The Myths We Tell Ourselves

General John Kelly

W.J. Astore

John Kelly, President Trump’s chief of staff and a retired Marine Corps general, held a press conference on Thursday to deny he’s quitting or that he’s about to be fired.  In passing, he referred to two common myths in America that go almost completely unexamined.  (By “myth” I mean a defining belief, held in common, and usually without question.)

The first myth: That the United States has “the greatest military on the planet.”  The second myth: That the U.S. military’s value is its “deterrent factor.”

The U.S. certainly has a powerful military, one that costs roughly a trillion dollars a year, when all national security expenses are tallied (e.g. Homeland Security, intelligence, nuclear weapons, and interest on the national debt associated with these expenditures, among other costs).  But is it “the greatest”?  More importantly, why should a democracy and a people allegedly dedicated to peace and freedom be so proud of possessing “the greatest military on the planet”?

There was a time when Americans were proud of having a small standing military.  There was a time when Americans were proud of protesting arms sales around the world by “merchants of death.”  Those days ended with the Cold War.  Now, America leads the world in military spending and arms exports; no other country comes close.  Is this something to boast about?

How about General Kelly’s claim of the military’s “deterrent factor”?  The U.S. military has 800 bases around the world, with U.S. special operations forces involved in more than 130 countries.  Is this all about “deterrence”?  Is the U.S. deterring or preventing wars in Libya, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, among other places throughout the greater Middle East and Africa?  That hardly seems to fit the facts on the ground.

Of course, the media focused on Kelly’s message that he isn’t being fired and that President Trump is both “thoughtful” and a “man of action.”  His claims about the “world’s greatest military” and its strong deterrent value went unreported and unquestioned.  Such claims are now as “American” as baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet.

And so it goes …

4 thoughts on “The Myths We Tell Ourselves

  1. I would say the word “Myth” is a bit mild. I think the word, “Idolatry” covers it better. I think of a myth as a story like Jason and the Argonauts, etc. Idolatry, would cover more ground and has the underlining message of some idea or action that cannot be questioned.

    The anti-war demonstrators of the Vietnam Era had their patriotism questioned to the point of being called traitors. The latest flap about the NFL Players taking a knee is a good example. The thinking being there are some ideas or rituals that are so holy that these rituals or beliefs cannot be challenged.
    The McMega-Media which should be the Fourth Estate and source of critical analysis has become a propaganda arm.


    1. Yes, there’s a strong tendency in America to idolize the military. To see the military as representing the very best of us. And this is dangerous. It’s OK to respect a service member for his or her service, but to idolize the military as an institution is something seen in militaristic states such as Sparta or Prussia (or Nazi Germany).

      Democracies are supposed to see militaries as a more or less regrettable cost of living in a competitive world. In the old days, the U.S. kept its military small, recognizing the perils of idolizing the military and giving it too much authority in society. We seem to have forgotten those perils, preferring instead so-called patriotic hoopla about having the “greatest” military with the “finest fighting forces” in history.

      We seem to have forgotten what happened to other “greatest” militaries, e.g. Sparta’s defeat, Napoleon’s demise, Prussia/Germany’s defeat in two world wars …


  2. Your article was responsibly written, balanced and thought provoking. And so were your readers who responded to it.

    Democracy requires this integrity from sources willing to grapple with the complexities of reporting Real News, as well as the requirement for all forms of open dialogue with authors by a public who cares about finding the sources that focus on countering both ‘fake news’ and self-serving myths — which have been given undeserved new life under Trump and this administration.

    As one of a growing number of seniors who have found themselves in subsidized housing, I am unable to make a financial contribution. Please accept my appreciation for what you report on and. especially, the ethics you employ in your reporting.
    In appreciation,


  3. Very good points! My only critique is that the U.S. is a republic, not a democracy.
    For verification, see the Founders’ writings about democracy.


Comments are closed.