Frida Berrigan

Tipping points and collective action: How to survive the future on a broiling planet

Frida Berrigan, Living in a Tipping-Point World

In her piece today, TomDispatch regular Frida Berrigan brings up a past I remember all too well. Indeed, I can still recall my teacher putting a radio on her desk when I was a schoolboy in the 1950s so we could hear what must have been CONELRAD broadcasting a nuclear alert — it was a test, of course — and we students, well trained, promptly “ducked and covered” (as the phrase went) by diving under our desks, hands over heads. As you might imagine, it wasn’t exactly a position that left you with a deep sense of confidence, should Russian nuclear weapons actually strike New York City, where I grew up.

Still, in some way, it certainly did focus my young mind on the apocalyptic dangers of our world. It made the “Cold War” seem both all too real and all too potentially overheated, even though I had never seen a nuclear weapon or met someone from the Soviet Union. What I wonder these days is: in a world where nuclear arsenals are far more terrifying than in the 1950s but none of us duck and cover anymore (despite the recent much-ridiculed New York City nuclear warning that Berrigan mentions), do most of us even think about such futures, much less try to protect ourselves from them? I doubt it.

And as for that other apocalyptic way our world could end — the one none of us knew about in my childhood (though a select few were already aware of it) — there are no duck-and-cover drills for it. I’m thinking, of course, about climate change.

Unfortunately, that second nightmare, unlike the first, isn’t just a future possibility. It’s already happening right before our eyes, whether we care to recognize it or not. You shouldn’t be able to miss it if you’re living beside the drying up Colorado or Mississippi rivers, or your California town burned to the ground in a devastating wildfire, or your home was wiped out by a hurricane beyond measure or disappeared in a flood of previously unknown magnitude.

Of course, once the heat drops for the winter, the fire season ends, or the latest round of flooding finally dries up, denial sets in again as we duck and cover not to protect ourselves, but to ignore what’s actually happening on this planet. Sadly, in a world in which the apocalyptic is becoming an everyday affair, all too many of us seem to be ducking and covering in just that fashion and it doesn’t matter whether, for instance, I’m talking about climate-denying Republican politicians or the voters far too willing to put them in office.

With all of that in mind, take a little time out in the open with Frida Berrigan. For at least a brief moment, no ducking and covering allowed. Tom

How to Survive Us – Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow on a Broiling Planet

When I was growing up, there was a parody of an old-fashioned public announcement tacked to the wall of our kitchen that I vividly remember. It had step-by-step instructions for what to do “in case of a nuclear bomb attack.” Step 6 was “bend over and place your head firmly between your legs”; step 7, “kiss your ass goodbye.”

That shouldn’t be surprising, since my parents, Philip Berrigan and Elizabeth McAlister, once-upon-a-time priest and nun, were well-known antinuclear activists. I was too young to be a part of the “duck-and-cover generation” who, at school, practiced hiding from a nuclear attack beneath their desks or heading for local bomb shelters in the basements of churches and town halls.

Born in 1974, I think of myself as a member of The Day After generation, who were instructed to watch that remarkably popular made-for-TV movie in 1983 and report on our observations and feelings. Dramatizing the life of people in a small town in Kansas after a full-scale nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States, it made a strong (if perhaps unintentional) case that dying in the initial blast would have been better than surviving and facing the nuclear winter and over-armed chaos that followed.

In this Ukraine War era, maybe we could label today’s kids as the Generation Fed Up With Grown Ups (Gen Fed Up). The members of Gen Z are “digital natives,” born with smartphones in their hands and instantly able to spot all the messy seams in, and agendas behind, poorly produced, un-informative Public Service Announcements like the New York City Emergency Management department’s much pilloried recent PSA about what to do in case of — yep, you guessed it! — a nuclear attack: get inside, stay inside, and stay tuned. (Sounds pretty close to the poster on my wall growing up, doesn’t it?)

Young people need real information and analysis, survival skills and resources. Generation Z and the younger Generation Alpha (I have some of both in my family) are growing up in a world torn apart by the selfishness and shortsightedness of earlier generations, including the impact of the never-ending production and “modernization” of nuclear weapons, not to speak of the climate upheaval gripping this planet and all the horrors that go with it, including sea level rise, megadrought, flooding, mass migration, starvation, and on and on and on…

Jornado del Muerto

The nuclear age began during World War II with the July 16, 1945, test of a six-kilogram plutonium weapon code-named Trinity in the Jornado Del Muerto Valley in New Mexico. No one bothered to tell the estimated 38,000 people who lived within 60 miles of that atomic test that it was about to take place or that there might be dangerous nuclear fallout following the blast. No one was evacuated. The area, whose Spanish name in translation means, appropriately enough, Journey of Death, was rich in indigenous culture and life, home to 19 American Indian pueblos, two Apache tribes, and some chapters of the Navajo Nation. Though hardly remembered today, they were the first nuclear casualties of our age.

That initial test was quickly evaluated as successful and, less than a month later, American war planners considered themselves ready for the ultimate “tests” — the atomic bombing of two Japanese cities, Hiroshima on August 6th and Nagasaki three days later. The initial blasts from those back-to-back bombs killed hundreds of thousands of people on the spot and immediately thereafter, and countless more from radiation sickness and cancer.

Fat Man and Little Boy, as those bombs were bizarrely code-named, should have signaled the end of nuclear war, even of all war. The incineration of so many civilians and the leveling of two major cities should have been motivation enough to put the cork in the deadly power of the atom and consign nuclear weapons to some museum of horrors alongside the guillotine, the rack, and other past devices of obscene torture.

But it would prove to be just the beginning of an arms race and a cheapening of life that goes on to this day. After all, this country continues to “modernize” its nuclear arsenal to the tune of trillions of dollars, while Vladimir Putin has threatened to use one or more of his vast store of “tactical” nukes, and the Chinese are rushing to catch up. I keep thinking about how 77 years of nuclear brinkmanship and impending doom has taken its global toll, even while making life more precarious and helping render this beautiful and complex planet a garbage can for forever radioactive waste. (Okay, okay, hyperbole alert… it’s not forever, just literally a million years.)

Some among the duck-and-cover generation feared that they wouldn’t live to see adulthood, that there would be no tomorrow. Not surprisingly, too many of them, when they grew up, came to treat the planet as if there indeed were no tomorrow. And you can see evidence of just that attitude any time you consider the “prosperity” of the second industrial revolution with its toxic sludge of fossil fuels, PCBs, asbestos, lead in paint and gas, and so many plastics. This polluting of our ground, water, and air was all, I suspect, spurred on by a nihilistic nuclearism.

It seems impossible to work so hard to shift from burning carbon to capturing solar or wind power if there’s a chance that it could all go up in a mushroom cloud tomorrow. But there have been some notable efforts from which to draw hope and inspiration as we keep living out those very tomorrows. As environmentalist and futurist Bill McKibben writes in his memoir The Flag, The Cross and The Station Wagon: A Graying American Looks Back on His Suburban Boyhood and Wonders What The Hell Happened, President Jimmy Carter tried to guide this country to a less carbon-dependent future — and it cost him the presidency. The Carter White House sought to mitigate the damage of the 1979 oil crisis with significant investments in solar power and other green technologies and cutting-edge conservation. Had such policies been allowed to take hold, as McKibben points out, “climate changes would have turned from an existential crisis to a manageable problem on a list of other problems.”

Can you imagine? We love Carter now for his folksy accessibility, moral stamina, and promotion of affordable housing through Habitat for Humanity, but as we doom-scroll the latest news about present and future climate catastrophes, we have to reach back through time to even imagine a healthier tomorrow. Sadly enough, with Carter, we might have been near a turning point, we might have had a chance… and then actor (and huckster) Ronald Reagan rode his 10-gallon cowboy hat into the White House, removed the rooftop solar panels the Carters had installed, instituted tax cuts for the very wealthy, and loosened regulations on every type of polluter. President Reagan did that in 1986, only a year or so after the last month of our era that the planet was cooler than average.


1986 seems like just yesterday! Now what? How about tomorrow?

After all, here we are in 2022 about to hit eight billion strong on this planet of ours. And there is, of course, a tomorrow. Hotter and drier but dawning all the same. Wetter and windier but coming anyway.

I have three kids, ages 8, 10 and 15, and they anchor me in a troubling and strange, if still ultimately beautiful, reality. This world, however finite with its increasingly overwhelming problems, is still precious to me and worth a good fight. I can’t turn away from tomorrow. It’s not an abstraction. The headlines now seem to endlessly scream: we are at a potential tipping point in terms of the climate. Did I say a potential tipping point? I meant to make that plural. In fact, an article in the September 8th issue of the Guardian lists 16 of them in all. Sixteen! Imagine that!

Three of the biggest ones that climate scientists agree we’re close to tipping over are:

1. The collapse of Greenland’s ice cap, which will produce a huge rise in global sea levels.
2. The collapse of a key current in the north Atlantic Ocean, which will further disrupt rainfall and weather patterns throughout the world, severely curtailing global food production.
3. The melting of the Arctic’s carbon-rich permafrost, releasing staggering amounts of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere and so further broiling this planet. (Will it freeze again if we do the right thing? Not likely, as it seems as if that tipping point has already tipped.)

In the face of all of this, in the age of Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Elon Musk, and the rest of the crew, how do you change political or corporate behavior to slow, if not reverse, global warming? More than three-quarters of a century of uncertain tomorrows has made the human race — particularly, of course, those in the developed/industrialized world — awful stewards of the future.

“So when we need collective action at the global level, probably more than ever since the second world war, to keep the planet stable, we have an all-time low in terms of our ability to collectively act together. Time is really running out very, very fast.” So said Johan Potsdam, a scientist with the Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany. As he added tellingly, speaking of the global temperature ceiling set at the Paris climate accords in 2015 (and already considered out of date in the latest devastating United Nations report), “I must say, in my professional life as a climate scientist, this is a low point. The window for 1.5C is shutting as I speak, so it’s really tough.”

Dire predictions, reams of science, sober calls to act from climatologists and activists, not to speak of island and coastal communities already being displaced by a fast-warming world. Only recently, two young people from the climate movement Last Generation threw mashed potatoes at the glass covering a classic Claude Monet painting in a museum near Berlin in a bid to get attention, while activists from Just Stop Oil used tomato soup on the glass of Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers in London in October. In neither case were the paintings themselves harmed; in both cases, they have my attention, for what that’s worth.

For striking numbers of climate refugees globally, the point has already tipped and, given their situations, they might like to have some tomato soup and mashed potatoes — to eat rather than to be flung as protest props. In the longer term, for their children and grandchildren, they need masses of people in the biggest greenhouse gas polluters — China and the United States top the list — to radically alter their lifestyles to help protect what’s left of this distinctly finite planet of ours.


Thomas Berrigan, my grandfather, was born in 1879. My grandmother Frida was born in 1886. While they missed the pre-industrial era by more than 100 years, their early lives in the United States were almost carbon-free. They hauled water, chopped wood, and largely ate from a meager garden. As poor people, their carbon footprint remained remarkably small, even as the pace and pollution of life in the United States and the industrialized West picked up.

My father, Philip Berrigan, born in 1923, was the youngest of six brothers. There could have been two more generations of Berrigans between his birth and mine in 1974, but there weren’t. I could have been a grandmother when I gave birth to my last child in 2014, but I wasn’t. So, in our own way, whether we meant to or not, we slowed down the march of generations and I’m grateful for the long perspective that gives me.

In her later years, my grandmother marveled at the ways in which a car could bring her back and forth to the city “all in one day.” More recently, her great-grandchildren have found that they could still go to school (after a fashion) thanks to computers during the Covid pandemic, communicating in real-time with teachers and classmates scattered elsewhere in our world.

It’s not likely that I’ll live until 2079, my grandfather’s 200th birthday, but his great-granddaughter, my daughter Madeline, will just be turning 65 then. If she has my mother’s longevity, she’ll be 86 when we hit the year 2100, That is the grim milestone (tombstone?) when climate scientists expect that we could reach a disastrous global average temperature of 2.1 to 2.9 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Unless. Unless something is done, many somethings are done to reverse greenhouse gas emissions. Otherwise, that spells disaster beyond measure for my children’s children.

When I look at old photos, I see my own face in my mother’s hollowed-out, age-spotted cheeks. And when I look at my daughter’s still chubby cheeks and the way her eyebrows arch, I see my own younger face (and that of my mother’s, too).

As far as I’m concerned, the year 2100 is my future, even though I won’t be here to struggle through it with my children and their children. In the meantime, we keep putting one foot in front of the other (walking is better for the environment anyway) and struggling somehow to deal with this beautiful, broken world of ours. One generation cedes to the next, doing its best to impart wisdom and offer lessons without really knowing what tools those who follow us will need to carve a better tomorrow out of a worsening today.

To go back to the beginning, while such a thing is still possible, if nuclear weapons, the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, fossil fuels, and apocalyptic fear helped get us to this breaking point, we need something truly different now. We need not war, but peace; not new nukes, but next-generation-level diplomacy; not fossil fuels, but the greenest of powers imaginable. We need a world that Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Elon Musk, and their ilk can’t even imagine, a world where their kind of power is neither needed, nor celebrated.

We need gratitude, humility, and awe at the deep web of interconnection that undergirds the whole of nature. We need curiosity, joy in discovery, and celebration. And our kids (that Gen Fed Up) can help us access those powers, because they’re inherent in all children. So, no more ducking and covering, no more Day After, no more staying inside. Let us learn from Generation Z and Generation Alpha and change — and maybe survive.

What I still love about my embattled country

Frida Berrigan, Seeking a Salve for Heat, Hate, and Hysteria

If anything saved my life when I was young, it was books. Library books, to be exact. These days, about to turn 78, I walk past one of my bookshelves, notice the several volumes of history I’ve collected on the Ottoman Empire — I was always curious about it! — and think sadly, I’m never going to get to you, am I? But when I was young, there was only one issue: making it out of the children’s section and into the adult part of my local library. And a wonderful librarian trusted me to do it. If only I could thank her in person today! I checked out every book I could carry, often not even faintly knowing what they were. An only child with working parents, I took them home and spent a remarkable amount of time reading about the world I would one day join (or so I was told, anyway).

I read Bruce Catton on the Civil War and William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. I read H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, and other sci-fi authors, memoirs, and fiction, too, including Désirée, that novel about Napoleon’s first love and mistress. In today’s mad terms, I guess you could say that I was “grooming” myself for a world beyond imagining.

Now, I know one thing: that memorable librarian of mine would be deeply embattled. She might have to face off against the Proud Boys. Her name might be made all-too-public by a Republican member of the Virginia House of Delegates or she might be fired for defending books from being banned or simply retire in despair. She would face the increasingly morbid Trumpist urge to censor everything that the former president and his crew don’t like. Hey, only months ago, a Tennessee school board banned a book I published, Art Spiegelman’s bestselling, Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus about his parents’ experience in the Holocaust. Part of their explanation for doing so: that it contained naked cartoon mice. (In the process, of course, they sent it soaring back into bestseller heaven.)

It pains me to see this madness in our all-too-disturbed land and so it warmed my heart to read TomDispatch regular Frida Berrigan’s thoughts on what, including libraries (and their embattled librarians), she still loves about our disturbed country. It’s time for all of us to take a deep breath and think about what we still truly care for and would defend about this land of ours, no matter what. Tom

This Is My Song: What I Can Still Love about My Embattled Country (and World)

It’s hot and hazy as July rolls around. Growing up in the Baltimore swamplands, we used to say, “It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.” Meaning that the humidity was harder to deal with than the feverish temperatures. At some point in my family, the phrase morphed into: “It’s not the heat, it’s the stupidity.” At the time, we meant the antics of people when it gets hot, including public drunkenness, mishaps with fireworks, and fights over slights. (These days, sadly enough, you’d have to add to that list slaughtering people at a July 4th celebration with an AR-15-style rifle.)

Worse yet, in 2022, it’s emblematic of a far larger picture of life on earth: the stupidity of trying to stay cool while burning carbon; the stupidity of the Supreme Court tying the collective hands of the Environmental Protection Agency when it comes to regulating the emissions of coal-fired power plants; the stupidity of blaming mental illness rather than assault rifles for massacres; the stupidity of a pro-life movement that seems to care about nothing but fetuses. And, of course, the list only goes on and on… and on.

And now, I think I’m breaking into a sweat even though I’m sitting still. The novelist Barbara Kingsolver posted this on Facebook recently:

There are days when I can’t live in this country. Not the whole thing at once, including the hateful parts, the misogyny, the brutal disregard of the powerful for the powerless. Sometimes I can only be a citizen of these trees, this rainy day, the family I can hold safe, the garden I can grow. A fire that refuses to go out.

So, in these hazy, humid days laced with commercial patriotism and an upbeat jingoism shaken loose from the daily struggles of most people, I’m trying to take her words to heart. I am a citizen of the trees, particularly the two plum trees I planted this spring. I am a citizen of the rainy day. (May it come soon!) I am a citizen of my family of five, of eight, of 16, of 150 (the number of people anthropologist Robin Dunbar says we can meaningfully connect with). Yes, it really does seem like that’s what it takes to go on these days — committing yourself to what matters, to what you still do love in this ever more disturbed America of ours.

Above all, I am a citizen of what I love! I resolve to be a citizen of goodness and generosity, competence and kindness. I pledge allegiance, above all, to libraries, used bookstores, community gardens, and the mutual-aid network of my local “Buy Nothing” group. This, sadly enough, is as much of my country, America, that I seem capable of loving in the age of Donald Trump and an all-too-extreme Supreme Court.

So, in an America in which Roe has gone down and gun sales only continue to rise (thank you so much, Supremes!), let me tell you a little about the things I still truly do love in America.

Used Books Stores

I recently ruined a library book! I spilled coffee all over it and there was no way to fix it. When I contacted the library, I was told that there would be a $30 fine to replace it. There was, however, another option: I could find a new copy and bring it in instead. Well, I have more time than money, so I set off to replace the State of Terror by Hillary Clinton and Louise Penny (a propulsive guilty pleasure of a summer read) that I had caffeinated to the hilt.

After checking out three brick-and-mortar used bookstores in my area I found that novel in no time at all for $1.50 (plus $4.00 shipping) at Alibris, an online used bookstore. But don’t feel bad for the stores that didn’t have a copy of State of Terror. I still spent at least $30 in them, picking up a couple of survival guides, an Octavia Butler novel (another kind of survival guide), graphic novels for my kids, and a few other books that caught my eye — but hopefully won’t catch my next cup of coffee.

There’s something so wholesome about used bookstores. If the $25 billion-plus publishing industry is a slick, cutthroat insider’s game riven with racism and inequity, then used bookstores are its antithesis. They’re all about the pleasure of knowledge, craft, and the word! Nearest to us here in New London, Connecticut, is the Book Barn in Niantic, a network of three stores loosely organized by theme and covered in cat hair. Their haphazard nature rewards curiosity and perseverance. The mismatched chairs and overturned milk crates invite you to pause, peruse, and dive in. When I go there with my family, we chant “five books are enough” before we get out of the car. Then we revise it to five books each (for a total of twenty-five) and, in the end, are likely to buy as many as we can carry. Given such frenzies, we can only afford to go once every few months even though many of the books are only a dollar each and most are less than five dollars. Honestly, how could you not love it?


