands that all concentrations of power, and not only military ones, can be a threat to democratic governance. He proposed therefore, that we should "take nothing for granted." This does not, however, imply an abandonment of American hegemony, a return to isolationism, nor a blanket condemnation of American society as inherently manipulated and corrupted. It is, rather, a call for balance. For moderation. For the compromise essential to democracy. Eisenhower does not desire a revolutionary assault, but rather "the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together." In other words, Eisenhower calls for the proper use, the proper channeling, of these enormous energies, towards the goals of the American project. Namely, the projection of American power abroad in order to defeat political evil and ensure peace and freedom. Precisely the goals that this document's hijackers consider a manufactured pretense for war profiteering. Eisenhower states the responsibility he places upon himself and his successors in this regard in rather moving fashion
It is the task of statesmanship to mold, to balance, and to integrate these and other forces, new and old, within the principles of our democratic system – ever aiming toward the supreme goals of our free society.
It is precisely these "supreme goals", as Eisenhower concieves of them, that the makers of Why We Fight, the anti-war movement, and innumerable other scurrilous manipulators of Eisenhower's words wish to thwart. It is precisely this integration that they wish to prevent. It is precisely the victory which Eisenhower desires that they wish to turn into defeat. The fact that they regularly stoop to manipulating, distorting and ultimately violating the words and the creed of a man who stood his whole life against everything they represent in pursuit of this goal tells us a very great deal about what and who we should be cautious of. It may not, in fact, be the "military-industrial complex", but rather the domination of our media and intellectual elite by liars, cowards, and thieves of history that constitutes the greatest danger to our freedoms, to peace, and to the supreme goals of our free society.

The complete text of president Eisenhower's farewell address can be read here.