Some of Our Biggest Cheerleaders for War Are Not Who You Think
Earlier this month, the United States celebrated a dubious anniversary. On Oct. 7, 2001, President George W. Bush invaded Afghanistan, marking the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom—a quagmire that continues to this day under the code name Operation Freedom’s Sentinel. The war is now the second longest in American history, next to Vietnam, and as Maj. Danny Sjursen noted in a recent essay for Truthdig, “teenagers born after 9/11 will begin to join the military and, eventually, fight” in its battles. Yet despite this, or perhaps because of it, the conflict remains out of sight and out of mind for an overwhelming majority of Americans.
Lyle Jeremy Rubin refuses to remain silent. A Ph.D. candidate, former U.S. Marine and member of About Face: Veterans Against the War, he contends that the public’s poor understanding of the conflict is matched only by that of the country’s political and media elite. Rubin has grown especially disillusioned with liberals and Democrats whose purportedly peaceful politics have proved to be anything but. As he tells Robert Scheer, “Celebrated commenters like Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell fail to cover America’s ongoing wars and the roles some of their favorite guests have played in expanding them.”
In the latest episode of “Scheer Intelligence,” Rubin expounds on a range of topics including progressive media and the corrupting influence of arms dealing in U.S. foreign policy. “I mean we are by far the biggest arms dealer in the world,” he says. “And a lot of the enemies, the official enemies that our government has, [were] in one way or another created by these arms deals. … We’re making a lot of money by selling [Saudi Arabia] arms that are being used in a genocide in Yemen. And the discussion’s just nowhere to be found.”
Rubin also examines the recent murder of Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi, and how the Trump presidency has laid bare the true nature of the U.S.-Saudi relationship for all the world to see, voluntarily or not. “This is where I think Trump was right when he talked about why the United States wasn’t going to do much in response to the assassination of the Saudi Arabian journalist,” he continues. “There’s a lot of jobs on the line when it comes to these arms deals.”
Finally, Rubin explores what it means to be a patriot with an unabashed authoritarian in the Oval Office—one who regularly targets professional athletes for refusing to stand during the National Anthem: “Veteran friends I know, both on the left and the right … [are all] somewhat disgusted by the way that [they’re] used as political props.”
Listen to his interview with Robert Scheer and read the transcript below:
Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case, Lyle Jeremy Rubin, who was a young college student when 9/11 happened. He went down in Atlanta and he was really, he’ll tell us about the story, he ends up going to Afghanistan. He moves from the right to a more progressive position. And he’s written an incredible article about his experience and what he’s learned which is a really taking to the woodshed of liberals, pro-war liberals, as well as conservatives, and it’s called “The Forever War’s Cheerleaders.” It was in September 19, 2018, the Nation Magazine. And so tell us how you became, you got involved with the Marines and where this wisdom came from.
Lyle Jeremy Rubin: Well, first of all, thanks for having me. So I guess my story really begins on 9/11. I was two weeks into college. I watched the second tower fall from this massive screen that had been kind of imported into the student union so we could all watch what was happening. And that was really the first time that I thought about putting on the uniform and following in my grandfather’s footsteps who was the one military member in my family. He had served during World War II, got shot in the head at Iwo Jima, he was always a hero of mine. So to make a long story short, I became a pro-war voice on campus. I became the opinion editor of the school newspaper. I started my own political magazine with a friend of mine. And by my senior year I realized that I actually had to serve in these wars that I was supporting. So I joined up on June 6, 2006, the day of the devil. I became a marine. And I ended up getting deployed to Afghanistan a few years later actually as a signals intelligence officer. I ended up becoming a commissioned officer a little further down the line. And I got deployed in 2010 and I was in Afghanistan for about a year.
RS: OK. Well out of this experience and you said you considered yourself a conservative in college, right?
LR: That’s right.
