Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Emperor Has No Clothes

Davidson got political in his Sunday talk*, (ALWAYS delightful) which was titled "Our Soldiers: Armed Corporate Mercenaries?" With a title like that, and it being Davidson, you know it's going to be volatile and controversial. He cried near the end of this one, and so did I. So did a good number of people listening.

He quotes heavily from the books of John Perkins, who used to be a part of the mechanism of Corporate world domination, and decided to write about it rather than take his secrets to his grave as so many do who are involved in "black" political/business affairs. I have read Confessions of an Economic Hit Man and found it to be fascinating. Here are links to the books referenced in the talk, the text of which follows:
The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power (Bakan)
Confessions of an Ecomomic Hit Man (Perkins)
A Game as Old as Empire (Perkins, Hiatt)
The Secret History of the American Empire (Perkins)

Our Soldiers: Armed Corporate Mercenaries? This contentious sermon title was inspired by the words of a remarkable soldier of 75 years ago. A Marine Corps General named Smedley Butler, he was one of only seven men ever to win the Medal of Honor twice, and one of only two to win it for two different occasions (the other five were given two medals for the same action – the feeling being that they were exceptionally courageous. After WWI the rules were changes, so that the Medal of Honor could be awarded only once per soldier. So General Smedley Butler will forever be one of only two men who were awarded the Medal of Honor on two separate occasions.) I’ve read that he was one of the most respected veterans by other soldiers, which was partly due to his courage both on and off the battlefield. It’s his courage off the battlefield that interests me today. On August 21, 1931, General Butler stunned an audience at an American Legion convention in Connecticut when he had said:

“I spent 33 years... being a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer for capitalism... “I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1916. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City [Bank] boys to collect revenue in. I helped in the rape of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street... “In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested. I had... a swell racket. I was rewarded with honors, medals, promotions... I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate a racket in three cities. The Marines operated on three continents.” (Joel Bakan, The Corporation, p. 93)

Now I’m a veteran of the Vietnam War, and I would never want to think of myself as a corporate mercenary. Our dangerous private army of Blackwater today has plenty of people who seem proud to be corporate mercenaries in Iraq, but I suspect nearly all of our real soldiers would be appalled at the idea, as I would be.

Still, General Butler certainly didn’t hate soldiers, and he didn’t hate America. In a story we should all have learned in school but didn’t, he was approached in 1934 by a messenger from a consortium of wealthy men, offered a suitcase full of $1,000 bills as a down payment if he would assemble an army, take over the White House, and install himself as America’s first fascist dictator. Instead, he went before Congress to tell the story. That testimony was filmed, and I’ve watched part of it. He was a genuine American hero. Yet in spite of his public testimony, the group of wealthy corporate men were powerful enough that not even President Franklin Delano Roosevelt could have them prosecuted, and influential enough that as far as I know, the story has been kept out of history texts for all high school and almost all college courses, to this day. So maybe there is something to what he said. A second person whose writing has both irritated and persuaded me is John Perkins. I read his book Confessions of an Economic Hit Man two years ago, and it made me feel like I’d been a naïve and gullible child for decades — though I also thought he had eagerly worked at a slimy job only a sociopath could love, for a whole decade. But he too talked about how our soldiers are routinely used as pawns of some of our most powerful corporate and political interests in a game of American Empire, against the high ideals for which our country supposedly stands.

So on this Veterans Day, I want to take our soldiers seriously enough to explore this story of American empire, the role soldiers have been used to play in it, and the role we all play in it. The hope is that the truth can help make us more free, though I have no idea how, in the real world, to change a story that’s been part of us for so long. Our country was begun by the Puritans as a nation chosen by God with a “manifest destiny” to rule the world. John Winthrop used the concept of “manifest destiny,” without using the specific words, in his 1630 speech “A Model of Christian Charity,” written while aboard the flagship Arbella on his way to this country. His phrasing was that we shall be “as a city on a hill; the eyes of all people are upon us.” Carried in this was the belief that God had set us apart and above others. The phrase “manifest destiny” wasn’t coined until 1839 by John L. O’Sullivan, but the seeds of the concept go back to our very beginnings. So the dream of a worldwide empire – and a Christian empire – goes back nearly four hundred years. Eventually, such a dream would have to require soldiers as the weapons and as the cost. As Gen. Smedley Butler said, war is a racket in which the profits are counted in dollars and the losses are counted in lives.

