Democratizing Defense: A Discussion from the Liberty Tree Journal

May 1, 2009

A former congresswoman, a radio host, a military spouse, and a historian make up the participants of this Forum’s discussion on “Democratizing Defense.”

Stacy Bannerman is a prominent contemporary anti-war activist whose husband is an active duty member of the National Guard. We connected with Bannerman on the Troops Home Now! Tour of 2006, which Liberty Tree co-sponsored.

Paul Buhle is a historian, a veteran of the 1960s era SDS, and a mentor to the new SDS. Buhle is also known as a widely published cartoonist and author.

Glen Ford is the Executive Editor of the Black Agenda Report. Ford is also the former host of Rap It Up, the first nationally syndicated radio Hip Hop music show.

Rep. Cynthia McKinney served six terms in the U.S. House of Representatives between 1993 and 2007. Since being interviewed for our Forum questions, McKinney has declared her candidacy for the Green Party’s 2008 presidential nomination.

We’d like to know your thoughts on this edition of the Forum, as well as other topics covered in this issue of the Journal.   Please send your correspondence to: Journal@LibertyTreeFDR.org

Please share a little of your story. Who are you, what do you do, why do you do it? What personally informs your views on the big challenges of democracy, war, and empire?

Glen Ford

My father was a popular radio announcer, and the first Black man to host his own TV show in the Deep South. That was “Rocking With The Deuce,” in Columbus, Georgia. Due to his coercion and my perceived lack of anything better to do as a prepubescent, I began “reading the news” (wire copy) on-air before my voice changed. On leaving the 82nd Airborne Division at age 20, I was hired in 1970 as a newsman at James Brown’s Augusta, Georgia, radio station, where I quickly learned that the political architecture of Black communities could be dramatically altered by giving voice to progressive forces and thus breaking the old, theocratic monopoly on Black “leadership.” Within weeks of my arrival, Black Augusta was changed forever, and I was hooked.

The logic of the Augusta experience was simple. Mass communications are key to growing and sustaining mass movements, and an indispensable part of the “leadership creation” process. For the last 38 years I have focused my efforts on first, serving and preserving what remains of a once-vibrant and responsive Black-oriented radio press corps and second, creating new media programs, projects and institutions to fill in the gaping holes in the African American communications infrastructure. Take a look a the “About Us” page in www.BlackAgendaReport.com for details.

There can be no viable progressive movement in the U.S. absent the full participation and leadership of Black America, by far the nation’s most consistently progressive and strategically concentrated group. The historical “Black Political Consensus” on peace, social and economic justice, and people’s rights to self-determination is unique in the United States — and possibly the world. However, the historical existence of such a Consensus does not guarantee either the creation or sustenance of a viable mass movement, or that the Consensus will last indefinitely. Without effective, progressive communications, the broad masses become atomized, including Black people. Disaster follows.

Cynthia McKinney

I was born in the South in Georgia and I saw the benefits of activism first hand because I participated, even though I was too young to know exactly the full extent of what I was doing in the demonstrations, protests and sit-ins resulted in the passage of the Civil Rights Act. After the Voting Rights Act was passed, I volunteered for campaigns that were actually winning campaigns, whereas before the passage of the Civil Rights Act, I had volunteered in campaigns that weren’t winning campaigns. I’ve seen legislation that makes a difference in the lives of individuals and in the lives of our country — the life of our country — and I’ve seen how individual action, sort of people power, can change things, so that’s what animates me. Even when situations and circumstances might appear to be dire, hopeless, and unalterable, the only thing that would make them so is the belief that we are powerless.

Stacy Bannerman

I am a member of Military Families Speak Out and I am the author of the book, When the War Came Home: The Inside Story of Reservists and the Families They Leave Behind. I’ve been volunteering on the front lines of the movement to end the war in Iraq, actually doing so before it even began. As a military family member, that experience and perspective has informed my views, and over the past five years I have been protesting the policies that got America into Iraq and the continuing occupation.

I have also come to understand a great deal about the intersections of foreign and domestic policy and I have been doing quite a bit of speaking and writing about that as well. This country has tried to isolate these things and act as if there are no intersections; the fact of the matter is that of course there are. And we certainly saw that with Hurricane Katrina, the cuts in domestic programs, the impact of the policies and the decisions made around issues like torture and spying on the American public, knowing that our leaders mislead this country into a war, all of those kinds of things have got multiple impacts, so I tend to approach these issues very holistically. I have about 17 years in the non-profit and education sector, so I draw upon that as well.

