The root cause of the American crisis: a view from up north

Civilization and the social stability it provides, allowing human beings to live their lives in peace and pursue their plans and dreams can never be taken for granted. Recent history has shown how fragile is the veneer of civilization when a would-be demagogue, sensing an opportunity in the mass despair and confusion of a people, can take over one of the world’s most civilized nations; with disastrous results for that nation and the world.

How quickly history and its lessons are forgotten. It is happening again in, of all places, the great democracy that saved the world from history’s most evil tyranny. And again, It can only get worse if that country, the United States of America, can’t somehow save itself from self-destruction.

It’s terrifying to see, even from this distance, day after day how badly American politics and society are divided. On one side, the cult-like obeisance of a large proportion of the population and conservative lawmakers to the demagogue and his outrageous lies. If anything, it grows more extreme, driving the world’s first and greatest democracy toward an existential crisis. On the other side, various commentators are beside themselves with loaded language, preaching to the converted and looking down upon the others, as yet more evidence of the demagogue’s failed coup after he lost the 2020 election is daily revealed. There is no effective communication between the two sides, nothing that might offer a glimmer of hope.

Meanwhile, nothing is done about the continuing, horrendous decline in the quality of life of millions of people who have lost hope of ever being part of the ‘American Dream’, or who live in fear on the edge of that despair. Take a short trip on YouTube and see the depressing sight of how countless people now live in many American cities, like Oakland, in California, the U.S. state with the world’s 5th largest economy.

Speak the truth, by all means; it is the only hope. But start where it begins, at the root cause of the malaise that now threatens the end of a great nation, and the future of the world.

The underlying causes of the rise to power of a ruthless dictatorship in Germany in 1933, leading to the Second World War, and the Holocaust is well-documented: a First World War lost at great cost of life; a punishing peace treaty with crippling reparations; drastic out-of-control inflation, and then a global depression. The demagogue who has already pledged to make Germany great again blames it all on communists, and especially Jews. His Nazi party has become the largest, but with less than 40 percent support of voters, after several democratic elections, still lacks a majority. But he is appointed Chancellor (Prime Minister), of a bipartisan government by an elderly, increasingly senile, figurehead, war-hero president. It is expected the demagogue can be controlled. The Reichstag (Parliament) is set on fire, the communists are blamed, the demagogue is given emergency powers. The old president dies. And the demagogue and his racist party seize total power. Other political parties are banned. Jews, homosexuals, and other people considered racially or mentally defective are persecuted, sent to concentration camps, murdered. All members of the military and government officials are required to pledge personal loyalty to the leader (Fuhrer).

So, the question arises, what has made such a large proportion of the American people, so vulnerable to a demagogue who wraps himself in the Star-Spangled Banner, declares himself the only person who can save the country and return it to greatness, demands loyalty to Himself, and tells lies constantly?

Let’s start by talking about war and how, even before the 9/11 terrorist attack on the U.S., wars and the military-industrial complex that thrived on war became a predominant fact of American life; and then how, after 9/11, they became much more predominant, to the extent that in the next two decades the U.S. spent $14.1 trillion (measured in 2021 dollars) on post 9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

First, a prophetic warning about the growth of the military-Industrial complex from the late, former U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, the former Commander-in-Chief of Allied (western) forces in the Second World War, in his farewell address as president on January 17, 1961:

“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 defence with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

The Viet Nam War is a good place to start a discussion about the fateful impact war has had on the American psyche and body politic. Its complex causes have been well documented, for example, on this history.com website.

At its height close to 500,000 American troops were serving in Vietnam. By the time the war ended in 1973, 58,200 had died, and an estimated two million Vietnamese, mostly civilians.

The Vietnam memorial, engraved with the names of 58,200 American dead

A final, humiliating image of U.S. defeat was helicopters landing on the roof of its embassy in Saigon to evacuate Americans, some of whom fought off Vietnam refugees desperate to get on. That image was the parting wound among many others that cut deep into the proud American psyche. “The war had pierced the myth of American invincibility and had bitterly divided the nation. Many returning veterans faced negative reactions from both opponents of the war (who viewed them as having killed innocent civilians) and its supporters (who saw them as having lost the war), along with physical damage including the effects of exposure to the toxic herbicide, Agent Orange, millions of gallons of which had been dumped by U.S. planes on the dense forests of Vietnam,” says the history.com article.