The Monroe Doctrine of 1823, was used to take Manifest Destiny a step further when, in the 1850s and 1860s, it was used to assert that the US had special rights all over the hemisphere, including the right to use our soldiers to invade any nation in Central or South America that refused to back our economic demands – usually referred to as our “vital interests.” President Theodore Roosevelt invoked the Monroe Doctrine to justify US intervention in the Dominican Republic, in Venezuela, and stealing Panama from Colombia. A string of subsequent US presidents relied on it to expand Washington’s Pan-American activities through the end of WWII. And during the latter half of the 20th century, the US used the Communist threat to claim the right of invading countries around the world, including Vietnam and Indonesia. (Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, p. 61)

The 20th century was fueled by oil, as this one still is. As our own oil fields began running out, we became dependent on Middle Eastern oil. But since we needed it, we believed — as we always have — that we had a right to it. This bi-partisan greed was stated very dramatically by President Jimmy Carter in his 1980 State of the Union address, when he said, “Let our position be absolutely clear. An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” Although he referred to “outside force,” the policy has equally applied to actors within the Middle East itself – as was seen in the Gulf War of 1991 and the Iraq invasion of 2003 – and it is playing out now in the crisis over Iran. (A Game as Old as Empire, p. 140) These are insights and patterns from John Perkins, who is for me the most important and readable author for understanding how our American empire works, what’s going on behind the scenes, and the role our soldiers are assigned in the grand scheme. Perkins worked for a decade as one of a group of people known among themselves as Economic Hit Men. Here’s what he says about them, and I’ll quote him because some of his persuasiveness comes from his confessional (and arrogant) style:

“We are an elite group of men and women who utilize international financial organizations to foment conditions that make other nations subservient to [those who run] our biggest corporations, our government, and our banks. “Like our counterparts in the Mafia, we provide favors [to those whose cooperation we are buying]. (Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, p. xvii) “However – and this is a very large caveat – if we fail, an even more sinister breed steps in, ones we refer to as the jackals (professional assassins). The jackals are always there, lurking in the shadows. When they emerge, heads of state are overthrown or die in violent “accidents.” And if by chance the jackals fail, as they failed in Panama, Afghanistan and Iraq, then young Americans are sent in to kill and to die. (Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, p. xxi) Perkins says they channeled funds from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and their sister organizations into schemes that appeared to empower developing countries and serve the poor while primarily benefiting a few wealthy people. They would identify a developing country that had resources our corporations wanted (such as oil), arrange a huge loan for that country, and then direct most of the money to our own engineering and construction companies – and a few collaborators in the developing country. Infrastructure projects, such as power plants, airports, and industrial parks, sprang up; however, they seldom helped the poor, who were not connected to electrical grids, never used airports, and lacked the skills required for employment in industrial parks. (The Secret History of the American Empire, p. 3)

“At some point we returned to the indebted country and demanded our pound of flesh: cheap oil, votes on critical United Nations issues, or troops to support ours someplace in the world, like Iraq.” (The Secret History of the American Empire, p. 3) The loans were used as a tool for enslaving these countries, not empowering them. If they wouldn’t bite at the bait of loans, jackals – assassins – were sent into replace uncooperative leaders with cooperative ones. And as Perkins says, world leaders understand that whenever other measures fail, the military will step in — as it did in Panama, Afghanistan and Iraq. (The Secret History of the American Empire, p. 5) The most dramatic instance of this before our two invasions of Iraq happened in Panama, a story that seems not to have been covered or understood very well.

We had trained General Manuel Noriega at our School of the Americas, in the methods of terror and violence, so we saw him as an easy mark. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter had signed a treaty with Panama giving control back to the Panamanians after 1999 as originally agreed. And when Noriega became president of Panama, he refused to bow to Reagan administration demands that the Panama Canal Treaty be renegotiated giving the US control. Instead, Noreiga negotiated with Japanese to see about rebuilding the canal with Japanese money. This was, of course, their legal right. But it would frustrate our dream of empire — the dream to which we’ve felt so singularly entitled. So on December 20, 1989, the first President Bush had our soldiers attack Panama with what was reported to be the largest airborne assault on a city since WWII. It was an unprovoked attack on a civilian population which killed between 2,000 and 3,000, and injured an estimated 25,000. Panama and her people posed absolutely no threat to the US or to any other country. Politicians, governments, and press around the world denounced the unilateral US action as a clear violation of international law. (Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, pp. 175-176) We even kidnapped the president of Panama and put him in American jail as our only “prisoner of war” for frustrating our economic ambitions. You can’t make this stuff up. And you can’t spin it around enough times to clean it up. It was illegal, immoral and murderous. We killed people because we wanted to steal from them. In this country, that crime is called “homicide in the commission of a felony.” And in Texas, it’s a capital offense. Our soldiers were used in this invasion, not to serve freedom or democracy, but simply to serve the economic interests that brought great profit to quite a small number of wealthy investors, which is one dimension of our American empire, our “manifest destiny.” Then came our first invasion of Iraq, also done under the first President Bush. Why Iraq? It had nothing to do with 9-11, of course – those lies have all been exposed and aired too often to need repeating.