RS: And in your article you make the point, you sort of you were at odds with these anti-war liberals. And one of the things you expressed some consternation back having experienced war and feeling this forever war which is what Afghanistan seems to be, you’re surprised that people seem to be on the liberal side of it. You mention, well let me quote from your article. You said, “It isn’t so much awareness as a memory. The problem with veterans is we keep remembering our wars when we are supposed to join everyone else in forgetting them. Today, I experienced that gap most viscerally in politics and liberal or progressive politics in particular where celebrated commentators like Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell fail to cover America’s ongoing wars and the roles some of their favorite guests have played in launching and expanding them.” Why don’t you expand on that notion.
LR: So my formative years as a kind of political person were the early 2000s, and at that point the Democratic party and liberal media in general, at least pretended to be an anti-war force, particularly in relation to the Bush administration. So, while I never really believed that the Democrats or liberals were as anti-war as they always posed themselves as being, I did see them as something of a counterforce or counterbalance to the militarism of the right. So there was a certain kind of disappointment and surprise when I returned from Afghanistan as just another kind of disillusioned war veteran. And I’d be speaking to family members or friends all of whom identified as liberal or progressive or on the left. And a lot of them I didn’t seem to think were really understanding what I was saying, not only about the war that I had come from, but overall American foreign policy, and the gap between the rhetoric and the language of the political class and the media class on both the left and the right, and the reality on the ground. So it was a shock for me. It’s been a shock ever since. And I think the past few years I’ve really seen even more of a kind of drift to a militarist status quo on the part of MSNBC and the New York Times page and NPR. There’s no real even kind of open questioning or challenge of the kind of post 9/11 status quo that we now find ourselves in.
RS: Well, thing here really is that probably those people cheering the war on are not going to have to go fight it nor people in their family, their children or so forth unless it’s some sort of career choice because they don’t have certainly the necessity to join. And we don’t have a draft. And it’s sort of been ever so. I mean it’s sort of amazing, the day we’re doing this having this interview here in mid-October, the defense secretary was just in Vietnam, Jim Mattis. And it was really interesting. Vietnam is still a communist country. And we fought a war with them because we said if we don’t defeat them there, we’ll have to defeat them here. And there was an international communist movement and blah, blah, blah. And he’s over there saying, hey you know what, we have a lot in common because neither of us… now here’s an American secretary defense, neither of us the Vietnamese or the Americans liked being colonized. Well, when Robert McNamara was secretary defense and he admitted that three and a half million innocent people in Vietnam had been killed in a war that made no sense and that he could possibly had been called a war criminal, still most of this group, the elite and so forth thought whether or not the war was really necessary and if it was sort of a mistake, sort of what the Ken Burns movie basically said. Bad things happen in war. But the idea that this was a calculated effort at control of colonization and so forth. That’s not part of the conversation. It’s just we make mistakes. Other people commit genocide, murder, invade, and so forth. Is that not sort of the basic lesson here? And you’re now I gather getting your doctorate in this stuff. Is this what you’re learning as an academic?
LR: Yeah, absolutely. I actually wrote a review of Burns documentary and I thought it was actually well done in a lot of ways but I think it also is symptomatic of what you’re getting at which is amongst those people that are allowed on TV or allowed on the most popular venues, media venues, most of them buy into this idea I like to think of it as kind of like hegemony of American righteousness that America makes mistakes, they do things that are wrong in retrospect, but overall America is the good guy. And as long as you keep on believing that, then you’re going to be inclined to continue to support America’s foreign policy and their wars and their arms dealings and all the rest. And I think Burns movie for all its merits, I think kind of reinforces this mentality that America might screw up here or there, but it has good intentions and there’s never really any subdivide discussion of material factors that might be at work, the colonial factors to use a word that you used. As a historian, I actually taught a course on the Vietnam War with a friend of mine. And anyone who’s looked at the documents knows that there were quite a lot of economic motivations behind that war that go all the way back to the end of World War II and wanting to secure capitalist markets in the Pacific. And using kind of Japan as kind of the proxy force in that region to secure these markets and any kind of anti-capitalist presence in that area was a problem for this ultimate objective. And that was really what at the end of the day brought us into Vietnam and that’s what kept us in Vietnam. And you can say the same thing for most of our involvements, but when media people both on the left and the right talk about these words, it’s always about human rights. It’s always about these kind of humanitarian official narratives that just don’t hold up in the face of the evidence.