Excuse me for being so book focused, but that’s who I am, I guess. In between trips to used bookstores, we can always go to the library, where you can borrow 50 titles per card at a time! My kids, 8, 10, and 15, are so well known there that the librarian calls us when they leave behind a favorite stuffed animal or jacket (which is like every week).

The New London library is within walking distance of our house. In addition to books, it has a job-search support center, a recently redesigned teen center, and meeting rooms for local groups and events. Patrons can check out free museum passes, use the free services of a notary, and pose any question under the sun to members of its calm, helpful staff. In addition, our library has a couple of surprising offerings, including Memory Kits for people developing dementia and quite a variety of cake pans shaped like cartoon characters, animals, or castles that can be borrowed like any book.

In this way, our library is very trendy. Like ever more libraries, it’s no longer just focused on lending out books. It’s a multi-use facility that hosts community events, serves as a free or low-priced Staples or a WeWork suite with computers, printers, and study carrels. It lends out Roku devices and laptops, while maintaining catalogs of diverse offerings. My sister-in-law, for instance, borrowed catering equipment like chafing trays and large casserole dishes for her son’s graduation party. At some libraries, you can even borrow lawn mowers, weed whackers, and pruning equipment for your garden and lawn. During prom season, some of them are opening dress-lending libraries to help cash-strapped families get strapless!

It’s all so wholesome and delightful that it’s easy to forget just how underfunded and under attack our libraries are. This in a country where, if you love books, you’ve instantly got financial problems, but if you love the military-industrial complex you’re guaranteed to have more money than you know what to do with. In a nearby town, a first selectman demanded that the library remove a copy of Who Is RuPaul? from its collection in response to a parental complaint.

The book, part of a popular series of biographies, tells the story of the performer, producer, personality, and queer icon whose groundbreaking talent has turned drag-queening into mainstream magic. In Indiana, North Carolina, Texas, and elsewhere, members of the right-wing armed hate group Proud Boys have tried to interrupt children’s story hours with vitriol and threats of violence. And yet, despite all the hate, librarians just carry on! The library, a bright, functional, welcoming space meant to exist outside of commerce and to be open to all, is one of the last true public spaces in this country, an enduring part of a shrinking commons!

“Buy Nothing” Facebook Groups

I know. I know. Facebook (now Meta) is big, bad tech. Our every cursor move is tracked, our every “like” logged. I should go on a total social-media fast, but I’m not on Instagram or TikTok and I do love to “like” my friends’ cat pictures! Above all, though, I love “Buy Nothing.” That site-specific network — there are groups everywhere — is built around asking, gifting, and gratitude. It’s online neighborliness personified, demonstrating, in the words of its founders, that “true wealth is the web of connections formed between people who are real-life neighbors.”

The New London Buy Nothing Group on Facebook has more than 1,500 people. It’s administered by a handful of souls who moderate the page to make sure, among other things, that no one feels badgered into choosing certain people for gifts. In the last few days, some members have offered up cats, organic plant fertilizer, and a toilet seat, while others have asked for vintage drinking glasses, a dog crate, and an old cellphone so a nephew can access the Internet.

People respond to all these queries by asking to be chosen, sometimes sharing why they want whatever’s been asked for and how they’ll use it. The gifters get to choose who to give items to and then they make arrangements to pass them on. When I see someone asking for something that I have in excess, I’ll post a picture of it and invite them to reach out and make a plan to pick it up. Things move pretty quickly then. The only time I had no takers, I was offering used school backpacks the same week that the local Rotary Club was giving out brand new ones filled with school supplies. We’re a friendly, dynamic group that stretches from the nicest homes in New London to the Red Roof Inn, a place people stay when they’re experiencing homelessness.

I love thinking about my front porch as a place where people can come to have their needs and wants met. In the last few months, I’ve shared a women’s history puzzle, a pair of kids’ boxing gloves, a mini-pool full of hostas, jars of sourdough starter, and vegetable stock, while collecting yoga mats, chicken wire, rosary beads, an aquarium, and small jam jars from porches and front steps all over town.

When I refer to “the city” of New London, Connecticut, which was founded in the 1600s and burned down by American traitor turned British Brigadier General Benedict Arnold in 1781, it sounds grand indeed. As it happens, though, we’re now actually a small community of about 28,000 people living in a six-square-mile area. In other words, we’re the size of a town.

New London has been known for lots of things, including its arts scene, bar scene, sugar-sand beach, and being the childhood home of playwright Eugene O’Neill. It’s long and thin like a jalapeño pepper and so small that sometimes it feels like I know everyone. Then I find myself driving down a street I’ve never noticed before, searching for the address of the nice person who’s left me a copy of Dean Spade’s Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (and the Next) on their porch in a brown paper bag.

Only 2,882 people voted in our last election, but it seems as if twice that many were actively searching for infant formula during the recent shortage. There’s a level of engagement, gratitude, and celebration on New London’s Buy Nothing Facebook page that I always find moving and delightful, sometimes overwhelmingly so.

Community Gardens

A little head of organic lettuce costs almost $3 these days at my local grocery store. A pound of organic strawberries, imported from Mexico, is about $8. Inflation is the word of the day, week, and year. And nowhere is it more obvious than at the checkout counter of my local grocery store. Like so much in this interconnected, fragile, unequal world of ours, we can blame the soaring cost of food on war and the greed of the corporations that call the tune in the global economy.

But far away from such overwhelming disasters is a modest set of raised garden boxes just up the block from my house. They burst with lettuce, strawberries, and a dozen other easy to harvest “snack” crops. And they’re free for the picking! Hand-painted signs in English, Spanish, French, and Arabic encourage passersby to harvest there and eat the food. The “snack boxes” were built and are maintained by a local food justice and youth empowerment organization called FRESH New London. Passersby can harvest the lettuce and strawberries and bring them home to wash and enjoy. They can pick snap peas, okra pods, and a little later in the summer sweet peppers and blackberries, too.

There are also boxes at the community garden where people can grow their own lettuce, peppers, tomatoes, and whatever else they want after accessing water and tools. While they’re at it, they can ask staff members and other gardeners for advice and help.

There are community gardens like ours all over the country, organized by groups of neighbors, non-profit organizations, or even towns and cities. Community gardens are places where we can get our fingernails dirty and our bellies filled with veggies and fruit, while connecting with neighbors, celebrating the beauty of nature, and even providing food for bees and other pollinators.

Of course, people like me can’t grow all our food this way, especially in places like urban Connecticut. Still, producing some of it in such a communal way reminds us that we have the power to feed ourselves and one another. And in these dispiriting times, that should be a strong message of hope!

A (Small) World Free of Nationalism?

“My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean and sunlight beams on clover leaf and pine,” we sometimes sing when our Unitarian Universalist congregation meets. Finnish composer Jean Sibelius wrote the music more than 100 years ago, while American poet Lloyd Stone provided the words in 1934 to what became the hymn “This Is My Song.” It continues, “But other lands have sunlight too, and clover, and skies are everywhere as blue as mine.” It’s a beautiful piece of music, poignant and full of a love of home that’s somehow radically and beautifully free of nationalism.

The sunlight beams down on used bookstores, libraries, community gardens, and even, however metaphorically, into the dark universe of Meta where there are still people who reject our click-and-buy culture, opting for mutual aid instead. “Buy Nothing!” is the thought lurking there, even if all of this can’t quite stave off the despair that circulates whenever I tune into the wider world of Supreme Court rulings and House January 6th hearings or contemplate why the heat and humidity and stupidity is rising all at once in this forlorn world of ours.

In my own small version of the world, “This Is My Song” is so beloved that my husband and I made it the entrance march at our wedding. It always reminds me that this planet is bigger and more beautiful than nationalism and militarism allow us to see. It reminds me that curiosity and connection form a web that can be stronger than border walls and xenophobia. It reminds me that the small bits of joy and hope that gardens and the gift economy give me is a seed that, with time, nurturing, and hard work, could grow into a more just and equitable future for us all.

So, that’s what I need to remind myself of with each new Supreme Court decision, each crazed statement from Donald Trump or so many other Republicans, each new Cold War moment in our embattled world. It’s good to know that there’s still something I truly do love about this country.

How the pandemic exposed the failures of the American education system

Frida Berrigan, Investing in the Pentagon, Not Our Children

The United States is a war state of the strangest sort. Your taxes go to war — in this century, losing wars — in ever more extravagant amounts. There’s simply no end to it. In fact, it’s safe to say that investing yet greater sums in the military-industrial complex is about the only subject on which congressional Republicans and Democrats seem capable of agreement (though even there, the Republicans are demanding more, much more!).

Meanwhile, as TomDispatch has recorded over all these years, this is a country that seems to be coming apart at — okay, I’m an editor, but I still can’t resist using the same-sounding word twice in this sentence — yes, the seams. If you don’t believe me, ask Trump appointee Kathryn Kimball Mizelle, the Florida District Court “judge” (and I put that word in quotes because she’s hardly more of a judge than I am) who lifted the national travel mask mandate, once again splitting this country in fervent disagreement and, it being in the Trump tradition, undoubtedly killing some of us in the process.

So here we are, more than two years into a pandemic estimated to have done in up to 15 million people globally, with cases and hospitalizations once again on the rise in the United States. In response, the country’s letting down its guard. What else is new? I have the feeling that what this society needs is attention from someone like the husband of today’s author and TomDispatch regular Frida Berrigan. He’s a “wellness interventionist” — a term I had never heard before — in our public schools, which, as she tells us (and she’s not alone at TomDispatch in that), are an increasing mess. Who could be surprised in a country that would never invest in public education, as she makes all too clear, the way it does in its military. Of course, given this country’s record at war in this century, perhaps that’s a good thing. Who knows anymore? Not me! Tom

A School System Goes to Hell and Back Again – A Pandemic Year of Hope, Trauma, and Tragedy, Up Close and Personal

A kid spat on my husband Patrick yesterday. That sentence just keeps running through my head. The student was up on a windowsill at school and, when instructed to come down, he spat.

It’s part of Patrick’s job not to take that — the most personal of insults and an almost universal expression of disrespect — personally. He knew enough about that boy and his sad story to see the truth of the maxim “hurt people hurt.” In this case, it was also a matter of “disrespected kids disrespect.” So, he handled it and his emotional response to the grossness of being spit on, too. He got that kid down and back into class. Then he cleaned himself up and went on with his day.

This is not the first time he’s been spit on this year and it probably won’t be the last. It isn’t even the worst. Once, he was so covered in spittle he had to go home in the middle of the day to shower and change clothes. And mind you, this is all happening during the coronavirus pandemic and the mandatory mask-wearing that is supposed to keep his school safe (at least from the virus).

Taking the Time

My husband’s official job title — and I’ll bet you didn’t even know such a job existed — is Wellness Interventionist. (Another school calls his position the Feelings Teacher). He works at one of our Connecticut town’s four public elementary schools, trying to keep things from getting overheated. He attempts to intervene in conflicts between kids before they come to a head. He leads class-circle discussions about emotional health, and helps students find more complex and nuanced ways than just anger or derision to express their feelings. They are supposed to seek him out for help navigating conflicts and repairing relationships.

There’s a jargonistic term for what he does: “restorative practices and social-emotional learning.” Because he works in a bureaucracy, you won’t be surprised to know that these terms have been reduced to the acronyms RP and SEL. However fast those may be to say, though, the work itself takes time, lots and lots of time, and time is the one thing my husband seldom has in his fast-moving school days with almost 500 kids needing attention.

He’ll sit down with two kids at odds with each another and just as they get to the crux of the matter, a call comes in over his walkie talkie that a student has “eloped” (the term of art for escaping the building) and is running towards the road. He’ll be about to connect with a youngster struggling with too many grown-up-sized problems at home, when a teacher urgently calls him to a classroom to help manage a fourth grader’s water-bottle-throwing tantrum.

What choice does he have? In that case, he promised the student with the home problems that he’d continue their conversation at lunch and sprinted for the classroom. Patrick entered the room with a smile on his face. In a calm voice he said, “Okay, friends, we are going to give X some space now, so please go with your teacher to the library.” He helped her usher the boy’s fearful, dumbstruck classmates out of the room. “See you in a little bit,” he said in his most reassuring voice, before turning to that flailing, furious youngster.

With the rest of the students gone, the temper tantrum was no longer a performance and so the two of them ended up working for almost an hour cleaning up the mess. As they set tables upright, wiped up spilled water, and taped torn posters back on walls, Patrick got the kid talking about the problems that had all too literally exploded out of his small body. No, my husband couldn’t fix them, but he offered a little perspective and some tools for managing anger more constructively. He then reached out to the school’s psychiatrist and social worker, while offering support to the family.

And yes, I may not be the most objective witness, but Patrick is really good at his job — patient, friendly, and ready to help. When he needs to restrain kids intent on hurting themselves or others, he does so with a sense of moderation and equanimity right out of the “safety care” training manual.

His problem, though, is time in a school and a system that, during the pandemic, hasn’t had enough teachers or para-educators or aides — and, all too typically, is losing more of them. The school’s psychiatrist just left for a better (less dangerous) job and the principal recently announced that she’s leaving at the end of the school year. There are a dozen teachers looking for new jobs or planning on early retirement. And yes, there are other staff trained to deal with aspects of his job, but it’s hard because too many of them aren’t fully capable of dealing with the physical demands of the job. He has colleagues who are pregnant, smaller than some of the fourth graders, or older enough not to want to risk an injured back or knee from chasing or restraining kids.

A Failure for Sure — But Whose?

All too often these days, my husband comes home sad, tired, and dispirited. Unfortunately, his feelings and experiences are just one person’s tale in the sweeping epic of a failing and floundering school system. Or maybe it’s not just that system, but our whole society.

You probably won’t be surprised to know that public schools have been in perpetual crisis for a long time. Fill in the blank for the calamity of your choice: from once-upon-a-time segregated schools and federal agents escorting Black youngsters to school to today’s fights over which bathroom kids should use and who plays on what volleyball team. Schools have long been the culture war’s battlefield of choice.

Why is there public education and what is its purpose? If the original system was built and funded at public expense to prepare the next generation of factory workers, today’s system is there so that parents can work. Covid-19 revealed that sad truth. When schools shut down, so does part of the economy. These days, they also provide a whole array of social support for families badly in need, often including food, clothes, health care, and access to technology.

The pandemic shutdowns revealed failures and weaknesses in a threadbare social system, but it did allow certain strengths to shine through as well. For one thing, the commitment of so many teachers, para-educators, and support staff, often under remarkably difficult circumstances, should be considered a marvel. Our educators are the under-appreciated, underpaid, undervalued superheroes of the Covid era. They transitioned to a new medium of education, the virtual classroom, and figured out how to mobilize the sort of resources that students and their families need just to keep going. School buses delivered computers, lunches, and dinners. Teachers made themselves available after hours to walk families through the new technology of schooling, even though they often had kids of their own and elders to care for as well. And they did it all for far too long amid the Trump administration’s dismal culture wars!

They worked on an emergency, pedal-to-the-metal footing for three semesters before going back to in-person instruction in the fall of 2021, with masks, plexiglass barriers, and the constant threat of shutdowns. They started the school year stressed and tired, and now, in April 2022, they’re exhausted.

Rage or Gratitude (or Both?)

You would think all of this would make a deep impression on my own children, one in second grade and the other in fourth, who can sometimes see their father in the hallways of their school. When it comes to school, though, our two kids are in their own world — one of new books and good friends. At dinner, when we say grace, they’re forever praising their teachers. As far as they know, school is going great. I wouldn’t have it any other way, so out of their earshot, Patrick and I try to talk through his hard days.

In the face of it all, I feel both inchoate rage and extravagant gratitude. The rage is easier. Patrick is dealing with many layers of trauma and tragedy all at once in the minds and bodies of five to 12-year-olds. It should surprise no one that, after 18 months of virtual “learning” and social isolation, kids are having a hard time reacclimating.

Educators don’t know everything that happened to every kid between March 2020 and September 2021, but they know enough to be sure that it was often bleak: many had family members who lost jobs or even died. Some moved into far smaller living spaces with more people or found themselves left alone for long periods of time with just the Internet and all its dark corners for company.

I was so relieved when our kids went back to school, but I wished that more time had been spent on reconnection, community rebuilding, and healing. Of course, I wasn’t in charge and had to watch helplessly as, in September 2021, they instantly went back to standardized testing.

I blame the school system for charging full steam ahead over the minds and bodies of the youngest, most vulnerable members of our community. Yet I’m grateful as well. It’s so confusing! In spite of everything, my kids are so happy to be back and I find myself surprised, impressed, and moved by what they bring home to share.

Time Is Money

Everyone has ideas about how to improve our schools and can point a finger at those they blame for the failures in that system: absent or omnipresent parents, video games and social media, cops in schools (as symbols of public safety or emblems of the “school-to-prison” pipeline), and that’s just to begin down an endless list.

Wherever you want to lay the blame, the solution isn’t hard to find, it’s just expensive.

An administrator told Patrick that the way to fix our schools would be to have each teacher and aide deal with a class of just 12 students, with plenty of time for exercise, recess, and the arts. Indeed, that would undoubtedly fix many of the problems Patrick faces daily, because so much of his work involves putting out fires long after they’ve broken out. In a class of 12, a teacher would be able to give any smoldering kid attention — and some choices.

However, we already do invest a lot of money in our schools with anything but the greatest results. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the United States spent $14,100 per elementary and secondary student in 2017 — 37% more than the average of $10,300 paid by member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a group of 38 “highly developed” wealthy nations. On that list, only Luxembourg, Austria, and Norway seem to spend more than the U.S. does, but the academic performance numbers of many of those countries are so much better than ours.

Why? To explore the all-too-complicated answer to that question, you would undoubtedly have to dive into this country’s brutal history of the transatlantic slave trade and racism, Calvinist notions of who deserves to succeed, and so many other factors. But given my own background, I tend to think about it in terms of Washington’s military budget — in terms, that is, of how poorly we invest staggering sums of our taxpayer dollars. After all, it’s not just how much you spend, it’s how you spend it! In our case, prodigiously on war and preparations for more of it, rather than on our children.

The United States spends so much more on its military than any other country (more than the next 11 countries combined, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute) and we still aren’t safer, not faintly so. When we “invest” more than $800 billion annually in the military-industrial complex, as President Joe Biden proposes to do in 2023, there are a lot of things we can’t afford that would actually make us safer. Money wasted on the military doesn’t get spent on mental health — unsurprisingly, the man who attacked that Brooklyn subway car, injuring 23 people, suffered from mental illness — and it doesn’t get spent on gun-safety measures either. According to the Gun Violence Archive, more than 12,000 people have been killed by guns so far this year alone in this disastrously over-armed nation of ours. How can we even say that we’re a nation at peace, given the endless violence and mass killings that embroil us?

And guns aren’t the only thing killing us either. While we spend so much on military infrastructure, we don’t repair the rest of our infrastructure adequately. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives that civil infrastructure (roads, bridges, parks, water systems, etc.) a C-minus grade and estimates the spending needed there at $2.59 trillion. Finally, military spending hampers our ability to respond to genuine threats to safety and security like the coronavirus pandemic, which has already killed nearly a million Americans (and likely many more than that).

