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The Madness of Militarism

Editor’s note: On November 15, 2023, Norman Solomon delivered the Second Annual Ellsberg Lecture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, a lecture series hosted by University’s Ellsberg Initiative for Peace and Democracy. The text below is based on a transcript of his remarks, excerpted and edited for publication. In 2019, Ellsberg made UMass the home for his papers; with the help of an anonymous donor, this treasure trove of some 500 boxes of material became part of the Robert S. Cox Special Collections and University Archives Research Center.

One day in 1995, I called Daniel Ellsberg and suggested that he run for president. His response was instantaneous. He said, “I'd rather be in prison.” He then explained, “I can't imagine how awful it would be to keep talking about things I don't know much about.” That doesn't seem to stop many candidates for president, but for Dan, it was a no-go.

I've thought about that conversation many times. And it's often made me return to an essential question. What exactly did Dan Ellsberg know? From inside the U.S. war machine, he knew what almost no one who had reached his level was willing to talk about publicly. What he knew, and most importantly, what he was willing to share with the public was that the leaders of the so-called Defense Department, the State Department, and the people in the Oval Office, not only could lie, they did so frequently, without regard for truth and without regard for human life. That realization—and the willingness to share that truth—is as current and crucial at the end of 2023 as it was in 1971, when the Pentagon Papers were released.

A couple of years ago, when I recorded an interview with Dan Ellsberg, this is how he put it,

That there is deception, that early in the game the public is evidently misled by it in a way that encourages them to accept and support war is the reality. How much of a role does the media actually play in this—in deceiving the public? And how difficult is it to deceive the public? As an insider, one becomes aware: it's not difficult to deceive them. First of all, you're often telling them what they would like to believe—that we're better than other people, that we are superior in our morality and in our perceptions of the world.

In The Doomsday Machine, a book as important as any I've ever read, Dan starts with an epigraph from Friedrich Nietzsche: “Madness in individuals is something rare. But in groups, parties, nations, and epochs, it is the rule.”

I often think of that quote in tandem with what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described as “the madness of militarism,” something that is as real in our day as when he uttered those words in 1967. Dr. King spoke about what he called the “demonic, destructive suction tube” that drew tremendous quantities of resources away from this country—from human well-being, from health care, education, housing, infant care, elderly care, you name it. Walk around Massachusetts or California or any other state, and you won't be far from the deficits—the result, in large measure, of that “demonic, destructive suction tube.”

A quick survey. Has anyone here—in your neighborhood, in your community, in your travels in the United States, in the last year or two—ever seen a flag of the nation of Ukraine? Please raise your hand. Ukrainian flag, anybody? Wow, almost the whole room. Almost everybody here has seen this display of solidarity with the humanity of the Ukrainian people, who are suffering a horrific invasion—warfare imposed on them by another country. A truly appropriate display of solidarity and compassion.

Now, the other half of my survey. Please raise your hand if you've seen displayed—in your neighborhood, in your walk of life, in your community, or in your travels across the United States—a flag of the country of Yemen. I’m not seeing a single hand. And I can't raise my hand either. Every day when I go shopping or go to work in my little office, I see the flags of Ukraine. I don't see any Yemeni flags.

You may remember the fist bump when, in the middle of 2022, President Biden met with the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia. That was a gesture of solidarity, between our country, which has sold billions of dollars worth of weapons and provided intelligence, and Saudi Arabia, as it slaughters civilians in Yemen.

The media watch group FAIR did a study of MSNBC, the liberal network (not Fox). It found almost no coverage whatsoever of the slaughter going on in Yemen. During the Trump administration, there was 5,000% more coverage of the Russiagate narrative than of what was happening in Yemen.

Ever since 2015, the U.S. government has been supporting the killing from the air and the massacres by Saudi Arabia of people in Yemen. We might think the lack of coverage is odd, given that the United States government is directly involved. And yet, despite our involvement, the U.S. media is hardly paying any attention to it at all. Remember, after the invasion of Ukraine, there was huge coverage—empathetic coverage, appropriate coverage—of the suffering on the ground in Ukraine. That was apparently a different tier of grief, one that's officially sanctified and encouraged. In Yemen, when children were dying en masse, when the largest cholera epidemic in modern history was taking place (courtesy of the Saudi regime, with the support of the United States), it wasn’t newsworthy.

You may remember, back in 1999, when President Clinton and the U.S. led the NATO bombing of Kosovo and Serbia. We saw news magazines with cover stories and TV accounts of ethnic cleansing. We can't allow ethnic cleansing. That's not the American way. Our values require us to stand firm against ethnic cleansing. President Bill Clinton made a speech. He said that we must adhere to “the moral imperative of reversing ethnic cleansing.”