RS: Well, it’s actually the most effective way of lying. If you presume that you’re in the most decent society in the world and it’s got checks and balances and power is controlled and we have a free press and so forth. So bad things happen. It must’ve been by a mistake. But the fact is that you cannot study any of these wars and I’m going to get to Afghanistan in a minute. You certainly can’t study the Vietnam War and not know that there was fake news and lying from day one. The fact is that we are the greatest empire that ever existed. The most powerful. You go in your article about the statistics on military spending that everybody seems to ignore now which under Democrats and Republicans we have a bigger military budget than we’ve ever had. And we are aggressive all over the world. It’s not just in Vietnam when Martin Luther King said the U.S. is a major purveyor of violence in the world today. We are half of the military force in this whole world. And we have all sorts of pretenses for it. But at the heart of it is this notion that we are and basically safeguarded against doing great evil and big lies, and that’s just not true.
LR: You know, the one subject that is just not talked about at all is the global arm trade. It’s really a US-led global arms trade and you can take almost any conflict and any kind of massive violence on the Earth right now and in one way or another you can trace it back to American arms trades and arms deals. I mean we are by far the biggest arms dealer in the world. And a lot of the enemies, the official enemies that our government has was in one way or another created by this arms deal. And just the other day, President Trump was asked about the murdering of Khashoggi, the Saudi Arabian journalist. He was murdered in Turkey and there’s a part of Trump that I think is actually very useful. Unlike most politicians who would’ve talked about human rights, he responded very honestly. He said, “There’s not much we can do because we have $150 billion worth of arms deals with Saudi Arabia at the moment. And those arms are being used in the genocide in Yemen. And we need to make sure that that money continues to flow to the United Sates and that also means jobs.” In light of those comments, you would think there might be a discussion on MSNBC, on the New York Times op-ed page about what this really means that the President of the United States is effectively saying that Saudi Arabia can do whatever it wants because we’re making a lot of money by selling them arms that are being used in a genocide in Yemen. And the discussion’s just nowhere to be found.
RS: Well, I mean Trump has the virtue of being the pus wound on the body politic of America. So we know there’s an illness there, because the pus is pouring out, and you’ve got to treat the body itself. But the argument with Trump is basically an argument about manners, and he’s letting us know too much. He’s letting us see the dark side. Because the people at the New York Times and certainly at MSNBC know that when Trump went to Saudi Arabia … it’s the first country he visited, right? He concluded a $110 billion arms deal, in addition to whatever we were doing. But also the reality is that you went to Afghanistan basically to deal with a situation that was created by Saudi Arabia. This whole war on terror is a fantasy. I mean it had nothing to do with Iran. It had nothing to do with Russia, the enemies of the moment. It had nothing to do with China. It had to do with the very government that he’s selling arms to. When you were sitting there, I want to take you now to your personal experience. When you have sitting there for a year, risking your life was part of five years in the Marines, did you ever ask anybody there, what are we doing here and how did this all start in Afghanistan? Does that ever come up in any discussion?
LR: When I was in Afghanistan I was having conversations all the time, mostly on the front lines, actually, My job was one in which I was constantly being shuttled from big bases, so like the flagpole, to the front lines. I got to see both worlds on a pretty regular basis. I would say at the flagpole, everyone was a true believer. Everyone in one way or another believed in the mission, or at least pretended to believe in the mission. But on the front lines where people were actually dying, and we were actually killing people, in my mind and the minds of everyone that I serve with, we were all disillusioned. None of us really believed in the mission. I mean we were all to the extent that we believed in anything—you hear this over and over again, but it’s because it’s true—we just believed in saving our ass and saving the person to our left and our right. That’s really what it came down to. This is something else that I would love journalists to look more into. But I mean there have been studies that have done, and polls that have been done that do point toward a kind of mass disillusion, or mass apathy on the part of veteran and active duty community, particularly those that have been in combat.
