Sunday, February 27, 2011

When Is Aid Not Aid?

Sometimes having lived a long time and having a good memory is an asset. I never thought much about it and it's only recently that I've realised that I have achieved an age that actually counts as such. Perhaps it's having children hitting their thirties that suddenly makes you realise that you have become one of the "older generation". But many of the experiences I've collected, the thoughts and possibilities I've encountered, seem to be coming together now in a sort of critical mass that is presenting me with ideas I haven't examined much up to this point. I've never been terribly focused in my activities throughout my life. I've studied a variety of things, worked in a wide variety of jobs and from time to time have found myself utterly fascinated by quite an odd collection of things. When I was about 13, I ran across a reference in a book to the fact that in the Middle Ages bubonic plague changed the face of Europe irreparably when it killed off roughly 3/4 of the population in its repeated passes. I went to the library (no internet then) and read everything I could get my hands on about the Black Death and its ramifications. Because of my age, my poor parents had to okay many of the books I wanted to read and they were very understanding, although perhaps a bit bewildered at the rather macabre topic.

Lately, I've been watching the events here in the Middle East with total fascination...hardly surprising since I live here and they have the power to touch my life. I'm following the news outlets and some of the less known reports via Twitter. Much has been written about the power of social media in all the uprisings/revolutions taking place and that in itself is a source of fascination. Twitter is undoubtedly one of the most useful tools I've seen developed for communication. I became interested in it a few years ago when it was used to notify people that protesters had been taken by government forces so that efforts could be made to free them, rather than have them fall into the black hole of detention. I've listened in on debates on Twitter and read alternative witness accounts of activities. Amazing stuff for anyone interested in the social sciences.

However, one thing more than anything else has come to the fore in my search for information and the explanations of the rise and falls of dictators in this region and it, oddly enough, is an old bogeyman from my youth. I grew up in California, went to Berkeley during the late 60's and moved to Canada in protest against US policies in the early 70's. I was in no fear of being drafted, but I felt very strongly that the US was completely wrong in its pursuit of the Viet Nam war. When protests and demonstrations finally seemed to reach the ears of the government, finally began to activate the hands and mouths of the legislators and the government finally acted to stop the war, we all had some hopes that someone somewhere had actually learned something.

Some forty years on as I read account after account of the amount of "aid" given to many of the dictators providing so called "stability" in the Middle East I'm reminded of something that I heard way back when I was still very young. My parents were Eisenhower supporters. My father had served as a non-combatant medical technician in WWII and brought my mother to the US as a war bride. After the war he attended Stanford University and was then hired by the Department of Defense where he did a lot of things for the US Navy that he could never discuss at home. Long after his death we've been putting together the picture of what he did from friend's accounts, journals and so on. One of the things he did, rather incidentally, was to help set up the internet in the Pacific Northwest after his retirement. Another thing was to work on modeling, making sort of prototypical computer games that would analyse tactics and strategies. He didn't like being part of a war machine and his real love was space exploration, for which he bargained with his bosses to be allowed to work. All of this explanation is to say why this statement made by President Eisenhower in his farewell address in 1961 has always stuck in my mind.

"A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction...

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together."

My father was part of the military-industrial complex as much as he hated being so, and I was always aware of this conflict within him. When demonstrators were protesting the Viet Nam war, they called attention to the role of Dow Chemical in the development and manufacture of napalm, and to the development and use of Agent Orange, a particularly dangerous form of dioxin by Dow and Monsanto. Over the years, the term military-industrial complex has gone out of style and Noam Chomsky has pointed out that the military aspect was actually just a face of a culture driven by industrial imperatives. Military products are nice to produce because among other things, you can blow them up, necessitating the production of more of them.

It seems wildly obvious to me, however, that the industrial aspects of the western culture have gotten totally out of control. If you read any articles on the aid that has been "given" to many of the Middle Eastern countries, many of whom are currently involved in unrest, revolutions, and protests from unhappy citizenry, it is admitted that the major portion of this aid has been military aid. In countries with massive issues of poverty, environmental issues, poor educational systems, and hunger...they are given military aid. Brilliant. And what does this aid get the country? It gets them the right to buy arms from the aid giver at lower prices, better financing, and sometimes simply takes one government's money, passes it to another government for some quick skimming, and then puts it back in the economy of the first government when the products are "bought".

This is a self-perpetuating cycle. True, it does benefit the originator of the aid in that it helps provide employment for people in the area of the economy that produces arms or the spare parts to repair them or the means to transport them...but the bottom line here is that it's all either destructive or imaginary. No one is actually producing anything that will help someone eat, learn, or become healthier. The best possible outcome is that the arms will simply grow old, like the out-dated tear gas canisters collected by protesters in Cairo. If they are actually used in warfare, they have no beneficial purpose to anyone. So why not simply pay them to build something useful instead, like bridges and dams and new roads, hospitals or schools...or to repair the ones that are falling apart?

Let's face it, aside from a few situations like the Israelis invading Lebanon and the US invading Iraq, invasion has pretty much gone out of style. So do we need to protect against invaders? In Egypt, who is going to invade us? What would seven million Libyans or seven million Israelis do with 80 million Egyptians? We don't need tanks. We can just assign 5 or 6 Egyptians to every Israeli. And running Egypt is no piece of cake as anyone can tell you these days...not exactly a job that any decent invader would aspire to. Even more to the point, the last major military actions have been carried out by the US in Iraq and Afghanistan, and EVERYONE can see how well those have gone. Obviously, someone is benefiting from all that activity but it sure as hell isn't the Iraqis or Afghanis or the Americans sitting back home wondering what is going wrong with their schools, banks and economy. Someone once estimated that if the money spent on the Viet Nam war were simply converted to nickels and dropped on the country, every square inch of Viet Nam would have been covered to a depth of 3 or 4 feet. It would have been higher if they'd used something cheaper than metal.

It's time for people to stop listening to the nonsense and do as they recommend in the detective novels. (See? Even trashy novels can add your knowledge.) Follow the money. Before you let your country offer military aid to someone, check how it works. Maybe it will actually save some money just to give it to the people of your own country. Much of the billions of dollars in ill-gotten gains stashed away by autocrats all over the world has been skimmed. Want to help someone? Build some tractors, pay the shipping, and give them to the farmers..and skip the bureaucracy. Or buy books and paper and desks and ship them to needy schools. But then no one would profit except the workers who build and the farmers who need, and as we all have seen, that would never do.

copyright 2011 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani