Ending America’s Cult of the Warrior-Hero

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A letter to my dad from 1945

W.J. Astore

Every now and again I look over my dad’s letters from World War II.  He was attached to an armored headquarters company that didn’t go overseas, but he had friends who did serve in Europe during and after the Battle of the Bulge in late 1944.  Also, he had two brothers, one who served in Europe attached to a quartermaster (logistics) company in the Army, the other who served in the Pacific as a Marine.

Reading my dad’s letters and those from his friends and brothers, you get a sense of the costs of war.  They mention friends who’ve been killed or wounded in action; for example, a soldier who lost both his legs when his tank ran over a mine.  (His fellow soldiers took up a collection for him.)  They talk about strange things they’ve seen overseas, e.g. German buzz bombs or V-1 rockets, a crude version of today’s cruise missiles.  They look forward to furloughs and trips to cities such as Paris.  They talk about bad weather: cold, snow, mud.  They talk about women (my dad’s brother, Gino, met a Belgian girl that he wanted to marry, but it was not to be).  But perhaps most of all, they look forward to the war’s end and express a universal desire to ditch the military for civilian life.

All of my dad’s friends wanted to get out of the military and restart their civilian lives.  They didn’t want a military career — not surprising for draftees who thought of themselves as citizen-soldiers (emphasis on the citizen).  In their letters, they never refer to themselves as “warriors” or “warfighters” or “heroes,” as our society is wont to do today when talking about the troops.  War sucked, and they wanted no part of it.  One guy was happy, as he put it, that the Germans were getting the shit kicked out of them, and another guy was proud his armored unit had a “take no prisoners” approach to war, but this animus against the enemy was motivated by a desire to end the war as quickly as possible.

Reading these letters written by citizen-soldiers of the “greatest generation” reminds me of how much we’ve lost since the end of the Vietnam War and the rise of the “all volunteer” military.  Since the 9/11 attacks in particular, we’ve witnessed the rise of a warrior/warfighter ideal in the U.S. military, together with an ethos that celebrates all troops as “heroes” merely for the act of enlisting and putting on a uniform.  My dad and his friends would have scoffed at this ethos — this idolization of “warriors” and “heroes” — as being foreign to a citizen-soldier military.  Back then, the country that boasted most of warriors and heroes was not the USA: it was Nazi Germany.

Discarding the citizen-soldier ideal for a warrior ethos has been and remains a major flaw of America’s post-Vietnam military.  It has exacerbated America’s transition from a republic to an empire, even as America’s very own wannabe Roman emperor, Donald Trump, tweets while America burns.

Men (and women) of the greatest generation served proudly if reluctantly during World War II.  They fought to end the war as quickly as possible, and they succeeded.  America’s endless wars today and our nation’s rampant militarization dishonor them and their sacrifices.  If we wish to honor their service and sacrifice, we should bring our troops home, downsize our empire and our military budget, and end our wars.

17 thoughts on “Ending America’s Cult of the Warrior-Hero

  1. I grew up in the 60s and 70s. Veterans were all around- church, school, Boy Scout leaders, family, the neighborhood, etc. It was sort of an average thing.

    These folks weren’t seen as a separate part of American society.

    People weren’t stepping over to say “Thanks for your service” to my Dad- who did time in the Navy in the 50s- but looked just like anyone else out in public.

    These guys weren’t lining up for free dinner promotions marketed by major restaurant chains.

    Today- at least two businesses in the small town nearby have special parking spots for veterans.

    There’s a little too much emphasis now on free meals, discounts, head of the line privileges at the airport, militarized tributes at ball games, etc.

    This may all be some sort of post-Vietnam guilt at work. The guilt doesn’t seem to work towards ending decades of undeclared/unwon wars overseas.

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  2. This is a message that should be shouted from the rooftop but sadly will fall on deaf ears. I also remember as a child in the back seat of my parents car watching a large crowd protesting the Vietnam war walking Sunset Blvd. The apathy these days is incredible. So sad.

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  3. A byproduct of the aforementioned civilian/military separation has been greatly increased corruption. Politicians brag about the military investments and jobs in their districts, while taking payments from those doing the investing. Meanwhile “sweetheart” contracts go out to corporations big and small to reward the friends of Pentagon people with public money, from small-time “consultants” to big-time corporations. Apparently Pentagon civilian and military employees can’t accomplish anything on their own! A recent example is an Army contract for $3.5 billion to best friend Lockheed Martin.
    >Feb 15, 2018: “Lockheed Martin Corp., Orlando, Florida, was awarded a $3,531,926,800 firm-fixed-contract for Army training aids, devices, simulators and simulations, maintenance, sustainment, operations and support of instrumentation systems and live-fire ranges. . . U.S. Army Contracting Command, Orlando, Florida, is the contracting activity.”