So, what's happening right now in Gaza? To call it ethnic cleansing is perhaps too mild a term. We could have an academic or journalistic discussion about whether it's genocide or it's sociocide, but it's certainly mass murder. That's what's going on. Ethnic cleansing in 1999; moral imperative to reverse it. In 2023, out of the same Oval Office, the message is ”Get those terrorists.” Plus, “It's unfortunate civilians are dying. We hope that our Israeli allies will not continue to kill so many civilians.” That's what we’re saying. The U.S. government is now rushing through another $14 billion—with a B—dollars of military aid to Israel as the deaths continue in Gaza.

After several weeks of intensive bombing of Gaza, a grand total of eighteen members of the U.S. House of Representatives were willing to co-sponsor a ceasefire resolution. 18 out of 435. That’s not only deep red states. Let's talk about California. Only one of the House members from California signed on as a co-sponsor of a resolution urging a ceasefire in Gaza. In Massachusetts, only one member of the U.S. House was willing to sign that resolution. Another thing—maybe it's significant, maybe it isn't. Every one of those eighteen House members who were willing to become a co-sponsor of the ceasefire resolution, every single one of them, are people of color. Not a single white member of the House of Representatives was willing to co-sponsor that resolution.

In late October, Save the Children reported that, “The number of children reported killed in Gaza in just three weeks has surpassed the annual number of children killed across the world's conflict zones since 2019.” On November 10, the Director General of the World Health Organization told the United Nations Security Council, “On average, a child is killed every ten minutes in Gaza.” Courtesy, I would add, of U.S. taxpayers. If you do the math, that's about a thousand kids a week.

The poet William Stafford wrote, “I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty / to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.” Sometimes to recognize the fact is just too painful, too difficult, too inconvenient.

During the first five weeks of the bombing of Gaza, more than 11,000 civilians were killed, including nearly 5000 children, in response to the atrocities that Hamas committed on October 7, in Israel—where the latest estimate of the death toll is 1200, including at least 846 civilians, with also over 200 hostages taken.

We so desperately need in our media, in our politics, in our discourse, a single standard of human rights, of international law, no matter who is committing the atrocities, no matter who is engaging in terrorism. It's really fascinating, in an Orwellian analytical sense, to see how routinely Hamas is described as a terrorist organization, which it is. But also how we can't find a single instance where the U.S. mass media has described the Israeli government as a terrorist organization. Yet if we have the same standard, that would be appropriate.

And so, what should we say about the biggest accomplice to the Israeli government, that terrorist organization? That accomplice would be the United States government. What does it mean to be an active accomplice? They're busting gun dealers for selling assault rifles to somebody who shoots up a supermarket or a school—those people are prosecuted. But 400 or more members of the House of Representatives and the guy behind the desk in the Oval Office dare not even admit that they are accomplices. That's a bridge too far. That's not allowed. Terrorism is defined as is convenient. When the U.S. government kills from the air, we're above it all. That's not terrorism. Packing a bunch of explosives in the trunk of a car and driving it into a target, though, that’s entirely different.

Aldous Huxley said, “The propagandist’s purpose is to make one set of people forget that certain other sets of people are human.” Unspoken messaging of this sort is a major part of our two tiers of grief.

In 1999, there were 78 straight days of bombing Serbia and Kosovo, led by the United States. Not a single American died, it was a great triumph, although, yes, cluster bombs were used. It's not a secret, you can go to the Congressional Research Service and find out how, during the first three weeks of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the United States also used between 1.8 and 2 million cluster munitions, bomblets, to shred the bodies of everyone on the ground, no distinctions. This is one of the most heinous weapons in modern warfare. Back then, we rarely heard about it.

Fast forward to when the Russians invaded Ukraine, and it was reported that they were using cluster munitions. They were justifiably denounced by U.S. media. And the White House publicly suggested that this might well be a war crime. But then, when the Ukrainian forces were running out of weapons and ammunition and the U.S. was running out of resupply ammunition, the U.S. did still have plenty of cluster munitions on the shelf. And so, President Biden, with bipartisan support in Congress, gave the green light and sent huge shipments of cluster munitions to Ukraine. Perhaps they’re not so bad after all. How Orwellian can you get?