Paul Buhle

I am a Movement Old Timer, that is, founder of the SDS journal, Radical America, in the 1960s, and since then I’ve been involved in many social movements, also heavily documenting those social movements through various oral history projects, historical studies, and (most recently) nonfiction graphic volumes. Mostly I’ve been active in Providence, Rhode Island (where I teach at Brown) since the middle 1970s and am now transitioning back to Madison, where Radical America was first published in 1967.

The phrase “democratizing defense” may be new to you. If so, please share an initial reaction to seeing it for the first time: What does the phrase suggest to you?

Stacy Bannerman

Bring back the draft. Well, if we’re really serious about democratizing defense, then I think we’ve absolutely got to consider making the military much more democratic and egalitarian than it is right now. Democratizing defense means getting more people engaged in and involved in all of the tools that we’re supposed to be utilizing as a nation when it comes to national defense issues. That currently is not happening and I know that were there a draft, were national defense more democratized than it currently is, the people would be much more involved and much more invested, because they too would have something to lose, not just military families.

Cynthia McKinney

I think it was Ben Franklin who said those who sacrifice liberty for security, deserve neither, so that would be my initial thought. And the senseless accumulation of power has sort of been exponential after September 11th so we need to roll back all of those laws that were passed. Congress needs to reassert itself and the people’s voice needs to be heard.

I also just joined the renewed campaign to criminalize war. There are a lot of people who are now thinking about the ways in which we can end war. Between the world wars there was this move to end war which led to a recommendation by the League of Nations which drove the formation of the United Nations. We really need to do that from the grassroots level.

People of good will who don’t want any more war must find an effective way to achieve that goal — whether it’s international statutes or a multilateral balanced approach to power, you’ve got to have a configuration within that institution so that the will of ending all wars can actually be accomplished.

Glen Ford

I’m not familiar with the slogan “democratizing defense.” I associate the term “democracy” with the ideal of people constantly in motion, creatively combining to exert their collective will in opposition to whatever structures inhibit human productive capacities. At this juncture in history, the elephant sitting on humanity’s chest is late-stage capitalism, with fundamentally racist American Manifest Destiny-fueled imperialism at the helm. As a Black American, I have little faith in the mechanistic “democracy” of electoral majority rule — for obvious historical reasons. And there can be nothing resembling even electoral “democracy” in a society in which corporations dominate the public discourse.

Regarding “democratizing defense,” majorities in the U.S. will always oppose a draft, thereby attempting to insulate themselves from immediate risk. My colleagues and I believe that the surest way to dismantle the imperialist war machine. If something resembling a draft were imposed by the increasingly beleaguered rulers, that would crack the (non-Black) American consensus (on the rightness of U.S. dominion) wide open — which is the logic of Reps. Rangel’s and Conyer’s legislation.

Essentially, “democracy” — in the misnamed “defense” or any other arena — is a process whose goal is empowerment of people versus concentrated wealth. When the people fail to oppose concentrated wealth, no
democracy exists, no matter how many votes are cast.

Paul Buhle

I go back to William Appleman Williams on this. The great source of insight on empire during the 1960s was William Appleman Williams, and beyond studying with him, I wrote a biography of him, The Tragedy of Empire, which seeks to explain why he played a central role in identifying “Corporate Liberalism” and the bipartisan liberal/conservative Democratic/Republican consensus on maintaining the U.S.’ global empire through militarization of the domestic economy and far-flung military-commercial occupation of the planet and its resources.

Williams’ most difficult point, difficult to accept and popularize, was that empire had been a founding sentiment of the U.S., and that the “Great Democrats,” like Thomas Jefferson, and democratic nationalists like Abraham Lincoln, were forceful visionaries of empire, continental and global. How to interpret this without seeming to destroy the “founding mythology” and viewing the U.S. as “Amerikkka,” was our problem at the end of the 1960s and has remained a central one for opposing imperial wars (and CIA operations) in the name of democracy. Not impossible, but difficult.

Let’s look to the past. In the years following World War I, a chief demand of veterans groups, peace groups, and the Progressive, Socialist, and Democratic parties was the passage of the so-called “War Referendum Amendment.” That amendment to the U.S. Constitution would have shifted the power to declare war from Congress to the American people.

What’s your opinion on pushing for such an amendment today?