    This is for a standing army which the US doesn’t even require for national security; Canada and Mexico are quite harmless in ground warfare. So LM gets a “firm-fixed-contract” (whatever that is) for three point five billion from the Army “Contracting Command.”
    https://www.defense.gov/News/Contracts/Contract-View/Article/1467606/

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    1. Don — As a General Smedley Butler fan, you might appreciate the following quote that I came across while reading Michael Parenti’s book Against Empire (1995:

      [begin quote]

      The public record shows that the United States is the foremost interventionists power in the world. There are varied and overlapping reasons for this:

      Protect Direct Investments. In 1907, Woodrow Wilson recognized the support role played by the capitalist state on behalf of private capital:

      Since trade ignores national boundaries and the manufacturer insists on having the world as a market, the flag of his nation must follow him, and the doors of the nations which are closed against him must be battered down. Concessions obtained by financiers must be safeguarded by ministers of state, even if the sovereignty of unwilling nations be outraged in the process. Colonies must be obtained or planted, in order that no useful corner of the world may be overlooked or left unused.

      Later, as president of the United States, Wilson noted that the United States was involved in a struggle to “command the economic fortunes of the world.”

      … and …

      Preserving Politico-Economic Domination and the Capital Accumulation System. Specific investments are not the only imperialist concern. There is the overall commitment to safeguarding the global class system, keeping the world’s land, labor, natural resources, and markets accessible to transnational investors. More important than particular holdings is the whole process of investment and profit. To defend that process the imperialist state thwarts and crushes those popular movements that attempt any kind of redistributive politics, sending a message to them and others that if they try to better themselves by infringing upon the prerogatives of corporate capital, they will pay a severe price.”

      [end quote]

      Not a whole lot has changed over the last century as regards the goals of the transnational finance-capitalist oligarchy, except that their depredations have gotten even more vast and controlling. Given General Butler’s famous description of himself and his military ilk as “gangsters for capitalism” I agree that citizens of the United States need to disband the standing Army and abolish the CIA (a.k.a., the “Cocaine Importation Agency,” “Can’t Identify Anything,” etc.) Fifty state militias and a Coast Guard ought to suffice for “national defense” since, as you say, Canada and Mexico pose no military threat from the North and South, while to the East and West the steadily declining fish populations seem headed for extinction rather than invasion. Only a nation with no real enemies to speak of could scare itself shitless by allowing the International Seizure Class to conjure imaginary hobgoblins as a means of vicariously “shocking and aweing” the American proles in to bed-wetting subservience while robbing them and every other working person on Planet Earth of nearly all they possess.

      From Woodrow Wilson’s “He kept us out of war” (until he didn’t) to Lyndon Johnson’s “I’m not going to send American boys to fight an Asian war that Asian boys can fight for themselves” (until he did), one would think that promises of peace made by lying presidential sons of bitches ought to carry less than zero weight by now. Unfortunately, as Deputy Dubya Bush himself proclaimed: “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and those are the ones you need to concentrate on.” Apparently, in the United States of America, lying sacks-of-shit presidents can always find enough of those.

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  4. I wanted to write something in regard to the previous thread topic: namely, “America’s Phony Wars and the National Defense Strategy,” but by the time I had assembled some notes and gotten a few hours sleep, I see that another topic has taken its place: this one entitled, “Ending America’s Cult of the Warrior-Hero.” Still, since the two articles seem related to me, perhaps I can respond to both at the same time.

    As I have emphasized above, a single possessive adjective, common to both article titles, animates my thinking, if not my anger and disgust. Phrases like “America’s wars” or “America’s warrior-hero cult,” immediately put me in mind of an old joke based upon a 1950s television series in which The Lone Ranger and Tonto find themselves surrounded by hostile native aborigines. “We’re in deep trouble now,” says the masked crusader for law-and-order (not to mention voracious settler property rights). “What do you mean ‘we,’ white man?” replies his suddenly-less-than-faithful, copper-colored Indian sidekick.