RS: The interesting contradiction here is they figured out how to make war without inconveniencing the majority of Americans, and young people and their families. You don’t have a draft. It seems to many people like a video game. People you care about don’t get killed and don’t do the killing. The theme of your article in The Nation, “The Forever War’s Cheerleaders,” is that it’s easy to cheer it on it. If you’re Rachel Maddow and you’re sitting there, I don’t want to … I guess I do want to pick on her. I wonder, what’s going on? Why isn’t MSNBC … originally they were GE, you could say there were defense contractors. But I mean, what goes on in these media circles? You get invited onto these shows? You get to talk about it? Was there any response to your Nation article?
LR: Well, I’ve been writing for years. I’ve written for The Nation for years. I have yet to be asked to be on MSNBC, on NPR, on any of those venues. When you asked me, “What’s up? What’s the deal?” I think back to those flagpole colonels and generals, and even just lower level staff officers that I would have chow with in between going off to another small outpost somewhere. A lot of these people are good people. A lot of them I would consider, at least at the time, close friends. But, the whole idea of winning hearts and minds, they believed that. It was in their interest to believe it, because if they stopped believing it, it would be harder for them to do their job. It would be harder for them to make it up the ranks. I think there’s the same kind of psychology that exists in the media world. I think it’s a lot easier for media people, both Democratic Party media and Republican Party media to believe the lies that their government tells them, than it is to not believe those lies. If someone like Rachel Maddow, suddenly becomes an antiwar, an open anti-militarist, God forbid, anti-imperialist voice on MSNBC, she’d be taking a lot of risk. Because we know that the owner of MSNBC, and we know the owner of all these massive media corporations love the military industrial complex for all sorts of reasons. I mean most of them have investments in the defense industry in one way or another. And also, war sells.
RS: Well, let’s talk about that a little bit because, it’s a really quite dangerous to the world to have an imperial power, that is disguised as an experiment in democracy, and freedom, and human rights. We’ve developed a model in this country now where anything we do is somehow defended as an extension of human rights, whether they’re drone attacks or what have you. You actually talk about Hillary Clinton at the Democratic convention, and the move towards neoconservatism. But that was true … I mean, Bernie Sanders didn’t even talk very much about the military. It seems to be that you basically have to tone down any concern about what the US does as a force of violence in the world, in order to what? Be patriotic.
LR: I mean, I think one of the major obstacles for someone like Bernie Sanders, who I think it’s kind of steeped in left movements, and I think among the more mainstream politicians probably, has the most informed and genuine doubts about American foreign policy. But I think real obstacle for him is that if he is too open about his anti-militarism, or I wouldn’t consider him an anti-imperialist, so to speak, but I think he comes the closest to that kind of model amongst mainstream politicians. But at the moment he starts voicing concerns like that. I think he is afraid, and to some degree legitimately, that he will be painted in the media as not patriotic, as anti-American, as not serious about American foreign policy. We’ve seen this happen time and again, there’s been a number of politicians who have basically made the ultimate political sacrifice by speaking out in such terms. So I think that is one of the major barriers. Also, I mean the war economy is a real thing. I think this is both deliberate and kind of just accidental, but basically every congressional district, or most congressional districts, in the United States are in one way or another dependent on the war economy. They either have bases there, or they have a number of constituents that work for defense firms, or they have family members that work for defense firms. One way or another linked up with the military industrial complex. So, that’s another major obstacle. I mean, this is where I think Trump was right when he talked about why the United States wasn’t going to do much in response to the assassination of the Saudi Arabian journalist; there’s a lot of jobs on the line when it comes to these arms deals.
RS: We’re going to, take a little break here for a couple minutes, and then get back to discussing the military industrial complex. Because, somehow even though General Eisenhower, and actually George Washington himself, warned us about what happens with a permanent military economy. We have one. I’ve been talking to Lyle Jeremy Rubin, who spent five years in the marines, a year in Afghanistan. We’ll be right back. We’re back with Lyle Jeremy Rubin, and we’re going to continue this discussion. Going from your personal experience, five years in the marines, a year in Afghanistan in a war zone, and so forth, and then coming back to the country. Now you’re working on getting your doctorate. I want to talk to you about where we just left with, do we have a permanent war economy? You have a statistic in this article that you wrote last month for The Nation magazine. You said, I’ll quote, “When Obama left office, the defense budget was already higher in inflation adjusted dollars than any other time since World War II.” What are we talking about here? Who is this enemy? Why do we need this sophisticated equipment? What is driving this?
