Monday, November 12, 2012

The Militarization of America

One of the changes to American society over the past few decades has been the recasting of America from a republic protected by two oceans and reluctant to intervene in foreign affairs to a thoroughly militarized society. We've gone from a country where a military was a small force and a necessary evil, to one in which military power is stoked and celebrated. Extreme deference to soldiers bordering on worship is not the sign of a healthy society any more than demonizing them. Nazi Germany also routinely called anyone a "hero" simply for putting on a uniform. And the patriotic spectacles and anthems at sporting events lately are redolent of Triumph of Will and Soviet military parades rather than anything our grandparents witnessed. What does it mean when an entire culture becomes permanently militarized and prepared for war?
Our culture has militarized considerably since Eisenhower’s era, and civilians, not the armed services, have been the principal cause. From lawmakers’ constant use of “support our troops” to justify defense spending, to TV programs and video games like “NCIS,” “Homeland” and “Call of Duty,” to NBC’s shameful and unreal reality show “Stars Earn Stripes,” Americans are subjected to a daily diet of stories that valorize the military while the storytellers pursue their own opportunistic political and commercial agendas. Of course, veterans should be thanked for serving their country, as should police officers, emergency workers and teachers. But no institution — particularly one financed by the taxpayers — should be immune from thoughtful criticism.

Like all institutions, the military works to enhance its public image, but this is just one element of militarization. Most of the political discourse on military matters comes from civilians, who are more vocal about “supporting our troops” than the troops themselves. It doesn’t help that there are fewer veterans in Congress today than at any previous point since World War II. Those who have served are less likely to offer unvarnished praise for the military, for it, like all institutions, has its own frustrations and failings. But for non-veterans — including about four-fifths of all members of Congress — there is only unequivocal, unhesitating adulation. The political costs of anything else are just too high.

Eisenhower understood the trade-offs between guns and butter. “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed,” he warned in 1953, early in his presidency. “The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some 50 miles of concrete highway. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.”

Uncritical support of all things martial is quickly becoming the new normal for our youth. Hardly any of my students at the Naval Academy remember a time when their nation wasn’t at war. Almost all think it ordinary to hear of drone strikes in Yemen or Taliban attacks in Afghanistan. The recent revelation of counterterrorism bases in Africa elicits no surprise in them, nor do the military ceremonies that are now regular features at sporting events. That which is left unexamined eventually becomes invisible, and as a result, few Americans today are giving sufficient consideration to the full range of violent activities the government undertakes in their names.

Were Eisenhower alive, he’d be aghast at our debt, deficits and still expanding military-industrial complex. And he would certainly be critical of the “insidious penetration of our minds” by video game companies and television networks, the news media and the partisan pundits. With so little knowledge of what Eisenhower called the “lingering sadness of war” and the “certain agony of the battlefield,” they have done as much as anyone to turn the hard work of national security into the crass business of politics and entertainment.
The Permanent Militarization of America (New York Times)
A soldier in uniform can scarcely navigate an airport terminal without being accosted every 30ft with spontaneous expressions of appreciation. Because, as we are reminded again and again and again, by play-by-play announcers and presidents, men and women in the uniform are heroes defending our freedom. Political Correctness 2.0 prohibits anyone from questioning this particular article of faith, although the truism requires a somewhat expanded definition of heroism, and a vastly expanded definition of "defending our freedom." But the buy-in is nearly universal. It's as if the entire culture is purging its guilt from the Vietnam era, when returning military were given the cold shoulder on a grand scale.

Vietnam, of course, was a stupid, costly, trumped-up war that divided the nation. And men in uniform bore the brunt of the resentment – even though they were mainly drafted into service. Apocryphal memory has it that soldiers, sailors and airmen were spat upon. No such episode has ever been documented, but nonetheless, the indignation was palpable.
Can we not honor and respect the commitment of our soldiers, sailors and airmen without beatifying them? When someone is declared a hero for lacing up combat boots, no matter how far from harm's way, what does that say about those who patrol the Nuristan Province under constant threat from Taliban ambush? And what does it say about the soldier who darts into the open to attend to a fallen comrade? Are they all equally heroes? Or have we devalued the word?

This growing "cult of the military" would be vexing if it were, indeed, the result of the society acting spontaneously to expiate past sins. But the truth probably has more to do with manipulation. Think back to the invasion of Iraq, a stupid, costly, trumped-up war that divided the nation. When the public finally began to wonder what in the world deposing a Gulf dictator had to do with 9/11 or our national security (answer: absolutely nothing), suddenly the bumper stickers began to appear:

    Support Our Troops.
And with that, skepticism about George W Bush's invented threat, not to mention the abominable expenditure of blood and treasure, was conflated with undermining our heroes.

To question the war was somehow to question them. It was unpatriotic. It was a betrayal. And thus did the worship of the uniform serve the interests of the government. Reduced to the role of poster children, our heroes easily won our sympathy – at the expense of our reason, and ultimately their own dignity. Is it honoring anybody's sacrifice – or simply abusing it all over again – to use them as a trump card against doubt?

There is a term for those who go into battle to serve the cynical political purposes of the powerful: cannon fodder. Now we are at Veterans Day, when the nation is meant to honor the true sacrifices of those who have served. Whether in defense of freedom or in pursuit of corrupt adventurism, they have done their duty at risk of life and limb. But, good grief, let us think of how we honor them. I'd say start by not being simultaneously grandiose and trite. "Hero" should not be trivialized by overuse. "Defending our freedom" is on the verge of being Orwellian.
Veterans Day and a caution against the cult of the military (Guardian)

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