Education suffers, too. While the U.S. toolbox may be full of hammers, kids aren’t nails. And while federal education spending is relatively high, it’s spent all too politically instead of going where it’s most needed. Take New London, Connecticut, where I live, for example. I looked up what we get per student per year and it was more than I thought: $16,498 (with $1,210 coming from the federal government and the rest from the state and local taxes).

Nonetheless, we’re a poor community. The median income for a household in New London is about $47,000, well below the national average, and we have a homeownership rate of less than 40%. So many families in our school district qualify for free or reduced lunch that they just give every kid free lunch (and breakfast and a snack, too) without any paperwork. A lot of the students in our public schools are “English Language Learners” (ELL), meaning they speak another language at home and need additional support to learn the material in math or social studies as they are also learning English. Many of them also have “Individualized Education Plans” (IEPs) indicating that, with an attention deficit or learning disability, they need extra support and accommodation to learn. A not-so-small minority of students are ELL with IEPs. All that adds up to a lot of need and a lot of extra expense.

We should get more resources because our needs are high, but perversely enough, the needier a school district is, the fewer resources it gets, because in so many parts of the country education spending is pegged to property taxes. Chester, Connecticut, is just 20 miles away from here, but it might as well be in another world. Their schools spend $24,492 per student and have very few English-language learners in that very white small community.

In our town, until the pandemic shut down the schools, one of the elementary schools did double duty as a food pantry once a month. The food line would then snake around the building, including parents, grandparents, and people coming straight from work (among them, custodians, cooks, and teachers from that very building). No one got paid enough to turn down a free box of food toward the end of the month.

I helped out there sometimes and one thing struck me: the news media never showed up. Not a single reporter. That line of 200 or more people who needed food badly enough to spend a few hours there at the end of a workday just wasn’t a big enough deal. If doctors had lined up around the hospital in a similar fashion, or engineers and scientists employed at our local weapons manufacturer, General Dynamics, maybe that would have been news. But poor schools, poor people… nothing new there.

It’s Not Fair

With his limited resources, Patrick is part social worker, part social connector, part bouncer, part enforcer, and part small-group facilitator. An administrator who makes three times his salary saw him in action recently and said, “We should have five of you!” And she was right. That school does need more people like him. Her tone, though, was wistful, as if she were hoping for a unicorn for Christmas. Of course, having the resources to pay people who are going to help create the conditions under which children will learn in an optimal fashion shouldn’t be a fairy tale.

That kid on the windowsill probably needed more than any school could give him. He probably needed a grief counselor and a psychiatrist, a safe place to live and a good night’s sleep, glasses, shoes that fit, and a warmer jacket, too. And the one thing he knew for sure was that he wouldn’t get what he needed and it pissed him off. In that moment, I suspect school stuff was far from his mind. He undoubtedly wasn’t worrying about his math scores or his reading level. My best guess is that he wasn’t thinking about the consequences of his actions either, like being sent to the principal’s office or getting suspended. From what Patrick said afterward, it sounded like the kid was enraged, suffering, deeply sad, over-stimulated, out of options, and couldn’t believe that any adult would listen to him express his problems with words alone.

Schools can’t solve all of this society’s problems. But every day, my kids’ teachers show up and try, just as Patrick does. It’s not fair, it’s not working particularly well, but it does make a difference and that’s better than the alternative.

A Christmas confession: My kids and I are taking an eco-holiday from it all

Confession time: this year, I don’t want to buy my kids anything for Christmas. Big one, right? Okay, let me soften that just a bit. I have bought a few modest, useful things. But that’s it! No new games, no new toys, no new clothes (other than socks)… nothing. They already have too much. We have too much. Our nation is drowning in stuff and, in reality, need almost none of it.

There, I’ve said it! It feels good to get that off my chest, even if it makes me sound like a cold-hearted Grinch of a mother. But maybe that’s what it truly takes to be a good environmentalist these days.

On the radio recently, I heard this stumper: the U.S. economy depends on consumers consuming and the earth depends on us not consuming. Which are we going to choose? Once the conundrum of this moment was posed that way, I knew instantly where I stood. With the earth and against consumption! I raised my fist in support, even as I maneuvered my empty seven-person, gas-fed minivan down the highway. I mention that lest you jump to the conclusion that I’m a 100% eco-soul, which, of course, none of us can be in this strange world of ours. (On that, more to come.)

And therein lies the rub! We can always be doing better. I compost and recycle and don’t shower every day. Our thermostat is set at 63 and most of the winter I wear a hat and scarf inside. All this feels conscientious and hardscrabble, but does it change anything? Does what I do matter at all?

To put myself in context, I keep thinking of a 2019 report that found the U.S. military to be “one of the largest climate polluters in history, consuming more liquid fuels and emitting more CO2e [carbon-dioxide equivalent] than most countries.” In fact, the British researchers who did that study discovered that if the United States military were a nation-state it would be the “47th largest emitter of greenhouse gasses in the world (just taking into account fuel usage emissions).”

If our military machine is such a major polluter (and TomDispatch readers would have known that back in 2007, thanks to Michael Klare’s reporting), my contributions to a greener tomorrow through low-key body odor might not make the slightest difference. In short, I’m not showering as much and I’m giving myself a hard time for driving my old minivan around, while Brown University’s Cost of Wars Project finds that the U.S. military has been giving the planet a truly hard time. In its Global War on Terror alone, it released 1.2 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions between 2001 and 2017, effectively pumping more than twice as many planet-destroying dirty gases into the atmosphere as all the cars in the United States in the same period.

Target Mania

You might reasonably ask: What does this have to do with Christmas, or rather the annual holidays celebrated by Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others who mark the darkest period of the year with festivals of lights, feasts, and gift-giving? I guess this time of year makes me, at least, want to interrogate my inner Grinch. If the military is such a staggering polluter, bigger even than Black Friday deal-hunters and Cyber Monday bargain-shoppers, why am I so worried about overdoing it this holiday season?

Okay, here’s how my thinking goes, more or less: just because damn-the-torpedoes, full-speed-ahead buying as if there were no tomorrow starts at the top with the Pentagon’s way of making war on this planet, doesn’t mean it has to go all the way down to me. I mean, I want there to be a tomorrow and a next day and a day after that. I don’t want my children to be driven from their future homes thanks to climate-change-induced rising waters, already cluttered with micro-plastic, single-use coffee cups and lost flip flops.

American consumption is a problem. The carbon footprint of, and the garbage from, every purchase can be calculated and increasingly will be labeled. As Annaliese Griffin noted recently in a New York Times op-ed:

“Every new purchase puts into motion a global chain of events, usually beginning with extracting oil to make the plastic that is in everything from stretchy jeans to the packaging they come in. Those materials travel from processing plant to factory to container ship, to eventually land on my front porch, and then become mine for a time. Sooner or later, they will most likely end up in a landfill.”

We have to be more than consumers. We are potentially part of the path out of the morass, out of being a nation that says, “I buy, therefore I am,” instead of “I think, therefore I am.” Collectively, we already have so much stuff that decluttering is a multi-million-dollar industry and self-storage a multi-billion-dollar one.

We have eight years to halve carbon emissions before our species irrevocably alters the planet’s climate, according to the latest report from the U.N. Environment Programme. Getting there is going to involve beginning to dismantle the military-industrial complex, banishing more fossil-fuel-driven cars from the roads and planes from the air, and reining in consumerism in a major way. In short, it will take a reordering of how we — and that includes me — do everything.

And yet, even knowing all this, even having sworn all this, I find myself at Target on a Monday three weeks before Christmas. I’m there with a strange shopping list that ping-pongs from bras to celery and milk to kids’ toothpaste to a screwdriver set small enough to open our thermostat. And I have just one hour. “Target will have it all,” I tell myself. But that’s the problem, isn’t it? They have everything on my shopping list, as well as holiday garlands and sugar cookies and swimsuits and cute toilet brushes. (Why do toilet brushes need to be cute?)

It all demands my attention. I grip my shopping list, grit my teeth, and try to stay the course. And then I remember the birthday party the kids are invited to this weekend at a bowling alley. I usually have them make cards and give books as gifts, but I’m not going to be there with them to navigate the gift-giving portion of the afternoon, so I feel compelled to buy a “real” present.

That’s how I end up in the Lego aisle where the shelves are almost empty. I stand there for 20 minutes talking myself in and out of buying one of three choices. Finally, I get all three, telling myself that they’re on sale and we can give the other two away as gifts. And so it goes in this country’s version of consumer heaven (or hell).

In the parking lot afterwards, I feel awful, thinking about the carbon footprint of those Lego sets and their long journeys from factories in Brazil and China. I try to perk myself up by remembering how that Danish company is trying to get rid of its plastic packaging and investing in recyclable materials.

At home, I tuck the Lego sets away and wonder: What will my kids be missing out on if I’m truly able to keep this Christmas low key and experience-focused? I go online to find out and my idle research turns up an astounding array of loud, robotic, expensive plastic objects with strange names. The Purrble is a stuffed animal with an electronic heartbeat that, when you pet it, purrs and “calms down.” It sells for $50 and if that isn’t expensive enough for you, there’s always Moji. For $100, that interactive Labradoodle toy does tricks on command and responds when you pet it like a real dog but won’t chew up your shoes or have an accident on the carpet.

Moji and Purrble are likely to be top sellers in this holiday season, but it looks like most people who want them under the tree have already got them because they’re now scarce indeed. Still, I kept clicking away. The last toy I see in the “hot toys for 2021 list,” however, doesn’t make me purr or do tricks. Instead, it summons up all my bad feelings about people who make and market toys — and gives me a sense of validation for my simple Christmas plans.

It’s the “5 Surprise Mini Brands Mystery Capsule Real Miniature Brands Collectible Toy.” Say that three times fast. On second thought, don’t. The plastic capsules are wrapped in plastic and contain small plastic objects, each behind its own plastic window. It’s plastic, plastic, plastic all the way to the end of the line. When your children unwrap them on Christmas morning, they’ll find five tiny replicas of brand-name supermarket items like ketchup bottles or peanut-butter jars in each of them. As the ad copy explains about these ads you’ve given your kid: “Create your mini shopping world: Collect them all and tick off your collector’s guide shopping list as you go!”

Oh, for the love of mistletoe, really? Yes! The Toy Guy, Chris Byrne, claims that it’s a popular toy because “kids love miniature things and they love shopping.” For the privilege of entrenching brand loyalty in your small children and making grocery shopping with your offspring even harder than it already is, you pay $15.00 plus shipping for two of them and the 10 tiny objects they contain.

Sadly enough, I know that my kids would love them. Considering their carbon footprints and the psychology and marketing behind them, I despair.

How to Fly Through the Air on the Highest Trapeze (All on Your Own)

It isn’t all doom and gloom, though. It can’t be. My daughter recently reminded me that kids can play with anything — even garbage — for hours on end if you let them. Madeline, who is seven, was sent home from school for 10 days after close contact with a kid who was Covid positive. I decided to skip the assignments her well-meaning teacher emailed me and hid the tablet she sent home in Madeline’s backpack. I was not going to survive those days if I had to sit next to her, monitor progress on worksheets, and make sure she wasn’t toggling over to YouTube to watch doll-transformation videos.

Without the school schedule and the attendant fights over screens, time passed quickly; we went to Covid-test appointments, took long walks, spent time with my mom working on puzzles and doing watercolors, and engaged in house-cleaning projects room by room. In between all of that, I left her to her own devices: unplugged, unscripted, and unsupervised.

One day, while I was typing at the dining-room table, she found some old foam dolls she had made at a craft fair. I had pulled them out from under the couch with all the dust bunnies and put them in a box to take to the trash.

“No, no, mom!” she exclaimed. “These girls are my favorites. I made them. They’re not trash. I’m playing with them right now.”

“Alright,” I replied. “Let’s see you do so.”

She spent the next three and a half hours in an elaborate circus landscape of her own creation. She tied strings between lamps and bookshelves, moved chairs around, magic-markered faces and costumes onto the dolls, and then put them through trapeze routines on those strings. As I emailed, while checking off items on my to-do list and adding new ones, she chirped away, putting dialogue, feeling, and action in the mouths of these small pieces of airy plastic. Every once in a while, she’d march through the dining room heading for the kitchen art shelf to get more markers, wire, or paper.

Finally, she invited me into the living room, asked me to find circus music on my phone, and presented me with the show. I stood marveling at the extraordinary mess she’d made and calculating how long it would take to clean up as she flipped, swung, and danced her characters through the air with the greatest of ease on their flying trapeze(s). I clapped, smiled, and went back to my to-do list, suggesting that it might be time to clean up.

“I’m not done, mom!” she insisted. “I have another hour or so of work to do with them.” And as it turned out, she did. I put my own mess away, started dinner, and then helped her sweep up the last of the project just as everyone else was getting home from work and school.

What struck me, of course, was that it cost nothing. Her play was engrossing, dynamic, self-directed, and creative and it didn’t come from across the sea in a shipping container, but from inside her.

Mind you, I’m neither a monster nor a Grinch. There will be presents. The kids will be getting umbrellas for Christmas, as well as new socks and used books from those series that they so adore. They’ll get diaries that lock with tiny keys and new pens in their stockings. They’ll help us make cookies and candies to box up for friends and families as gifts.

We’ll celebrate and connect and share, but it won’t be a branded frenzy of consumption at our house. We don’t need it, not in a world that’s threatening to come down around our ears.

We have eight years to crawl back from the brink of total climate disaster. And we’ll do what we can and try to enjoy every minute of it.

Copyright 2021 Frida Berrigan

Featured image: Macy’s Shopping Bag Black Friday 2021 by Anthony Quintano is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Flickr

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Frida Berrigan is the author of It Runs In The Family: On Being Raised by Radicals and Growing into Rebellious Motherhood. She is a TomDispatch regular and writes the Little Insurrections column for WagingNonviolence.Org. She has three children and lives in New London, Connecticut, where she is a gardener and community organizer.

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Pandemic Plus

While most of the developed world has been dealing with the impact of the pandemic in a reasonable fashion -- caring for the sick, burying the dead, enforcing lockdowns and the sort of distancing and masking that seems so necessary -- it's played out differently here in the good old U.S. of A. Here, we have a pandemic-plus -- plus a broken social safety net, a for-profit healthcare system, a war of disinformation, and that's just to start down a list of add-on disasters.

In addition, parts of the United States have been beset by record wildfires, hurricanes, and deadly storms. So add on the impact of catastrophic climate change.

Here in the land of the fearful and the home of the riven, it's been a pandemic plus poverty, plus staggering economic inequality, plus police violence, plus protest, plus white supremacy. It's a nightmare, in other words and, despite those more than 210,000 dead Americans, it's not slowing down. And no matter the facts on the ground, and the bodies below the ground, the president's supporters regularly deny there's the slightest need for masks, social distancing, shutdowns, or much of anything else. So, it's a pandemic plus lunacy, too -- a politically manipulated lunacy spiced with violence and the threat of violence heading into an increasingly fraught election, which could even mean a pandemic plus autocracy or a chaotic American version of fascism. In other words, it's a lot.

Still, it's also the fall and, after this endless summer, my three kids have started school again -- sort of. They are in first, third, and eighth grade. Right now, there's more coaching around masks and distancing than instruction in math and the ABCs. Still, the teachers are working hard to make this happen and my kids are so happy to be away from us that they don't even seem to mind those masks, or the shields around their desks, or the regimented way lunch and recess have to happen. Over the whole experiment, of course, hangs an unnerving reality (or do I mean unreality?): that in-person schooling could dissolve in an errant cough, a spiking fever, and a few microscopic germs catapulting through the air. In fact, that's already been happening in other areas of Connecticut where I live.

After all these months of lockdown, my husband and I automatically wear masks everywhere, arranging the odd outdoor gathering of a handful of friends and trying to imagine how any of this will work in winter, no less long term. Still, bit by bit, we're doing our best to quilt together an understanding of how to live in the midst of such a pandemic -- and that's important because it's so obvious that there's going to be no quick fix in the chaotic new world we've been plunged into.

Seven months in, I'm finally realizing what so many marginalized people have always known: we're on our own. It came to me like a klaxon call, a scream from the depths of my own body, all at once. I still whisper it, with sorrow and wonder: we are on our own.

It's as if our small city of New London and the state of Connecticut had been untethered from the federal government and, despite the crazy game of telephone that passes for federal public-healthcare policy, are faring better than most due to a mixture of our state's reputation as the "Land of Steady Habits," our small-city web of mutual aid, and our own family's blend of abundance and austerity. Still, the fact that, relatively speaking, we're doing okay doesn't make the realization that we're on our own any less stark or troubling.

It's not complicated, really. You can't beat a pandemic with a mixture of personal responsibility and family creativity. Science, policy, and a national plan are what's needed. My own vision for such a plan in response to Covid-19 would be the passage of a universal basic income, robust worker protections, and Medicare for all. But that's just me... well, actually, it's probably the secret dream of the majority of Americans and it's certainly the opposite of the position of Trump and his ilk. It says that we really all are in this together and we better start acting like it. We need to take care of one another to survive.

In spite of it all, I'm doing my best to manage this new normal by focusing on what I actually can do. At least I can feed people.

Our city was poor even before the state ordered a lockdown in mid-March and few had the extra money to panic-buy. So the food justice organization I work for started planting extra carrots, peas, and collards back in March. We built public garden boxes and painted signs telling people to harvest for free. We distributed soil and seeds to people all over the city and gave them some gardening 101 guidance.

And now, as October begins, we're still finishing harvesting all that food and distributing it every week. On Fridays, I also help pack boxes of milk and eggs, meat and vegetables, which we then deliver to more than 100 families. The rhythm involved in harvesting the produce and packing the boxes, each an immersive physical task, helps banish my darker thoughts, at least for a while.

"We Are Going to Be in Very Good Shape"

The president held a news conference on March 30th. Of course, that's ancient history now, separated as it is from the present by long months of deaths and hospitalizations, layoffs and political in-fighting. The CEOs of Honeywell, Jockey, MyPillow, United Technologies, and other companies were gathered alongside administration officials that day. It should have been a briefing on where we Americans were a month into what was clearly going to be a long slog. Above all, it should have honored those who had already died. Instead -- no surprise looking back from our present nightmarish vantage point -- it proved to be an extended advertisement for those companies and a chance for their CEOs to spout patriotic pablum and trade compliments with the commander-in-chief.

I was crying a lot then. When the president said, "We have to get our country back to where it was and maybe beyond," I began to sob and dry heave. After I finally wiped away the tears and blew my nose, I checked out the website of a company that makes homeopathic remedies. A friend had sent me a list of ones doctors were supposedly using to treat coronavirus symptoms in Germany, Italy, and China.

"Get these if you can," she texted. It wasn't science. I admit it. It was desperation. As one of millions of Americans on state insurance with no primary-care doctor or bespoke concierge service, I feared the worst.

As the CEO from MyPillow was telling the American people to use the time of the shutdown to "get back in the Word, read our Bibles," I made my own faith gesture and pressed the buy button. When the order arrived, it was full of tiny, archaic vials labelled with names like Belladonna and Drosera. Even now, when I feel anxious and cloudy, I rummage through that box of vials and read the names like incantations. Better that than heeding the president's assertion on that long-gone day that "we are going to be in very good shape."

