Groupthink and the politics of language pave the road to war
Trump administration policies, which many fear have increased the threat of nuclear war, have breathed life back into the long-dormant movement against atomic bombs. But the response has been tepid or, where it exists at all, is poorly focused and too easily distracted by red herrings such as the North Korea “crisis.”
As with nearly every flawed or destructive policy President Donald Trump’s gang has perpetrated, this further step toward nuclear holocaust is merely a continuation of the malfeasance of previous governments, and not just America’s. The commitment to reducing the nuclear threat by every signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has been laughable — or would be — if global destruction were a joke.
But if there is a way to roll back this madness, it is not to be found in crying about Trump, or somewhat less-known warmongers like Geoff Hoon, but by recognizing that the nuclear threat (just as Trump’s reactionary social policies are the logical extreme of the global addiction to neoliberalism) is the logical extreme of addiction to war.
Seventy years ago, Costa Rica, a small tropical country in a region that for centuries had struggled with poverty, disease, foreign interference and brutal dictatorships decided to extricate itself from the mess. Two remarkably forward-looking politicians, then-defense minister Edgar Cardona and president José Figueres, recognized what every intelligent person on the planet already knew, but had never acted upon: The purpose of national armies is rarely to protect their countries from external foes, but rather to protect against internal foes. And this plague, they saw, was either the direct cause or a major aggravating factor of the nation’s many troubles.
And so it abolished its military. It has not had a standing army ever since. Much of the money it formerly wasted on guns, warplanes and other Toys for Boys was diverted into its public health-care system, now ranked as the finest in the region.
Bold move leads to Costa Rican prosperity
Since Figueres’ bold move in 1948, Costa Rica has become a peaceful and relatively prosperous country with a low crime rate. One would be hard-pressed to name another country in Central America that can make such a claim. Remarkably, unlike all of its neighbors, Costa Rica has also been largely free of US interference, despite its irritatingly progressive policies. As a country that has no army and hence is zero threat to its neighbors, and has not had a civil war since the one that triggered Figueres’ and Cardona’s action, not even Washington has been able to think up a plausible reason to meddle in Costa Rica’s affairs.
Can Costa Rica’s success be credited entirely to its lack of a military? Of course not, and how important that feature of the country’s make-up has been is a subject of debate. As well, it would be wrong to pretend that San José does not take national security seriously at all; the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute says it spent more on security in 2012 than any other country in the region except deeply troubled Guatemala and much larger Mexico.
Still, it does not stretch the imagination much to see Costa Rica’s abandonment of a permanent standing army as an important aspect of a broader national psyche that makes peace and the well-being of its citizens a guiding principle. Though no other country of noteworthy size — other than Panama and Haiti — has gone so far as to trash its army completely. Several, such as Canada and the Scandinavian states that avoid getting dragged into military conflicts abroad, have also boasted low crime rates and high standards of living.
Most peaceful and progressive countries have ensured that their militaries stay out of politics. In Southeast Asia, the military role in holding back the advance of democracy is most obvious in Thailand and Myanmar, but such interference is practiced in many other countries in the region, albeit more subtly
Probably more important, most peaceful and progressive countries have ensured that their militaries stay out of politics. In Southeast Asia, the military role in holding back the advance of democracy is most obvious in Thailand and Myanmar, but such interference is practiced in many other countries in the region, albeit more subtly.
At the same time, no Southeast Asian country faces any serious external threat, not even from huge neighbors such as China or India. Why does Singapore need multimillion-dollar fighter jets? Who on earth is going to invade Singapore? Japan did once, but that was during an era of rival empires that ended ages ago.
In fact, only one militaristic empire remains, and even it can’t explain in logical terms why it has military bases on every continent, or why its military budget dwarfs every other country’s, or why it needs enough weaponry to destroy not just the human race but nearly every other species as well, except (probably) cockroaches and a few critters in the Mariana Trench.
Some like to blame this — and other inanities such as Myanmar’s recent purchase of Russian fighter jets — on the arms industry and its lobbyists. That’s a factor, but it’s also an excuse. The key to resisting lobbyists is actually pretty simple: Just. Say. No. The reasons so few politicians use that key are deeper and — in democracies at least — more complicated.
A lot of it is groupthink, largely fueled by what has been called the politics of language. There are no “arms merchants” in mass-media reports, only a “defense industry.” Ask anyone if he thinks his country should shut down its military, and more than likely he will ring emergency services and call in the chaps who run the places with padded walls. It’s simply not thinkable thought, any more than gun control is in the US, or topless beaches in Saudi Arabia.
While it’s probably not true that Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels ever actually uttered that line about repeating a lie often enough, he and many others like him practiced that principle, often to great success.
Did Vladimir Putin flip the 2016 US election? Of course, never mind the lack of evidence (or logic) behind the claim, it is a firmly ingrained narrative now; no one even bothers to use the word “alleged” anymore. Did Saddam Hussein have weapons of mass destruction? Of course. Is Bashar al-Assad systematically “gassing his own people?” Of course.
Does Kim Jong-un’s tiny arsenal of nukes pose an existential threat to the mightiest military in the history of the planet? Absolutely. Is Iran the world’s greatest exporter of terrorism? Of course, let the Western powers and Saudi Arabia tear it down, and “re-stabilize” the Middle East.
Once installed, the narrative takes on a life of its own, dismissing all counter-arguments and, more and more amid neo-McCarthyist hysteria, pushes dissenters into the outer reaches of the commentariat
And what about the Chinese? Oh, those inscrutable yellow hordes, “undermining the international order and stability.” Fuel those missiles. And don’t forget to target the Kremlin while you’re at it.
All of the above narratives may well be true, and most clearly contain some truth. But the point is it no longer matters: Once installed, the narrative takes on a life of its own, dismissing all counter-arguments and, more and more amid neo-McCarthyist hysteria, pushes dissenters into the outer reaches of the commentariat.
But yet again, the US is just the logical extreme. To pervert Jesus’ remark recorded in John 12:8, war you have always had with you. It seems to be within our nature to combat one another violently. In ancient times it was for such things as access to food or fertile land. Yet ironically, as the reasons for war became less justifiable thanks to progress on other fronts such as agriculture or diplomacy, the weapons of war became more destructive. Thousands of casualties became tens of thousands, then millions, then tens of millions.
But there is no natural law compelling history to repeat itself. Medical science did not simply shrug and say oh well, smallpox is nasty but what can you do? War can be eliminated, and the advent of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons has made sustainable peace not just a pleasant dream, but an absolute necessity.
Purchased politicians, medal-polishing generals, and obscenely wealthy weapons merchants won’t do it. We the people must.