    I suppose this Lone Ranger and Tonto imagery came to mind because I had just finished reading a section of Michael Parenti’s book Against Empire (published in 1995). In particular:

    … we should stop saying “we” do this and “we” do that, since we really mean policymakers within the national security establishment who represent a particular set of class interests. Too many otherwise capable analysts have this habit of referring to “we.” It is a shorthand way of saying “U.S. national security state leaders” but it is a misleading use of a pronoun. The point is of more than semantic significance. Those who keep saying “we” are more likely to treat nations as the basic unit of analysis in international affairs and to ignore class interests. They are more likely to presume that a community of interest exists between leaders and populace when usually it does not. The impression left is that we are all responsible for “our” policy, a position that takes the heat off the actual policymakers and evokes a lot of misplaced soul-searching by well-meaning persons who conclude that we all should be shamed and saddened by what “we” are doing in the world.

    In short, the Tonto (of the joke) in me considers it a fundamental error for anyone — especially the masked (and heavily armed) “lawman” — to misleadingly use the inclusive possessive pronoun, “America’s,” as an underhanded semantic means of implicating me — a decidedly low-income, working-class, expatriate retired American citizen — in vast global crimes for which I bear no responsiblity and from which I do not benefit. The time has come to cease using the nation-state as the basic unit of analysis and start identifying the Global Seizure Class interests actually responsible for placing their voracious capital-accumulation schemes above and behond anything so quaint and irrelevant as the subsidiary corporate fast-food franchise euphemistically called “America.”

    Got that, kemosabe?

    [Note * “Ke-mo sah-bee” (often spelled kemo sabe or kemosabe) is the term of endearment used by the fictional Native American sidekick Tonto in the American television and radio programs The Lone Ranger. It has become a common catchphrase.]

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    1. Mike: Going through old notes, I came across the following statement by Karl Marx from May of 1871:

      “The highest heroic effort of which old society is still capable is national war; and this is now proved to be a mere governmental humbug, intended to defer the struggle of the classes, and to be thrown aside as soon as that class struggle bursts out into civil war. Class rule is no longer able to disguise itself in a national uniform; the national Governments are one as against the proletariat!”

      Marx wasn’t far off the mark. But it’s apparent today that class rule is able to disguise itself — at least in part — in a national uniform. Nationalism and war trumped socialism and worker solidarity in World War I, for example. In the USA today, references to worker exploitation and the huge gap between the richest few and the destitute many are suppressed by rhetorical charges of “class warfare.”

      Of course, Warren Buffett had the perfect rejoinder to this nonsense when he said, Of course there’s class warfare — and my class is winning.

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      1. Here is a good example of the Class War. The Golden Parachute in AmeriKan Capitalism at work: Dec. 5, 2017 BERGEN COUNTY, N.J. — The judge overseeing the Toys R Us bankruptcy case ruled Tuesday that the insolvent retailer can pay its 17 top executives $14 million in incentive bonuses.

        Toys R Us, which is based in Wayne, N.J., agreed to trim its original $16 million bonus proposal by $2 million, and to make $5 million of the bonus payout contingent on the company creating a business plan that allows it to emerge from bankruptcy.

        The company said the bonuses are necessary because they motivate executives to boost sales during the critical holiday shopping season.

        After filing for bankruptcy, Toys “R” Us had sought approval to pay millions in incentive bonuses to its top executives. While those bonuses drew opposition from the government’s bankruptcy watchdog, a judge approved the incentive payments in December.
        ==============================================
        Now for Flip Side of Golden Parachute – Screw the Proles. March 16, 2018 31,000 Toys ‘R’ Us employees: No job and NO severance!!! Mass layoffs are usually softened with a severance package, but Toys “R” Us employees won’t get any because of bankruptcy laws. Toys “R” Us was also struggling to attract the workers it needed, at least in part because it was paying wages at or near minimum wage.

        Chief Executive David Brandon of Toys “R”, Mr. Brandon has said Toys “R” Us was unable to invest in store improvements due to its heavy debt load, a legacy of a 2005 leveraged buyout. Private-equity firms Bain Capital and KKR & Co., along with real-estate investment trust Vornado Realty Trust , took Toys “R” Us private for $6.6 billion, which included $5.3 billion in debt, secured in large part by the company’s assets. https://www.wsj.com/articles/toys-r-us-plans-to-close-another-200-stores-1519254948
        ====================================================
        So here we have it the story of America in the early 21st Century, never ending wars over seas and an economic bombing campaign by Steroid Capitalism on the home front.