We know the current Bush administration had talked about wanting to invade Iraq since the first week they were in power in January of 2001. But the West has been trying to grab Iraq’s oil since 1918. Contrary to common public opinion, Iraq is not just about oil. It is also about water and geopolitics. Both the Tigris and Euphrates rivers flow through Iraq; so, of all the countries in that part of the world, Iraq controls the most important sources of increasingly critical water resources. During the 1980s, the importance of water – politically and economically – was becoming obvious to us... (Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, p. 183) Also, Iraq is in a very strategic location. It borders Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and Turkey, and has a coastline on the Persian Gulf. It is within easy missile-striking distance of both Israel and Russia. Military strategists equate modern Iraq to the Hudson River valley during the French and Indian War and the American Revolution. In the eighteenth century, the French, British and Americans knew that whoever controlled the Hudson River valley controlled the continent. Today, it is common knowledge that whoever controls Iraq holds the key to controlling the Middle East. (Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, p. 184)

By the late 1980s, it was apparent that Saddam was not buying into the Economic Hit Man scenario. This was a major frustration and a great embarrassment to the first Bush administration. Like Panama, Iraq contributed to George HW Bush’s wimp image. As Bush searched for a way out, Saddam played into his hands. On 25 July 1990, Saddam invited US Ambassador to Baghdad, April Glaspie, to a meeting, and sounded her out about Kuwait. Here’s part of her response, from a transcript of their meeting: “We have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait. I was in the American Embassy in Kuwait during the late 60’s. The instruction we had during this period was that we should express no opinion on this issue and that the issue is not associated with America. James Baker has directed our official spokesmen to emphasize this instruction.” (NY Times International, Sunday September 23, 1990, p. 19)

A week later, on August 2nd, Saddam invaded Kuwait. Bush, incredibly, responded with a denunciation of Saddam for violating international law, even though it had been less than a year since Bush himself had staged the illegal and unilateral invasion of Panama. (Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, p. 184) The Economic Hit Men tried to convince Saddam to accept a deal similar to the deal we had made with Saudi Arabia. But Saddam kept refusing. If he had complied, like the Saudis, he would have received our guarantees of protection as well as more US-supplied chemical plants and weapons. When it became obvious that he was entrenched in his independent ways, Washington sent in the jackals. Assassinations of men like Saddam usually have to involve collusion by bodyguards... Saddam understood jackals and their techniques. He had been hired by the CIA in the sixties to assassinate a predecessor, Qasim, and had learned from us, his ally, during the eighties. He screened his men rigorously. He also hired look-alike doubles. His bodyguards were never sure if they were protecting him or an actor. (The Secret History of the American Empire, p. 211) So the first President Bush sent in the US military. At this point the White House did not want to take Saddam out. He was, after all, our type of leader: a strongman who could control his people and act as a deterrent against Iran — as well as controlling the religious factions in Iraq, which we’ve never been able to do. The Pentagon assumed that by destroying his army, they had chastised him; now he would come around. The Economic Hit Men went back to work on him during the nineties. Bill Clinton imposed sanctions to remain in effect until Saddam agreed to US terms of ownership of their oil. Clinton’s sanctions killed an estimated one million Iraqis – half of them children: this remains a completely bipartisan American imperialism. (Many will remember the chilling interview with Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, where she was asked about our sanctions causing the deaths of over half a million children. She said, “We think it’s worth the price.”) But Saddam wouldn’t give control of Iraqi oil to American or other foreign corporations. Assassinations were attempted, and once more they failed. So in 2003, a second President Bush deployed the military. Saddam was deposed and executed. (A Secret History of the American Empire, p. 211)

Then Halliburton, Bechtel and other well-connected corporations got billions of dollars in unbid contracts, just as they had in so many other countries. When this happened, John Perkins finally decided to write his book exposing the game he had once been a part of. Twenty-six publishers refused to touch it. Finally, a small publisher in San Francisco took it. The book was an almost immediate best-seller. Perkins then contacted twelve other people who had worked in the empire game, had them each write a chapter, and brought out a second book called A Game as Old as Empire. Then he wrote a sequel to Confessions of an Economic Hit Man which he brought out this year, under the title A Secret History of the American Empire. I recommend all three books to anyone interested in these issues. Our game of empire always has the same three steps. First, we try to use heavy-handed persuasion — mostly economic — to bring a country’s assets under our control. If that fails, we try to assassinate its leader – a tactic which has worked in many countries for us. If that fails, we send in our soldiers. So this seems to be how our dream of manifest destiny works today, and how both assassins and our soldiers are used not just to make those who run a few US corporations rich — that’s too clean to be realistic — but also to give us the benefits we call the American Way of Life.