Cynthia McKinney

Democratizing defense, well, that definitely is very new to me and I’m somewhat reticent to think about what it might be because we’ve reached a stage now where things have one appearance but actually a different reality, so you tell me. This is quite a new notion to me, but we’ve seen how ballots have been quite effective in, for example, Latin America and some African countries. Ballots have definitely been effective in expressing the needs of the people. Unfortunately, when ballots are effective, usually bullets follow and that’s quite a problem — bullets from the opposition that is.

So now with respect to a referendum on war, I think what would be required is attainment of the corporate media beast and full disclosure of the government, because on any vote the vote must be an informed vote, whether you’re a member of Congress voting on a piece of legislation or you’re a citizen voting for a candidate, or in this case a citizen voting on taking our country to war, one must have access to accurate information. And, they say truth is the first casualty of war.

Paul Buhle

I go back to Robert LaFollette, the original, on the whole concept. The chief Progressive (as in LaFollette) legacy is a kind of democratic anti-imperial isolationism, and “Bring the Boys Home” was one of the most successful slogans of the immediate post war period, because President Harry Truman had intended a permanent, wide-scale military occupation of the Pacific.

He was defeated by popular mobilization. After that, anti-war sentiment was systematically undermined and repressed until the later 1960s when masses of ordinary people joined activists in the “Bring Them Home” sentiment. And that is where we are today. It’s valuable to recall that Democrats came to oppose the war (or even call for a cessation of the terror-bombing of Vietnam) very late and very reluctantly. Not even George McGovern openly supported student antiwar activities on campuses, and future president Jimmy Carter never opposed the war. Pushing for this amendment would be a positive step today, because we can count on no executive, legislative or judicial authority to do what is needed.

Glen Ford

I read Mr. Manski’s piece in Znet. My colleagues at Black Agenda Report and I would support such a referendum in the same spirit that we support the Rangel-Conyers draft bill — as a measure that gets people talking about the mechanisms of war-starting and war-fighting, but which has no chance of passage. Beyond that, the comparison ends.

The Conyers-Rangel bill calls for the whole population to share the direct risks and burdens of war; the Referendum only allows voters to, theoretically, decide if specific wars will occur. I believe that the U.S. (non-Black) electorate is easily primed for war against “The Other,” domestically and globally. Indeed, they have been pre-primed for centuries to construct The Other on the peculiar race model in which the United States was incubated: “bad guys” vs. “white guys.”

I do not subscribe to the belief that (non-Black) Americans are essentially people of good will who are simply brain-washed by corporate media. Their willingness to annihilate and humiliate non-whites across the planet predates the modern “media society.”

A Zogby poll taken in February, 2003, the month before the Iraq invasion, asked (and this is an accurate paraphrase): “Would you support an invasion of Iraq if it would result in the deaths of thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians?” Large majorities of white males said Yes, a majority of white females said Yes, and a near-majority of Hispanics said Yes. Only 7 percent of African Americans answered in the affirmative.

The “Yes” votes do not represent misguided patriotism, or simple media war-mongering, but mass blood lust. (We also see in this statistic the clear demarcation between the mass U.S. white world view and the historical Black Political Consensus on peace and national self-determination.)

I guess I’ve made it clear by now that I don’t trust American white folks on matters of war and peace, unless they face the actual prospect of immediate sacrifice. And not even then.

California is usually described as a somewhat “liberal” state — but their referendums are often murder on the (domestic) other.

Stacy Bannerman

Let keep in mind that, theoretically, Congress is representing the American people. If in fact we had a Congress by, for, and of the people, then this kind of conversation wouldn’t even be necessary. And so I think that’s really where the focus needs to be: taking back Congress, getting people more involved, not just in democratizing defense, but in engaging democracy, by doing that we ensure that our Congress in engaged in representing the people of the United States of America, which is clearly not happening now. We don’t need another new referendum, what we need is for the people of the United States to exercise their responsibilities as American citizens. We need much more accountability in Congress and in government, and we need more people of all levels to align more closely with their professed values and what this nation professes to be about. Right now we have got the government we deserve.

Over the past two hundred years, the U.S. has experienced the federalization of the state militias, the establishment of a permanent federal military, and the enlargement of the wartime office of “Commander-in-Chief.” This shift of constitutional authority happened without constitutional amendment and usually in the face of popular opposition. What lessons should we take from that history?

Glen Ford

Regarding constitutional amendments, I differ from some of my Black Agenda Report colleagues, in that I don’t believe any progressive gains can be made through this process in the foreseeable future. That’s the Right’s territory, which is why there is no Equal Rights Amendment. A frenzy of amendments would almost certainly redound to the Right’s advantage, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.’s book Toward a More Perfect Union notwithstanding.