A Handful of Chickens

We are not in very good shape and it's getting worse every day. As the November election looms and Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death (as well as the grim Republican response to it) casts an ever more massive shadow over the country, the subtext of the administration's message -- however convoluted its delivery -- is simple enough: you're on your own. Over the last half-year, whether discussing the pandemic or the vote to come, Donald Trump has made one bizarre, bombastic, patently untrue assertion after another. In the process, he's vacillated between a caricature of a dictator from some long-lost Isabel Allende novel and of an insecure middle manager (The Office's Michael Scott on steroids).

Critical medical information, public health guidelines, and the disbursement of necessary protective equipment have all been thoroughly messed up and politicized in ways that are harmful today and could be devastating for years to come. As Peter Baker of the New York Times reported in September, so many of us are indeed confused:

"With Mr. Trump saying one thing and his health advisors saying another, many Americans have been left to figure out on their own whom to believe, with past polls sharing that they have more faith in the experts than their president."

That's me! I do have faith in the experts. I'm wearing a mask and digging into the idea that mask wearing is going to be a part of our lives for at least the next year or so. In other words, the new normal will be ever more of the same, which means careful, awkward, tentative engagement with a wildly unpredictable world full of pathogens and unmasked "patriots." The new normal will mean trading in the old sock masks my mother-in-law fashioned for us and investing in more high tech and effective masks. Beyond that, my answer to all this couldn't be more feeble. It's taking care of my backyard chickens and my front-yard garden and adding strands to our small web of mutual aid.

This spring and summer, I dug up more of my lawn to plant carrots, sweet potatoes, and squash in an ever larger garden, while learning how to store rainwater from the gutters of our roof in big barrels. I joked with my friends about growing rice -- and might even try it next year. I acquired a chicken coop, built a rudimentary run, and ordered six beautiful chickens from a farm in a quiet corner of Connecticut: two Golden Copper Marans, two Black Marans, and two Easter Eggers. The kids named them after characters in the Harry Potter series, which they've all but memorized during the shutdown. One chicken ran away and one died, but I love everything about taking care of them and harvesting the perfect magical protein orbs they produce with religious regularity.

These things bring me pleasure and a feeling of accomplishment, while leaving me with a set of tasks that I have to complete even when I feel despondent and overwhelmed. That's all to the good, but a handful of chickens and a few collard plants don't add up to self-sufficiency. They are not a bulwark against national insanity and ineptitude. They will not solve the problem of Donald Trump and Company.

Still, in bad, bad times, at least they keep me going and let's face it, all of us -- at least those of us who survive Covid-19 -- are in it for the long haul.

Frida Berrigan is the author of It Runs In The Family: On Being Raised by Radicals and Growing into Rebellious Motherhood. She is a TomDispatch regular and writes the Little Insurrections column for WagingNonviolence.Org. She has three children and lives in New London, Connecticut, where she is a gardener and community organizer.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2020 Frida Berrigan

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This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch.“

As it happens, I’ve held a gun only once in my life. I even fired it. I was in perhaps tenth grade and enamored with an Eagle Scout who loved war reenactments. On weekends, he and his friends camped out, took off their watches to get into the spirit of the War of 1812, and dressed in homemade muslin underclothes and itchy uniforms. I was there just one weekend. Somehow my pacifist parents signed off on letting their daughter spend the day with war reenactors. Someone lent me a period gown, brown and itchy and ill-fitting. We women and girls spent an hour twisting black gunpowder into newspaper scraps. I joked that the newspaper was anachronistic — the previous week’s Baltimore Sun — but no one laughed.

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The Pentagon Represents Astounding Excess in Spending and Firepower: Can Obama Take it on?

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Jailed for Protesting Gitmo: 34 Convicted for Demonstrations Outside Supreme Court

Thirty-four Americans arrested at the Supreme Court on January 11, 2008 were found guilty after a three-day trial which began on Tuesday, May 27th in D.C. Superior Court. The defendants represented themselves, mounting a spirited defense of their First Amendment rights to protest the gross injustice of abuse and indefinite detention of men at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay.

Charged with "unlawful free speech," the defendants were part of a larger group that appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court on January 11 -- the day marking six years of indefinite detention and torture at Guantanamo. "I knelt and prayed on the steps of the Supreme Court wearing an orange jumpsuit and black hood to be present for Fnu
Fazaldad," said Tim Nolan, a nurse practitioner from Asheville, NC who provides health care for people with HIV.

Defendants and witnesses argued that they did not expect to be arrested at the Supreme Court, "an internationally known temple to free speech." Ashley Casale, a student at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, told the court, "I am 19 -- the youngest person in this courtroom--and I come on behalf of all the prisoners at Guantanamo who were younger than I am now when they were detained. According to the U.S. Constitution we have a right to petition the government for a redress of grievances and Guantanamo Bay prison is beyond grievous."

Historian Michael S. Foley, a professor at the City University of New York, teaches the U.S. Constitution to undergraduates. He testified that if "you told me that the defendants would be arrested for 'unlawful free speech' just twenty feet from where the Justices decide First Amendment cases, I'd say you were 'crazy.'"

Arthur Laffin gave the following closing statement at the January Guantanamo Trial:

"My name is Arthur Laffin and I am representing Mane'I al Otaybi, a Saudi national who was 25 years old when he was taken into U.S. custody in Afghanistan. He died at the Guantanamo military prison on June 10, 2006 of a reported suicide. To date, there has been no independent investigation of his death or the others who have died at
Guantanamo. We remember these dead prisoners in a special way here in this court today.

"The government has asserted that this case is not about Guantanamo. We respectfully and vehemently disagree. In our defense, we have to put forth to this court overwhelming evidence that the U.S. government has engaged in criminal conduct. What is at issue here is: what do citizens do when all three branches of government are in violation of divine law, international law, and its own Constitution? When habeas corpus rights are denied to persons, when persons are held indefinitely without being charged, when persons are tortured by U.S. personnel in violation of the Geneva Conventions and the Eighth Amendment to the Bill of Rights, we citizens have a right and a duty to petition the government and to seek redress. This is what we defendants did on January 11.

"You have heard evidence that we wrote a letter to the Supreme Court Justices well in advance of January 11, appealing to them to grant due process for the Guantanamo prisoners -- to restore habeas corpus rights, to outlaw the crime and sin of torture, and to order the closing of Guantanamo. To date we have received no response. We went
to the Supreme Court on January 11 to appeal in person to the justices, imploring them to do their job to uphold the law and administer justice.

"As government and defense witnesses have testified, our actions were nonviolent and prayerful. We did not go there to call attention to ourselves, an organization or movement. We carried the names of the Guantanamo prisoners in our hearts, and once arrested, gave the names of the prisoners instead of our own names. Throughout our 30 hours of incarceration, and throughout this entire court case, we have continued to state that we are here on behalf of these prisoners.

"Judge Gardner, we contend our actions were morally and legally justified and that we had no other recourse than to take the action we did. We should never have been arrested in the first place. Our intention on January 11 was not to commit a crime. Our action was clearly in accordance with God's law which calls us to uphold the sacredness of all life, and International law and the U.S. Constitution. On January 11, as now, we sought to bring public notice to prisoners whose lives are endangered at the Guantanamo U.S. Military Prison. There is an imminent harm here, an emergency. The
Center for Constitutional Rights, Amnesty International, lawyers for the prisoners, and released prisoners have all documented the torture they have experienced. To protest their brutal treatment and the desecration of the Quran, many Guantanamo prisoners have gone on hunger-strikes. As documented by the New York Times and other media, prisoners who went on hunger-strikes were place in special restraint chairs, bound, had feeding tubes forced down their nose and throat, and left in these restraint chairs for up to 24 hours -- in an attempt by authorities, including medical personnel that defense witness Tim Nolan spoke of, to get prisoners to end their hunger-strikes. In effect, these prisoners have been tortured for simply trying as an act of last resort to seek justice. Judge Gardner, we acted on January 11 to protect the lives of these prisoners and to prevent an imminent harm from occurring.

"Article 6, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution states that any law or treaty that the US is party to is the supreme law of the land and binding on all U.S. courts (including this one). As has been stated in our opening statement and by defense witnesses, including Father Pickard, the Geneva Conventions, which the U.S. signed, has been, and continues to be blatantly violated. The Nuremberg Principles, which the United States helped write, state that individuals have a duty to prevent crimes against humanity from occurring and that if people don't act to prevent such crimes, they are actually complicit in them. We, who are on trial today, along with many friends, refuse to
be complicit in these crimes.

"We ask: Where are the judges and the legal professionals when it comes to confronting the criminal acts of our government? Will we be here five years from now? How many more people have to suffer before we end this horror?

"This is an historic moment. If justice is to come for the prisoners and Guantanamo, and all secret US torture centers are to be closed, it will happen because judges like you spoke out and people from across the political spectrum took nonviolent action to petition our government to make this a reality.


"I would like to conclude by offering a poem from Usama Abu Kabir, a
Guantanamo prisoner:

By Usama Abu Kabir (Guantanamo Prisoner)

Is it true that the Grass grows again after the rain?
Is it true that the Flowers will rise up in the Spring?
Is it true that the Birds will migrate home again?
Is it true that the Salmon swim back up the stream?

It is true. This is true. These are all miracles.
But is it true that one day we'll leave Guantanamo Bay?
Is it true that one day we'll go back to our homes?
I sail in my dreams, I'm dreaming of home.

To be with my children, each one part of me;
To be with my wife, and the ones that I love;
To be with my parents, my world's tenderest hearts.
I dream to be home, to be free from this cage.

But do you hear me, O Judge, do you hear me at all?
We are innocent, here, we've committed no crime.

Set me free, set us free, if anywhere still--
May justice, compassion remain in this world!

(From BookForum - Summer 2006)."

The action on January 11 was organized by Witness Against Torture, a group that formed in 2005 when 25 people walked from Cuba to the U.S. detention facilities to protest conditions there. January 11, 2008 marked six years since the opening of U.S. detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay. The Supreme Court demonstrators were joined by protestors in London, Sydney, Edinburgh, Istanbul, Barcelona and throughout the world.

Retired Admiral John D. Hutson, the former judge advocate general of the Navy, said of the Supreme Court demonstrators, "In the military, there is the concept of 'calling in artillery onto your own position.' It refers to heroic action taken in desperate situations for a greater good. That's essentially what these courageous Americans are doing… They accept that there may be an adverse consequence to them personally but they believe drawing attention to the issue is worth the sacrifice."

Witness Against Torture will continue its efforts to have the detention facilities at Guantanamo shut down and torture by United States ended.

Visit for more information.

The Mega-Pentagon: A Bush-Enabled Monster We Can't Stop

A full-fledged cottage industry is already focused on those who eagerly await the end of the Bush administration, offering calendars, magnets, and t-shirts for sale as well as counters and graphics to download onto blogs and websites. But when the countdown ends and George W. Bush vacates the Oval Office, he will leave a legacy to contend with. Certainly, he wills to his successor a world marred by war and battered by deprivation, but perhaps his most enduring legacy is now deeply embedded in Washington-area politics -- a Pentagon metastasized almost beyond recognition.

The Pentagon's massive bulk-up these last seven years will not be easily unbuilt, no matter who dons the presidential mantle on January 19, 2009. "The Pentagon" is now so much more than a five-sided building across the Potomac from Washington or even the seat of the Department of Defense. In many ways, it defies description or labeling.

Who, today, even remembers the debate at the end of the Cold War aboutå what role U.S. military power should play in a "unipolar" world? Was U.S. supremacy so well established, pundits were then asking, that Washington could rely on softer economic and cultural power, with military power no more than a backup (and a domestic "peace dividend" thrown into the bargain)? Or was the U.S. to strap on the six-guns of a global sheriff and police the world as the fountainhead of "humanitarian interventions"? Or was it the moment to boldly declare ourselves the world's sole superpower and wield a high-tech military comparable to none, actively discouraging any other power or power bloc from even considering future rivalry?

The attacks of September 11, 2001 decisively ended that debate. The Bush administration promptly declared total war on every front -- against peoples, ideologies, and, above all, "terrorism" (a tactic of the weak). That very September, administration officials proudly leaked the information that they were ready to "target" up to 60 other nations and the terrorist movements within them.

The Pentagon's "footprint" was to be firmly planted, military base by military base, across the planet, with a special emphasis on its energy heartlands. Top administration officials began preparing the Pentagon to go anywhere and do anything, while rewriting, shredding, or ignoring whatever laws, national or international, stood in the way. In 2002, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld officially articulated a new U.S. military posture that, in conception, was little short of revolutionary. It was called -- in classic Pentagon shorthand -- the 1-4-2-1 Defense Strategy (replacing the Clinton administration's already none-too-modest plan to be prepared to fight two major wars -- in the Middle East and Northeast Asia -- simultaneously).

Theoretically, this strategy meant that the Pentagon was to prepare to defend the United States, while building forces capable of deterring aggression and coercion in four "critical regions" (Europe, Northeast Asia, East Asia, and the Middle East). It would be able to defeat aggression in two of these regions simultaneously and "win decisively" in one of those conflicts "at a time and place of our choosing." Hence 1-4-2-1.

And that was just going to be the beginning. We had, by then, already entered the new age of the Mega-Pentagon. Almost six years later, the scale of that institution's expansion has yet to be fully grasped, so let's look at just seven of the major ways in which the Pentagon has experienced mission creep -- and leap -- dwarfing other institutions of government in the process.

1. The Budget-busting Pentagon: The Pentagon's core budget -- already a staggering $300 billion when George W. Bush took the presidency -- has almost doubled while he's been parked behind the big desk in the Oval Office. For fiscal year 2009, the regular Pentagon budget will total roughly $541 billion (including work on nuclear warheads and naval reactors at the Department of Energy).

The Bush administration has presided over one of the largest military buildups in the history of the United States. And that's before we even count "war spending." If the direct costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the Global War on Terror, are factored in, "defense" spending has essentially tripled.

As of February 2008, according to the Congressional Budget Office, lawmakers have appropriated $752 billion for the Iraq war and occupation, ongoing military operations in Afghanistan, and other activities associated with the Global War on Terror. The Pentagon estimates that it will need another $170 billion for fiscal 2009, which means, at $922 billion, that direct war spending since 2001 would be at the edge of the trillion-dollar mark.

As New York Times columnist Bob Herbert has pointed out, if a stack of bills roughly six inches high is worth $1 million; then, a $1 billion stack would be as tall as the Washington Monument, and a $1 trillion stack would be 95 miles high. And note that none of these war-fighting funds are even counted as part of the annual military budget, but are raised from Congress in the form of "emergency supplementals" a few times a year.

With the war added to the Pentagon's core budget, the United States now spends nearly as much on military matters as the rest of the world combined. Military spending also throws all other parts of the federal budget into shadow, representing 58 cents of every dollar spent by the federal government on "discretionary programs" (those that Congress gets to vote up or down on an annual basis).

The total Pentagon budget represents more than our combined spending on education, environmental protection, justice administration, veteran's benefits, housing assistance, transportation, job training, agriculture, energy, and economic development. No wonder, then, that, as it collects ever more money, the Pentagon is taking on (or taking over) ever more functions and roles.

2. The Pentagon as Diplomat: The Bush administration has repeatedly exhibited its disdain for discussion and compromise, treaties and agreements, and an equally deep admiration for what can be won by threat and force. No surprise, then, that the White House's foreign policy agenda has increasingly been directed through the military. With a military budget more than 30 times that of all State Department operations and non-military foreign aid put together, the Pentagon has marched into State's two traditional strongholds -- diplomacy and development -- duplicating or replacing much of its work, often by refocusing Washington's diplomacy around military-to-military, rather than diplomat-to-diplomat, relations.

Since the late eighteenth century, the U.S. ambassador in any country has been considered the president's personal representative, responsible for ensuring that foreign policy goals are met. As one ambassador explained; "The rule is: if you're in country, you work for the ambassador. If you don't work for the ambassador, you don't get country clearance."

In the Bush era, the Pentagon has overturned this model. According to a 2006 Congressional report by Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN), Embassies as Command Posts in the Anti-Terror Campaign, civilian personnel in many embassies now feel occupied by, outnumbered by, and subordinated to military personnel. They see themselves as the second team when it comes to decision-making. Even Defense Secretary Robert Gates is aware of the problem, noting as he did last November that there are "only about 6,600 professional Foreign Service officers -- less than the manning for one aircraft carrier strike group." But, typically, he added that, while the State Department might need more resources, "Don't get me wrong, I'll be asking for yet more money for Defense next year." Another ambassador lamented that his foreign counterparts are "following the money" and developing relationships with U.S. military personnel rather than cultivating contacts with their State Department counterparts.

The Pentagon invariably couches its bureaucratic imperialism in terms of "interagency cooperation." For example, last year U.S. Southern Command (Southcom) released Command Strategy 2016, a document which identified poverty, crime, and corruption as key "security" problems in Latin America. It suggested that Southcom, a security command, should, in fact, be the "central actor in addressing... regional problems" previously the concern of civilian agencies. It then touted itself as the future focus of a "joint interagency security command... in support of security, stability and prosperity in the region."

As Southcom head Admiral James Stavridis vividly put the matter, the command now likes to see itself as "a big Velcro cube that these other agencies can hook to so we can collectively do what needs to be done in this region."

The Pentagon has generally followed this pattern globally since 2001. But what does "cooperation" mean when one entity dwarfs all others in personnel, resources, and access to decision-makers, while increasingly controlling the very definition of the "threats" to be dealt with.

3. The Pentagon as Arms Dealer: In the Bush years, the Pentagon has aggressively increased its role as the planet's foremost arms dealer, pumping up its weapons sales everywhere it can -- and so seeding the future with war and conflict.

By 2006 (the last year for which full data is available), the United States alone accounted for more than half the world's trade in arms with $14 billion in sales. Noteworthy were a $5 billion deal for F-16s to Pakistan and a $5.8 billion agreement to completely reequip Saudi Arabia's internal security force. U.S. arms sales for 2006 came in at roughly twice the level of any previous year of the Bush administration.

Number two arms dealer, Russia, registered a comparatively paltry $5.8 billion in deliveries, just over a third of the U.S. arms totals. Ally Great Britain was third at $3.3 billion -- and those three countries account for a whopping 85 percent of the weaponry sold that year, more than 70 percent of which went to the developing world.

Great at selling weapons, the Pentagon is slow to report its sales. Arms sales notifications issued by the Pentagon's Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) do, however, offer one crude way to the take the Department of Defense's pulse; and, while not all reported deals are finalized, that pulse is clearly racing. Through May of 2008, DSCA had already issued more than $9.1 billion in arms sales notifications including smart bomb kits for Saudi Arabia, TOW missiles for Kuwait, F-16 combat aircraft for Romania, and Chinook helicopters for Canada.

To maintain market advantage, the Pentagon never stops its high-pressure campaigns to peddle weapons abroad. That's why, despite a broken shoulder, Secretary of Defense Gates took to the skies in February, to push weapons systems on countries like India and Indonesia, key growing markets for Pentagon arms dealers.

4. The Pentagon as Intelligence Analyst and Spy: In the area of "intelligence," the Pentagon's expansion -- the commandeering of information and analysis roles -- has been swift, clumsy, and catastrophic.