LR: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of things going on. I think there is a kind of military Keynesianism. There was actually a famous national security document that came out, I believe in the ’60s, 1968 maybe or maybe the 1950s, where this was made explicit. That one of the motivations for increased military spending was that it would help grow the economy in the wake of World War II. I think that’s part of it. I think Trump’s comments in light of the Khashoggi assassination speak to that. I also think there’s a kind of NRA type dynamic going on, where you have the National Rifle Association that has a number of politicians in their pocket, which helps explain the lack of any regulations, and so forth. I think you have a similar dynamic when it comes to defense spending and defense policy. There were just so many lobbyists, so many different lobbyists. I mean, defense firm lobbyists, and then actual lobbyists from other countries like Turkey, or Saudi Arabia, or Israel that are in the pockets of our politicians. So that’s another factor at play. Why we just keep on spending more and more. I think it’s also about what it’s always been about, which is securing markets, opening up markets. Capitalism doesn’t work without the endless expansion of markets. There’s always parts of the world that need to be opened up, so to speak. I mean, one place that journalists don’t talk nearly enough about is the military operations that are now going on in Africa. That’s the next frontier. I mean, if you look at the term Greater Middle East, which is a term we’ve heard a lot since 9/11, the definition of what the Greater Middle East keeps on changing. It primarily keeps on changing because countries in North Africa keep on being added to what it means to say Greater Middle East. So at some point, maybe they’ll say greater Middle East and Africa when it comes to our campaigns, our military campaigns. But that’s a lot about securing, expanding oil markets and all sorts of other natural resource markets. Then there’s also the financialization of the global economy, which means a securing certain parts of the world for capital flows, so on and so forth. So it’s complicated, but I would say it mostly comes down to money.
RS: Let’s talk about patriotism for a minute. Because as you say, you were motivated by very good, important feelings of protecting your own country, of bringing peace to the world, of fighting terrorism. Yet, when some football player, Colin Kaepernick, or anyone dares to take a knee, dares not to stand for, basically a paid extravaganza by the Pentagon and flying planes over and everything that lose their stealthy quality and pay for the flag to be out and this whole, you know, every Sunday and these games and so forth. From your position having been out there on the ground, how do you regard this patriotism?
LR: Well, I think it’s easy. I think it’s facile. I think it’s lazy. I think it’s superficial and shallow and I don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way amongst the veteran community. I mean, most veteran friends I know, both on the left and the right, I mean, even my conservative and right-wing and even pro Trump veteran friends from the past, we all I would say, I really would say we all are somewhat disgusted by the way that we’re used as political props in this narrative, in this conversation. I think there’s a certain kind of overcompensation that’s going on. I think a lot of Americans at some level know that these terrible wars are going on, they know that they’ve done nothing to really learn about them, to question them, to maybe stop them, and I think at some subconscious level, the kind of hyper-patriotism that we’ve seen is a reflection of this deeper sense of guilt or inaction or thoughtlessness. I’ve written about this as well. I think the veteran as this kind of patriotic object really speaks to a much deeper insecurity on the part of the populous, not just about American foreign policy, but about the state of America in general as a kind of decadent empire that’s somewhat aimless and self-destructive. That’s at least where I would begin the conversation.
RS: Well, let’s take that conversation. Maybe it’s a good way to wrap this up, but Truthdig, which I edit, I run a Major Danny Sjursen. He’s still active duty major I guess for another few weeks or so forth, but he’s writing kind of a history, a military history of the United States and he starts in the colonial period or actually colonizing the Native population as if it didn’t exist and acknowledging and then making them evil. The most recent one, he goes up to the whole image of the West and how we conquered the West and civilized it and so forth. Basically, his argument is it was ever thus. This country was founded on racism deliberately and on cultural arrogance and contempt for anyone who got in the way. This is actually a message he taught at West Point. He tried to teach American history there and he spent 10 years in Iraq and Afghanistan, came away from this. I feel very positive about it because people like you and Ron Kovic who was very eloquent in speaking out against the war in Vietnam after it took three quarters of his body and paralyzed and so forth. Somehow, we get wisdom out of these wars as well as sacrifice. I just wonder whether, now that you’re getting your Doctorate and writing about it, is there some image you have of maybe this great American experiment is in some fundamental way flawed and we should think about it?
