Can books still make history? They used to. This seemed particularly true in the ’60s, when Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Michael Harrington’s The Other America and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique launched, respectively, the environmental movement, the war on poverty and the women’s movement. Of course, back then, presidents read books. (President Kennedy had his Science Advisory Committee read Silent Spring and it corroborated Carson’s findings, leading to the regulation and then banning of DDT.) Despite often powerful opposition to these authors and the movements they helped ignite, these books transformed American politics and the everyday lives of millions. And it is these social changes in particular – environmental protection, lifting people out of poverty, gender equity – that the Bush administration has assiduously worked to reverse.
But the Bush administration’s worst addition to American life has been exploiting 9⁄11 to normalize the concept of never-ending war. In response, a minor publishing industry has emerged to produce anti-Bush and Iraq exposé books.
It is safe to assume that these books–The Assassin’s Gate by George Packer, Cobra II by Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor, plus the earlier ones by Richard Clarke, Joseph Wilson and others – helped erode support for the war and Bush’s policies. But will they push more Americans to the next, broader level, as Silent Spring or The Other America did? To make history, they would need to expand the existing antiwar movement into a wider campaign for the de-militarization of American politics and the economy.
Two new books, Stephen Kinzer’s Overthrow: America’s Century of Régime Change from Hawaii to Iraq and James Carroll’s House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power make the more sweeping case that the militarization of the United States has corrupted our moral stature and our ability to conduct foreign policy in our own and other nations’ interest. Laura Washington writes in more detail about the Kinzer book, and she rightly emphasizes one of the crucial contributions of Overthrow: its emphasis on the 110-year continuum of “régime change,” and the ways in which the news media’s episodic coverage of foreign policy cultivates amnesia about this long pattern of U.S. intervention.
Kinzer is also quite clear about the role of corporations in régime change: Protecting the economic interests of American companies abroad has often driven invasions. Such corporations moved “a step beyond influencing policy makers,” he writes, “they became policy makers.” One way this happened was through the revolving door between key corporations and government positions. The exemplar is John Foster Dulles, lawyer to multinational corporations subsequently elevated to Secretary of State, and architect of the ’50s coups in Iran and Guatemala that preserved, respectively, U.S. oil interests and the interests of United Fruit.
Kinzer’s most important point is that régime change, in almost every case, undermines U.S. interests and influence. While moral qualms matter, what matters in the long run is that régime change doesn’t work. James Carroll makes a related argument, in his magisterial House of War, a book that is part history and part memoir (his father worked in the Pentagon). As an institution, he writes, the Pentagon has had a huge and deleterious influence on American life and politics. He chronicles how the increasingly rogue military establishment has made us artificially paranoid, frightened and vengeful, and ensured that the United States is, primarily, a militarized country. And the nuclear arms race, which Carroll documents from its inception, has, he argues, made our nation less, not more, secure.
With these two books, we have a broader critique of what Seymour Melman in CounterPunch and others have referred to as a “permanent war economy.” They take on American militarism as a practice but also, just as importantly, as a mindset. And abandoning this mindset is no small challenge. Many Americans believe that militarism is necessary, even desirable. That vengeful strain in our culture has been powerfully reinforced by the military-industrial complex and many politicians. It will take the kind of massive, bottom-up consciousness-raising that Carson, Harrington and Freidan inspired to force it into remission.
Republicans have been masters of rhetorical inversion, labeling calls for higher taxation of the rich “class warfare,” and the like. Kinzer and Carroll remind us that the biggest rhetorical distortion has been the assertion that militarism makes us secure. Democrats who still fear being called “girly men” when it comes to foreign policy should especially read these books. Kinzer and Carroll document, repeatedly, that U.S. interventions abroad have, as Kinzer notes, “actually weakened American security.” If books can still make history, then these might start a movement for anti-militarism being the American realpolitik of the 21st century.