Tracing the Pentagon's take-over of intelligence is no easy task. For one thing, there are dozens of Pentagon agencies and offices that now collect and analyze information using everything from "humint" (human intelligence) to wiretaps and satellites. The task is only made tougher by the secrecy that surrounds U.S. intelligence operations and the "black budgets" into which so much intelligence money disappears.

But the end results are clear enough. The Pentagon's takeover of intelligence has meant fewer intelligence analysts who speak Arabic, Farsi, or Pashto and more dog-and-pony shows like those four-star generals and three-stripe admirals mouthing administration-approved talking points on cable news and the Sunday morning talk shows.

Intelligence budgets are secret, so what we know about them is not comprehensive -- but the glimpses analysts have gotten suggest that total intelligence spending was about $26 billion a decade ago. After 9/11, Congress pumped a lot of new money into intelligence so that by 2003, the total intelligence budget had already climbed to more than $40 billion.

In 2004, the 9/11 Commission highlighted the intelligence failures of the Central Intelligence Agency and others in the alphabet soup of the U.S. Intelligence Community charged with collecting and analyzing information on threats to the country. Congress then passed an intelligence "reform" bill, establishing the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, designed to manage intelligence operations. Thanks to stiff resistance from pro-military lawmakers, the National Intelligence Directorate never assumed that role, however, and the Pentagon kept control of three key collection agencies -- the National Security Agency, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, and the National Reconnaissance Agency.

As a result, according to Tim Shorrock, investigative journalist and author of Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Intelligence Outsourcing, the Pentagon now controls more than 80 percent of U.S. intelligence spending, which he estimated at about $60 billion in 2007. As Mel Goodman, former CIA official and now an analyst at the Center for International Policy, observed, "The Pentagon has been the big bureaucratic winner in all of this."

It is such a big winner that CIA Director Michael Hayden now controls only the budget for the CIA itself -- about $4 or 5 billion a year and no longer even gives the President his daily helping of intelligence.

The Pentagon's intelligence shadow looms large well beyond the corridors of Washington's bureaucracies. It stretches across the mountains of Afghanistan as well. After the U.S. invaded that country in 2001, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld recognized that, unless the Pentagon controlled information-gathering and took the lead in carrying out covert operations, it would remain dependent on -- and therefore subordinate to -- the Central Intelligence Agency with its grasp of "on-the-ground" intelligence.

In one of his now infamous memos, labeled "snowflakes" by a staff that watched them regularly flutter down from on high, he asserted that, if the War on Terror was going to stretch far into the future, he did not want to continue the Pentagon's "near total dependence on the CIA." And so Rumsfeld set up a new, directly competitive organization, the Pentagon's Strategic Support Branch, which put the intelligence gathering components of the U.S. Special Forces under one roof reporting directly to him. (Many in the intelligence community saw the office as illegitimate, but Rumsfeld was riding high and they were helpless to do anything.)

As Seymour Hersh, who repeatedly broke stories in the New Yorker on the Pentagon's misdeeds in the Global War on Terror, wrote in January 2005, the Bush administration had already "consolidated control over the military and intelligence communities' strategic analyses and covert operations to a degree unmatched since the rise of the post-Second World War II national-security state."

In the rush to invade Iraq, the civilians running the Pentagon also fused the administration's propaganda machine with military intelligence. In 2002, Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith established the Office of Special Plans (OSP) in the Pentagon to provide "actionable information" to White House policymakers. Using existing intelligence reports "scrubbed" of qualifiers like "probably" or "may," or sometimes simply fabricated ones, the office was able to turn worst-case scenarios about Saddam Hussein's supposed programs to develop weapons of mass destruction into fact, and then, through leaks, use the news media to validate them.

Former CIA Director Robert Gates, who took over the Pentagon when Donald Rumsfeld resigned in November 2006, has been critical of the Pentagon's "dominance" in intelligence and "the decline in the CIA's central role." He has also signaled his intention to rollback the Pentagon's long intelligence shadow; but, even if he is serious, he will have his work cut out for him. In the meantime, the Pentagon continues to churn out "intelligence" which is, politely put, suspect -- from torture-induced confessions of terrorism suspects to exposés of the Iranian origins of sophisticated explosive devices found in Iraq.

5. The Pentagon as Domestic Disaster Manager: When the deciders in Washington start seeing the Pentagon as the world's problem solver, strange things happen. In fact, in the Bush years, the Pentagon has become the official first responder of last resort in case of just about any disaster -- from tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods to civil unrest, potential outbreaks of disease, or possible biological or chemical attacks. In 2002, in a telltale sign of Pentagon mission creep, President Bush established the first domestic military command since the civil war, the U.S. Northern Command (Northcom). Its mission: the "preparation for, prevention of, deterrence of, preemption of, defense against, and response to threats and aggression directed towards U.S. territory, sovereignty, domestic population, and infrastructure; as well as crisis management, consequence management, and other domestic civil support."

If it sounds like a tall order, it is.

In the last six years, Northcom has been remarkably unsuccessful at anything but expanding its theoretical reach. The command was initially assigned 1,300 Defense Department personnel, but has since grown into a force of more than 15,000. Even criticism only seems to strengthen its domestic role. For example, an April 2008 Government Accountability Office report found that Northcom had failed to communicate effectively with state and local leaders or National Guard units about its newly developed disaster and terror response plans. The result? Northcom says it will have its first brigade-sized unit of military personnel trained to help local authorities respond to chemical, biological, or nuclear incidents by this fall. Mark your calendars.

More than anything else, Northcom has provided the Pentagon with the opening it needed to move forcefully into domestic disaster areas previously handled by national, state and local civilian authorities.

For example, Northcom's deputy director, Brigadier General Robert Felderman, boasts that the command is now the United States's "global synchronizer -- the global coordinator -- for pandemic influenza across the combatant commands." Similarly, Northcom is now hosting annual hurricane preparation conferences and assuring anyone who will listen that it is "prepared to fully engage" in future Katrina-like situations "in order to save lives, reduce suffering and protect infrastructure."

Of course, at present, the Pentagon is the part of the government gobbling up the funds that might otherwise be spent shoring up America's Depression-era public works, ensuring that the Pentagon will have failure aplenty to respond to in the future.

The American Society for Civil Engineers, for example, estimates that $1.6 trillion is badly needed to bring the nation's infrastructure up to protectable snuff, or $320 billion a year for the next five years. Assessing present water systems, roads, bridges, and dams nationwide, the engineers gave the infrastructure a series of C and D grades.

In the meantime, the military is marching in. Katrina, for instance, made landfall on August 29, 2005. President Bush ordered troops deployed to New Orleans on September 2nd to coordinate the delivery of food and water and to serve as a deterrent against looting and violence. Less than a month later, President Bush asked Congress to shift responsibility for major future disasters from state governments and the Department of Homeland Security to the Pentagon.

The next month, President Bush again offered the military as his solution -- this time to global fears about outbreaks of the avian flu virus. He suggested that, to enforce a quarantine, "One option is the use of the military that's able to plan and move."

Already sinking under the weight of its expansion and two draining wars, many in the military have been cool to such suggestions, as has a Congress concerned about maintaining states' rights and civilian control. Offering the military as the solution to domestic natural disasters and flu outbreaks means giving other first responders the budgetary short shrift. It is unlikely, however, that Northcom, now riding the money train, will go quietly into oblivion in the years to come.

6. The Pentagon as Humanitarian Caregiver Abroad: The U.S. Agency for International Development and the State Department have traditionally been tasked with responding to disaster abroad; but, from Indonesia's tsunami-ravaged shores to Myanmar after the recent cyclone, natural catastrophe has become another presidential opportunity to "send in the Marines" (so to speak). The Pentagon has increasingly taken up humanitarian planning, gaining an ever larger share of U.S. humanitarian missions abroad.

From Kenya to Afghanistan, from the Philippines to Peru, the U.S. military is also now regularly the one building schools and dental clinics, repairing roads and shoring up bridges, tending to sick children and doling out much needed cash and food stuffs, all civilian responsibilities once upon a time.

The Center for Global Development finds that the Pentagon's share of "official development assistance" -- think "winning hearts and minds" or "nation-building" - has increased from 6 percent to 22 percent between 2002 and 2005. The Pentagon is fast taking over development from both the NGO-community and civilian agencies, slapping a smiley face on military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and beyond.

Despite the obvious limitations of turning a force trained to kill and destroy into a cadre of caregivers, the Pentagon's mili-humanitarian project got a big boost from the cash that was seized from Saddam Hussein's secret coffers. Some of it was doled out to local American commanders to be used to deal with immediate Iraqi needs and seal deals in the months after Baghdad fell in April 2003. What was initially an ad hoc program now has an official name -- the Commander Emergency Response Program (CERP) -- and a line in the Pentagon budget.

Before the House Budget Committee last summer, Gordon England, the Deputy Secretary of Defense, told members of Congress that the CERP was a "particularly effective initiative," explaining that the program provided "limited but immediately available funds" to military commanders which they could spend "to make a concrete difference in people's daily lives." This, he claimed, was now a "key part of the broader counter insurgency approach." He added that it served the purpose of "complementing security initiatives" and that it was so successful many commanders consider it "the most powerful weapon in their arsenal."

In fact, the Pentagon doesn't do humanitarian work very well. In Afghanistan, for instance, food-packets dropped by U.S. planes were the same color as the cluster munitions also dropped by U.S. planes; while schools and clinics built by U.S. forces often became targets before they could even be put into use. In Iraq, money doled out to the Pentagon's sectarian-group-of-the-week for wells and generators turned out to be just as easily spent on explosives and AK-47s.

7. The Pentagon as Global Viceroy and Ruler of the Heavens: In the Bush years, the Pentagon finished dividing the globe into military "commands," which are functionally viceroyalties. True, even before 9/11, it was hard to imagine a place on the globe where the United States military was not, but until recently, the continent of Africa largely qualified.

Along with the creation of Northcom, however, the establishment of the U.S. Africa Command (Africom) in 2008 officially filled in the last Pentagon empty spot on the map. A key military document, the 2006 National Security Strategy for the United States signaled the move, asserting that "Africa holds growing geo-strategic importance and is a high-priority of this administration." (Think: oil and other key raw materials.)

In the meantime, funding for Africa under the largest U.S. military aid program, Foreign Military Financing, doubled from $10 to $20 million between 2000 and 2006, and the number of recipient nations grew from two to 14. Military training funding increased by 35 percent in that same period (rising from $8.1 million to $11 million). Now, the militaries of 47 African nations receive U.S. training.

In Pentagon planning terms, Africom has unified the continent for the first time. (Only Egypt remains under the aegis of the U.S. Central Command.) According to President Bush, this should "enhance our efforts to bring peace and security to the people of Africa and promote our common goals of development, health, education, democracy, and economic growth in Africa."

Theresa Whelan, assistant secretary of defense for African affairs, continues to insist that Africom has been formed neither to facilitate the fighting of wars ("engaging kinetically in Africa"), nor to divvy up the continent's raw materials in the style of nineteenth century colonialism. "This is not," she says, "about a scramble for the continent." But about one thing there can be no question: It is about increasing the global reach of the Pentagon.

Meanwhile, should the Earth not be enough, there are always the heavens to control. In August 2006, building on earlier documents like the 1998 U.S. Space Command's Vision for 2020 (which called for a policy of "full spectrum dominance"), the Bush administration unveiled its "national space policy." It advocated establishing, defending, and enlarging U.S. control over space resources and argued for "unhindered" rights in space -- unhindered, that is, by international agreements preventing the weaponization of space. The document also asserted that "freedom of action in space is as important to the United States as air power and sea power."

As the document put it, "In the new century, those who effectively utilize space will enjoy added prosperity and security and will hold a substantial advantage over those who do not." (The leaders of China, Russia, and other major states undoubtedly heard the loud slap of a gauntlet being thrown down.) At the moment, the Bush administration's rhetoric and plans outstrip the resources being devoted to space weapons technology, but in the recently announced budget, the President allocated nearly a billion dollars to space-based weapons programs.

Of all the frontiers of expansion, perhaps none is more striking than the Pentagon's sorties into the future. Does the Department of Transportation offer a Vision for 2030? Does the Environmental Protection Agency develop plans for the next fifty years? Does the Department of Health and Human Services have a team of power-point professionals working up dynamic graphics for what services for the elderly will look like in 2050?

These agencies project budgets just around the corner of the next decade. Only the Pentagon projects power and possibility decades into the future, colonizing the imagination with scads of different scenarios under which, each year, it will continue to control hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars.

Complex 2030, Vision 2020, UAV Roadmap 2030, the Army's Future Combat Systems - the names, which seem unending, tell the tale.

As the clock ticks down to November 4, 2008, a lot of people are investing hope (as well as money and time) in the possibility of change at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But when it comes to the Pentagon, don't count too heavily on change, no matter who the new president may be. After all, seven years, four months, and a scattering of days into the Bush presidency, the Pentagon is deeply entrenched in Washington and still aggressively expanding. It has developed a taste for unrivaled power and unequaled access to the treasure of this country. It is an institution that has escaped the checks and balances of the nation.

Hey Homeowners, Bush Blames You -- Not Iraq -- for Our Tanking Economy

In the week that oil prices once again crested above $100 a barrel and more Americans than at any time since the Great Depression owed more on their homes than the homes were worth; in the year that the subprime market crashed, global markets shuddered, the previously unnoticed credit-default swap market threatened to go into the tank, stagflation returned, unemployment rose, the "R" word (for recession) hit the headlines (while the "D" word lurked), within weeks of the fifth anniversary of his invasion of Iraq, the President of the United States officially discovered the war economy.

George W. Bush and Laura Bush were being interviewed by NBC's Ann Curry when the subject turned to the war in Iraq. Curry reminded the President that his wife had once said, "No one suffers more than their president. I hope they know the burden of worry that's on his shoulders every single day for our troops." The conversation continued thusly:

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Is Bush Leading Us to Nuclear War?

Only days before the fifth anniversary of September 11, President George W. Bush addressed military officers in Washington to warn that nuclear-armed terrorists could "blackmail the free world and spread their ideologies of hate and raise a moral threat to America."

This alarmist vision was accompanied by the White House's release of "A National Strategy for Combating Terrorism," which painted a picture of a "troubling potential WMD terrorism nexus emanating from Tehran." The administration is building the case for war against Iran -- a job made easier by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's recent announcement that Iran can now enrich uranium on an industrial scale -- despite the fact that many Iran-watchers and nuclear experts consider their claims of enrichment capacity to be an overblown boast.

This is not the first time the "no-nuclear-weapons-for-you" ploy has been used to lay the groundwork for a war. On Oct. 7, 2002, while making the case for regime change in Iraq, President Bush said: "America must not ignore the threat gathering against us. Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof -- the smoking gun -- that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud."

Yellow cake, aluminum tubes and histrionics about Saddam Hussein's nuclear capabilities followed ... all of which were challenged at the time, and have turned out to be completely fabricated. And, when not grinding the axe of pre-emptive war as counter-proliferation strategy, the administration periodically raises the specter of nuclear terrorism, in the form of dirty bombs and suitcase-sized warheads.

But while the United States demands that other countries end their nuclear programs, the Bush administration is busy planning a new generation of nuclear weapons. Nearly 20 years after the Berlin Wall crumbled, the United States is allocating more funding, on average, to nuclear weapons than during the Cold War.

The Bush administration is pumping this money -- more than $6 billion this year -- into renovating the nuclear weapons complex and designing new nuclear weapons. Such hypocrisy is one of the main obstacles to nuclear arms reductions because it runs the risk of shattering the 1970 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in which the nuclear-armed states pledged to begin the process of disarmament if the non-nuclear states opted not to pursue the deadly technology.

The centerpiece of the administration's move toward developing a new generation of nuclear weapons is "Complex 2030," a multiyear plan introduced last April by the National Nuclear Security Administration (the semi-autonomous agency within the Department of Energy that oversees the nuclear weapons program).

Complex 2030 calls for the construction of new or upgraded facilities at each of the National Nuclear Security Administration's eight nuclear weapons-related sites throughout the country. The plan also calls for building a new nuclear weapon, the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW), inside the old warheads. The program was conceived in response to concerns that the cores of existing nuclear weapons could be wearing out and need to be replaced. But RRW development has gone much further than that.

The Department of Energy (DOE) notes in its summary of Complex 2030 that one of the major goals of the program is to "improve the capability to design, develop, certify and complete production of new or adapted warheads in the event of new military requirements." In short, while the Bush administration has publicly stressed reductions in nuclear weapons, it is working to produce new, more usable nuclear weapons.

Three small steps forward

As a candidate for president in 2000, and during his first months in office, Bush suggested that the United States should significantly cut its nuclear arsenal. In his first address before a joint session of Congress, the new president went so far as to pledge: "We can discard Cold War relics and reduce our own nuclear forces to reflect today's needs." He followed through on this promise with the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), which calls for reducing the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals from 6,000 each -- the limit established under the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty -- to between 1,700 and 2,200 warheads each over a 10-year period.

Presidents Bush and Putin signed the treaty at Konstantin Palace in St. Petersburg right after the city celebrated its 300th birthday in June 2003. Also known as the Treaty of Moscow, SORT has serious flaws. It has no method for verifying that each side is meeting its commitments; the cuts are not permanent -- neither side is obligated to destroy or dismantle the warheads, only to take them "off-line;" and both sides would have to agree to extend the treaty if they have not met their obligations by the time the treaty expires in 2012. After the Senate unanimously voted to ratify the treaty, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) called it "as flimsy a treaty as the Senate has ever considered." Yet even with these flaws, SORT establishes important benchmarks and offers the potential of trust-building between the former superpower rivals.

Another positive development occurred in mid-February, when the Bush administration, after years of work through the "six party talks," announced a deal with North Korea. The hermit nation agreed to take the first steps toward dismantling its nuclear program in exchange for large supplies of fuel oil and eventual political recognition. The first phase of the agreement calls for North Korea to take concrete steps within 60 days, including closing down its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, getting inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency on the ground, and beginning to reveal the locations of its other nuclear facilities. In exchange, it will receive 50,000 tons of fuel oil at the end of the 60-day period. The agreement demonstrates that the Bush administration is slowly learning the nuances of diplomacy -- you have to give to get.

More good news surrounds the recent fate of the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP). One of the most controversial new weapon designs proposed by the nuclear weapons complex, the RNEP promised to destroy hardened and deeply buried targets, such as underground bunkers containing chemical and biological weapons and military command centers. Such a difficult challenge would necessitate decades of steady and climbing investment, making it the kind of techno-fantasy that the nuclear weapons complex of the future would love to tackle.

In 2003, Congress allocated $15 million to study the RNEP. But in 2004 and 2005, Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio), then chair of the Water and Energy Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, led successful fights to defund the RNEP. Later, he boasted: "It's dead, forget about it! Go conventional. If I have to kick it three or four times, I'm going to keep kicking at it until we think we've totally gotten it out of the way."

Giant leaps backward

The Bush administration has aggressively counteracted these small positive developments with a succession of negative and destabilizing actions and statements -- the most significant of which is the assertion that nuclear weapons are a central component of U.S. military and political strategy.

This stunner was concealed within the administration's 2002 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), a Pentagon report that relies on input from the Joint Chiefs and the armed services to define the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. security. The final classified report concluded that nuclear weapons "play a critical role in the defense capabilities of the United States, its allies and friends."