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  5. Another Smedley quote – “The trouble with America is that when the dollar only earns 6 percent over here, then it gets restless and goes overseas to get 100 percent. Then the flag follows the dollar and the soldiers follow the flag”.

    Even though I was a reluctant draftee, I realized a danger of the all-volunteer military. When Johnny was drafted the parental units might expect their son’s life to be safeguarded as much as possible and not be squandered. The parental units had the legitimate expectation that if Johnny was placed in harms way, the politicians had carefully thought out all the peaceful options first.

    When the dead or wounded in mind and body were shipped home, the danger to the establishment was a rebellion by the parental units and future draftees in the streets or at the ballot box.

    The Vietnam War offered the lesson of a potentially dangerous Middle Class being radicalized against the War Machine. The wealthy were immunized against the draft as exemplified by our current Commander President Bone Spurs. The poor were dangerous too, once they perceived the draft would fall heaviest on them- No College Deferments, or friend of the family doctor to confirm a physical infirmity like bone spurs.

    The only logical course to preserve the War Machine was an all volunteer fighting force, with contractors performing the non-fighting tasks. There would be exceptions if high paid mercenaries were needed to protect conveys, etc. The big corporations could make billions fleshing out the War Machine.

    The descent into moral hell was achieved when interrogation crossed the line to torture and became not an aberration by some rogue sadistic soldier, but became an approved policy, with scum bags defending torture.

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  6. Thanks for all the references to Smedley Butler. I wrote about him here in 2013: https://bracingviews.com/2013/05/30/war-is-a-racket/

    Butler was right: Our military should be restricted to home defense. And we need to take the profit out of war — and the money out of politics. But the opposite is happening. War is profitable (greed-war, I’ve called it) and money drives politics, corrupting the political process.

    Back in May 2013, I wrote this intro to a piece on forever war being forever profitable — for some:

    “Heading north from the Beltway via Highway 1 to the centers of US power in Washington, DC you’ll pass through trendy Alexandria, Virginia, before encountering scrappier neighborhoods closer in. But don’t worry, because within just a few miles, the glint of ultra-modern office buildings appears on the horizon. Behold America’s own Emerald City, appropriately named Crystal City, Virginia!

    The nameplates on the buildings there reveal powerful governmental (the Federal Bureau of Investigation) and corporate (Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and other major defense contractors) entities. Walking into the lobby of any of these defense industry titans reveals a level of swankiness that would not be out of place in a five-star luxury hotel. Conference rooms outfitted with the very latest technology enfold you in plush comfortable chairs. One can’t help but to conclude that business is going very well here. It’s crystal clear that you’ve arrived among the winners of America’s imperial moment.”

    A different question is whether these are and remain “America’s” wars. In one sense they are: American taxpayers are funding them and footing the bills, now and in the future. In another sense they are as well, as foreigners look at them as a product of America, whether we like it or not. But, as Mike Murry suggests, citing Parenti, these wars sure aren’t in the interests of most Americans, as Smedley Butler pointed out by describing war as a “racket.”

    A related question is how we’re going to tamp down or stop these wars: how we’re going to downsize the American empire. I don’t think there are easy answers here. Defeat and national bankruptcy could do it. But is there another way, short of calamity and catastrophe? Protest movements can help move the needle. But (so far) there a few signs of any significant shift in our war ethos; indeed, the militarization of U.S. culture proceeds apace, including the idea of providing guns and military-style training to teachers as the best way to counter shooters armed with assault weapons in American schools.

    When you think about it, the narrative of good guys with guns beating bad guys with guns is the (false) narrative that drives U.S. imperial adventurism and exploitation. Americans are told “our” troops are good, various enemies are bad, and that our goal is essentially to kill or otherwise neutralize all the bad people with various combinations of “Made in USA” bombs, missiles, assorted other weapons, and (when necessary) by “boots on the ground,” whether military service members or mercenaries.

    Until we grow up and write better narratives for ourselves and our nation, I don’t see how we’ll avert the disasters we’re inflicting on ourselves and especially on others, often by troops and weapons festooned with or featuring the American flag.

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    1. The American Flag. Several years ago I was tasked by our neighborhood association to buy American Flags for our 4th of July parade. Each child or adult in the parade would be given an American Flag. I went to the local big box store and could not find one American Flag made in the USA.