And this: “According to a survey by the Veterans Administration, some 500,000 of the 3 million troops who served in Vietnam suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and rates of divorce, suicide, alcoholism and drug addiction were markedly higher among veterans.”

Many Vietnam veterans are still alive today, the fathers and grandfathers of millions of Americans. Many of them, and others, would have recalled that humiliating image of how the Vietnam war ended when the shocking images of the final withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan were shown around the world this past August. They showed thousands of Afghans desperately tried to get on flights at Kabul airport. It’s no coincidence President Joe Biden’s approval rating suddenly dropped, though it was former President Donald Trump whose administration negotiated the withdrawal deal with the Taliban insurgents, without the involvement of the now-defunct Afghanistan government.

The U.S. spent $120 billion on the Vietnam war from 1963 to 1975. But that number pales in comparison with the $14.1 trillion spent following the 9/11 attacks. As noted above, there never was a formal declaration of war by Congress before the U.S. invaded, first Afghanistan, with justification, and then Iraq, without.

The Center for International Policy, at Brown University’s Watson Institute, has recently published a series of research papers called, ‘20 Years of War, a Cost of War Research Series.’ One is titled, ‘Profits of War: Corporate Beneficiaries of the Post-9/11 Pentagon Spending.’ As far as I can tell it has received little news coverage. That’s a shame because it contains a wealth of revealing, and shocking, information about the “dramatic increase” in U.S. military funding since 9/11.

That paper includes a quote attributed to a high-ranking official of one of the five major, private defence contractors, in this case Boeing. It underlines the extent war fever at the time left the public purse wide open for huge increase in military spending after 9/11:

“Harry Stonecipher, then vice-president of Boeing, told The Wall Street Journal in October, 2001, the month after 9/11, ‘the purse is now open … any member of Congress who doesn’t vote for the funds we need to defend this country will be looking for a new job after next November.’”

Of the $14.1 trillion total Defence/Pentagon “$4.4 trillion went for weapons procurement and research and development, categories that primarily benefit corporate contractors,” the Watson Institute article says. It adds “the rest was used to pay for pay and benefits for military and civilian personnel and supporting expenditures needed to operate and maintain the U.S. military. It noted the $4.4 trillion figure is “a conservative estimate of the pool of funding Pentagon contractors have drawn from in the two decades since 9/11. The Pentagon’s massive budget for operations and maintenance also subsidizes contractors, but it is harder to determine what share of this category goes to private firms.”

The article notes the Pentagon has become increasingly reliant on private contractors in the post-9/11 period; and “that raises multiple questions of accountability, transparency, and effectiveness. This is problematic because privatizing key functions can reduce the U.S. military’s control of activities that occur in war zones while increasing risks of waste, fraud and abuse.” (my italics, for emphasis)

“One-third to one-half” of the $14.1 trillion went to defence contractors that earned profits “that are widely considered legitimate,” the article says. But “other profits were the consequences of questionable or corrupt business practices that amount to waste, fraud, abuse, price gouging or profiteering.”

The paper notes the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan estimated that waste, fraud and abuse in the two war zones as of 2011 had already totalled $31 billion to $60 Billion.”

It goes on to describe numerous examples. I will focus on a couple that had a direct and deadly impact on American troops. See the link above to the full report for all the examples.

What the paper calls “a particularly egregious case of shoddy work that had tragic human consequences involved the electrocution of at least eighteen military personnel in several bases in Iraq beginning in 2004 due to faulty electrical installations.” It says some of the installations were done by Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR) and its subcontractors. KBR was a subsidiary of Halliburton, one of the best known and controversial reconstruction and logistic contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Watson Institute paper says, “An investigation by the Pentagon’s Inspector General found that commanders in the field had ‘failed to ensure that renovations… had been properly done, the Army did not set standards for jobs or contractors, and KBR did not ground electrical equipment it installed at the facility.’”