Submitted to Congress in January 2002, the NPR was not made public until portions were leaked to the press two months later. It states, "The need is clear for a revitalized nuclear weapons complex that will ... be able, if directed, to design, develop, manufacture and certify new warheads in response to new national requirements; and maintain readiness to resume underground testing if required."

The NPR introduces the concept of a "new Triad," composed of nuclear and non-nuclear strike capabilities, defensive systems, and "responsive infrastructure" for maintaining and/or producing nuclear weapons as requested. The report also emphasizes the development of creative new nuclear weapons -- like low-yield or surgical warheads that are able to "reduce collateral damage," and nuclear bombs with "earth penetrating" capabilities.

The NPR concluded that nuclear weapons "provide credible military options to deter a wide range of threats, including WMD and large-scale conventional military force." The Bush NPR explicitly named potential targets -- Iran, Syria, North Korea, China and Russia. The review explained that the United States might use nuclear weapons to retaliate for the use of chemical or biological weapons against U.S. targets, as the ultimate tool in a military conflict over Taiwan, or, disturbingly, as a response to undefined "surprising developments." Proliferation trumps prevention

During the Cold War, spending on nuclear weapons averaged $4.2 billion a year. When the Cold War ended, DOE officials and members of Congress imagined the conversion of the nuclear weapons complex. But innovative proposals for civilian or green technology labs never got off the ground, and the nuclear labs successfully lobbied Congress for a new infusion of weapons money. By the end of President Clinton's tenure, nuclear weapons activities within the DOE's annual budget had jumped to $5.2 billion -- more than the Cold War average, but less than what the new Bush administration would say it needed.

Since then, spending on nuclear weapons has increased by almost 14 percent to a 2007 total of $6.4 billion (after adjustment for inflation), but it is not enough to satisfy a nuclear-obsessed administration. The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), formed in 2000 to manage the nation's nuclear weapons complex within the DOE, has a five-year "National Security Plan" that calls for annual increases that will push the nuclear weapons budget to $7.4 billion by 2012.

Compare these significant increases in nuclear spending to what the DOE is allocating for non-proliferation and prevention of nuclear conflict. The NNSA spends more than nine times more on "Atomic Energy Defense Activities" -- a category that includes nuclear weapons, naval nuclear reactors and environmental cleanup at military nuclear facilities -- than it does on nuclear arms reductions and non-proliferation.

In addition, spending on nuclear weapons research, development and maintenance in the DOE budget far outpaces the funding devoted to the development of alternative energy sources, a critical need in the age of global warming and dwindling oil supplies. The DOE's proposed budget for "Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy" -- which includes non-nuclear, non-fossil fuel forms of energy -- is $1.2 billion for FY 2008, one-thirteenth of expenditures on "Atomic Energy Defense Activities."

Upgrading nuclear capabilities

Under Complex 2030, the NNSA is taking steps to boost the U.S. ability to test and produce new warheads, and to consolidate production of uranium, plutonium and non-nuclear components within nuclear weapons.

The central component of Complex 2030 is the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program. The official rationale for the RRW program is to produce weapons that are safer and more durable than the warheads in the current stockpile. Supporters of RRW fear that the components of nuclear weapons could wear out and that the only way to know if the warheads are viable is to replace their inner workings. And -- the line of thinking continues -- as long as scientists are replacing the plutonium or uranium cores, they might as well "tweak" the weapon's design.

But the assertion that the old nuclear weapons need to be replaced by reliable new warheads is undermined by a recent NNSA study that indicates that the existing plutonium triggers, or "pits," may be viable for another 90 to 100 years. The report, issued in November and reviewed by an independent panel of scientists and academics, indicates the need for considerable skepticism of the Complex 2030 claims.

In addition, the RRW program will establish the infrastructure needed for future development of new warheads with new capabilities. A key element of this upgraded and consolidated nuclear infrastructure is a new facility to produce "pits," the plutonium triggers that set off the explosion of a hydrogen bomb. The DOE has proposed constructing a Modern Pit Facility, but Congress has deemed the $2 to $4 billion price tag too steep, and has rejected funding proposals for two years running.

As an alternative, the department is pushing the idea of a Consolidated Plutonium Center (CPC) that would bring all of the plutonium-related activities together at one site. The new facility would be a sort of "modern pit facility-plus," capable each year of producing 125 plutonium pits to trigger nuclear weapons, and at the same time develop new military applications for plutonium.

This more expansive concept is likely to cost more than the facility alone, but NNSA has yet to provide a cost estimate to Congress. A small down payment for the CPC -- $24.9 million -- is proposed in the FY 2008 budget; budget projections for continuing work on the CPC total $282 million through 2012.

Under Complex 2030, the new CPC will be one of a series "transformed" and "consolidated" nuclear sites. Currently, there are eight facilities -- Los Alamos National Laboratory (N.M.), Lawrence Livermore Laboratory (Calif.) and Sandia National Laboratories (N.M.), the Nevada Test Site (R&D activities, including sub-critical experiments), the Oak Ridge Y-12 Plant in Tennessee (uranium and other components), the Pantex Plant in Texas (warhead assembly, disassembly, disposal), the Kansas City Plant (non-nuclear components), and the Savannah River Site (tritium extraction and handling) in Georgia.

While Complex 2030 would mandate that some of the sites have a smaller "footprint" (less floor space), it would also require the investment of tens of billions of dollars for new or upgraded factories, including two new factories -- a Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility (HEUMF) and a Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) -- at the Y-12 site; a new Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory to "support plutonium operations"; a new factory for the production of non-nuclear components of nuclear weapons at the current site of the Kansas City plant; and significant upgrades at the Pantex warhead assembly/disassembly facility. The spending on the CPC is only a small portion of the as yet unknown costs of the Complex 2030 initiative. Broken pledges, skeptical Congress

All of this raises concerns for Robert Civiak. A program examiner for Department of Energy national security programs in 1988 and 1989, Civiak now does research for Tri-Valley Cares, a group that advocates the elimination of nuclear weapons. He calls the Reliable Replacement Warhead a "multibillion dollar effort to redesign and replace every nuclear weapon in the U.S. arsenal." Jay Coghlan, executive director at Nuclear Watch of New Mexico, agrees, calling RRW a "nukes forever program, and a Trojan horse for future new designs."

NNSA's planning documents call for the production of the first RRW by 2012, and according to analysis by James Sterngold in the San Francisco Chronicle, the work is already beginning. He writes, "Lab officials said researchers not only have produced extensive designs ... but they have already conducted non-nuclear tests of the critical detonation devices and other components. They have begun to plan in detail how the weapons would be manufactured."

Rep. Pete Visclosky (D-Ind.), the new chairman of the House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee, has criticized the RRW project for its "make-it-up-as-you-go-along" approach. "There appears to have been little thought given to the question of why the United States needs to build new nuclear warheads at this time," he says. "My preference is that the DOE would have spent their resources reconfiguring the old Cold War complex and dismantling obsolete warheads." He has not ruled out slowing or eliminating the RRW if the administration is unable to present a strategy "that defines the future mission, the emerging threats and the specific U.S. nuclear stockpile necessary to achieve strategic goals."

The 110th Congress and beyond

In an August 2005 speech to a symposium on post-cold war nuclear strategy, Rep. Hobson described the administration's call for research on new bombs and the Nuclear Earth Penetrator as "very provocative and overly aggressive policies that undermine our moral authority to argue that other nations should forgo nuclear weapons."

Hobson's concerns are shared by a number of his colleagues on the other side of the aisle, including Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), John Spratt (D-S.C.) and Lynne Woolsey (D-Calif.), all of whom joined him in successfully leading an effort to defund the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator. Skepticism about the need for massive investment in nuclear weapons at a time of huge war bills and growing deficits, a growing sophistication about nuclear issues, and a Democratic majority means that for the first time in years the nuclear weapons complex is feeling the heat.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) represents the state that houses the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which recently won the Reliable Replacement Warhead competition. In a press release issued after the decision, she said, "While I appreciate the fact that Lawrence Livermore was selected, this in no way answers my questions about the Reliable Replacement Warhead program" -- a program that she remains "100 percent opposed to."

Despite support from the White House, the DOE, key contractors, and a number of powerful members of Congress such as Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) and Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) -- all of whom have nuclear weapons facilities in their states or districts -- the Complex 2030 plan to modernize the U.S. nuclear weapons infrastructure may be scaled back or rejected by congressional opponents, who will receive backing from arms control and environmental organizations.

But it will take more than cutting a million here or a billion there, more than gunning against a specific corner of the Complex 2030 plan, more than defunding the most aggressive or alarming aspects of the nuclear weapons complex, to deal with nuclear weapons in the 21st century. Members of Congress are going to need to challenge the bedrock of administration foreign policy -- that nuclear weapons should occupy center stage as a guarantor of U.S. security.

But they will not do that without being pushed -- and pushed hard -- by civil society. The urgency of the task creates opportunities for a big tent of strange bedfellows to work together: Weary cold warriors like George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger and Sam Nunn, who in January co-authored a Wall Street Journal op-ed titled "A World Free of Nuclear Weapons"; well-established Washington organizations like the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Arms Control Association; disarmament activists like Helen Caldicott and the Abolition 2000 network; and members of the international community from the United Nations on down are all saying the same thing: The United States cannot insist that other nations disarm or opt not to pursue nuclear technology, while aggressively ramping up U.S. nuclear capabilities. This hypocrisy cannot stand.

Global security through nuclear disarmament or a world awash in nuclear weapons. The choice is obvious. And it is ours to make.

We're No. 1! America Leads the World in War Profits

An introduction by Tom Engelhardt:

Hey, aren't we the most exceptional nation in history? George Bush and his pals thought so -- and they were in a great American tradition of exceptionalism. Of course, they were imagining us as the most exceptional empire in history (or maybe at the end of it), the ultimate New Rome. Anyway, explain this to me: Among all the exceptional things we claim to do, how come we never take credit for what may be the most exceptional of all, our success of successes, the thing that makes us uniquely ourselves on this war-ridden planet -- peddling more arms to Earthlings than anyone else in the neighborhood? Why do we hide this rare talent under a bushel? In the interest of shining a proud light on an underrated national skill, I asked Frida Berrigan to return the United States to its rightful place in the Pantheon of arms-dealing nations.

U.S. takes gold in arms olympics

They don't call us the sole superpower for nothing. Paul Wolfowitz might be looking for a new job right now, but the term he used to describe the pervasiveness of U.S. might back when he was a mere deputy secretary of defense -- hyperpower -- still fits the bill.

Face it, the United States is a proud nation of firsts. Among them:

First in oil consumption:

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The United States' Nuclear Hypocrisy

The Bush administration is very focused these days on Iran's nuclear program. This focus has only sharpened in the aftermath of the International Atomic Energy Agency's recent report that Iran continues to enrich uranium in defiance of a UN Security Council demand.

"A nuclear-armed Iran is not a very pleasant prospect for anybody to think about," Vice President Dick Cheney told ABC News' Jonathan Karl in Australia. "It clearly could do significant damage. And so I think we need to continue to do everything we can to make certain they don't achieve that objective."

Asked if the administration would continue to pursue diplomacy, the vice president responded that while "we've been working with the EU and going through the United Nations with sanctions ... the President has also made it clear that we haven't taken any options off the table."

In the White House, "options on the table" is code for military action. There have been many media reports of U.S. preparations to attack Iran. But the primary rationale for such an attack -- to prevent Iran from going nuclear -- is deeply problematic.

Not only is the United States beefing up its military in general, it is even planning a modernization of its nuclear arsenal. The nuclear hypocrisy of the Bush administration makes any resolution of the conflict with Iran all the more difficult.

U.S. Military Spending

The new round of hand-wringing and saber-rattling about Iran's nascent but worrisome nuclear program comes just a few weeks after the Bush administration announced its new budget, which included billions for nuclear weapons development.

The Department of Energy's "weapons activities" budget request totals $6.4 billion, a drop in the bucket compared to the Pentagon's $481.4 billion proposed budget. But the budget for new nukes is large and growing -- even in comparison to Cold War figures.

During the Cold War, spending on nuclear weapons averaged $4.2 billion a year (in current dollars). Almost two decades after the nuclear animosity between the two great superpowers ended, the United States is spending one-and-a-half times the Cold War average on nuclear weapons.

In 2001, the weapons-activities budget of the Department of Energy (DOE), which oversees the nuclear weapons complex through the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), totaled $5.19 billion. Since President Bush's January 2002 "Nuclear Posture Review" asserted the urgent need for a "revitalized nuclear weapons complex" -- "to design, develop, manufacture, and certify new warheads in response to new national requirements; and maintain readiness to resume underground testing" -- there has been more than a billion-dollar jump in nuclear spending.

Included in the $6.4 billion 2008 request is money for "design concept testing" of two new nuclear warhead designs that officials hope will be deployed on submarine-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles-- even as U.S. warships set their helms towards the Strait of Hormuz to menace Iran back from the nuclear brink.

Costly, Illegal, and Dangerous

Key to revitalizing nuclear weapons is Complex 2030, the NNSA'a "infrastructure planning scenario for a nuclear weapons complex able to meet the threats of the 21st century." It is a costly, illegal, and dangerous program aimed at rebuilding the 50-year-old nuclear facilities where the weapons are both assembled and disassembled.

How Costly? The DOE estimates that Complex 2030 would require a capital investment of $150 billion. But the Government Accountability Office says that is way too low to fund even the basic maintenance of the eight nuclear facilities currently operational throughout the country.

Why Illegal? Complex 2030 promises a return to the Cold War cycle of design, development, and production of nuclear weapons, runs the risk of a return to underground nuclear testing, and could require the annual manufacture of hundreds of new plutonium pits -- the fissile "heart" of a nuclear weapon. These plans directly contradict U.S. treaty promises in 1968 "to negotiate toward general and complete disarmament."

How Dangerous? Every step the United States takes away from the international consensus on the illegality and immorality of nuclear weapons is a new incentive and justification for other nations to pursue and brandish nuclear weapons.

In a 2006 report, the independent "Weapons of Mass Destruction" Commission estimated the dark likelihood of ten new nuclear powers within a decade. At the end of January, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists advanced the hand of its Doomsday clock to five minutes to nuclear midnight, in part as a result of "renewed U.S. emphasis on the military utility of nuclear weapons."

As the United States surges forward in its nuclear renaissance, the threat of nuclear terrorism and accidental nuclear strikes remains a grave yet under-funded priority. The administration occasionally raises the specter of nuclear-armed terrorists. In February 2004, for example, President Bush warned, "In the hands of terrorists, weapons of mass destruction would be a first resort."

Despite its rhetoric, however, the administration has done nothing to accelerate efforts to destroy and safeguard loose nuclear weapons and bomb-making materials, allocating about $1 billion a year to these crucial non-proliferation efforts (roughly the same amount that the Bush administration has been burning through each day in Iraq). At this rate, it will be 13 years before Russian nuclear material is secured.

The contradictions between what the administration is demanding of Tehran and other powers, and the capabilities it is pursuing for its own arsenal, are provocative and dangerous -- a pernicious form of nuclear hypocrisy.

Dick Cheney is right -- a nuclear-armed Iran is not a pleasant prospect, and we have to do something. But the most effective option is the hardest to swallow. Under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the United States agreed to an "unequivocal undertaking" to "eliminate" its nuclear weapons arsenal.

Honoring that commitment -- and encouraging other declared and undeclared nuclear states to do the same -- would undercut Tehran's arguments about why nuclear firepower is necessary. Oh, and by the way, it would also make the world feel a whole lot safer.

The Nightmare Weaponry of Our Future

We are not winning the war on terrorism (and would not be even if we knew what victory looked like) or the war in Iraq. Our track record in Afghanistan, as well as in the allied "war" on drugs, is hardly better. Yet the Pentagon is hard at work, spending your money, planning and preparing for future conflicts of every imaginable sort.

From wars in space to sci-fi battlescapes without soldiers, scenarios are being scripted and weaponry prepared, largely out of public view, which ensures not future victories, but limitless spending that Americans can ill-afford now or 20 years from now.

Even though today the Armed Forces can't recruit enough soldiers or adequately equip those already in uniform, the Pentagon is committing itself to massive corporate contracts for new high-tech weapons systems slated to come on-line years, even decades, from now, guaranteed only to enrich their makers.

Future Combat Systems

The typical soldier in Iraq carries about half his or her body weight in gear and suffers the resulting back pain. Body armor, weapon(s), ammunition, water, first aid kit -- it adds up in the 120 degree heat of Basra or Baghdad.

Ask soldiers in Iraq what they need most and answers may include: well-armored Humvees (many soldiers are jerry-rigging their own homemade Humvee armor); more body armor (an unofficial 2004 Army study found that one in four casualties in Iraq was the result of inadequate protective gear), or even silly string (Marcelle Shriver found out that her son was squirting the goo into a room as he and his squad searched buildings to detect trip wires around bombs).

The same Army that can't provide such basics of modern war is now promising the Future Combat Systems network (FCS), a "family of systems" that will enable soldiers to "perceive, comprehend, shape, and dominate the future battlefield at unprecedented levels." The FCS network will consist of a "family" of 18 manned and unmanned ground vehicles, air vehicles, sensors, and munitions, including: eight new, super-armored, super-strong ground vehicles to replace current tanks, infantry carriers, and self-propelled howitzers; four different planes and drones that soldiers can fly by remote control; and several "unmanned" ground vehicles.

Put together these are supposed to plunge soldiers into a video-game-like version of warfighting. The FCS will theoretically allow them to act as though they are in the midst of enemy territory -- taking out "high value" targets, blowing up "insurgent safe houses," monitoring the movements of "un-friendlies"-- all the while remaining at a safe distance from the bloody action.

To grasp the futuristic ambitions (and staggering future costs) of FCS, consider this: The Government Accounting Office (GAO) notes that "an estimated 34 million lines of software code will need to be generated" for the project, "double that of the Joint Strike Fighter, which had been the largest defense undertaking in terms of software to be developed."

In charge of this ambitious sci-fi style fantasy version of war are Boeing and SAIC (Science Applications International Corporation). They are the "Lead Systems Integrators" of this extraordinarily complex undertaking, but they are working with as many as 535 more companies across 40 states.

They promise future forces the ability to break "free of the tyranny of terrain" and "an agile, networked force capable of maneuver in the third dimension" in the words last March of retired Major General Robert H. Scales in a Boeing PowerPoint presentation entitled "FCS: Its Origin and Op Concept."

Defense Secretary Rumsfeld once famously asserted, ''You go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you might want or wish to have." Pentagon planners seem to have taken the opposite tack. They prefer the military they, or their blue-sky dreamers, wish to have for the kinds of wars they dream about fighting. And it won't be cheap.

A March 2005 GAO report found that the total program cost of Future Combat Systems alone "is expected to be at least $107.9 billion." In 2005, the Pentagon had already allocated $2.8 billion in research and development funds to FCS and, in fiscal year 2006, that was expected to increase to $3.4 billion. (Keep in mind, that all such complex, high-tech, weapons-oriented systems almost invariably go far over initial cost estimates by the time they come on line.)

