Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Who loves war?

America loves war.

It struck me most plainly tonight when the waitress asked if I’d like a plastic bag in which to take home some chili.

I mentioned that L.A. had recently come down hard on plastic bags, which was probably a good thing, the waitress said.

“Yeah, you’re right,” I replied, “there are a lot of things we could do without, or if we have to have them, we could at least find a way to make them so that they have less impact on the environment and use up less energy.”

It started a discussion on how our dependence on petroleum reaches into virtually every aspect of our lives: plastics, personal care, travel, commerce, housing, credit cards, you name it.

“We can do better,” the waitress said. “We have the ingenuity to tap into renewable energies, create jobs, and build things that won’t destroy the environment or kill us.”

“Then we wouldn’t have to send our armies and navies overseas to secure a resource that is clearly limited and won’t last forever.”

“Jeez,” she said, “did you have to go there?”

It’s hard not to go there, to where American taxpayers’ dollars are being wasted on mayhem and murder, when we could be spending our resources in more creative and less wasteful ways.

It’s hard to fathom why, when so many Americans languish without jobs, and education, mass transit and other delivery systems in the U.S. are in such shambles, we are spending so much money to conduct an endless war overseas.

But we’re a culture steeped in death and war. We love to battle, which we promote everywhere, in film, games, toys, at the mall, on university campuses. The U.S. war machine permeates our whole culture.

We love grace under pressure, gallantry, machismo, the rule of law, integrity, a sense of duty, commitment, the willingness to rise above, stand alone, face the enemy, and fight for love of country.

We’re a warrior culture, however, with an ethos based less on the glories we publicly espouse—the carefully selected words we use to promote selfish interests—and more on an indignant—steeped in hubris—sense of entitlement, the idea that we can have it all, anything we want. Everyone else be damned!

Take nothing away from the brave soldiers who fight our wars, although I know many who think the whole military enterprise is a complete sham.

George Carlin, who knew his time was short, spoke bitterly in the final season of his life about war and those who participate in it: “If you’re dumb enough to join, you deserve to die,” he said.

I don’t go that far but I understand what Mr. Carlin must have been feeling. He’d seen enough of the waste of war to know there’s plenty of sham in it.

And who, after living through a series of conflicts and wars doesn’t begin to see it for themselves? Who does it really benefit? Who gets rich off of war?

The men and women who go to war for us are not to be blamed for its stupidity.

The problem arises from a lifestyle the rest of the world has only dreamed about, a lifestyle of extravagance and excess that we have come to expect and demand, and will have to change, if we want to avoid the inevitable demise that comes to a culture driven by the violent ethos of war.

America built so much of its wealth, and its lifestyle, on oil and now, as oil reserves become more scarce and more dangerous to extract, we go to even more drastic measures to ensure its continued flow.

We send our armies and navies overseas not to fight terrorism so much as to secure our one and only—but increasingly less—reliable energy source. From the perspective of empire, it makes perfect sense. Secure the cheapest energy available so we can continue to enjoy our “lifestyle,” which is held up before us as a sacrosanct, non-negotiable entitlement. Few of us really know what it means, however, beyond getting what we want.

But from another perspective, one that doesn’t necessarily include war, it doesn’t make sense at all to spend hundreds of billions of dollars each year to feed a machine that destroys rather than builds; that poisons, maims, and kills rather than feeds, heals and creates life.

Sen. John McCain recently suggested that U.S. military spending could be trimmed by $100 billion. Imagine what could be done if we put $100 billion into education or healthcare or alternative and renewable energies. I’ve been called simplistic for arguing this point, even from those who agree that endless war will end badly.

But it doesn’t require much imagination to see the possibilities of limiting overseas adventures, which rob our national treasury of resources that could go into long-term innovations that will help reduce our dependencies on cheap oil.

I’m not a pacifist but I do know that most wars are stupid and unnecessary. They ruin rather than create prosperity. At some point, it becomes more imperative to build and renew, to innovate and create industries that will move the nation forward than to try sustaining an economy based on cheap oil and war.

“What’s holding us back?” the waitress asked. “We all know that eventually we’ll have to consume less, innovate and create new industries that aren’t based on oil.”

“I don’t know,” I said, “no one I know is holding us back. Ours is an economy literally built on dinosaurs.”

“Well, the people at the top, the people in Congress, sure haven’t done much to move us forward.”

“You got that right,” I said. §

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