The United States of Militarism

Waving the flag and wielding a gun: Hey, it's the USA!

Waving the flag and wielding a gun: Hey, it’s the USA!

W.J. Astore

A century ago, the USA was a dynamic, forward-looking, freedom-espousing country that was focused on science and technology and its practical applications, as represented by Thomas Edison and Henry Ford.  We were about to reelect a president, Woodrow Wilson, precisely because he had kept the country out of World War I.  With the exception of the Navy, the U.S. military was small, and few Americans (Teddy Roosevelt comes to mind) boasted about the “manly” virtues of military service and war.

Here we are, a century later, in a country that has taken up militarism, a country which is increasingly reactionary, authoritarian, and backward-leaning, a country that leads the world not in innovation for ordinary people as in the days of Edison and Ford, but in weapons exports to the world’s trouble spots.

Anyone with a sense of history — indeed, anyone with common sense — should recognize that militaries are antithetical to democracy.  Indeed, most Americans recognized exactly that in 1915.  A true democracy has a military as a reluctant and regrettable choice, driven by the need to defend itself in a hostile and violent world. But over the last century a regrettable choice has become, not only requisite, but celebratory in the USA.  Like so many amped up Teddy Roosevelt’s, striving to prove our manhood, America now believes military service conveys nobility.  Heroic meaning.

Yet celebrating the military, nobilizing the military experience, finding purpose and meaning in continuous war, is the very definition of militarism.

Admittedly, American militarism is a peculiar strain.  It’s not the Germanic kind in which a conservative aristocracy found its reason for being and its privileged position in military service.  There are no Prussian Junkers who willingly revel in a martial code of honor and duty in war.  Indeed, America’s aristocracy of wealth reserves the right to exclude itself from military service even as it applauds the sons and daughters of the lower orders who enlist to fight (and sometimes to die).

Again, it’s a strange militarism, militarism USA, one in which military service is indeed one of the few avenues for America’s working classes to rise by merit (tightly defined within a hierarchical structure that breeds and rewards conformity), and where a few generals actually attain a measure of cult status, however temporary (recent examples include Colin Powell, Tommy Franks, and David Petraeus).  Yet celebrated generals come and go, even as America’s wars are continuous.

Indeed, we’ve become so accustomed to living with the drumbeats of war that we no longer hear them.  It reminds me of a lesson an officer taught on World War I at the Air Force Academy.  He played sounds of an artillery barrage for the entire 50 minutes of the lesson.  When you first walked in, the noise hit you.  Then you sort of forgot about it as he taught the lesson.  Just before the end, he turned off the noise, and the silence spoke.  You realized, just a little, what it had been like for troops in the trenches in 1916 living under artillery bombardment.  And you also realized how quickly we can all become more or less accustomed to the drumbeats of war.

We’re hearing them all the time today — it’s the background noise to our lives.  For some, it’s even become sweet music.  But war and militarism is never sweet music to a functioning democracy.

One final point: Some Americans react as if calling attention to the militarization of our society/culture is the same as being anti-military.  Being against militarism and war is not being anti-military: more the reverse.  There’s a strange conflation or confusion there — and this conflation/confusion is a sign of how far militarism has gotten under our collective skin and into the nation’s blood stream.

16 thoughts on “The United States of Militarism

  1. Professor Astore’s thoughts on US Militarism is a pleasant coincidence for me. This week my local library surplussed a book which I acquired for $0.50. It is Robert Johannsen’s “To the Halls of the Montezumas: The Mexican War in the American Imagination.” Johannsen discussed the US tendency to reject a professional military in favor of Militia and ‘Volunteers’ and the transition to a military tradition during the War with Mexico. I find Johannsen’s arguments compelling. The transition to a military tradition began with American victories at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palama, in May 1846, victories that surprised Americans and Mexicans. President Polk stated “We come to make not war upon the people of Mexico, not upon any form of free government they may choose to select for themselves …. We among the people of Mexico as friend and republican brethren” (pg 32). The idealism, likely sincere, was an illusion. In fact, the war, like the entire history of Texas before Spindletop, indeed American History through the Spanish-American War of 1898 was about land and it’s acquisition. Today American foreign policy is not about territorial expansion, it is about economic or financial domination. American imperial victories, beginning with the Mexican War (via the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo in 1848) is only broken by the VietNam War (and perhaps Korea—the ‘war’ on drugs isn’t really a foreign policy matter, it is about US ‘demand’). The military hammer is the weapon of choice, but the true policy, regime change, is sometimes less direct. Roosevelt’s 1953 coup in Iran is good example.
    Of course there is the potential of blowback. Several years back sitting in a neighbor’s back yard a old Mexican immigrant, one seemingly as American as you and me, pointed to his very pregnant daughter and said “we will reconquer Texas without ever firing a shot”. Keep in mind, “Revenge unfolds over generations” as stated by an unknown Sunni.

  2. I suspect any genuine applause bestowed upon service members by our financial lords is reserved for leadership elites who demonstrate correct behavior (thinking/acting only in ways which do not displease said lords, true also of politicians/academicians/attorneys/police/bureaucrats/citizens). Even special forces rank and file who accomplish feats against great odds are only carrying out roles minions are obliged to execute as obedient servants of the aristocracy.

  3. Talk about happy coincidences! Well, actually, I knew it wouldn’t be long before a post on TCP would provide me this opening. I’ve been working my way through Max Eastman’s “Great Companions,” his reminiscences of encounters/conversations with some of the 20th Century’s most famous individuals (e.g. Einstein, Santayana, Hemingway, Casals, Trotsky). Eastman expressed sympathy with the Bolshevik Revolution initially and absolutely brilliantly translated Trotsky’s three-volume history of that revolution, and other works, into English. Later he would become just another flag-waving anti-communist intellectual, bristling at any criticism of this country. So much for the backstory.

