03 April 2008

Eisenhower Blues

Is it true that things happen in threes?


First, on an Internet radio station, I heard the familiar voice of J. B. Lenoir, singing a song I hadn't heard in years, "Eisenhower Blues." I hadn't looked for it; I was down in my basement office, innocently working away and trying to ignore the pounding of the roofers overhead, and I had my last.fm player going and the volume up loud. I'd chosen the Otis Spann channel, and several songs into the session I heard Lenoir's familiar voice, "mm mm mm, I got the Eisenhower blues. Talking about me and you, what on earth are we gonna do?"

Then, late in the afternoon, I put my work away and decided to watch a DVD that I was considering mentioning here, Eugene Jarecki's Why We Fight. There was Eisenhower again—the film opened with the president addressing the nation on the eve of John F. Kennedy's inauguration as his successor.

The film, as you probably already know, goes on to explore the state of the military-industrial-congressional complex as it has in fact evolved since Eisenhower gave his famous warning in the farewell speech. Last Friday Reedwood Friends Church's peace and justice committee showed the film as part of its monthly public film series.

I hadn't been able to attend the Reedwood event, so I wanted to see the film for myself. What struck me about the state of the "complex" today was how tight the connections are on some level--revolving-door government/lobby employment practices, for example, not to mention how the defense contractors spread major project activities throughout all fifty states to be a sweet savor in legislators' home districts—but how disconnected they are in other ways. How could it be true that we have 725 military bases in 130 countries and yet remain so helpless in the face of global threats? Why does Boeing whine over Northrup Grumman's winning a contract for aerial tankers that puts jobs in only 49 states and is based on a European fuselage? Maybe most important of all, why does this enormous complex generate so many costly blunders, time and time again?

It's not that the military-industrial complex has been without critics in high places--Fulbright, Proxmire, Schroeder, Waxman, others .... But no president has taken up the permission given by Eisenhower to use the presidential pulpit to urge Americans to consider the dangers he flagged.

His speech has far more substance and specificity than simply one clever phrase. Here is an excerpt, used in the film Why We Fight, with my emphases added:

Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense. We have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security alone more than the net income of all United States corporations.

Now this conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence--economic, political, even spiritual--is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources, and livelihood are all involved. So is the very structure of our society.

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 defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

Did his listener--particularly those listeners entrusted with the stewardship of the nation after Eisenhower's retirement--think that Eisenhower was just entertaining his TV audience? After all, he only warned about two dangers—this one and the related danger of a new and unaccountable scientific elite. Given the stakes involved, why has nobody else exercised the leadership to prevent us from taking anything for granted? Why has “an alert and knowledgeable citizenry” not been the top priority for presidents who might want to end the constant and disastrous cycles of blowback?

So that is what is missing from this enmeshment of wealth, influence and deadly force: an ethical and moral center, pointing out the pervasive influence of this enmeshment ("economic, political, even spiritual"); arguing persistently and persuasively for a true balance of power, backed by a vigilant and informed citizenry. As Why We Fight noted, the American empire has no guarantee of immortality; therefore, sounding an alarm about the untenable corners into which our military-industrial complex has backed us seems like a highly patriotic calling. Even Eisenhower did not give his eloquent warning until the very last moment of his tenure. Let's begin now to ask for something better from our current candidates.

Anyway, these were the thoughts stirred up by the film. Finally, late in the evening, I picked up the novel I've been reading, Lydia Millet's Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, which I'd chosen at the library for no other reason than I'd enjoyed her more recent How the Dead Dream. And there, on page 436, she quotes none other than Dwight Eisenhower, drawing from the exact same part of the exact same speech used in Why We Fight.

PS: Although Eisenhower's warning rings true to me, I'm not personally interested in defining how much military power and war industry are too much, or not too much. The armed nation-state is a relic of an unredeemed world. The patriot in me wants to know how we'll implement his call for an informed, vigilant citizenry. But the evangelist in me wants to go further. I want us Friends to continue fighting the Lamb's war, calling people to disengage from the illusion of a violence-based security, because as (I think) Marshall Massey implies in his comments to my Monday post, God's reign subverts all human divisions.

Righteous Links

Just a couple of links this time, from on the road; first, here's the Youtube link for the movie Why We Fight.

Friends General Conference hosts a Web site dedicated to the book Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship: Quakers, African Americans, and the Myth of Racial Justice, and to related resources and conversations. On the site you can request to be notified when the book becomes available in print.

1960's British "invaders" such as Eric Burdon and the Animals already knew more American music than many of their American audiences. Here's their version of "Tobacco Road."

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