This is only one of countless examples of the tiers of grief, the corruption, the corrosion, and, if you will, the spiritual desecration of the U.S. government, of mass media—and of our own lives, to the extent we accept it. In the fall of 2002, roughly a half year before our invasion, I met a few Iraqi children in Baghdad. The UNICEF director took me around to some schools, and the ones that had been refurbished were really nice. There was no smell of sewage. But some other schools I was taken to had not yet been refurbished. At the UNICEF office, they were trying to provide schools that didn't have sewage smell or broken windows. It was really impressive. We went back to the director's office, a Dutch guy who was running the operations in Iraq. We talked about how important the improvements were. And then I asked, “What do you think will happen if the U.S. invades?” There was silence. And then he said, “That would be a whole different matter.” And it was. The U.S. military and media called it, with great excitement, “shock and awe.”

Daniel Ellsberg talked with me about the differences between media coverage of 9/11 and, later, the U.S. military's March 2003 missile attack on Baghdad that started the Iraq invasion. In response to 9/11, he recalled how the New York Times

did something very dramatic. They ran a picture, a head shot of each person who had been killed, along with some anecdotes from their neighbors, their friends, and their family. This person liked to skydive, or this person liked to play in a band, or little anecdotes about what made them human. What people remembered about them in particular. Very gripping, very moving.

And then there was a pause, and Dan went on. He said, after the Iraq War began in 2003,

Imagine if the Times were to run a page or two of photographs of the people who burned on the night of “shock and awe.” It wouldn't be that hard, if you were on the ground, to find the people who were relatives of those people and show that, “Look, each one of them had friends, had parents, had children, had relatives, each one of them had made their mark in some little way in the world—until that moment when they were killed.” These were the people we killed. And these were the people who were dying under the bombing, exactly as happened, in our case, where two planes filled with gas burned two buildings.

Dan went on to acknowledge, of course, that this kind of U.S. media coverage was unthinkable. He put it this way, “Of course, it never happened. Nothing like it.”

In 2009, when I went to Afghanistan, I went somewhere that any U.S. journalist was free to go. You didn't have to be embedded. On the outskirts of Kabul, there was an internal refugee camp, largely populated by people from Helmand Province who had been driven from their home by the violence. It was a very crude makeshift camp, just a bunch of ditches and canvas. There I met a girl named Guljumma. At the time she was seven years old. And she told me about how, one morning at her home in Helmand Province, at about 5:00 a.m. when she was still sleeping, the walls fell in because a bomb had fallen in the neighborhood. The U.S. was bombing the area.

As she spoke, you could see her kind of tilting her body, because she only had one arm. At that refugee camp, because they were internal refugees, the UN wasn't helping. The Afghan government wasn't helping. And the U.S. government wasn’t helping. So they took up collections for food from local business people in Kabul. As a U.S. citizen, I thought, “Wow, my government had the money to bomb these people, but not to feed them.”

The next year in 2010, President Obama spoke to troops near Kabul at Bagram Air Base. He said, “All of you represent the virtues and the values that America so desperately needs right now: sacrifice and selflessness, honor and decency.” And he added, “You see dignity in every human being.”

Even though the United States “lost” the Afghanistan War, the fact is that military contractors never lose a war. Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, General Dynamics, and many other corporations always make a literal and figurative killing.

When George Floyd was murdered and there were Black Lives Matter demonstrations around the country, demonstrators in many cities and towns found that they were facing off against Pentagon equipment. Because of something called the 1033 Program, MRAPs and other major weaponry systems and armaments are given by the Pentagon to local police forces around the country. If they don't use them, they have to give them back.

Since the death of George Floyd, we've been hearing a lot, not enough, but we have been hearing more about systemic racism. However, from the way it’s usually discussed, one might assume that it's only a domestic problem. When I was working on my book, War Made Invisible,  this is why I included a chapter called “The Color of War.” I realized that, ever since October 2001, when the so-called War on Terror began with the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, almost every victim of Pentagon firepower has been a person of color. It's hidden in plain sight. Yet how many op-eds and commentaries have you've seen that even mention it? Is it too embarrassing or too obvious? It certainly wouldn't have surprised W.E.B. Du Bois. The color line doesn't just run through this country, it's global.

To be clear, the United States military doesn't bomb countries because they're inhabited by people of color. But if they're inhabited by people of color, that does make it easier for our domestic politics and attitudes to justify warfare in that country. Otherwise, the entire analysis of systemic racism would make no sense.

As the slaughter continues in Gaza, all of these factors are in play. The two tiers of grief. In all the wars that the United States has been part of, in so many ways, with so many layers, there is invisibility—even if it's on our TVs, even if it's in the newspapers, and on our screens. The realities of these war are made invisible. We can see the images, and still we're virtually clueless. The old clich√© was that television brought war into our living rooms. It sounded good at the time, even though it was completely preposterous. Can you think of anything less like being in a war than watching television or scrolling on your smartphone?