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      1. I remember the controversy when it was discovered that new US Army berets were made in China! After which a rule was passed so that they had to be made in the USA. I guess this doesn’t apply to “American” flags …

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  7. US anti-war protesters will travel to Ho Chi Minh city for an exhibition that will remind people they were far from a fringe element. The exhibition, titled Waging Peace, opens in the midst of the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive – a brutal turning point in the war – and will travel to Notre Dame University in the US after Vietnam. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/mar/19/waging-peace-vietnam-anti-war-exhibition-gi-viet-cong

    I hope there will be a lead time alert, I could drive to Notre Dame to see this.

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  8. Bill — Thanks for the quotation from Marx. I never read him because growing up in rabid, reactionary Orange County, California, voting Democrat, as my widowed working-class mother did, sufficed to make one a “communist,” and I saw no need to read an economic theory supposedly about my own family. I tended to prefer a combination of Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class and George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, with which I believe you have some familiarity. Twelve years ago, I put these two references together and came up with:

    Boobie Theory of the Seizure Class
    (from Fernando Po, U.S.A., America’s post-literate retreat to Plato’s Cave)

    The teenage clotheshorse maiden weeps
    Enduring further slights
    The boys won’t line up on the porch
    Or call on Thursday nights
    (The cool-kid-of-the-moment swears:
    “This mother really bites!”)

    The poor don’t fork out princely sums
    Or lay out table fare
    Esteemed by connoisseurs who make
    Of each meal an affair
    So who would dine with those of us
    Who find the cupboard bare?

    As Veblen said, the scholars yearn
    To do their master’s will
    Accustomed to a style of life
    Their incomes can’t fulfill
    And so they gravitate to wealth
    For which they gladly shill

    To motivate the lower class
    To do the filthy deed
    The Pet Press pundit scribes will pen
    A solipsistic screed
    A yellow plaque upon the fangs
    Which makes the gums recede

    The Boobie Seizure Class, it seems,
    On three crude strands depends:
    On emulation, dominance,
    And animism’s blends:
    Assorted spook religions that
    “Explain” why freedom ends

    No toxic cocktail ever brewed
    Can slake the bloody thirst
    Of those who wish to take their bad
    And have us do its worst
    To kill some hapless foreigners
    So that they’ll hate us “first”

    The Pet Press nanny sycophants
    Transcribe the boss’s views
    And put them into their own mouths
    Reporting them like news
    As “sacred” as the hymnals found
    In precinct churches’ pews

    Embedded for a byline they
    Write for the Army’s ease
    A “splendid” little war they think
    Needs just the proper tease
    “Support the troops” they now intone
    Just do it overseas

    The fanboy tough guys need a shield
    Behind which they can hide
    While jeering at the ones who choose
    Their time awhile to bide
    Refusing to approve a war
    For just the “winning” side

    Yet never has the Yellow Press
    Refused to praise the Lord
    If any chance they saw to add
    To their paymaster’s hoard
    And something for themselves as well
    If they just climb on board

    So tales of daring courage brave
    Must fill the printed page
    Until a mass hysteria
    Is all the roar and rage
    And symbol rulers ascertain
    That brains no thoughts engage

    The Sacred Symbol Soldier thus
    Appears to cloak the greed
    In made-up propaganda tales
    For those who on him feed
    He always wins the battles but
    No one his tale will heed

    The users of this symbol have
    No patriotic creed
    They love him for his usefulness
    But can’t abide his need
    The Symbol Soldier only serves
    When none can see him bleed

    One day his status changes to
    The veteran who knows
    Who won’t tell lies to cover up
    The crime of war that grows
    With each exalted croaking by
    A Seizure Class that crows

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright © 2006

    I wouldn’t change a word of that assessment today. As Mark Twain supposedly said: ““History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” I claim that history often does both.

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  9. You noted the praise of the warrior/hero being typical of Nazi Germany. Germany is about the last country I would think of now as militarist. The effect of seeing the euphoria turned literally to ashes had an effect. In just a few short years, Germans went from racing into Paris to starving in the streets of their own capital. What could be a more powerful lesson about the cost of war? Though America lost many in WW2 and Vietnam, it never came to the wholesale destruction of American cities and civilians. For us warring is primarily a budget item, huge though that is. We think of ourselves as untouchable, able to play with fire as desired with no chance of being burned. The apotheosis of the military has much to do with not having been scarred by our actions, as other countries have been.

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