American Culture

If you’re young, what does national security mean to you?

If you don’t like what it means today, do something about it.

In the early 1950s, I stumbled and bumbled my way through elementary school. The Cold War had begun, and we young ‘uns received our Be Afraid of The Commies indoctrinations everywhere — in schools, in churches, even at home.

image of "duck and cover" poster from Cold War era

Fear became a national pastime. America had nukes; the Russians (later the Soviets) had nukes. We were taught to listen for the Civil Defense siren. We practiced “duck and cover,” clambering awkwardly under our desks at school during surprise drills.

… in the name of national security.

By the time I reached middle school, I was petrified of the Commies. I even wrote a paper in Mr. Rice’s social studies class condemning them in strong, seventh-grade language.

As a nation of Boomers-to-be, we grew up well-indoctrinated into that fear. Us good; them bad. No one bitched about defense spending in the Eisenhower era (well, not until the Vietnam debacle when many of us became draft-dodging, war-protesting hippies).

My undergraduate students who just received their diplomas this month (and the more than two million others in the United States) may have learned about “duck and cover” in history courses, but I doubt it. They have not yet sipped from the deep well from which poured forth a dominant, almost paranoid attitude about national security — an attitude that drove trillions of dollars in defense spending in the last half century.

But these youngsters — millennials and homelanders (aka Gen Z) — have their own morasses of fear induction that has curdled their attitudes about what governments do and what they should not do. Freshmen I will teach this fall were born in the year two hijacked planes downed the Towers and another breached the Pentagon, killing thousands of Americans (and others). These kids, just as they’ve always been around cell phones, have always lived in the era of the Department Homeland Security.

homelad security advisory system posterThey’ve lived with the terror alerts perpetually set on “high” or “elevated.” They’ve witnessed the degradation of the world’s second-largest religion. They’ve watched in anger (I hope) as mediated mistrust of The Other grew, a mistrust (hell, a hatred) promoted by those who believe white makes might makes right.

… in the name of national security.

They might be aware of the two trillion dollars thrown at the the morally ambiguous, undeclared wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They might wonder about the odd mathematics — two trillions for war; one and a half trillion dollars (and counting) that they collectively owe on their student loans. College graduates, on average, owe nearly $40,000 on their student loans.

At least two generations are hostage to that debt. That’s how they will begin their adult lives — in financial shackles. (My own student loans won’t be paid off until I’m 86 years old. Retirement remains a fantasy — and so might theirs.) Another generation is stepping through the door to potential penury that Congress is unwilling to slam shut.

… in the name of national security.

Well, kiddies, you can vote now. But before you do …

I have a few thoughts for you. You’re launching into adult life with hopes and dreams, perhaps unaware of the anchors holding you back from reaching those aspirations.

The arc of your lives will be influenced by an increase in global atmospheric and oceanic temperatures — which your current government denies. You will see the population of the United States nearly double in your lifetimes. Your children will see the 22nd century — and maybe a few of you will, too. You will witness dramatic social, economic, demographic, and political changes.

Or will you? Right now, older people are deciding on your behalf what national security means. Those people brought you Homeland Security, TSA and removing belts and shoes at airports, and dramatic increases in kicking The (Illegal) Other out of the country via deportation. Those people brought you a $716 billion national security budget for fiscal 2019, of which $686 billion will go to the Department of Defense. You will pay taxes that support those decisions. You will pay taxes that support nearly 800 American bases in 70 countries.

in the name of national security.

Since World War II, the United States has either been at war or in preparation for war. Brave men and women have died to keep you and me safe and secure. Let’s not forget that. Honor them.

But I wonder: How “secure” do you feel today? How “secure” will you feel as you near retirement age — which you’ll have to wonder about today as whispers circle through Congress about raising that age. You’re probably healthy right now and feeling as young people before you always have — immortal and invincible. But you’ll need health care someday, and that need will arrive unexpectedly. You’ll be paying far more for health care than you can fully appreciate at the moment. Do you want to feel secure in the availability of health care at reasonable, affordable costs?

How do you want national security to be defined? Do you wish to retain the status quo of having a bigger stick than anyone else on the global block? Do you wish making others afraid of the nation’s military power to be the continuing basis for national security?

Or do you have different ideas about how the nation should securely prosper? Do you want national security to be redefined as economic security?

What about information security? Data security? Cybersecurity? So much of your lives will be lived in digital environments far more so than now. Given that the Russians and other state actors are digging into American digital environments with intent to do harm, do you feel secure in your own online lives? Do you trust your own government to keep its nose out of your digital lives? Does your online financial life feel secure?

These are difficult, challenging questions. There’s so much to understand — such as how did the United States, in relation to the rest of the world, get to where it is now? America is a nation increasingly reviled by lesser states for the arrogance of its elected leaders’ actions. If that status quo remains, then you, the young voters, will soon feel the responsibility for America’s not-always-positive global reputation transferred to your shoulders. Is that what you want?

If not, will you be able to make social, economic, and political choices that unravel monopolistic or oligopolistic control of so many industries on which you rely? Health care? Telecommunications? Social media? Banking? Energy? Entertainment? Will you be able to undo the decades of concentration of wealth into the hardened vaults of a few? Will you be able to rein in economic anxiety that is causal in so much of American tribalism?

You can vote. You can protest. You can argue with elegance. You can stand for something. But first, you must determine what that something is.

Once you do, confront politicians who seek your vote. Ask them: “Are you willing to redefine what national security means?”

If they say no, or, more likely, dodge the question, then run for office yourself. Take on the status quo in the name of your definition of national security.

3 replies »

  1. Excellent advice to graduates, Denny. Clearly, we are ignoring this “elephant in the room.” There needs to be much more public deliberation on national security. We sorely, need to talk about what it means to have national security in global society.

    • Absolutely. The problem is that we have a chicken/egg issue. The system is very keenly rigged to make sure that the ability to conceive and ask this question isn’t taught in schools, and at a broader social level the ideology machine quickly translates it into “Socialism,” or in a less extreme case, it becomes proof that you’re a wild-eyed kid who doesn’t know how to be a serious grownup yet.