In 1968, after serving as a rifleman in Vietnam, I returned to the 82nd Airborne in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Fort Bragg was the home of the JFK Special Warfare Center, and a friend of mine worked there. He had a top secret security clearance, and he used to claim American special forces, on loan to the CIA, were operating throughout Latin America, conducting, or helping to conduct, “counter-insurgency campaigns.” In the lingo of the day, the US troops were “defending democracy against the advance of Godless communism.” In the real world, they were tracking down renegade Indians. They were chasing the Hostiles further into the hills, or deeper into the swamps or jungle. It was a tradition established by Cortez and Pizarro that is still being honored today. To Latin American rich people, “counter insurgency” is the cultural equivalent of the English fox hunt.
One Sunday morning my friend took me to the main post PX to witness what he claimed was an annual ritual. Just before opening time, MPs in jeeps came and closed off the parking lot to all comers. Once the area had been secured, a caravan of “diplomatic vehicles” pulled up to the PX and disgorged what must have been 20 “Generals” from a dozen Latin American countries. In not time they were back out again, their GI tagalongs lugging their stacks of bags and boxes.
The “Generals” were in Fort Bragg to attend the arms bazaar. Out on remote gunnery ranges the latest in America's killing technologies were demonstrated and offered up for sale (or, more often with these guys, offered up as items of “aid”). Since the “Generals” were returning home with goodies for their native lands, it was entirely proper that they should return with some PX goodies for themselves.
It's hard to describe the depth of the contempt I felt for those goons. They were representatives of dictatorships, vicious and venal, and I had recently left the service of the “South” Vietnamese dictatorship. The GI tagalongs weighted down with packages reminded me of my own dishonor.
“He may be a bastard, but he's our bastard.” I think that was President Eisenhower describing Diem, the then-strongman of “South” Vietnam. But it could have been any American president, or taxpayer, describing about any blood-drenched dictator on any continent over the last 50 years. Guns, ammunition, land mines, Howitzers, tanks, missiles, fighter-bombers — these are the currency of dictatorship. And the way into a dictator's heart is through his pocketbook. As the world's premiere gun runner, the US is popular in about every presidential palace in every prostrate country in the Third World. Even our so-called enemies: Khomeini of Iran, Saddam of Iraq, Assad of Syria, Castro of Cuba, Noreiga of Panama, to name a few, have been the beneficiaries of America's arms bazaar.
Hardly anyone remembers president Jimmy Carter. Those who do probably think: “Oh, yeah, the wimp.” Yet Carter distinguished himself in a number of ways. For one thing, during his regime, only a couple of cabinet level officials were indicted. More importantly, Carter was the first (and last) US president to get fewer than a dozen GIs killed. Also, while fishing in a rowboat, he was attacked by a rabbit. Which he heroically beat back with an oar.
Among America's arms manufacturers, and among the politicians, Generals and media conglomerates in their pay, Carter is remembered as that crazy cracker who tried to introduce “a respect for human rights” as a precondition of receiving Americans arms. The very idea of it was scandalous — blatantly anti-business. The Republican party foamed at the mouth, Dixiecrats pounded the table.
Nevertheless, certain modest restraints were put into place. One of the last of these still in effect is the policy of “severe restraint” that prohibits the wholesale export of American “high tech” weaponry to Latin America. On the books since 1978, it is a policy the Clinton administration is in the process of scrapping.
I did my part during the Cold War because I believed in — get this — the Free World. Remember the Free World? It was the land of light. The land where people respected the value of human life. Where people lived with liberty, aspired to equality and would live, were it not for the communists, in eternal fraternity. The Free World — who but a coward would not fight in the defense of it? Especially since it was under constant assault, but from within and without, covertly and overtly, by the Communist World. The Marxist/Stalinist/Maoist devils who, right in their articles of confederation, called for the destruction of human liberty and private property. They called for the enslavement of all humanity because they believed slavery to the State was freedom. Because they believed darkness was light.
As a peach-faced patriot in Vietnam, I wanted to kill some communists. What I particularly hated about them was their belief in thought crimes. The communists believed a person could become a criminal simply because they thought certain ideas, or held certain truths to be self-evident. And the communists believed all criminals should be punished without mercy.
I never did see any dead communists in Vietnam. I saw dead Americans, and, ten times more likely, dead Vietnamese. Communism was, after all, a thought crime. And you can blow somebody's brains out and still get no hint of their ideas.
It wasn't until I saw those goons in Fort Bragg that I realized what the Cold War really meant. It meant if you were receiving American guns and ammunition, you were free. Whereas, if you were receiving Russian guns, you were a slave. More than anything else, that's what the Cold War was about. Even the Russians were in it for the money.
The Cold War officially ended with the collapse of the Russian Empire. Yet American arms sales (and giveaways) have increased. Which puts to lie the notion that we run guns to goons as a matter of “national defense.”
When you do evil, it's nice to have an excuse. What's our excuse now?
In proposing to run “high tech” weaponry to Latin America, the Clinton administration has offered up a number of excuses. They point out that most Latin American countries are “modernizing” their militaries. Given that, why should we be left out of what is becoming a lucrative market? Since we hold the lion's share of the market for small arms, land mines and the like, why should we gain a lion's share of the market for “high tech”? The Clinton administration reminds us that by joining in this expanding market, jobs will be created here in the United States. And they warn us that, if we fail to take advantage of this opportunity, then others: the French, the Israelis or — ee gods! — the Russians certainly will.
I've never been able to reconcile in my mind how a people who profess to love liberty could knowingly and without protest run guns and ammunition to known criminals. If it is criminal to rob a liquor store, certainly it is criminal to loot the national treasury of a poverty-stricken country. If it is criminal to kill somebody in a bar, certainly it is criminal to torture to death a college student solely because he had the temerity to demand for himself the democratic rights we, the gun runners, assume for ourselves.
It's too easy to blame the government. The sole function of the US government is to increase the wealth and power of the already wealthy and powerful. Instinctively, we know that. It is the reason why, after 50 years of throwing our money around, the government has solved not one of our social problems.
Yet, every payday, we bend our heads, reach in our pocket and hand over our money to be pissed away or worse.
Of course the government has taken on a life of its own. Since most of us do not keep informed, or vote, or ever take a political stand in our lives, what else could we expect? Where in the vast literature of American democracy is it written, even once, that a people who do not watch out for their freedom will soon have it? American patriotism has always meant eternal vigilance in the defense of liberty. In the defense of the democratic principles set forth in our Declaration of Independence and given substance in our Bill of Rights. We've known this since kindergarten. It is our national catechism. Yet, fearing whatever, we reduce our patriotism to something more bite-sized. We pay our taxes, obey most of the rules and keep our mouths shut unless we are rooting for our side in a war.
The Clinton administration is the latest gloss on what has become a technological version of the ancient regime our founders rebelled against and, at least for their generation, buried. Now, in America as in Medieval Europe, power talks only to power and respects nothing but power. But it is we who disinterred the beast, we who sustain it, and we who must wear it.
As a thoughtless people we should be glad there is no enforcement of Nuremberg law and no international version of three strikes and you're out. We should also feel very lucky to still have the right to vote and the right to read free newspapers.