In another case: “The 2008 death of Staff Sgt. Ryan Maseth, a Green Beret who was electrocuted while showering in Iraq, brought Congressional and public attention to the issue. While KBR had inspected the building that Maseth died in and found ‘serious electrical problems’ almost a year before his electrocution, KBR did not fix the identified problems. Notably, KBR’s contract did not require ‘fixing potential hazards.’ A former KBR electrician accused other KBR contractors of falsifying documents to make it appear that they had fixed the previously identified grounding issues. Another former KBR electrician testified to the Senate that KBR used untrained or inexperienced electricians to do electrical work at a lower rate while billing the U.S. government at the same rate used for experienced electricians. Lastly, in July 2008, a KBR electrician testified that the (Department of Defence) had no oversight system for the electrical work, even after soldiers had been electrocuted.”

Halliburton was controversial in the post 9/11 wars because of its connection to Dick Cheney, U.S. vice-president in the administration of President George W. Bush. Cheney was the CEO of Halliburton when he was picked by Bush as his running mate in the run-up to the 2000 election. Cheney had previously been Secretary of Defence in the administration of President George H.W. Bush before he became Halliburton’s CEO. Widely regarded as an unusually powerful vice-president, Cheney strongly favoured the invasion of Iraq, despite knowing before it actually happened that the intelligence that supposedly justified it was faulty. As well, there was no evidence of a connection between Iraq leader Sadam Hussein, and bin Laden’s Al Qaeda terrorist organization. After the invasion and the defeat of the Sadam Hussein regime, no weapons of mass destruction were found.

Dick Cheney

The Iraq war claimed the lives of between 275,000 to 306,000 people. They included 4,598 U.S. troops, 3,650 U.S. contractors, 15 U.S. Department of Defence civilian workers, up to 208,964 Iraqi civilians, 323 ‘other allied troops,’ and 39,881 opposition fighters.

Canada did not join the U.S.-led coalition that invaded Iraq, but it was a member of the coalition that sent troops to Afghanistan where 158 Canadian soldiers lost their lives.

Another Cost of War study in the Watson Institute series found at least four times as many active duty personnel and war veterans of post-9/11 conflicts have died of suicide than died in combat. An estimated 30,177 have committed suicide compared with the 7,057 killed in post-9/11 wars. The report notes “the increasing rates of suicide for both veterans and active-duty personnel are outpacing those of the general population – an alarming shift, as suicide rates among service members have historically been lower than suicide rates in the general population.”

The U.S. had the moral high ground after the 9/11 attacks that killed 2,977 people and injured more than 6,000 that terrible day. The as-it-happened, shocking images brought the watching world to a standstill. Hardly anyone could question the justification to go in force to Afghanistan, to investigate and find and arrest Osama bin Laden and members of his Al Qaeda terrorist organization; and, as well, members of the Taliban government who were complicit, by allowing bin Laden to use Afghanistan as a base of operations. And then they all could, and should, have been brought back to the U.S. to face justice at the scene of the crime, under the rule of law.

Perhaps that’s incredibly naive, or too much to expect, given human nature and its primal need for vengeance; and given the long, established history of nations going to war with or without justification. Some would even argue, and have, that war is the natural state of human beings in a perverse, ‘survival of the fittest’ scenario. Sometimes there does appear to be no choice, as in the Second World War, other than allowing absolute evil to take over the world. But Heaven forbid civilized nations should do something different, something better, when possible, even under such provocation as the 9/11 attacks?

Imagine, if you will, what the U.S. and the world would look like today if, after the inevitable fever for war arose, a strong but less disastrous course of action had been taken that did not kill, wound and traumatize millions of people; that did not cost trillions of dollars; and did not shake the stability of the U.S. to the core, leaving old and new generations afraid and confused about what the future holds.

Instead, the war fever in the wake of 9/11 was exploited by unscrupulous people in high public and private places, who were motivated above all by one desire: to live the American dream of getting filthy rich, and remaining in lucrative positions of power, whatever the cost to the country and their fellow Americans.

Of course, there is a tragic malaise and a lot of deep-seated anger in a large proportion of the American population.

Now, two decades after 9/11, the Biden administration has been having a lot of trouble getting Congressional support, especially from so-called, conservative lawmakers, for legislation to update long-neglected, crumbling, U.S. infrastructure, and improve the quality of life of Americans; millions of whom are struggling through poverty, homelessness, and physical and mental health issues.

Yes, it was going to cost several trillion dollars to begin restoring a damaged nation to health. Gaining approval for more much more than that to fund war and the military after 9/11 was never a problem; more often that not, Congress approved more than was actually requested.

