The Elephant in the Room: Militarism


Jeff Cohen believes militarism and perpetual war are our country’s biggest problems.

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.

Originally published here.

–Photo: JohnMallon/Flickr

About Jeff Cohen

Jeff Cohen is founding director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College and an associate professor of journalism there. His latest book is Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media. He founded the media watch group FAIR in 1986.


  1. Thanks with regard to offering this sort of superb subject material.

  2. Richard Aubrey says:

    A-dog. No sooner said than done. Obama has decided to reduce Pacific missile defenses in return for Nork promises.
    Kerry is visiting Japan to assure them that we will continue to help them with their security–minus missile defenses.
    Now, if the Japanese are dumb as a box of doorknobs, they’ll feel just great about it. All dan and finedy.
    But if they have half the brains God gave a goose, they’ll start ramping up their game and that might include nukes. Certainly expanded conventional forces.
    Yeah. We had 300k guys in Europe for half a century. Made it easy for the locals to scale up their unsustainable free-stuff societies now going bust without our essayist’s noticing.
    So if a freighter is in trouble someplace on the ocean with somebody obnoxious approaching, and the radio man broadcasts, ‘Any US Navy vessel, any US Navy vessel”, he’ll find the number is disconnected.
    This is a good idea because?
    Got to be some reason.

  3. AnonymousDog says:

    Many of those ‘industrialized countries’ can get by spending less for national security because they have treaties with the US in which the US is pledged to protect them. Part of what we spend on defense is actually for defending other countries.

  4. Richard Aubrey says:

    Look up the percentage of GDP devoted to the military. Chump change.
    Look up the same for social security and health care and education. Clearly, going to zero defense makes no effective difference.
    Meantime, without a reliable, competent ally, people like Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, Japan, are going to think about taking care of their own business. If the US has been the worlds’ cop, fine. So we can have a world without a cop.
    Pick one.
    Problem with an essay like this, readers might do their homework.
    Then what?

  5. Tom Brechlin says:

    That’s why I think the social / informational media via the internet is so outstanding. A couple of key words in a google search and we can find a variety of information that’s not put out on the main stream media. The key is to be objective in your searches and not just look for information that may simply affirm what we believe but instead take in all the information that’s available.

    I still watch some of the main stream shows but only for as a starting point so that I can investigate an issue that they placed on the table.

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