A reader recently posed a simple question: If the U.S. military hasn’t won a war decisively since 1945, why do Americans continue to place so much faith in it and its leaders? I’ve tackled this issue before, but it got me to thinking again about the roots of military admiration — and adulation — within our society.
Here are a few reasons I came up with:
1. Although the U.S. military lost in Vietnam, stalemated in Korea, and got bogged down in seemingly endless wars recently in Iraq and Afghanistan, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t won victories in battles, such as Desert Storm in 1991 or the beginning of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. Its defeats were not primarily the fault of the troops but of poor leadership at the top (both military and government). In other words, when Americans say they admire and trust the military, what they mean, perhaps, is they appreciate the spirit of service and sacrifice of the troops, while reserving judgment on presidents and generals.
2. Let’s not forget victory in the Cold War. The fall of the “Iron Curtain,” the collapse of the Soviet Union, the reunification of Germany, the end of the Warsaw Pact — these were momentous events for the West.
3. The U.S. military may not win wars, but it does accomplish good things, e.g. rescue work, disaster relief, humanitarian missions. Critics often neglect these non-hostile missions.
4. Pro-military propaganda. There are many, many, examples of this, e.g. President Reagan and the myth of the noble cause in Vietnam, or presidents from Bush to Obama to Trump consistently praising the military as the finest fighting force in all of history. This is supported by Hollywood and TV. Think of all the movies and television shows that depict the military and war as ennobling and exciting and energizing.
5. The military-industrial complex and its power to control the narrative. The national security state has become a fourth branch of government with enormous influence and power in society. The mainstream media, for example, is dominated by pro-military talking heads, most of whom are retired colonels or generals.
6. Guilt. The U.S. military is “all volunteer.” The vast majority of Americans not only choose not to serve — they choose not to pay much attention. And I think many have some guilt for this, which they assuage with “support our troops” bumper stickers and other easy gestures of conformity.
7. Exposure to the military may be limited, but that doesn’t mean it’s not emotional. Indeed, when they think of the military, Americans may think of a son or daughter who serves, or granddad who served, or maybe that nice boy or girl down the street in uniform. They know nothing of the Pentagon, the military-industrial complex, war crimes, and so on.
8. For many Americans, the military is a point of pride. A symbol of strength but also a symbol of service and sacrifice.
My point is not to praise the military — it gets plenty of praise already, indeed, way too much praise, so much so that admiration becomes adulation. My intent here is rather to explicate some of the reasons why Americans continue to place so much confidence in the military, even when the results are disastrous.
One more thought: We live in a “selfie” society, a me-first culture. Whatever the military is, it’s not typically me-first. So when people say they respect or trust the military, perhaps they’re thinking of an organization that values teamwork — that puts the many before the few. In an America marked by divisiveness, it’s an ideal that resonates still.
Readers, what do you think?
Postscript: In my list above, I should have highlighted more strongly the role of lying by the military and government (think of the initial lies/reports about Pat Tillman’s death in Afghanistan, for example). I’m currently reading Sy Hersh’s new book, “Reporter.” Hersh’s accounts of systematic lying by the military and government during the Vietnam War are sober reminders to Americans. Yes, our government and military will often lie to us, sometimes for the most mundane reasons, but often to avoid accountability and to maintain control over the narrative.
When we think of the American press corps in the Vietnam War, names like Hersh and David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan come to mind, hardboiled reporters who sought the truth, no matter how shattering it proved to be. But these men, and reporters like Izzy Stone, were truly exceptional. Most reporters were more or less willing to repeat government and military explanations verbatim and without pushback. Hersh cites Arthur Sylvester, who served as Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s senior press aide, as describing the Pentagon press corps as “shabby” and gullible. “Cover stories [lies],” Sylvester wrote, “go down smooth as cream [and for six years], when I thought they would cause a frightful gargle” among reporters.
So, even as the Pentagon fooled many reporters and most Americans about progress in and prospects of the war, they didn’t fool the North Vietnamese themselves, who decisively won the war. “There was no learning curve among the men in the Pentagon running the war,” Hersh concludes (p. 62). Perhaps all these men really learned was how to lie better in the future — and how to shift blame from themselves to the usual suspects (hippies, leftists, commies, anti-war protesters, and so on).
Update (8/6/18): For more on U.S. lies and self-deception, see “The American Sea of Deception” by Paul Street at Truthdig.com.