Eight months after the Cuban Missile Crisis, President John Kennedy spoke at American University. He drew lessons from that crisis that are now in the dumpster at the White House. Kennedy said, “Above all, while defending our own vital interests, nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating retreat or a nuclear war. To adopt that kind of course in the nuclear age would be evidence only of the bankruptcy of our policy, or of a collective death wish for the world.”

At the time of that speech in 1963, Daniel Ellsberg was working for the Kennedy administration. As he told an interviewer a few years ago, Dan said,

What I discovered, to my horror, is that the Joint Chiefs of Staff contemplated causing with our own first strike 600 million deaths, including 100 million in our own allies. Now, that was an underestimate even then, because they weren't including fire which they felt was too incalculable in its effects. And of course, fire is the greatest casualty-producing effect of thermonuclear weapons. So, the real effect would have been over a billion, not 600 million—about a third of the Earth's population at that time.

That was sixty years ago. Speaking after his book The Doomsday Machine was published in 2017, Dan brought us up to date. He described research findings about nuclear winter. And this is what he said—it's a long quote but definitely worthwhile.

What turned out to be the case twenty years later in 1983, confirmed in the last ten years very thoroughly by climate scientists and environmental scientists is that that high ceiling of a billion or so was wrong. Firing weapons over the cities, even if you called them military targets would cause firestorms in those cities, like the one in Tokyo in March of 1945, which would loft into the stratosphere many millions of tons of soot and black smoke from the burning cities. It wouldn't be rained out in the stratosphere, it would go around the globe very quickly, and reduce sunlight by as much as 70%, causing temperatures like that of the Little Ice Age, killing harvests worldwide and starving to death nearly everyone on Earth. It probably wouldn't cause extinction. We're so adaptable. Maybe 1% of our current population of 7.4 billion could survive, but 98 or 99%, would not.

In short, we have a double-barreled climate emergency. The organizing on campuses and elsewhere on climate has been so crucial, so important. We have this existential crisis that has been misnamed as a climate crisis. It's a climate emergency. And then we have the specter of nuclear war, which, if it occurs, would speed up the climate crisis, the climate emergency, to an unfathomable degree.

In conclusion, I want to remind you that, although Daniel Ellsberg was extremely well informed about war and U.S. war making, his deepest passion was to wake us up so that we would prevent nuclear war. He told us that the most important initial step to reduce the chance of nuclear war would be unilateral shutdown of all U.S. ICBMs, the intercontinental ballistic missiles that are on hair-trigger alert—because unlike the air and the sea nuclear weapons, they're vulnerable to a first strike. So, by definition, they are kept at launch-on-warning, hair-trigger status.

The former Secretary of Defense William Perry has said that ICBMs are the most dangerous weapons in the nuclear arsenal. And yet, so far, we can't get anywhere with Congress in order to shut them down. “Oh, no,” we’re told, “that would be unilateral disarmament.” Imagine that you're standing in a pool of gasoline, and your adversary is also standing in a pool of gasoline. And you’re lighting matches, and your adversary is lighting matches. If you stop lighting matches, people might say, “Oh, that's unilateral disarmament.” It would also be a step toward sanity.

In The Doomsday Machine, Dan summed up this way. He described the overall policies of preparing for all-out thermonuclear war. He said,

No policies in human history have more deserved to be recognized as immoral, or insane. The story of how this calamitous predicament came about, and how and why it has persisted for over half a century is a chronicle of human madness. Whether Americans, Russians and other humans can rise to the challenge of reversing these policies and eliminating the danger of near-term extinction caused by their own inventions and proclivities remains to be seen. I choose to join with others in acting as if that is still possible.

We all know about Dr. King's “I Have a Dream” speech. But in 1967, when MLK went down by the riverside to a church in New York City and denounced what he called “the madness of militarism”—that's a no-go for corporate media. The politicians—the Democrats and Republicans who embrace his memory—have sent that part of his legacy down the Orwellian suction tube. Dr. King insisted, “I must honestly say to you that I never intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism.”

It's easy to feel overwhelmed, it's easy to feel powerless. Yet the only possibility of change is if we organize. And if we have a realistic view, not of the fantasy world overwhelmingly provided to us by members of Congress, by presidents, and by media. As James Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

Daniel Ellsberg was accustomed to people telling him how much he inspired them. But in his eyes and in his heart, I sensed a persistent question: Inspired to do what?

NORMAN SOLOMON is an American journalist, media critic, activist, and former U.S. congressional candidate. Solomon is a longtime associate of the media watch group Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR). In 1997 he founded the Institute for Public Accuracy, which works to provide alternative sources for journalists, and he serves as its executive director. His most recent book is War Made Invisible: How America Hides the Human Toll of Its Military Machine (New Press, 2023).


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