Radicalized conservatives, following the ‘big lie’ strategy of past and present demagogues, have taken to calling the Biden plan “communist” and “Marxist.” That’s how stupid they think the American people are. It can only be hoped they are wrong.

The Capitol building at peace.

The tragedy of 9/11 continues: an historic opportunity lost

Canadian soldiers serving in Afghanistan

Yesterday, the people of the United States of America, and countless other people around the world, remembered the shocking horrors of the 9/11 attacks. Like many others that morning, I watched in disbelief, hardly believing the terrible images happening in real time before our eyes.

“The solemn day of commemoration offered frequent reminders for Americans of a time when they united in the face of unimaginable tragedy,” said an Associated Press article about the day of remembrance. “That fading spirit of 9/11 was invoked most forcefully by the president at the time of the attacks, George W. Bush, who said, ‘That is the America I know,’ in stark contrast to the bitterly divided nation President Joe Biden now leads.

The AP article continued, “Biden left the speech-making to others, paying his respects at the trio of sites in New York, Pennsylvania and outside Washington where four hijacked planes crashed on Sept. 11, 2001, killing nearly 3,000 people, shattering the nation’s sense of security and launching the country into two decades of warfare.”

With all due respect to Bush, who is a better former president now than he was a sitting one, there is much he could have said about his role in leading his country in the two disastrous, post-9/11 wars. He was largely a figurehead president, while other powerful men in his administration pulled the fateful strings. But as the late, former President Harry Truman famously said about his presidential responsibilities, “the buck stops here.”

Hundreds of thousands of innocent people in Iraq and Afghanistan died, and many thousands of soldiers and security forces in uniform, from Afghanistan itself, the U.S., and other NATO countries. They include 158 Canadians. On a percentage basis of the total number of Canadians who served in Afghanistan, that was one of the highest rates of death, second only to the U.K. One of the most shocking statistics I came across, was that 30,177 American soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in Syria, committed suicide as of the end of 2019. That’s according to The Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs, of Brown University in the U.S.

The American involvement in the 20-year Afghan war officially ended on August 31 of this year, amid much chaos. That was as the Taliban, the extremists who ruled over Afghanistan at the time of the 9/11 attacks, regained power so easily and quickly after the fall of a U.S.- backed government. After 20 years of war, the deaths of so many people, and the expenditure of an estimated seven trillion dollars, it was, to say the least, no victory.

The continuing tragedies of 9/11 and those two misbegotten wars include a shaking to the core of a great country, once the light and hope of the world, the country that created the world’s first liberal democracy – yes, liberal – and dared to proclaim, all people are created equal. Yes, it was always a work in progress; but the strength and spirit of that idea helped immeasurably to save the world from domination by the most evil tyranny history has ever known, based on the idea that people are not equal.

The United States had an historic opportunity to show the world how a great democracy deals with even such an atrocious criminal act under the rule of law and due process in pursuit of justice: Send a strong and professional police presence to Afghanistan; conduct an investigation; find and arrest the material suspects; charge them with relevant charges; and take them back to the scene of the crimes to face justice and appropriate punishment according to the law if found guilty. But it failed to do that.

And now that great country is in a downward spiral, terribly divided, between those who believe in its founding principle, and those who don’t. Yes, it is as simple as that.

I don’t blame the millions of Americans who, in their distress and confusion, are being exploited and manipulated by others whose only motivation is a deceitful will to power, and not the good of a great nation.

Twenty years of war and so-called ‘nation-building,’ and trillions of dollars spent for no good reason has neglected the needs of the American people. Who got rich from the spending of that money? The increasing economic inequality of American society belies the country’s founding principle.  No wonder there is turmoil, even to the point of ominous talk about another civil war

.Meanwhile, here in Canada it’s like living next to an ongoing earthquake across our southern border. With our socio-economic life so closely tied to the U.S., the seismic waves of the ongoing upheaval are being felt. Canadians have long taken an interest in what happens politically in the U.S., far more than Americans take in our politics. The current angry divisiveness south of the border appears to have infected the Canadian national election now under way. Elsewhere in the world democracy is struggling to survive, and civilization itself is in peril.

