Mike Gravel and Joe Lauria. A Political Odyssey: The Rise of American Militarism and One Man’s Fight to Stop It. 2008. Seven Stories Press.
Reviewed by Milina Jovanovic
When I finished reading the last pages of this book, I had to sit still and think about several discoveries. It is difficult for me to truly believe that I can actually like a life story, way of thinking, and actions of a high-level American politician. I come from a country, generation, and professional environment that didn’t encourage any naiveté about politics of any country. And we certainly didn’t grow up embracing any myths about the most significant characteristics of the global empire. Learning about Mike Gravel’s lifelong struggle against the military machine, and finding out that he fought primarily inside the most prominent centers of power, could really shift some of my paradigms. In his afterword, Joe Lauria had similar thoughts about how much he was surprised after meeting Gravel and realizing that such a politician existed. In addition to this discovery, it is very encouraging to see that the authors of this book continue to speak up against the most destructive and dangerous forces in human history, managing to find a publisher who stands behind such a project. Most readers will probably learn for the first time, as I did, what happened to the American Communist Party, that Gravel called for a moratorium on building new nuclear power plants years before it became popular in the 1980s, that the militarization of the culture is not a recent phenomenon, that Teddy Roosevelt announced America's coming global empire with a fleet of white battleships sent around the world on a "peace mission", how a man called Vannevar Bush tried to stop the military industrial complex by pleading with FDR, how another Bush, Samuel Bush, W's great-grandfather got rich from guns in World War I, how Truman apologized for the exaggerated fears of the Cold War and how the military industry dramatically consolidated in the 1990s. Most importantly, this book also contains a call to action—something that we rarely see in the literature published in the U.S. in recent years.
The only slight disagreement that I have with Mr. Gravel is his assessment of the Clinton administration and its role in advancing the agenda of the U.S. war machine. In my view, he overlooked Clinton’s role in NATO’s revival, redefinition, and expansion; introduction of a new category of “humanitarian interventions,” bombings of Sudan and Afghanistan; war in Somalia; and the complete destruction and colonization of the Balkans which allowed the U.S. to establish numerous permanent military bases and secure a strategic position in Europe.
This book blends so masterfully Mr. Gravel’s personal experiences and Washington insider’s knowledge with an in-depth analysis of root causes of U.S. imperialism and continuous expansion of the U.S. military machine. Gravel and Lauria made an excellent team, telling this complex story in a way that is clear, interesting, and easy to read. To accomplish this goal, writers need extraordinary skills and inspiration. In my opinion, this is one additional reason for making this original book a required reading for many political science, sociology, and history courses at colleges and universities across the country. Lauria’s rigorous research and his already recognized writing style, make Political Odyssey at the same time rich in detail and compelling in its theoretical framework.
I am aware that most readers like the first few chapters about the Vietnam War and the Pentagon Papers better than the rest of the book. My most favorite parts are chapters VI, VII & VIII used by the authors to explore the increasing power of the executive branch, the expansion of territory and colonial influence, coupled with the establishment of standing paid armies, and the growth of weapons industry in a historical perspective: from the Revolutionary War to present times. They also trace the origins of U.S. empire by providing examples of early participation in foreign wars, establishment of military drafts, Woodrow Wilson’s creation of a ministry of propaganda, utilization of scare tactics, invention of imaginary threats, and the empire’s belief in its moral superiority. Moreover, the authors follow the process of privatization of U.S. military and concentration of profits in increasingly smaller numbers of private weapons’ manufacturers, from World War I to most current examples.
It is especially important that the authors briefly explore a number of issues related to nuclear weapons and nuclear testing, the pretense of nuclear regulation, and mention the militarization of space. In my view, these sections could have been expanded. As we speak, the buildup of the U.S. war machine, increasing numbers of wars and military interventions that are not called wars, unlimited increase of the military budget, countless U.S. military bases located around the world, militarization and globalization of police forces, extreme suppression of human and civil rights, all continue to gain their momentum. The authors of this book provided us with invaluable tools to deepen our understanding of the most destructive and dangerous forces that threaten our very existence on this planet. The very last pages of this book are turned into a call to action. As readers we might have different views about the most effectiveformsof people’s engagement needed to stop the U.S. war machine and produce a revolutionary social change. Regardless, there is more than enough material presented in Political Odyssey to inspire all of us.