See how this picture Perkins draws brings together a lot more data than our mainstream political and news stories, and ties them into a scheme that has a simple clear plot that makes, I think, far more real-world sense than the spin we’ve been fed? It isn’t a picture I’d ever had or wanted, any more than I’d thought of war as a racket or soldiers as pawns. But so many other people are affected, I think we owe it to them, to our soldiers and to ourselves to consider this darker picture and become far better-informed about it.

We are complicit in so many things we don’t want to think about because it feels like it pollutes our life. But then I remember the 4,000 American soldiers who have died in Iraq, the tens of thousands who have been wounded, and the estimated two million Iraqis we have killed since 1991, in order to take their oil and to start taking control, we hope, of the Middle East and, through controlling the world’s oil supply, to dictate terms to the world. It sounds like a very bad movie script written by very arrogant and immoral people within our government, a script in which our soldiers are being assigned key roles, but not noble roles.

John Perkins goes into many more details in other areas of what our American empire looks like in and to the rest of the world, and I’ll revisit him in two weeks. But war and imperialism, no matter how awful they may be, just aren’t what life is mostly about. Life is mostly about its healthy parts: living, loving, hoping and trusting, making things of meaning and beauty, and learning to enjoy being with one another and giving thanks for being alive. Some of you may know of this story from Will Durant. Durant was the historian whose life work was writing about a dozen-volume “Story of Civilization,” an ultra-ambitious task for one man and his wife. After writing those millions of words, he wrote a 100-page book called The Lessons of History, to sum up the giant set. And late in his life, he was asked to sum up civilization in half an hour. He did it in less than a minute, this way: “Civilization is a stream with banks. The stream is sometimes filled with blood from people killing, stealing, shouting, and doing the things historians usually record, while on the banks, unnoticed, people build homes, make love, raise children, sing songs, write poetry, and even whittle statues. The story of civilization is the story of what happened on the banks. Historians are pessimists because they ignore the banks for the river.”

We’ve been wading in the river here. Nobody can live that way, and nobody should live that way. It’s being defeated by the tragedies that are often the background against which we are challenged to live our lives. This always reminds me of another story, one I experienced in Vietnam. We had shelled a small hamlet by mistake, taking out about two of the half dozen huts. Driving by a day or two later, we could see some of the damage. In one family the father had been killed, the wife wounded, a young daughter had part of her arm blown off and was wearing bandages covering both eyes. It was heart-wrenching and shameful to us. About three weeks later we drove by those huts again. The thatched roofs had been repaired. And out in the yard were the injured mother, her young son, and her one-armed blind daughter. They were laughing and dancing, playing and singing. Some of us wept bitterly. They were living on the banks; we were caught in the river. The challenge of life is to know the river, but not to let it poison our life on the banks. So next week, for Thanksgiving, Dina and I will each share a homily, and I’ll share some very optimistic, hands-on, actual real-world things we can do in a lot of different ways to help those serving the high ideals we prefer.

For now, thank you again for your service, veterans. And something more. I know that when you served, you believed, as I also did, that we really were serving high ideals and noble causes, not just imperialistic greed and sociopathic empire-building. It may seem hard to fathom, but as a combat photographer and Press Officer in Vietnam forty years ago, I believed what I was told. I attended briefings by General Westmoreland, and thought I had heard the word straight from the top. I believed we were there to serve high ideals, though the violence and blood confused and eventually kind of paralyzed me. Most of us believed what we were told. It’s how we served with pride and integrity. It was those high ideals and noble causes that made our service memorable to us — sometimes even sacred, as mine was to me. And I believe, as I think you do, that if we can find a way to convert our nation back to high and noble ideals, it can transform our nation’s soul back to something noble, perhaps even sacred. [Source Link]

*I referred to it as a "talk". It's actually a sermon. Yessss. I'm a church-going atheist, a UU, described by the following sentence on their website:
"Unitarian Universalists include people who identify as Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Pagans, Atheists, Agnostics, Humanists, and others. As there is no official Unitarian Universalist creed, Unitarian Universalists are free to search for truth on many paths".
Mostly, I go to hear Davidson.

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