Charles Frazier’s novel “Varina” imagines a long conversation with the wife of Jefferson Davis, the traitorous former senator from Mississippi and former U.S. Secretary of War, who led the disastrous rebellion against the United States in 1860 as president of an “imaginary country.”
In the book, Frazier – also author of the immensely popular “Cold Mountain” – taught me a lot about the “property rights” perspective of southerners who thought slavery the perfect melding of capital and labor to assure economic prosperity.
Growing up in Wisconsin, we studied the Civil War in fourth grade and never thought about it again. About 1990 I mentioned that fact while interviewing for a job in Georgia. The Colonel Sanders lookalike who chaired the interview committee said, “Down heah, we call that the wawh of nawth’n aggression. And we’re still fightin’ it.”
Americans love war. We must, we’ve been at war for 93 percent of our history. We, among all nations, are the quickest to send our youth to other nations to kill their youth. In our minds, we’re always the good guys because we are “defending freedom.” “Freedom” is a malleable term with many definitions, depending on the perch from which you observe the march of time and of nations.
Too often, our defense of freedom is really a defense of our corporate interests, the ability of American corporations to conduct business internationally without interference from local governments. And, that flag waving, slogan shouting defense is fueled by the whispers and checks of corporations who build the machines of war into the ears and accounts of politicians who buy them.
President Trump recently chastised military leaders for prolonging wars –we’re actively involved in seven – to boost the profits of war machinery manufacturers. He is right in the fruit, but wrong in the root. It is politicians who prolong the wars, not the military. It is presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon who thwarted peace attempts in Vietnam because they felt they would not be re-elected if they cut and ran from that hopeless quagmire. It is Bush and Obama and Trump who insert, left and leave fighters all over the world.
Back to Frazier and his Varina Davis. She is telling her conversation partner about a letter from General Lee to her husband Jeff, warning against an action that “would bring down the reproach of our consciences and posterity’s judgment.”
“But then, it was too late to apply Lee’s advice more widely,” Varina said, “because we were in the middle of trying to pull apart a country to protect the wealth of slave owners.”
She went on to say how the war wrecked the South and cast it into poverty.
“But not for the north,” she said. “Plenty made fortunes off the war. Give a real Yankee one little dried pea and three thimbles and he can buy groceries. Give him a boxful of cheap, shiny pocketknives and pistols to trade and he will turn it into a career. But give him a war, and he’ll make a fortune to last centuries.”
And that is why we have been at war for most of our history. There are fortunes to be made! Our military defends the oil fields of Kuwait and the shipping channels of the high seas. It props up impotent and corrupt governments such as Afghanistan and keeps shipping lanes open for our oil companies to bring their products to market. It defends against the nationalization of U.S. companies that drain resources from other nations without proper recompense.
Our military budget of $716 billion is equal to the military budgets of at least the next 12 biggest spending nations.
The defense department says we have 4,800 “defense sites” in at least 160 countries. The U.S. military is the nation’s largest employer, paying 2.15 million service members and 72,000 civilians who work among them.
Under the gossamer thin patina of “protecting our freedom” the U.S. muscles into the business of other countries, on behalf of business. We’re the largest seller of weapons in the world. Five of the 10 largest weapons manufacturers in the world are U.S. companies. Once a company secures a contract for a new fighter jet or aircraft carrier or tank, it is virtually guaranteed acceptance of massive cost overruns and extended years of full employment for their employees.
Sometimes the commercial interests in weapons manufacture push the politicians on their payrolls to buy expensive tools the military doesn’t even want, such as the F-22 fighter jet at $150 million per and the F-15x fighter, at more than $100 million each. But it means jobs – tax payer funded. And the local senator is loathe to agree to kill the product, even when the military says it no longer wants it.
The pipeline of retiring generals to the boards and staffs of these companies is an incestuous, bacchanalian orgy of gorging at the federal trough.
Some of oldest monied families in the country conceived their fortunes through the sperm and egg of gunpowder and war, birthing both deadly destructive force and their vast fortunes: the gunpowder of E.I. du Pont; the plastics and chemicals like Agent Orange of the Dow family; and the no bid contracts handed to the Haliburton Company to provide services to troops in Afghanistan, a company led by Dick Cheney until he left to run George Bush… I mean until he left to run as vice president with George Bush.
So yes, Varina, your husband allowed himself to be drafted by his fellow southern politicians to tear the country apart to protect their wealthy supporters, and to weigh an economic theory against the blood of 750,000 citizens.
But, fortunes were made! And, as discomforting as it is to consider, politicians still use our modern military to create and protect private fortunes.
I’m a veteran, one of America’s last draftees. I’m neither anti-military, nor un-American. Quite the opposite. I just hurt inside when anything draped in a flag is considered patriotic or anyone draped in a uniform is called a hero, when too often both are symbol and substance of corporate manipulation of our national leadership for their own ends.