LR: Well, there’s one story that I tell and I don’t know if this answers your question directly, but it’s the first thing that came to mind. I was at a small outpost in Afghanistan, I had just showed up at this small, little base without much sleep and the next morning, we got woken up early in the morning. There was harassing fire above our little outpost, which is quite common, but anyways, the Marines started firing back with their rifles. I just watched as they … the harassing fire subsided after maybe 15 minutes, so this was just kind of stray fire that was being shot by about three fighters in the area in a local village. I watched as the Marines kind of kept on upping the ante so to speak. They started with rifles and they moved to small machine guns and medium sized machine guns to a large machine gun, which was every round was a grenade. It’s called a Mark 19. Then, they moved to an AT4, which is a once disposable anti-rocket weapon. Then, they moved to two different missiles: a Javelin and a TOW missile. I told myself at the time that there must be something I don’t know that justifies what I’m watching happen before my eyes. That’s how I kind of rationalized not doing anything. I think to some degree that does speak to the broader situation that all of us Americans find ourselves in. I think we’re all spectators to this endless and monstrous and all-encompassing form of violence that, by the way, doesn’t just speak to external violence abroad, but also violence at home. I don’t think it’s a mistake that the rise of the American military industrial complex has emerged simultaneously with the rise of the carceral state, mass incarceration, police violence, overall economic violence, radical inequality. I think all these things come together and I think most Americans were … we feel like we’re spectators to this. You have two options at that point. Either you tell yourself there must be something I don’t know that justifies all this or you start trying to learn. You start trying to know, so to speak, what’s really going on, but the second possibility makes demands on you, it requires something from you, and I think most Americans, either because they’re too busy or they’re struggling too hard just to put food on the table, either stick with the first choice or they just don’t feel like committing to that second choice.
RS: Let me end this with a critical question because it’s so easy to hate Donald Trump and now, he’s become this sort of whitewash for everything. Oh, he’s so evil, Hillary Clinton must have been wonderful and then everybody else, you know? The fact is, you went to Afghanistan and I have a lot of respect for Jimmy Carter as ex-president and I like the guy, but the fact of the matter is we lied our way into Afghanistan. We helped create the, bringing the foreign freedom fighters and everything, was all part of a Cold War maneuvers, Zbigniew Brzezinski’s maneuver, and so lying has been sort of woven into the fabric and a problem with militarism and neocolonialism or colonialism in the end, is you end up with a Donald Trump. You end of with this extreme nationalist, but maybe Trump is the natural fulfillment of a certain kind of militarism, a certain kind of neocolonialism, certain kind of arrogance, and that, yeah, we’ll make peace if we can on our terms, we’ll blow them up if we have to, and never really questioning it. I just would like just your last thought on this that Trump is not an accident of our history. He might be the fulfillment of this history.
LR: Oh, yeah. I think there’s a direct line that runs from Jimmy Carter—and you can go much further back than Jimmy Carter—to Donald Trump. I think it’s this, again, this idea of American righteousness, this idea that America is the leader of the free world and in order to bear that fact out, it must continually apply violence in the rest of the world to secure that freedom. This is a bipartisan belief and Donald Trump did not emerge from a vacuum. He is the embodiment of that belief.
RS: That’s a depressing, but unfortunately a maybe all too accurate view of it. I’ve been talking to Lyle Jeremy Rubin. I hope that you will, in addition to getting a doctorate, which is a wonderful thing, but that you will write books in addition to columns and that you will bring greater enlightenment to this subject. I want to thank our engineers here at KCRW, Mario Diaz and Kat Yore. Our producers are Joshua Scheer and Isabel Carreon. Today, we had the great assistance of engineer Martin Gleitsman at Hippo Studios in Providence, Rhode Island. That’s it for this edition of Scheer Intelligence. See you next week.