Hair-Trigger America

Easy on that trigger, America
Easy on that trigger, America

W.J. Astore

I wrote this for Truthout but debated whether to publish it.  I just didn’t want to deal with all the gun enthusiasts who equate liberty with owning lots of guns and ammo.  This article is not specifically about guns.  It’s about our propensity for seeking quick and violent solutions to societal and political problems.  It’s about our willingness to spend billions on weaponry and also our willingness to sell billions in weaponry. It’s about a mentality that’s captured in the image of fingers tensed on so many hair-triggers, whether metaphorically or literally.

A nation that used to espouse isolationism has morphed into one poised for hair-trigger pre-emptive war, privately armed to the teeth and the leading purveyor in the global arms trade.

We live in hair-trigger America, an America that’s quick to kill, slow to think. A nation and a people that used to espouse isolationism (even if the practice was imperfect) has morphed into one poised for constant warfare. America’s leaders call for hair-trigger pre-emptive war even if the odds of an attack on the United States are 100 to 1against. America’s military and the CIA use Predator and Reaper drones to kill “enemies,” even when they’re not completely sure they are the enemy.

This is not the first time we’ve been a hair-trigger people. When I worked in the Air Force at the Cheyenne Mountain complex in Colorado in the 1980s, fear of nuclear annihilation was palpable. US nuclear forces were on hair-trigger alert. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, annihilatory fears abated.  We were, in the words of President George H.W. Bush, offered a chance to cash-in our peace dividends. We were, in the words of Jeanne Kirkpatrick (no dove she), offered a chance to become a normal country in normal times.

What intervened, of course, was the shock and awe of 9/11, together with what President Dwight D. Eisenhower termed the growing power of the military-industrial complex. Motive and opportunity drove a military (and militantly hysterical) response to 9/11 (to include torture) that was in retrospect entirely out of proportion to the damage done as well as to the threat posed by the attackers. At the same time, US troops were lauded as so many heroes, their leaders as so many Caesars. Forgotten was our founders’ hard-earned skepticism of militarism and war, their prediction that constant warfare would trigger the end of liberty.

More than a decade after 9/11, America remains poised to strike, fingers at ready on so many hair triggers. The military and especially its Special Forces remain on alert, trigger-pullers who are forward-deployed in 100-plus countries for rapid responses (and deadly interventions). Drones patrol foreign skies, always circling, always seeking targets. Full-spectrum dominance is the military’s stated goal. The land, the seas, the skies, space, even cyberspace – all must be treated as potential war zones.  All must therefore be dominated.

A hair-trigger mentality is both glitch and feature of a distinctly militarized and authoritarian American moment.  And those hair-triggers often morph into trigger-pullers, literally so, domestically as well as internationally.  Gun deaths in America continue to exceed 30,000 a year; by 2015, they may exceed traffic deaths. If not trigger-pullers, so many millions of Americans are trigger owners. As of 2009, there were 310 million non-military firearms in the United States, enough guns to arm every man, woman and child. One nation, under guns (but certainly not under-gunned).

Of course, Americans are not only trigger-pullers, but trigger-pushers. And by that I mean that the United States dominates the world’s (legal) arms trade. In 2010, we accounted for 53 percent of this trade; in 2011, a banner year, we accounted for a whopping 75 percent of this trade, dropping back to only 58 percent in 2012. Add to this legal arms trade the propensity for American guns to cross borders illegally to end up at crime scenes in Mexico and elsewhere, even when our own government isn’t involved in facilitating the trade.

To be seen as ready, willing, and able to pull various triggers is a distinctly American trope. Toughness, especially in dealing with foreign adversaries, is measured by a willingness to kill, a form of martial virtue. No American president can be seen without a gun in his hand, a trigger being pulled, even Barack Obama, whose staff took pains to release a photo of him shooting skeet.

When will we learn, as Eisenhower said, that only Americans can hurt America? And that trigger-pulling and trigger-pushing Americans are an especially grave threat, not only to America, but also to the world?

Recalling the words of Kirkpatrick, it’s long past time for America to become a normal country in normal times.  A time when fingers need not be tensed on so many hair triggers. Or any triggers at all.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

5 thoughts on “Hair-Trigger America

  1. It is bizarre how hawkish some people have gotten. It’s even more bizarre that these tend to be the same people that claim to “support the troops” as if the greatest way to show your appreciation for someone is to send them far away to be shot at.

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    1. I think that your comment raises some important issues about symbols and the things (real or imaginary) that they symbolize — and to whom. The “hawk,” for example, symbolizes fierce, pitiless, predatory — i.e., war-like — behavior, and so people who wish to think of themselves in this flattering (to them) light, call themselves “hawks” and their behavior “hawkish.” The “dove,” on the other hand, symbolizes peace and the search for behaviors that achieve postitive results without resorting to violence. Self-styled “Hawks,” as you no doubt understand, have nothinig but contempt for “doves,” and consider them — if anything — easy prey because of their “weakness.” So when we hear people speak of “supporting the troops,” I think we have to keep in mind what sort of behavior the “troops” symbolize for them: “hawkish,” or “dovish.” I think we all know the answer to that. So when we think of troops as “getting shot at,” we seem “dovish” or “weak,” while those who think of troops shooting and killing without mercy think that they, themselves, seem “strong” by vicarious association. The self-styled “hawks,” therefore, do not support the living, vulnerable “troops” as human beings, but rather they support their own view of themselves which they project upon “the troops” as a symbol. Viewed in this light, “hawkish” behavior seems not at all bizarre, but rather quite normal in a country as self-absorbed and “exceptional” as the United States.

      Instead of “the troops,” psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton refers to “The Socialized Warrior.” I like to use the term “Symbol Soldier.” If we examine the use of symbols and who uses them and for what purpose, then I think we can gain a useful understanding of what the word “support” really means in particular cases — and to whom. After all, meaning exists in people, not in words.

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      1. Yes, that’s excellent, Mike. People project on to the soldier in uniform certain moods and meanings, and those projections are often about their own interior lives. So you see a soldier and you think (and feel) strong, tough, patriotic, dedicated, maybe even predatorial, i.e. hawkish. And those projections help you to deny the reality that you may be sending that soldier to his death in Afghanistan or elsewhere.

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