Civic duty, apathy, and the American war machine.

Hi! I’m not dead!

Having finally crawled out from under the delightful pile of parties, alcohol, chocolate, the deep swirling vortex of Holiday cheer that blocks out all sensation of time, and thank-you notes, I think I’m ready to do some more writing. 

If I had more time and patience, I would list the precise reasons as to why the killing of Soleimani (in the manner it was performed) was the foreign policy equivalent of lighting an overflowing  porta-potty on fire with a blow-torch with intent of eliminating the odor. As it happens, the Washington Post has a helpful piece about it. Another important bit of writing is this piece by Shadi Hamid at the Atlantic, which reminds us to check our American narcissism at the door when considering foreign policy. 

Instead of rehashing what better writers than I have done, I want to offer a perspective that is a little more unique and personal.

I participated in my first real protest when I was in the 7th grade. A number of students had decided to walk out of their classes to protest the impending Iraq war. One of my favorite teachers expressed admiration, but also called us out (in the kindest way possible) on skipping classes and not our lunch or break. While she definitely had a point, her words now seem somewhat harsh in the light of how the Iraq war “turned out,” for lack of a better phrase.


After all, should a bunch of children really have to skip a meal  just to persuade people (who should know better) that starting a war based on questionable information is a bad idea? Would it really have been appropriate for us to just continue attending our classes as if nothing was wrong? I don’t have the answers now anymore than I did back then, but I think about that day a lot.

In high school, watching the war drag on and fade into the background of the American media landscape was both vindicating and horrifying, to say nothing of the war in Afghanistan. Additionally, high school offered the most detailed history classes I had ever had, and it was at this time that I finally learned of the dark history surrounding Saddam Hussein and the United States. As my teacher put it one day: “Sure he was a dictator, but he was OUR dictator.”

And that’s a difficult thing for an American high school student to contemplate. To watch your country enter a war on bad intel with no exit plan is awful enough, but to realize that your own country is a large part of the reason for troubles in that country in the first place? It’s not just depressing, it’s flat out paralyzing.  

There are other atrocities in America’s past. The Vietnam War, the internment of Japanese Citizens during WW2, and the Banana Republic all come to mind. But the uncomfortable history of the U.S. and Saddam was a sort of turning point for me; That is, it was the moment I truly understood just how little American citizens can trust their government when it comes to war. 

So when some edgelord on social media laments about the pointlessness of it all, or how the American empire can never get anything right, or how all of us are sheep for participating in elections, I actually kind of agree just a little bit. However, I do not often engage in this rhetoric in my own writing, or promote it. 

Here’s why:

When we use the overwhelming injustices of American foreign policy as an excuse to disengage from civics issues, we ultimately just wind up enabling it further. When progressive stay home, alt-right/nazi lunatics don’t and the subsequent election goes differently than it might have. While it is certainly rational to feel shame at some of the actions of our country, abstaining from civic engagement does absolutely nothing to help those who have been harmed by our actions overseas. In fact, it does very little at all, except to stroke one’s own ego. 

I feel this way, in part, because I am old enough to remember the 2000 presidential election. I remember the rhetoric that told us, “Bush and Gore are the same.” I remember being told that Gore was too warlike and status quo. I remember Nader being marketed as the “cool” third party candidate. 

And where that fucking get us?

It’s impossible to say exactly what would have happened, had Gore obtained the oval office and not Bush. But I’m gonna go out on a limb here and suggest that maybe, JUST MAYBE the dude who tried to draw attention to climate change even as he received ridicule from all sides might have been better prepared to perform the duties of the President than the dude we got. Just sayin. 

The military industrial complex (to borrow from Eisenhower’s famous farewell speech) doesn’t just kill people. It kills hope of change and betterment. It strips any enthusiasm that one might have for civic action and drowns hearts and minds in a toxic slurry cynicism and apathy. And obnoxious edgy memes with Guy Fawkes masks in them. Seriously, no one fucking reads those things. Cite sources and present potential solutions like a grown up.  

To make matters worse, this narrative can now be weaponized by social media. If I was a stupidly rich idiot who wanted Trump and his enablers to win again, I wouldn’t engage in unseemly violence- I would just use my resources to bombard voters with memes that make them feel stupid for believing in the possibility of change in foreign policy. They’d stay home, and probably think of themselves as “enlightened” while they did it! problem solved.

No one particular action will dismantle the American war machine. Voting in a more sensible senate would help, but it won’t fix everything. Getting rid of Citizens United would help, but it won’t fix everything. Calling one’s reps and reminding them that we really don’t appreciate our money lining the pockets of sketchy weapons contractors would help, but it won’t fix everything. Protests can help, but they won’t fix everything.

That having been said, some or all of these actions combined? Maybe that’ll do something. I think it already has.

Because the public reaction to the prospect of another war hasn’t really been the same this time around. Maybe it’s because the initiation of the Iraq war is still relatively fresh. Maybe it’s because Trump isn’t nearly as good at speaking as Bush was, and that’s not saying much.

Or maybe it’s because America is finally starting to notice that no one ever asks how we will pay for war.

Healthcare? Too expensive. Infrastructure? Also too expensive. Real actions to help fight climate change? Lol nope. But a war with no real strategy and no exit plan? Make it rain, baby!

As life becomes more and more difficult for our working class, this hypocrisy becomes harder to ignore.

On that day, in seventh grade, I remember a man who heckled us. This man drove by, middle finger raised, and shouted “fuck peace!” He then laughed and drove away, obviously proud of having owned a bunch of middle schoolers who had committed the horrible crime of displaying empathy and basic awareness of world events. The nerve of us!

In the moment, I didn’t much notice or care. Looking back, I realize how sad and pathetic that man really was. 

There will always be those who think this is all pointless. There will always be grown ass men who feel threatened by a bunch of kids taking an interest in their world. 

But we go on.

We keep protesting and voting. We keep educating ourselves and others of the true cost of America’s wars, and what else could have been done with that money. We keep taking care of our communities. We keep living our lives and finding joy where we can. 

And we do it because, as a wise teacher once told me, there is no alternative.

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