I am a father, grandfather, and great grandfather of a large extended family. I live on a small farm in a secluded rural area of Ontario, Canada called Hope Ness. I am surrounded by a Nature Reserve. Some people say I live in a “paradise” on Earth.

With granddaughter Jorden in the garden

I try to live in Hope. I pray. But I am worried, I fear for the future of my family and the world.

Did this continuing tragedy have to happen?

I invite you to read the article below that was published 20 years ago as an editorial in the Owen Sound Sun Times newspaper a few days after the 9/11 attacks. I might change a few words now; but I’ll leave it as is, and ask you to consider if the point made was valid then, and is still:

The central question facing the human race is how to break the cycle of hatred and violence that is leading it, apparently inexorably, to self-destruction. That was the question hundreds, even thousands, of years ago. And it’s still the question, underlined yet again by the terrible events of last week, the mass murder of thousands of innocent people in the United States by religious or ideological fanatics. 

We say religious OR ideological fanatics because, although the mounting evidence so far points to a crime committed by Islamic fanatics, such atrocities are not the exclusive property of any one culture, creed, race or religion, no matter how much it may comfort us under such circumstances to think they are. They are the evil, criminal acts of human beings who are so full of hate and twisted in their beliefs they can actually justify, even sanctify what they’ve done. 

We have no doubt that somewhere in the Middle East today there are people celebrating the deaths of so-called martyrs who, by their deed of mass-destruction, are now regarded as being in paradise enjoying the pleasures of countless compliant virgins. But we also have no doubt that, just as there are grotesque perversions of every religion on earth, including the Christian, such concepts do not reflect the beliefs of the vast number of Muslims, a few of whom live and work in our own community. 

The crime that took place last week was on a scale that boggles the mind. We look on in disbelief. Our hearts and eyes recoil at the terrible images played over and over again on television as if someone is trying to convince us that, yes, it really did happen. Talking head after talking head tries to explain how and why it happened, and who might be responsible. There’s a sinking feeling in millions of hearts, that such a thing could happen and might happen again, in North America, of all places. Such terrible things have always happened somewhere else. Or, most comforting and reassuring of all, they’ve only happened on television or in the movies. So they’re not real. 

But of course they are. And though our society has refined the art and technology of seeming to safely distance ourselves from the cruel reality of human nature (while indulging in it for entertainment) it’s never really that far away. And perhaps now more than ever before we are being called by the terrible events in the U.S. last week to confront that reality and do something about it once and for all, or be doomed. 

People – young people especially – often question the sense of studying history. Why learn about what happened 5,000, 2,000, 200 or even just 50 or 20 years ago if you’re planning on becoming a mechanic? Anyway, it’s boring. 

In fact, history is anything but boring. But, more to the point, history is the chronology of human events that, if learned and properly understood, can be turned into a collective wisdom that could potentially save the human race. Someone once said, ”he who fails to learn the lessons of history is doomed to repeat them.” No truer words were ever spoken. 

Even a superficial study of history reveals that the human race has regularly repeated its most atrocious mistakes. Man’s inhumanity to man, war, atrocities and terrorism on a massive scale have occurred throughout recorded history, in every part of the world, including North America. And we can see a terrible cycle of violence, hatred and cruelty, as one evil deed begets another. There are people in the Balkans (the former Yugoslavia) today, for example, who still feel obligated to seek atrocious vengeance for terrible atrocities that took place more than 500 years ago. 

Today we understand the anger of the American people in response to a terrible atrocity. Those who say the entire civilized world was attacked, and may be attacked again soon, are right. It’s understandable the U.S., indeed the whole world, must defend itself, and respond aggressively to investigate thoroughly and take action to prevent further attacks. If the evidence points to outlaw terrorist organizations then criminal charges should be laid and justice should be done under the rule of law. If the evidence also points to the material involvement of rogue states, then they too should be punished. 

But we caution the U.S., and everyone else whose blood is understandably up after what happened last week, let’s not fall into the trap of history. Let’s not commit our own atrocities in retribution. That’s precisely the escalation of violence the terrorist enemy wants, so the cycle of violence can keep turning toward the apocalyptic goal their twisted minds crave. 

And then let’s all of us do some serious soul-searching and thinking about human nature and what we can all do to avoid falling victim to its dark side.