Now, if African Americans were allowed to hold their own referendums and binding constitutional amendment debates, the political product would most resemble something put together by “Swedish Social Democrats,” as political scientist Dr. Michael Dawson would suggest.

The dramatic concentration of power in the executive reflects both the growth of the “national security state” and the “corporatization” of American society. Mr. Manski is correct in that these trends are profoundly anti-democratic, but as long as capital controls the discourse and racism rots so many white brains, constitutional amendments and referenda are generally to be feared.

Paul Buhle

To resist it. But realize that regionalism will be difficult to rebuild. That said, the exposure of war crimes, duplicitous policies (and of duplicitous reporting by the media) and violations of human rights and civil liberties led to important hearings and legislation. Thus, the kind of pressure exerted by various antiwar members of Congress can have a great effect although precious few Congress people (a handful of Democrats, and Republican congressman Ron Paul) are willing to make such a move, and short of a domestic crisis of some kind, economic or social, are likely to do so.

Stacy Bannerman

We need to be much more awake, aware, involved citizens and citizen activists; I think that election reform is one of the things where there is a long overdue need for change. There is no reason whatsoever for the continuation of the war in Iraq when the vast majority of Americans are opposed to that policy. But the reason that the people of America are not adamantly demanding an end to that policy is because their loved ones aren’t fighting it. Americans must want to end war with as much passion and commitment as they want to start war.

Well, I think that there is a place for the military is the same way as we’ve got a place for the police force. I think what needs to happen is a very serious conversation and a return to what are the responsibilities of the military, what is the purview of the military and return to utilizing the military as an option of last resort rather than a first choice response. That’s really what’s happened, unfortunately, with the failure of the State Department, the failure of policy, the failure of the politicians. I do strongly disagree with the de facto federalization over a long period of time of the state-based militia. By that I’m specifically speaking to the National Guard. As we saw with Hurricane Katrina and as we’ve seen with fires here in California more recently in 2007, there is a direct and detrimental impact on people at the state, local and county level when our National Guard is federalized and mobilized and deployed for long, extended periods of time. I think that the first priority of the National Guard is serving their state and their community and I think that absolutely needs to be revived and those rules need to be strengthened. I think that’s something that many of the governors have been attempting to do, but the administration that we’ve got in place in this nation — the questionably legitimate administration - is running roughshod over the Constitution, over the law, over Congress and over the United States of America.

For some time now, a significant majority of the American people have opposed the occupation of Iraq. Yet U.S. policy has not changed. Why do you think that is?

Cynthia McKinney

The policy hasn’t changed because the policy makers are ignoring the will of the people, so we need to change the policy makers.

Paul Buhle

Overwhelming power of the money people, the depth of the militarized economy in the daily lives of many millions, and the ideological legacy of the Cold War.

Stacy Bannerman

People are opposed to the war in Iraq as a statement, but that opposition is not being backed up by action. If even one percent of every citizen in the United States who professed to be opposed to the continued immoral, illegal occupation of Iraq did something and continued to do something, I assure you that war would be over.

Glen Ford

American (non-Black) opposition to the war is not necessarily anti-war sentiment — it is mostly anti-losing reaction. (Just compare the pre-invasion and even six months into invasion polls with current polls.) It is counter-intuitive to most Americans that they cannot stomp a small people into the dust — a great and painful embarrassment. But no one should mistake this for a mass re-examination of the U.S. “role” in the world, or a questioning of the fundamental belief in American beneficence and generosity abroad. They just think the Bush men are “dumb” and “incompetent” — the Obama position. Bomb better, kill without getting killed, and all’s right with the world.

Let’s talk strategy. What are some of the first things we (those who oppose the war and empire in general) need to do if wish to democratize defense in the United States? What do we need to do in the long-term?

Glen Ford

First, stop saying that American troops are doing such an “honorable” and “patriotic” job. They have been ordered to commit crimes against peace and humanity, as a result of which they return morally damaged — and they know it. The fact is, the war in Iraq will end (or escalate beyond imagining) based on the internal dynamics of the region’s people. U.S. peace activists must take the true moral high ground, constantly pointing to the vast damage that Bush & Co. are doing to the prospects for civilized relations on the planet — which means indicting the malefactors for the criminals they are. That’s the opposite of the saying, “Iraq isn’t worth one American life” — a morally obnoxious statement that builds no basis for pro-peace activity when the next U.S. aggression occurs, probably under a Democrat. Real peace activists must be prepared for the long haul, or else become marginal blips in the scope of history. Be assured that every U.S. assault on world order will quicken the process of domestic and imperial decline. Would-be activists who have no fundamental quarrel with the ruling structures that require war have no long term role to play in this twilight battle.

