Icons of American Militarism

W.J. Astore

At this moment, it’s hard to think of a better symbol of American militarism than a giant bomb with a U.S. flag on it.  President Donald Trump touted the use of the “mother of all bombs” (MOAB) in Afghanistan as a “very, very successful mission” even though evidence of that success is scant.  He further cited MOAB as evidence of the “tremendous difference, tremendous difference” between his administration’s willingness to use force and Obama’s.  In short, Trump loved MOAB precisely because Obama didn’t use it.  To Trump, MOAB was a sort of penis extender and a big middle finger all-in-one.  Virility and vulgarity.


MOAB is an icon of U.S. militarism, as are other weapons in the American arsenal.  Weapons like our warplanes, aircraft carriers, Predator and Reaper drones, and Tomahawk and Hellfire missiles.  U.S. foreign policy often hinges on or pivots about the deployment of these icons of power, whether it’s aircraft carriers and anti-missile systems being sent to Korea or more bombs and missiles being used in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, among other countries.

Weapons sales further define U.S. foreign policy.  Witness the recent announcement of $100 billion in arms for the Saudis, soon to be confirmed by Trump in his forthcoming trip to Saudi Arabia.  This sale sets up even more military aid for Israel, in that Washington insists Israel must always maintain a qualitative edge in weaponry over its Arab rivals.

Unlike, say, Wilhelmine Germany, which elevated Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg to iconic status during and after World War I, America today is lacking in winning generals.  Sure, there have been a few pretenders.  William Westmoreland in Vietnam, H. Norman Schwarzkopf in Desert Storm, Tommy Franks in Iraqi Freedom, and David Petraeus of “Surge” fame come to mind, but their “victories” were either illusory or lacking in staying power.  Since we can’t idolize our generals, we celebrate our weapons instead.

These weapons are indeed iconic symbols.  They capture an ideology of destruction.  A predilection for spreading misery worldwide, as Tom Engelhardt notes in his latest must-read article at TomDispatch.com.  As Engelhardt notes in his “send-out” message to his piece:

The first part of my latest post focuses on the now seven month-long U.S.-backed Iraqi military offensive against the city of Mosul, which shows little sign of ending and has reduced that city, like so many other places in the region, to ruins, if not rubble.  Mosul, in other words, has been on my mind, but perhaps not completely for the reason you might expect.  Its destruction (and the generation of yet more uprooted people and refugees) has led me to wonder what ever happened to the globalizers who for so many years told us about the wonders of tying the planet ever more tightly together and leveling all playing fields.  It seems obvious to me that war, American-style, these last 15 years, has played a distinctly globalizing role on this ever smaller planet of ours — just globalizing misery, not happy news.  In this piece I use the destruction of Mosul to lay out my thoughts on just what globalization really means in 2017, why the Trump presidency is linked to such grim events, and just why the globalizers have stopped talking about the phenomenon.

When I read Tom’s note above about the “leveling” of “playing fields,” my first thought was that America is indeed working to level the world — just not in the figurative sense of promoting economic equality, but in the literal sense of leveling areas with bombs, cities like Mosul, for example, or alleged training areas for terrorists in Afghanistan.  As Engelhardt himself notes in his article, U.S. military action isn’t making the world flatter in the sense of equitable globalization; it’s simply flattening areas with overwhelming explosive force.

Most Americans simply don’t know or care much about foreign cities being leveled/flattened by America’s icons of power.  You might say it’s not on our radar screens.  The media and our leaders do a very good job of keeping us divided, distracted, and downtrodden.  What American has time to worry about Mosul or some obscure region of Afghanistan?  Unless or until the leveling and flattening come our way, to our cities and valleys, but by that point it will be far too late to act.

With all our talk of MOAB and aircraft carriers and missiles and their “beauty” and “tremendous success,” are we that far away from the lost souls in the movie “Beneath the Planet of the Apes,” who elevated the atomic bomb as their false idol, their version of the Biblical golden calf?


7 thoughts on “Icons of American Militarism

  1. Our military is like Sonny Liston. Those of you old enough to remember Sonny Liston, saw the awesome power he possessed and he seemed to be impervious to an opponents punches. He destroyed every major contender on his way up. The exception was Eddie Machen a clever boxer-puncher. Machen lost to Liston, but went the distance. Liston destroyed Floyd Patterson twice in the first round.

    Ali, showed the way to defeat Liston in their first fight, with speed, constant movement, punishing jabs, and well timed combinations. A battered Liston ended up sitting on his stool. The conclusion was Liston was a one track fighter, put an opponent on that same track and Liston would knock him off.

    I knew before Bush the Youngers invasion of Iraq, we would knock the Iraqi military off the track. One comment I remember before Gulf War 2 on PBS, was once we had captured Baghdad then what??? What was “day after” plan?? I had years ago read, the British and Americans were planning as early as 1942 for the defeat of Germany and how the occupation would be handled at the political, civil and economic levels. Our Military High Command should have asked, OK once we invade Iraq what happens?? How will Iraq be run, who has responsibility for making certain the utilities are kept operational, who will act as the civil police, who will pay them? How will people be vetted? At least looking from a distance back here in America, I could discern no comprehensive “day after” plan. A power vacuum emerged and various individuals and groups rushed into to claim turf.

    Today, we hear about Special Ops and Advisors directing our Sonny Liston munitions unto ISIS, etc. As in Mosul at some point the sticky, difficult job of street to street, house to house and room to room fighting will have to take place. This would involve heavy casualties. Casualties can be reduced on the attacking force, by leveling the city, but then what – a city of rubble. Politically, here in the USA, as long as our losses are low, our leadership could care less about, the civilians, killed, wounded, missing or refugees created.

    Bernie Sanders warned prior to Bush the Youngers invasion of Iraq – “I am concerned about the problems of so-called unintended consequences. Who will govern Iraq when Saddam Hussein is removed and what role will the U.S. play in ensuing a civil war that could develop in that country?”


    1. Thanks for the comment. Back in 2008, I wrote about some of this here: http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/48807

      Some Americans did see chaos and civil war coming (like Sanders did), but those in power chose to ignore the warnings. And there are more than a few who’d argue that chaos and civil war was intended, i.e. destroying Iraq as a power was both good for “disaster capitalism” and good for regional rivals like Israel. It was certainly good for Iran.


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