    He sat down with Dr. Sigmund Freud in Vienna in 1926 for an extended conversation. (Eastman’s MO was to return to his hotel room and quickly write down the contents of his interaction with his subject, so quotations are close to verbatim but not from actual transcripts of conversation.) The subject of the First World War came up. [I have eliminated paragraph breaks in what follows.] “For instance, I [Eastman] said that the war was a watershed in America, dividing radicals from liberals, but not in Europe because in Europe everybody was in it whether he wanted to be or not. ‘Officially,’ he [Freud] put in with a sly inflection. And then he exclaimed: ‘You should not have gone into the war at all. Your Woodrow Wilson was the silliest fool of the century, if not of all centuries.’…’And he was also probably one of the biggest criminals–unconsciously, I am quite sure.’…’What makes you hate America so?’ I queried. ‘Hate America?’ he said. ‘I don’t hate America, I regret it!’ He threw back his head again and laughed hilariously. ‘I regret that Columbus ever discovered it!’…’America,’ he went on, ‘is a bad experiment conducted by Providence. At least, I think it must have been Providence. I at least should hate to be held responsible for it.’ More laughter, and then I asked: ‘In what way bad?’ ‘Oh, the prudery, the hypocrisy, the national lack of independence! There is no independent thinking in America, is there?’…[Freud again:] ‘[W]hat are you going to do when you get home? Have you any definite plans?’ ‘None except that I am going to write.’ ‘I’ll tell you what I want you to do. I want you to go home and write a book on America, and I’ll tell you what to call it. Misgeburt–What is that word in English?’ ‘Abortion?’ ‘No, not abortion.’ ‘Monster?’ ‘Well, that will do. You write a book about the monstrous thing that America turned out to be.’ He paused. ‘The word is “miscarriage.” “The Miscarriage of American Civilization”–that shall be the title of your book. You will find out the causes and tell the truth about the whole awful catastrophe.’ He was standing up now. ‘That book will make you immortal. You may not be able to live in America any more, but you could go and live very happily somewhere else!'” (from pages 176-179, 1959 hardcover edition, Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, publisher)

    In this conversation Freud claimed to hold no particular political viewpoint. I am not an admirer of this gentleman, but I find these insights from 90 years ago fascinating. I think that Freud had sensed that, in the wake of the “Spanish-American War,” avaricious pursuit of profit abroad had misplaced any idealistic foolishness about “freedom and democracy” in the minds of America’s elite. There is your hypocrisy, writ very large. Prudery? Isn’t sex used to try to market an unimaginable array of goods and services? Aren’t there websites devoted entirely to photos of women with grotesquely outsized breasts and derrieres? Of course. But a movie will still receive an ‘R’ rating for showing full frontal nudity (or merely a woman’s nipples) while one free of that but filled with non-stop violence will be deemed suitable for children. And going back to the earliest comment here quoted: what has become of independent thought when the populace has been brainwashed into believing that every individual donning a uniform is automatically a “hero”? That to openly question foreign policy is traitorous? The time is not far off when some of us who dare to question may, indeed, feel compelled to find somewhere else in the world to live.

    • Some already have.

      Speaking of independent thought and brainwashing, check out these quotes from G. Orwell. Nationalism as ideology. What he describes – he was talking about Great Britain but it also applies to the US of today – is a type of censorship (internal, self-) that is much more powerful than heavy-handed state censorship.

      “Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban… At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question…

      It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was ‘not done’ to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness.” (G. Orwell, Proposed preface to Animal Farm)

      • Alexis de Tocqueville beat Orwell! In Democracy in America (2 volumes 1835 & 1840) he put it:
        “In America the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion; within these barriers an author may write what he pleases, but woe to him if he goes beyond them.”
        Dick Armey said it more bluntly: “Sometime you are better off keeping your damn mouth shut” Do you Dick is giving ‘advice’ or a ‘warning’?
        Not much has changed, except Americans have less ‘privacy’ these days.

      • “equote”–Were you the commenter who said recently “shut up, suck up and get by” (or words to that effect) was the survival code under Stalin? Well, Mr. Armey is merely offering the same advice.

    • Wow, didn’t know such duds were being sold in a mainstream department store!! Had I witnessed such a garment in person I might well have “lost my lunch”!! In contemporary Amerika we even find toddlers walking about in camo clothing.

      • re Politics
        Yea greg, I quoted the survival creed under Stalin. And yes Dick said it with a curse. For a polite version use Calvin Coolidge “I have never been hurt by what I have not said”.
        re Camo
        I live ‘out yonder’ where the coyotes, foxes, bobcats, and various fur bearing animals roam, I’ve never needed camo to get close to them … camo is a fashion statement, an indicator that the wearer (usually male) may be armed or have a weapon in his vehicle. (Translated into ‘tactical’ it says shoot me first)

      • No, no. A “fashion” statement is paying $200 for a pair of jeans that are “pre-faded” and ripped. (I leave it to the reader to determine if that’s at all sensible a statement!) Camo is a socio-political statement, even if subliminal on some folks’ part. You know, “Support the troops” and everyone in uniform is a damned “hero.” Some months back the media blew up a story about some dude impersonating an active-duty soldier in order to gain some advantage (special retail discount, I think it was). More outrage was vented over that affair than over atrocities committed by real active-duty US personnel in Iraq or Afghanistan. Such is the state of this society.

  4. Pingback: W. J. Astore: The United States of Militarism | Vox Populi

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