"The Maserati of the Skies"

In 2006, the F-22 Raptor began rolling off the assembly line. The Air Force plans to buy 183 of these high-tech, radar-evading stealth planes, each at a price tag of $130 million, being manufactured in a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing. But it turns out that the $130 million per plane cost is just one-third of the total price, once development costs are factored in. The whole program is slated to cost the Pentagon 65 billion big ones. In July 2006, the Government Accountability Office asserted. "The F-22 acquisition history is a case study in increased cost and schedule inefficiencies."

Even if it were a bargain, however, it is a classic case of future-planning run amok. The plane was originally conceived to counter Soviet fighter planes, which haven't menaced the U.S. for more than 15 years. The plane itself is technologically awe-inspiring, reportedly having a twice-the-speed-of-sound cruising speed of Mach 2. (The Pentagon jealously guards its maximum speed as top secret.)

In 2007, the only reason the military might need such a plane is to outfight its predecessor, the F-16, which Lockheed Martin has sold to numerous countries that benefited from the corporation's vociferous lobbying for new markets and our government's lax enforcement of arms-export controls.

In this classic case of boomeranging weaponry, Lockheed Martin has triumphed three times: First, General Dynamics sold F-16 fighters to the Air Force beginning in 1976; second, Lockheed (which bought General Dynamics) sold the planes to Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Venezuela, and other nations from the 1980s to the present moment; and third, Lockheed Martin (having merged with Martin Marietta in 1995 and adjusted its name accordingly) now gets to produce an even higher tech plane for a U.S. Air Force that fears it might be outclassed by foreign military hardware that once was our own. The Bethesda-based company ended 2001 with a stock price of $46.67 a share -- and began 2007 at a celebratory $92.07.

The Next Generation Fighter

Of course, the lesson drawn from this is to produce yet more futuristic planes. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, built by a team led (yet again!) by Lockheed Martin, made its initial flight on December 15, 2006. The total program could surpass $275 billion, making it the most expensive weapons program in U.S. history. Prime contractor Lockheed Martin is sharing the work and profits with partners Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems (not to speak of scads of subcontractors).

The Air Force already hails the F-35s "transformational sensor capability" and "low-observable characteristics" that will, "enable persistent combat air support over the future battlefield. Furthermore, [the] F-35 will help enable the negation of advanced enemy air defenses because it will possess the ability to perform unrestricted operations within heavily defended airspace."

Somewhere in there it is implied that this plane launches missiles that kill people, but it is very deeply embedded. Nowhere does it say that its opponent in the skies could be the F-22 Raptor, once it is sold to all those nations who find their F-16s woefully out of date.

What's Next Next Next Next?

Even with such spiraling, mind-boggling investments in advanced weapons systems, the aerospace industry is never satisfied. The quest for new justifications for ever "better" versions of already advanced weapons systems is the holy grail of the business. These justifications pile up in industry magazines like Aerospace America, the organ of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

In a typical article in that magazine, the industry makes much of a comment then-Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley made to Congress in March 2004. In charge of the U.S. air campaign over Iraq, he observed that most of the sorties originated from neighboring countries that were allies in Operation Enduring Freedom.

But what if, he wondered, you wanted to go to war and there were no local allies willing to offer basing facilities. On the classic Boy Scout theory, be prepared, he promptly warned in written testimony to the House Armed Services Committee, "In the future, we will require deep-strike capabilities to penetrate and engage high-value targets during the first minutes of hostilities anywhere in the battlespace."

And he was only making a public point of already popular Air Force doctrine. The 176-page Air Force Transformation Flight Plan was issued in all its glittering verbosity in November 2003, bristling with a dismal, hyper-militarized view of the future. In it, Air Force planners envisioned a world with the United States even more embattled and unpopular than it was at that moment, and where we lacked all powers of persuasion to entice other nations to join future "coalitions of the willing."

The solution: new bombers that could fulfill those "deep-strike requirements" which, sadly, cannot be carried out by tomorrow's F-22 and F-35 fighter planes. (They "may not have enough range to attack critical ground targets far inside enemy territory, repeatedly, and under all circumstances.")

Not surprisingly, Lockheed Martin tried to knock two birds out of the sky with one stone, responding to criticism that the F-22 was irrelevant and too expensive, while rushing to meet the Air Force's perceived need for a new long-range bomber by suggesting yet another plane: the F/B (for fighter-bomber)-22. As they described it, in a vision of a kind of high artistry of death, this wonder of modern air war would even be capable of changing color to match the sky.

A January 2005 article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution gave Lockheed Martin visionaries a chance to share their chameleon of a "high-speed, high-altitude bomber" which could also change shape, becoming "slimmer and more aerodynamic as its fuel tanks drain on long-distance flights. It would be invisible to radar, carry precision bombs and missiles, and fly fast enough to outrun most fighters."

Sounds cool, right? This might be one instance where the weapons designers and imagineers took a few steps too far into fantasy land. There has not been any progress on the idea since 2005, but don't be surprised if the chameleon fighter-bomber changes color and shape and soars again in the race for future weapons funding.

Even without the magical fighter-bomber, over the next eight years or so the Air Force imagines fielding systems like the Common Aero Vehicle -- "a rapidly responsive, highly maneuverable, hypersonic glide vehicle that would be rocket-launched into space" according to the Air Force documents. The CAV would be equipped with sensors and bristle with weapons it could launch from space against fixed and moving targets on land, and that could be delivered anywhere on earth within two hours.

As John Pike, a weapons expert and director of, told the Washington Post in March 2005, CAV programs will allow the U.S. "to crush someone anywhere in world on 30 minutes' notice with no need for a nearby air base."

Looking beyond 2015, the Air Force sees systems like the B-X Bomber; space-based Hypervelocity Rod Bundles (nicknamed "rods from God"), a mystical sounding system that promises "to strike ground targets anywhere in the world"; the Guardian Urban Combat Weapon, an "air-launched lurk and loiter reconnaissance, rotary winged, unmanned, combat air vehicle designed for urban warfare"; and the High Powered Microwave Airborne Electronic Attack, an "anti-electronics high powered microwave weapon against 'soft' electronic-containing targets" that would be operated "from an airborne platform at military significant ranges."

The Air Force and the Army are not alone in imagining fabulously wild wars of the future and the multi-billion dollar weapons systems they can build to fight them. The Navy has its own gold-plated crystal ball. Their new KDD(X) program could end up totaling $100 billion for some 70 warships including destroyers, cruisers, and a seagoing high-tech killer called LCS (Littoral Combat Ship).

Generously, the Pentagon decided to give the project to two different ship building companies -- Northrop-Grumman Ship Systems (Ingalls, Mississippi) and General Dynamics (Bath Iron Works, Maine). According to the Pentagon's "Program Acquisition Cost by Weapons System," the DD(X) will include "full-spectrum signature reduction, active and passive self-defense systems and cutting-edge survivability features." At $3.3 billion for two ships in 2007, it better.

Building one ship in each location with each contractor raised the cost by $300 million per ship, according to GlobalSecurity.Org, but to members of Congress representing each district that is a small price to pay for maintaining "flexibility." In this business, one becomes accustomed to flexibility's magical spending properties.

In its 2006 report, the White House's Office of Budget and Management commented that the Littoral Combat Ship and other systems mentioned above have a "high potential to meet current and future threats." Congress, where so much of the game is bringing the bacon (i.e. shipbuilding contracts) back to the Baths of the nation, wholeheartedly concurred. That was just about the sum total of the debate about these multi-billion-dollar ship systems, multi-million-dollar boons for a few companies, and the dark specter of the future threats these ships will theoretically protect us against.

Missile Defense: The Great Misnomer in the Sky

While many of the systems described so far are, at least, futures that, in some heated imagination, exist, the misnamed Ballistic Missile Defense System is moving full steam ahead despite being irrelevant, unworkable, and obscenely expensive in our less-than-futuristic present moment. The BMD program got another boost recently when incoming Defense Secretary Robert Gates gave it his full support, telling the Senate Armed Services Committee: "I know we've spent a lot of money on developing missile defense, but I have believed since the Reagan administration that if we can develop that kind of capability, it would be a mistake for us not to."

The mistake is wasting one more dime on decades-worth of failure and bombast that have cost an estimated $200 billion so far without producing a single workable system to shoot down an enemy missile or even the sitting-duck targets that have taken the place of such missiles in half-baked tests of the woeful project.

Missile defense funding is set to soak up another $9.4 billion in fiscal 2007 -- part of the Pentagon's ongoing corporate welfare system -- and the Defense Department's Future Years Defense Program report proposes that funding averaging $10 billion annually be continued for research and development of the system through ... (this is not a misprint) 2024. (The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projects that annual missile-defense costs will, in fact, increase to $15 billion by 2016.)

Nuclear Projections

And it is not just in the Pentagon where such blue-sky spending for an overarmed world is underway. Hidden in the innocuous sounding Department of Energy is the National Nuclear Security Administration, which has big plans laid through 2030.

Their vision, released in April 2006, sees a "responsive nuclear infrastructure" that can continuously dismantle and rebuild nuclear weapons, reducing their numbers and increasing their potency, while ensuring that, at any moment an American leader might want to destroy the planet many times over, nuclear production rates can be rapidly increased.

The Department of Energy estimates that Complex 2030 will require a mere capital investment of $150 billion, but the Government Accountability Office suggests that, as with so many initial estimates for future weapons systems, that number was far too low. Even if the program cost only a dollar, it is but another typically dangerous and provocative step by the military-industrial complex that threatens, in this case, to encourage yet more global nuclear proliferation.

Complex 2030 would, in fact, plunge us back into a Cold War atmosphere, but with far more nuclear-armed adversaries. It even promises a return to the underground testing of nuclear weapons and could require upping the production of new
plutonium pits (the fissile heart of nuclear weapons).

What Do We Dream?

As engineers and physicists at Lockheed Martin and the Air Force dream up new weapons -- shaping bombers out of polymer and pixels -- politicians and Pentagoneers imagine the threats those super-bombers of the future will blast to bits.

Only the money -- billions and billions of dollars -- is real ...

But as those billions are sucked away, what happens to our dreams of clear skies, cures for pandemics, solutions to global warming and energy depletion? To make more human dreams our future reality, we have to stop feeding the military's nightmare monsters.

The Weapons Trade as Entertainment

Oh, the stars! We're riveted by their clothes, their suntans, what they do (and don't) eat for breakfast. We're titillated when they appear too fat, disheveled, or lumpy. We're envious when they're expectably sleek, well muscled, and well coiffed. Christie Brinkley's heartbreak is front page news. Britney's baby gaffes are carefully dissected. The trials and tribulations of Jessica and Nick and Jennifer and Brad provided the tabloids and entertainment mags with months of fodder.

America exported $10.48 billion worth of film and television in 2004. The world's favorite TV show is the soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful. Every day, in almost every corner of the globe, people stream to movies made in the United States. They watch Halle Berry conjure up a storm with her eyes, Johnny Depp swashbuckle his way through the Caribbean, and Keanu Reeves swoon and mope in the company of Sandra Bullock. (Sorry about that last one, world!). But, in Uzbekistan, those same movie fans are denied the rights of free speech and assembly, while President Islam Karimov tightens his grip on power with an array of arms made in the USA. In the Philippines, they watch the country's debt skyrocket as President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo gobbles up American weaponry at startling prices and an alarming rate.

Like American entertainment, American arms are a multibillion-dollar industry that leans heavily on foreign sales. In fact, the United States exported $18.55 billion in fighter planes, attack helicopters, tanks, battleships, and other weaponry in 2005. All signs point to 2006 being another banner export year. Just as in the movie, TV, and music businesses, we dwarf the competition. Russia is the next largest arms exporter with a measly $4 billion in yearly sales. In fact, U.S. arms exports accounted for more than half of total global arms deliveries -- $34.8 billion -- in 2004, and we export more of them ourselves than the next six largest exporters combined.

Given the huge payoffs and even larger payloads delivered, isn't it strange how little attention the American arms industry gets? Maybe, in some small part, that's because the industry's magazines all have the word "Defense," or some equivalent, prominently displayed on the cover -- Defense Week, Defense News -- instead of Glamour or Allure. Maybe it's because of the Pentagon's predilection for less than magnetic PowerPoint presentations, unbearably unexpressive acronyms, and slightly paunchy, very pasty, older white men in business suits. Maybe the arms trade just doesn't seek the plush of the red carpet or the jittery pulse of flashing paparazzi cameras. Or maybe, it's a business that just loves to revel in profitable anonymity.

But don't be fooled. Like Hollywood, the arms industry has sex to spare. After all, the weapons themselves are all gleaming golden curves and massive thrusting spikes; they move at breath-robbing speed, make ear-splitting noise, and are capable of performing with awesome lethality. Just ask the Bush administration if you can't fall in love with weapons this sexy and the military that wields them. And then there are the glittery galas and trade shows like the Paris Air Show -- at Le Bourget airport north of the French capital -- where generals and corporate bigwigs with power, prestige, and incomparable sums of money rub against each other amid the scandalous whispers of corporate breakups and new mergers.

"A! Today in the Arms Trade"

It's common to say that "you are what you eat"; but, at the level of nation-states, "you are what you export" may be no less true. We think of ourselves as trendsetters and style arbiters because of our best-known export -- mass culture. But weapons are our most deadly and potent export; they help determine who controls key regions of the world and shape how those regions are governed; they create jobs, extinguish lives, and sometimes obliterate whole neighborhoods.

In the mountains of Turkey, Kurdish kids may not have a chance to drink Coke, listen to American rap, or play Street Fighter, but they do know two words of English, "Cobra" and "Black Hawk," the names of the U.S.-made attack helicopters the Turks have used to strafe their villages. We should at least know as much about the weapons our country sells as they do, and more about the arms industry as whole than we do about Lindsay Lohan's brush with anorexia and addiction.

What if we did? What if American girls grew up reading Jane's Defence Weekly instead of (or in addition to) JANE? What if Vince Vaughn and Colin Farrell labored on their craft in virtual obscurity, while Cameron Diaz and Scarlett Johansson did their own laundry after a hard shift on the film set? What if the attention these stars now get went to the arms trade? Then, Jeffrey Kohler and Robert Joseph would be household names, their every move tracked by a voracious media.

Perhaps then we would watch A! (as in "A! Today in the Arms Trade") instead of E! Of course, I wouldn't even have to write this next sentence, because everyone would already know that Jeffery Kohler is the Director of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) within the Defense Department and Robert Joseph is Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security -- and that the arms business wouldn't be its sexy self without them.

Under Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, these are the men who help promote U.S. weapons and military technology -- as well as the companies that make them -- to the world, assemble financing packages, and facilitate weapons buys. Their decisions help to determine who our friends and foes are (and will be) and what kind of weapons they will have.

A! might start with early morning chatter about Jeff's tie choice and what that signals for future fighter-plane sales to Chile. Later, a panel would cheerily consider the excitement of Rob's recent trip to Taiwan, and how Beijing views our new technology-sharing agreements with Taipei. Any announcement from the DSCA about a major arms transfer would be headline news and the particulars of an arms deal would be the froth of early-morning talk shows, happy-talk chatter on the news channels, not to speak of the wit of late night comedy and Dave's or Jay's monologue.

The Power Treatment

Even though we know that A! will never replace E!, nor will a magazine named Power replace People in those supermarket racks, there's still plenty to talk about. It's just that you have to read Aviation Week or SeaPower (or the Business pages of major newspapers) to know about it.

Take but one relatively modest example: In March 2003, the United States and Poland inked a Pentagon-brokered agreement worth $3.5 billion with U.S. arms companies. The emerging power and new member of the European Union bought a whole new military in a box: including 48 Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter planes, Raytheon Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles, Sidewinder Short- Range Air-to-Air Missiles and Maverick Air-to-Ground Missiles.

Putting aside what Poland actually needed all this firepower for, how about a Power magazine in-depth investigation on how the big U.S. arms makers tempted Poland with $6.3 billion in investments. As one of Lockheed Martin's directors explained, the deal wasn't really about selling weapons to Poland. Nope, they were interested in "enhancing Poland competitively in the global economy, creating jobs and enhancing local labor market skills." Kinda sweet, right?

So, to put this in a simple way, in order to sell Warsaw $3.5 billion in military hardware, we gave them $6.3 billion in goodies. Think about that for a moment. Isn't it just a little too much of a good thing -- like the $100,000 gift-bags movie stars get at parties after their $100 million movie premieres? Poland gets a GM plant (wait, didn't one just close in Muncie, Indiana?) and a Motorola communications system in addition to a Lockheed Martin factory and billions more in U.S. investment. As the American ambassador to Poland said, "It's the deal of the century." For Poland yes, for American workers -- like the ones who don't make Pontiacs and Caddies in Detroit and Muncie anymore -- maybe not.

Saudi Bling and Pentagon Rhetoric

In South Asia, the situation is different, but no less gossip-worthy for some future Power cover story. There, the desire to sell weapons has cast President George W. Bush in the role of a man trying to woo a new lover and placate his wife at the same time.

When the United States announced the sale of as many as 36 F-16 fighters to Pakistan, the Indian government was outraged. Though Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told President Bush that he was "greatly disappointed," apoplectic might better describe the strength of the reaction; and you can see Singh's point. India views itself as a stalwart and democratic ally, one with a growing economy and a growing appetite for U.S. goods.

So, when the Bush administration inked that arms deal with arch-rival Pakistan and agreed to send Islamabad F-16 fighter planes whose only likely use would be against India, you can hardly blame the Indians for being heartbroken. Pakistan -- which would get the fighter planes with all the fixins for about $3 billion -- is more the love-'em-and-leave-'em type anyway, an impetuous, impulsive dictatorship that has, in the past, harbored al-Qaeda elements and whose intelligence services helped create (and probably still supports) the Taliban; a country which, in the past, let its nuclear "secrets" slip off to states that our President loathes like Iran and North Korea, and that refuses to crackdown on Islamic fundamentalist schools and fundamentalist training camps within its borders. India and Pakistan are, of course, the bitterest of rivals, having fought three wars and suffered countless smaller flare-ups; both have tested nuclear weapons and continue to menace each other with them.

So, given India's indignation, what did Bush do? He offered New Delhi similar fighter planes to those being given to Islamabad (twice the profits for American weapons makers, twice the power on each side to fight the next war). He then re-pledged his fidelity to India and guaranteed that country's nuclear fuel supply, while opening talks about what fighter planes would be most suitable for India's special needs. The U.S. offered the possibility of purchasing 126 of either Lockheed Martin's F-16 or Boeing's F-18 Hornet. And all of a sudden, everybody was remarkably satisfied -- except perhaps the people of India and Pakistan who might have wondered where in the world their countries were going to get the dough for these advanced weapons systems, while so many of them stand on line at the village pump, or walk three miles to the closest school, or labor long hours bent over crops, or answer requests at customer-service call centers.

If, for a while, India played the spurned spouse, Saudi Arabia has taken on the role of a diva of hip-hop proportions. When it comes to weapons systems, the oil-rich oligarchy demands the best and always pays in cash -- which is why the arms industry is just delighted with its brand new $6 billion deal with Riyadh (pending the normal Congressional rubber-stamp). Included will be a mÈlange of lethal toys: 24 UH-60L Black Hawk helicopters, armored vehicles, and other military equipment. Among the companies involved are Sikorsky, General Electric, General Dynamics, and Raytheon.

