The Elephant in the Room: Militarism

It’s arguably our country’s biggest problem — and the mainstream media won’t acknowledge it exists.

By Jeff Cohen / Alternet Ian Britton Ian Britton

I spent years as a political pundit on mainstream TV – at CNN, Fox News and MSNBC. I was outnumbered, outshouted, red-baited and finally terminated. Inside mainstream media, I saw that major issues were not only dodged, but sometimes not even acknowledged to exist.

Today there’s an elephant in the room: a huge, yet ignored, issue that largely explains why Social Security is now on the chopping block. And why other industrialized countries have free college education and universal healthcare, but we don’t. It’s arguably our country’s biggest problem – a problem that Martin Luther King Jr. focused on before he was assassinated 45 years ago, and has only worsened since then (which was the height of the Vietnam War).

That problem is U.S. militarism and perpetual war.

In 1967, King called the United States “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” – and said, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

Nowadays MSNBC hosts yell at Fox News hosts, and vice versa, about all sorts of issues – but when the Obama administration expanded the bloody war in Afghanistan, the shouting heads at both channels went almost silent. When Obama’s drone war expanded, there was little shouting. Not at MSNBC, not at Fox. Nor at CNN, CBS, ABC or so-called public broadcasting.

We can have raging debates in mainstream media about issues like gun control and gay marriage and minimum wage, but when the elites of both parties agree on military intervention – as they so often do – debate is nearly nonexistent. Anyone in the mainstream who goes out on a limb to loudly question this oversized creature in the middle of the room known as militarism or interventionism is likely to disappear faster than you can say ‘Phil Donahue.’

I know something about mainstream journalists being silenced for questioning bipartisan military adventures because I worked with Phil Donahue at MSNBC in 2002/03 when Bush was revving up the Iraq invasion with the support of Democratic leaders like Joe Biden, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton and Harry Reid. That’s when MSNBC terminated us for the crime of JWI. Not DWI, but JWI – Journalism during Wartime while Independent.

JWI may be a crime in mainstream media, but it’s exactly the kind of unauthorized, unofficial coverage you get from quality independent media today and from un-embedded journalists like Jeremy Scahill, Dahr Jamail and Glenn Greenwald.

Unfortunately, many liberal journalists who were vocal about war, human rights and civil liberties during the Bush era lost their  voices as Obama continued and, in some cases, expanded Bush’s “War on Terror” policies. It says something about the lack of serious national debate on so-called national security that last month one of the loudest mainstream TV news questioners of the president’s right to assassinate Americans was Sean Hannity on Fox. That’s obscene.

And it says something about mainstream TV that the toughest, most consistent questioners of militarism and defenders of civil liberties are not on a news channel – they’re on the comedy channel. A few weeks ago, I watched a passionate Jon Stewart taking on the U.S. military budget: “We already spend more on defense than the next 12 countries combined, including China, including Russia. We’re like the lady on Jerry Springer who can’t stop getting breast implants.” (On screen was a photo of the Springer guest.)

What our mainstream media so obediently call the “War on Terror” is experienced in other countries as a U.S. war OF terror – kidnappings, night raids, torture, drone strikes, killing and maiming of innocent civilians – that creates new enemies for our country. Interestingly, you can easily find that reality in mainstream media of allied countries in Europe, but not in the mainstream media of our country. Needless to say, it’s our country that’s waging this global perpetual war.

In a democracy, war must be subjected to questioning and debate. And not just on the comedy channel.

This column is adapted from remarks made April 6 at the National Conference on Media Reform in Denver.


  1. avatar says

    The military-industrial complex is the largest job creator and job provider in the country. For those coming out of high school who are not college bound and cannot find a job, it provides a job. For college graduates in engineering, science and accounting who can’t get jobs with the high tier corporations, it provides jobs with benefits.

    The sequester cut the bloated military-industrial complex budget by 8%, and you might have thought the world was coming to an end because of all the job losses. Cutting the M-I complex would have to be coupled with vastly increased public sector jobs in infrastructure development and other things in order for it to work. Otherwise, the US would go into an immediate depression. The private sector is not going to pick up the jobs slack. We’re a national security state which means war is important to our economic survival.

    Lockheed Martin is the largest military contractor but there are scores of other corporations feeding off the government tit. Boeing, Northrup Grumman, SAIC to name a few. The local media (except the SDFP) got all paniced about what the sequester would do to the San Diego economy because of all the military job losses. The same outcry was repeated all over the country because the militray-industrial complex is invested in every state and region.

    That’s why war and the threat of war is essential to the US’ economic health. We hear on KPBS that the Miramar Air Show will not host the Navy’s Blue Angels this year because of the sequester. Isn’t that a shame! The millions of dollars spent every year on such military “shows” might be better spent on the public school system or providing shelters for the homeless. But the M-I complex wants to get the American people revved up by showing them how powerful the US military is and how skillful and accomplished the pilots of these multi-million dollar machines are. We have to keep them entertained or else they might lose their enthusiasm for war and the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on war and preparations for war.

    As Nietsche said, “A good war halloweth any cause.”

  2. avatarbob dorn says

    There is among a lot of war hawks and especially former military a full appreciation of armed forces jobs. Almost any trade in the civilian sector is practiced in the military: carpentry, dentistry, music for bands, roadbuilding and — Jesus knows, along with the many other war gods — that many other crafts and skills are taught by the various branches. Lots of airline pilots first flew in the services. Surgeons are employed, too. If only we could set them loose in the civilian population we might have better roads, new livers and hearts, adequate housing, cheaper airfare and so on. But that would be… SOCIALISM. It’s only when government employs people in such great numbers practicing so many trades in order to kill other people half way ’round the world that we are allowed a bit of socialism.
    War is just stupid violence these days, no more helpful than a bar fight. It makes a lot of money for a few people, and kills more civilians than the people we like to call “enemy combatants” In fact, it doesn’t seem to matter to us just who we are killing. You have to wonder if the freaks at General Dynamics, General Electric and General Mayhem shed tears for our own dead soldiers, or just appear before cameras to fight them back.

  3. avatarBryan Auerbach says

    Listen to Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” to remind us of how screwed up this country’s priorities are.