The U.S. lost the Iraq war some time ago, and will lose more wars unless they blow up the world first. Peace forces must combine direct action with intense political education, so that young and not-so-young folks learn the nature of the permanent government and their plans for permanent war. No more episodic campaigns; build structures that are not keyed to the latest outrage.

Paul Buhle

Every strategy or tactic to dramatic public opposition to the war is worth trying. Tom Hayden’s new book, Ending the War in Iraq, analyzes better than I can here the problems and prospects of overturning what he calls the pillars of war making:

1. The pillar of public opinion, above all;
2. The pillar of political support;
3. The pillar of public funding;
4. The pillar of military capacity;
5. The pillar of international alliances;
6. The pillar of moral reputation

Stacy Bannerman

There are a number of non-violent actions that can be taken at multiple levels above and beyond writing angry letters to our representatives. There’s a need for that, but I think that we need to step the game up considerably. There are lives that are being lost every single day, there are families that are being destroyed every single day, and a nation that does not take care of its veterans has no business whatsoever making new ones. It’s about each one teach one, you get another person involved and you do something.

To build upon that I think that withholding the proportion of your income tax that would go to support the ongoing occupation of Iraq and I think its about letters to the editor, mobilizing at the local level as well, getting very diplomatically confrontational with your elected officials and holding them accountable — not once a year, as we’re coming up to the sixth anniversary of the invasion on Iraq, not twice a year, I’m talking once a week. It has got to be that kind of sustained engagement. Truly this is about who we are as a nation politically, morally, spiritually and as a democracy.

What is the best role for veterans, military families, and active duty military personnel in making democracy happen in the United States?

Cynthia McKinney

Veterans can share their stories and become the front lines in defending our democracy. Veterans have born the brunt and insultingly now with the practices of our own Pentagon these days, so veterans are in a unique position to demand that their needs be satisfied and there’s no thinking and caring person who would deny those demands, but they also can lead that demand for peace.

Stacy Bannerman

The best role for veterans and military families is to adhere to the military’s teaching and principles: they are sworn to protect the Constitution from enemies both foreign and domestic. I think it’s also about recognizing a poll that was just done recently; sixty percent of military families that were polled do not support President Bush or the ongoing occupation of Iraq.
To my knowledge this is the first time in recorded history that the majority of military members and their families have felt this way. We have a responsibility to make sure that their lives are not being wasted for a war that never should have begun.

Glen Ford

I am familiar with much of the work being done in this arena. Stan Goff is a hero of mine. Objectively speaking, anything that tends to “break” the killing machine is a good thing, especially when it is being stretched beyond capacity. (Bring on the draft, and watch the whole edifice crumble!) “Soldier stories,” however, come in two basic packages. One weeps for the poor grunt who is just doing his “duty,” maltreated by his superiors and military contractors. That’s the “dumb” and “incompetent” war brand — and of little lasting value in building a movement for peace. Then there are the guys that speak of the criminality of the missions they were assigned. That gets to the heart of the matter.

Remember, also, that the social/family circles surrounding actual serving military are relatively small. To dilute one’s message in deference to their mostly small-town, top-heavy southern (white) sensibilities, should be avoided. Look at the faces and home towns of the weekly dead. They tell a story.

Paul Buhle

To say, No.

Imagine that this country were all you have ever hoped it could be. A generation from now, how would our children be regarded by the rest of the world? What will people in the rest of the Americas, the Middle East, Africa, be saying about “those Americans?”

Cynthia McKinney

They would love those Americans and they would love our country and they would love our government and there would be no need to make a distinction between the people and the government as is done today.

Glen Ford

You’ve gotten way beyond my range of vision.

I’m just reminded of an anecdote told by a progressive Black woman who visited Indonesia for a world conference on community organizing. As she exited the plane, she was greeted by local organizers. The head greeter looked into the Black woman’s face and exclaimed, “Oh, Condoleezza Rice!”

That’s not how she wanted to be perceived.

Paul Buhle

I can only hope they will say: At last, empire was perceived as a form of madness.

Stacy Bannerman

Welcome back. Welcome back to participating in the world community, not as a dictator but as a democracy.