The DSCA claims this weapons package will help strengthen Saudi Arabia's military and its ability to help the United States fight global terrorism, not to speak of giving that country's armed forces the means to defend "stability" in a destabilizing region without perhaps having to call on an overstressed American military in a pinch. But beneath Riyadh's bling and the Pentagon's hopeful rhetoric lies another reality, worthy of one of those supermarket tabloids -- the rulers of Saudi Arabia are fickle and not at all sure whether they want to cozy up to the West or to those who have the urge to bring the West down. Most of the 9/11 hijackers, of course, were Saudis; the royal family continues to support terrorist organizations and right-wing religious schools; and the kingdom rests on a sea of oil without access to which the global economy might sink in a nanosecond.

Weapons-maker to a Grim World

While foreign arms sales are regularly edged in scandal, here in the United States weapons deals are evidently worth going to prison over! You want sex, lies, and videotape? Okay, maybe not the sex part -- and it was email, not video-tape that provided the incriminating evidence -- but there were plenty of lies in a 2003 domestic arms scandal that bilked taxpayers of millions. Boeing -- the bomber behemoth -- tried to sucker the Air Force into leasing one hundred KC-135 tanker planes for in-air refueling at a cost of perhaps $6 billion dollars, more than it would have cost the government to buy the (unnecessary) planes outright.

The scheme landed Darleen Druyun, a former Air Force weapons buyer, in a Florida prison after she pled guilty to giving Boeing special treatment on a $23.5 billion government contract in exchange for a post as Senior Vice President at the company and perks for her family members. Talk about a cheap date! As a Boeing veep, Druyun pulled in a mere $250,000 a year, while the company would have taken in billions in revenue.

Of course, to the extent that the U.S. arms industry wants attention at all, it would prefer that we focus on the good news -- all those benefits to be derived from arms sales abroad, which make for humming assembly lines at home. According to the DSCA, the United States sells weapons abroad mainly to foster relationships that promote specified U.S. interests, while building allied and friendly nation capabilities for self-defense and coalition operations. They may also mention what we get in return, especially secure access to military facilities around the world, but these alleged benefits can come at a high price.

Any PR flak could warn you about how a reputation for late-night carousing can sully a star's squeaky-clean on-screen reputation. You can't act like Paris Hilton at night and land roles for Mandy Moore the next morning. The same goes for arms sales. But the U.S. keeps trying. While boasting about democracy, security, and peace, we sell weapons to dictators, human rights abusers, and countries at war or at the edge of war (sometimes with each other).

In fact, twenty of our top twenty-five arms clients in the developing world in 2003 -- a full 80 percent of them -- were undemocratic regimes and/or governments with records as major human-rights abusers. All too often, U.S. arms transfers only fuel conflict, weaponize human-rights abusers, or fall into the hands of our adversaries. Far from serving as a force for security and stability, these sales frequently serve to empower unstable, undemocratic regimes to the detriment of global security.

The ways and means of America's arms trade are not going to be spoon-fed to us the way model Naomi Campbell's run-ins with the law are. Unfortunately, it takes work on our part to discover how our arms trade functions. But knowing where our weapons are going and what sort of havoc they are wreaking in our name seems worth the minor effort and inconvenience -- even if it doesn't offer the promise of the perfect tan or six-pack abs!

The Long War's Pricetag

"We will stay in the fight until the fight is won," pledged President George W. Bush from the podium at Cleveland's Renaissance Hotel on March 20. "I'm going to say it again: If I didn't believe we could succeed [in Iraq], I wouldn't be there," Bush shrilled at his White House press conference the next day. And then he said it again the next day in West Virginia, "If I didn't think we'd succeed, I'd pull our troops out."

We have heard a lot from President Bush in the last week, as the "educator in chief" (as he called himself in Wheeling, West Virginia) embarked on another desperate round of PR to explain three years of war to the America people. Despite hours of talking -- the text of his three speeches and Q-and-A fills more than 50 pages (10 point, single spaced) -- the president failed to say what Americans want to hear. A March 17 Gallup poll found that 60 percent of Americans believe the war in Iraq is not worth the costs. But the costs continue to mount.

According to a report from the Congressional Research Service, military spending in Iraq and Afghanistan will increase more than 40 percent between 2005 and 2006. CRS estimates that in 2006 the Pentagon is spending $9.8 billion a month on military operations, compared to $6.8 billion a month last year. Democrats in the House Budget Committee estimate that once the most recent $68 billion in supplemental funding is approved, the United States will have spent more than $445 billion on military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001.

This $68 billion request for ongoing military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan passed in the House and is likely to be taken up by the Senate Appropriations Committee early next week. Once approved, these funds will mostly cover the predictable expenses of fighting two intractable wars -- things like body armor and other protective gear, tanks and attack helicopters. These expenditures make sense if the United States is fighting what they are now calling "the Long War," but why not add these costs to the Pentagon's $439.3 billion budget request for 2007? Adopting this budget is a process open to full debate, as the House Budget Committee takes it up again today along with the rest of federal spending.

In January, the assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, said, "This generation of service members will be in what we're calling the Long War… Our estimate is that for at least the next 20 years… our focus will be… the extremist networks that will continue to threaten the United States and its allies."

Why are we paying for the Long War with emergency supplementals that receive almost zero debate in Congress? Because it allows the Pentagon and Bush administration maintain the fiction that the war is happening on the (relative) cheap and foments a false sense of urgency that undercuts Congressional and public debate about the war and its costs.

At his press conference on March 21, President Bush was asked: "Will there come a day when there will be no more American forces in Iraq?" He responded that while that is "an objective," that decision will be made by "future presidents and future governments of Iraq." For the first time, the American people have a timetable from the White House, albeit a vague and obtuse one; sometime after 2008.

It is time for an honest appraisal of the war and its costs. But it comes from far outside the Beltway. In the "Economic Costs of the War on Iraq," economists Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes try to gauge of the long term economic consequences of the war. In the January 2006 paper, they assert "even taking a conservative approach and assuming all U.S. troops return by 2010, we believe the true costs exceed a trillion dollars." In his article on the report, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert struggles to explain that number: "imagine a stack of bills worth $1 million that is roughly six inches high… $1 billion [stack] would be as tall as the Washington Monument… If it were worth $1 trillion, the stack would be 95 miles high."

Ninety-five miles of bills. A huge deficit. American and Iraqi lives destroyed each day. From the New York stage of the "Bring 'Em Home Now" concert on March 20, Geoffrey Millard, a soldier who spent 13 months in Iraq, declared "We don't need an exit strategy… 'Exit' is not a strategy; it's an executive order." Those are the words America wants to hear, the sooner the better.

Why I Am Marching to Guantánamo

As a U.S. citizen and as a Christian, when the prisoners in Guantánamo began their first hunger strike this summer, I was forced to think more seriously about how to say no to torture and yes to humanity. I had to think about the depth of powerlessness and despair as well as the intensity of will and defiance that goes into the decision to starve oneself. It is an act against biology. But refusing to eat is the prisoners' only way of drawing attention to their predicament. They have no other tools except deepening their own suffering.

Jesus commands that we visit the prisoner and comfort the afflicted, and reminds us that what you do to the least among us, you do to me. I am marching as a person of faith trying to apply these mandates to an ever more violent world.

These fathers and brothers and sons now imprisoned a Guantánamo Bay have been swept up in indiscriminate raids, bound and blindfolded and shipped to an arid military base that is off the map of international law, a wasteland of injustice, a modern heart of darkness. Most of these men have done nothing wrong, nothing illegal. The Bush Administration has denied every fundamental right afforded by international law or American law to allow the inmates to defend themselves. It has even denied charging them with any crime beyond looking the part of the villain in Bush's war on terrorism.

Why are these men now starving themselves and being savagely force-fed? They are crying out for the world to hear their suffering. We 25 Catholic Workers have committed ourselves to responding to their cry, reaching out human to human, across battle lines, borders, religion and ethnicity to simply say- we hear you and we are with you.

Our group includes professors, activists against the death penalty, people who run soup kitchens, a nun, a priest. We are all marching to Guantánamo with a simple request -- a request coming from the mandate to Christians to perform the Works of Mercy -- to visit the prisoners. We believe our own dignity and humanity are bound to the dignity and humanity of all people, and we want the prisoners to know that as Christians, we condemn their treatment. Pope John Paul II reminds us that practices such as the torture abuses perpetrated at Guantnamo are "'incapable of being ordered' to God" and therefore are "'intrinsically evil.'" Would that our leaders who profess to be Christian hear his words.

But I am not marching just because Jesus commands us to perform works of mercy, or because the late Pope names torture as evil. On June 20, at a European Union event, President Bush invited me, and anyone else in the world community to inspect Guantánamo. Countering questions about torture and the United States' commitment to human rights, President Bush said, "You're welcome to go down there yourselves ... and take a look at the conditions."

But he was disingenuous. A few weeks ago a United Nations Panel of Experts declined a rigorously scripted "inspection" of Guantánamo, saying U.S. officials "did not accept the standard terms of reference for a credible, objective and fair assessment of the situation of the detainees at the Guantánamo Bay detention facility."

Just last month, in Panama on November 7, President Bush said emphatically, "We do not torture." Is he telling the truth?

I am trying to see for myself, and it will be hard. The U.S. Naval Base at Guantánamo is not easy to get to. It is no accident that the prisoners were put there, so ordinary Americans like me would not see them, or the inhuman and illegal treatment under which they suffer. So, while we walk for the works of mercy, we also walk to tell the story of how hard it is for Americans to get to the place where these men are being held, deliberately hidden from the American people and the world.

In my name and with my money, my government is committing immoral and illegal acts, mocking and ignoring international law -- all at a place it is illegal for me even to visit. I march to say no. Will you join me? Visit to learn how.

Ending Tyranny, The Bush Way

As insecurity mounts from Najaf to New Orleans, more weapons and high-tech military equipment are flowing into some of the globe's most vulnerable and war-torn regions.

The Congressional Research Service recently found that global arms sales rose to $37 billion in 2004 -- the highest level since 2000. U.S. companies such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing rang up $12.4 billion in weapons contracts -- more than one-third of the total and more than twice what Russia -- the second largest exporter -- sold. The Departments of State, Commerce and Defense are all involved in different aspects of approving licenses, managing logistics and (in many cases) loaning or granting funds to nations as they seek weapons from U.S. corporations.

The findings, published in the annual "Conventional Weapons Transfers to Developing Nations" report, were released against the backdrop of the global war on terror in which many countries are increasing military spending as insecurity rises. They also came in the wake of rampant and irresponsible use of guns in the hurricane-ravaged Southeast that hindered aid delivery, increased tension and led to more misery and suffering.

The U.S. has a long-standing (and accelerating) policy of arming, training and aiding some of the world's most repressive regimes. Close anti-terrorism allies include the authoritarian Uzbekistan and the thinly veiled military dictatorship of Gen. Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan. In the Philippines, Colombia and elsewhere, U.S. weapons and military training have been turned against civilians. From Indonesia to the Sudan, U.S. geopolitical interests and access to resources are trumping concerns about human rights, ongoing conflict and the pressing need for development.

The U.S. transfers more weapons and military services than any other country in the world. In the last decade, the U.S. sold $177.5 billion in arms to foreign nations. In 2003, the last year for which full data is available, the Pentagon and State Department delivered or licensed the delivery of $5.7 billion in weaponry to countries which can ill afford advanced weaponry -- nations in the developing world saddled with debt and struggling with poverty.

Despite having some of the world's strongest laws regulating the arms trade, almost half of these weapons went to countries plagued with ongoing conflict and governed by undemocratic regimes with poor human rights records. In 2003, $2.7 billion in weaponry went to governments deemed undemocratic by the U.S. State Department's Human Rights Report, in the sense that citizens of those nations "did not have a meaningful right to change their government" in a peaceful manner. Another $97.4 million in weapons went to governments deemed by the State Department to have "poor" human rights records.

The U.S. transferred weaponry to 18 of the 25 countries involved in active conflicts in 2003, the last year for which full Pentagon data is available. From Chad to Ethiopia, from Algeria to India, transfers to conflict nations through the two largest arms sales programs totaled more than $1 billion. When poor human rights records, serious patterns of abuse and histories of conflict are all factored in, 20 of the top 25 U.S. arms clients in the developing world in 2003 -- a full 80 percent -- were either undemocratic regimes or governments with records of major human rights abuses.

That's unacceptable. It's time that President Bush begin to honor his pledge to "end tyranny in our world" as part of the war on terrorism by overhauling U.S. weapons transfer policy. Greater global security will follow.

Oh Baby, It's Drafty Out There

"Feeling a draft?" asks the Village Voice.

"Talk of a draft is chilling," intones The New York Times.

Even fashion magazines weigh in: "Could Cosmo girl get drafted?"

In city streets, town squares and rural strip malls, military recruiters are beleaguered. The Army is unable to meet recruiting targets even after lowering quotas and standards. At the same time, recruiters are overwhelmed by scandal and scrutiny, and uncomfortable in the face of growing anti-war sentiment.

Though half a world away, the war in Iraq feels close. Mounting U.S. casualties, exhausted soldiers and an intractable civil conflict in which the only thing different factions agree on is that U.S. soldiers are the problem, make military service increasingly unattractive to even the most gung-ho patriot. Meanwhile, Washington is determined to "stay the course" right over the brink.

J.E. McNeil, executive director of the Center on Conscience and War, is preparing for the worst. She sees a "perfect storm" of conditions brewing a return to the draft. So far, more than one million U.S. military personnel have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. An estimated 341,000 soldiers have done double deployments (and many are now entering their third deployment). And they are not just serving, they are dying. More than 1,700 have been killed, and an average of two more soldiers die each day.

Recruiting Nightmares

For more and more young people, joining the military doesn't mean "Be all you can be," it means going to war. And the Army is feeling the chill.

Major General Michael Rochelle, Army Recruiting Commander, worries that the war and other military commitments present the "toughest challenge to the all-volunteer army" since its inception in 1973. Staff Sergeant Spurgeon M. Shelly, a recruiter, complains how tough recruiting is. "I will hear 'No' more times in one day than a child would hear in their entire childhood. If I had hair, I would pull it out."

He signed up four recruits in six months, putting him way below his quota of two recruits per month.

Recruiters are hiding police records, mental illness and physical ailments to make their quotas. An Army investigation into recruitment improprieties found 1,118 incidents involving one in five recruiters. The Army substantiated 320 of these cases in 2004, up from 213 in 2002 and 199 in 1999. Recruiters and some senior army officers admit that for every documented impropriety, there are at least two more that are never discovered. "We have to play fast and loose with the rules just to get by," one recruiter told The New York Times.

Another recruiter laments, "The only people who want to join the Army now have issues; they're troubled, with health, police or drug problems."

After a dismal record of missed quotas each month throughout the spring, the Army stalled on releasing enlistment data for May. Finally in mid-June, the Army reported achieving 75 percent of its monthly recruiting goal of 6,700. But the Army did not attract more recruits; it moved the goal posts, lowering its May target from 8,050 new recruits, asserting it would make up the difference this summer.

Furthest From Our Thoughts?

The Pentagon and the President promise that the draft is a thing of the past. "The D-word is the farthest thing from my thoughts," Francis J. Harvey, Secretary of the Army, told a Washington Post reporter in March, laughing.

The Pentagon's position is that a professional all-volunteer army performs better, has higher morale and is less costly to train. Last October, President Bush was adamant on the question, saying, "I want every American to understand that, as long as I am President, there will be no draft."

The Nixon administration retired the military draft in 1973, but mandatory registration of men at the age of 18 was reinstituted in 1980 under President Carter, and today the Selective Service System has 13.5 million men ages 18-25 registered.

McNeil's perspective that the draft is creeping back is strengthened by recent announcements by Selective Service that it can now register and draft healthcare workers, computer specialists, linguists and other personnel if necessary. In March, the SSS issued a report notifying the President that "it would be ready to implement a draft within 75 days" following Congressional authorization. While spokesman Richard Flahavan says the steps are "strictly in the planning stages," and the report was part of the SSS' annual budget request, these moves agitate fears of a returning draft.

Military expert David Segal believes that a new military conscription policy would galvanize an anti-draft movement that would dwarf that of the 1960s. The expectation that the draft would rouse a complacent populace into a powerful and mainstream anti-war movement fuels the draft-watch fixation of websites like, and

The Wrong Question

But, for many in the counter-recruitment movement, "Is the draft coming back?" is the wrong question.

Marti Hiken, co-chair of the Military Law Taskforce, does not see the draft on the far-off horizon; she sees it as existing reality for hundreds of thousands of Americans.

There is the "poverty draft" of young people who are told the military is their only path to a career; the "backdoor draft" of the Stop-Loss program which mandates soldiers stay in active duty for up to 24 months after their contracts have expired; "the senior draft" in which reservists (who make up 40 percent of the fighting force in Iraq) are compelled back into active military service; and finally, there is the "secret draft" of mercenaries and private military contractors.

For Hiken, worrying about the draft is an abstraction compared to the havoc wreaked by these real but covert forms of compulsory service.

For every covert draft, Hiken sees grassroots groups countering and gaining traction. A lot of the energy is focused on the outrages of Stop-Loss, which has been legally challenged eight times so far. One suit, brought by Emiliano Santiago in Oregon, climbed to the Supreme Court before it was rejected and Santiago was shipped off to Afghanistan to re-join his unit. Representative Jim McDermott (D-WA) championed Santiago's case, saying on the floor of the House, "Santiago's plight should be known and feared by every high school junior and senior across the country. The ugly little secret in the Pentagon is that Emiliano Santiago's voluntary service is involuntary."

Hiken says that even though Santiago lost his case, the ruling "fanned the fires of counter-recruitment work," and made people "think twice before signing up for the military," playing a "critical role in lowering enlistment levels."

Another case, on behalf of soldier David W. Qualls and seven John Does, was filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C in December and is still in the motions phase. Overall, Hiken says, "I have not seen a grassroots movement like the one we have now. In every community people are fighting."

Military Unwelcome

Rick Jahnkow, an organizer with the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft, thinks more people should be joining those fights rather than wringing their hands about a possible draft.

The longtime counter-recruitment activist says it's not "a total waste of time to talk about the draft," but he is quick to add that it is not enough.

"We have to reverse the militarization of school, campus and society," says Jahnkow, listing "military recruitment, the poverty draft, the militarization of curriculum through Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps (J-ROTC)" as important targets. He worries that young people's acculturation to the military will make a future draft easier. "We need to undermine and delegitimize those programs, make them unwelcome," he says.

That is exactly what people are doing in communities around the country.

Kevin Ramirez, an organizer with Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, catalogues recent actions making the military very unwelcome in schools and on campuses.

At Seattle Central Community College in January, "students literally chased Army recruiters off campus." The following month, college students in New Haven tabling with counter-recruitment materials "received so much positive attention from other students" that the military recruiters packed up their tables and left. In Bloomington, Minnesota, Ramirez continues, a high school group fought their administration and the American Legion to allow "counter-recruitment tables and information" equal access to their school and they won.

The movement against Stop-Loss, counter-recruitment actions, young people organizing to get the military out of their schools, and the ongoing work to end the war and bring the troops home resonates today and tomorrow, whether or not President Bush asks Congress to vote to reinstate the draft. These movements sustain hope and save lives, while hinting at what a de-militarized United States would look like. These movements prove that we don't have to wait for a draft to have an impact.

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