Why Do Americans Admire the Military So Much?

Admiration — or adulation?  An over-the-top “salute” to the troops in a marketing campaign for camouflage baseball caps

W.J. Astore

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.

20 thoughts on “Why Do Americans Admire the Military So Much?

  1. ‘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.’

    I think that this is a very weak argument. You don’t need to have a military armed to the teeth with the most expensive weaponry known to man to carry out humanitarian relief exercises. Indeed, given the reputation of the US military around the world, probably the last thing one wants in any disaster situation is to know that ‘the Marines are coming’. See below.

    There are two major issues here:
    1. The job can be done more effectively and less expensively by people whose daily work it is.
    2. If we didn’t have a US military, we would not have many of the humanitarian disasters that we currently experience around the world – such as the flight of Middle-Eastern and African refugees to Europe.

    Here in Lao PDR, we have an ongoing humanitarian disaster left behind by the US Secret War of 1964-1973: the plague of unexploded ordnance (UXO). There are two US people doing anything about it on the ground: one works with a British NGO doing clearance work and the other is Jim Harris, a retired headmaster of Wisconsin. Jim’s initiative is entirely privately funded as a result of his own ingenuity, initiative, and energy. Back in the 1990s, the US offered to come in and do UXO clearance work. ‘How would that be done’ asked the Lao Government. ‘With the US Army.’ said the US Department of State. ‘No thank you very much,’ replied the Lao ‘We have had enough of US military activity to last us forever.’ (I may not have got those words precisely right, but that was the gist of it).

    Sorry to focus in on that one point. I am sure that everything else that you say is right.


    1. You make a good point. But sometimes only the U.S. military has the resources for effective disaster relief, e.g. helicopters, airlift, shipping, and so on. And sometimes disaster relief and similar missions require armed troops for security and protection. That said, you’re right about the military and humanitarian crises, e.g. Iraq, and you’re right about the military and environmental disasters. Agent Orange, depleted uranium, unexploded ordnance (esp. cluster munitions): it often seems we’re fighting a war on nature itself.


      1. Dear Bill
        Thank you very much for taking the time to respond to my comment.

        You will have to help me. When has the US military undertaken a significant humanitarian relief exercise? I have worked in the civil society sector around the world for some 40 years and cannot think of one single example. Were the US forces there in the 2004 tsunami? the 2005 Azad Kashmir earthquake in Pakistan? the 2010 Indus floods? the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Perhaps they were there for Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, and other US catastrophes.

        I have watched the current Attapeu flood disaster in Laos and noted no presence of US military.

        The fact that what you say is correct; ‘only the U.S. military has the resources for effective disaster relief, e.g. helicopters, airlift, shipping, and so on.’ does not mean that it happens. Wouldn’t it be more effective to establish a rapid reaction task force, equipped with these types of devices and able to respond immediately when disasters occur?

        In UK, we have a thing called The Disasters Emergency Committee: it is a coalition of the leading humanitarian and relief non-governmental organisations (NGOs). It maintains stocks of emergency supplies – tents, blankets, water, rations – that can be mobilised instantly. The DEC prepares a radio and televised appeal for funds that is broadcast as soon as possible and every branch of Barclays Bank is open to receive donations, at the same time as on-line funds are received. Because the DEC knows that disasters of a certain sort and magnitude will raise a certain sum of money, they can move before a single penny is donated.

        This is an example of a purpose-built and effective humanitarian disaster relief which the military can never emulate until it sheds itself of the aggressive and devious image that it has acquired – however much American citizens laud their forces.


        1. Mike: here’s an article from “Stars and Stripes” on humanitarian relief missions: https://www.stripes.com/news/pacific/when-disaster-strikes-us-military-assets-often-key-to-relief-efforts-1.253245

          And the US Army has a site that summarizes some of its relief efforts: https://www.army.mil/humanitarian/

          My point, of course, was to suggest that people admire the military partly because they are the recipients of such help, or they see relief efforts being featured on TV and elsewhere.

          Often, of course, humanitarian missions overseas have many different motives.


          1. Dear Bill
            Thank you very much for this – a new perspective for me.

            It is useful that all of those resources are deployed to some positive purpose.

            There are two major areas for pan-national activities:
            1. ‘Development’ work in low-income countries
            2. Post-disaster or current and post-conflict humanitarian relief

            After almost 50 years working in both of those areas, I have become very cynical about the first. It is what we of the west have imposed on the low-income world. If there is no local ownership of the ideas behind the projects and programmes, it is a waste of money .

            In the second case, we saw the emergence of the ‘responsibility to protect’ philosophy during the 1990s. This has often meant that we go in and bomb – and we often go in and kill and injure more local civilians that military personnel. In any event, the humanitarian side of the work finds itself embedded or aligned, in one degree or another, with the foreign military forces that are there to suppress local insurgents. Western not-for-profits are seen as a part of the enemy by those insurgents. The only organisations that have been able to maintain their neutrality have been the International Committee of the Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders in USA).

            This raises an interesting issue. Many not-for-profits have become aligned with, for example, the military operations in Afghanistan, requiring their protection and adopting their values with regard to the insurgents. This is one way that they have lost their credibility as honest humanitarian brokers.

            So what happens to that credibility when the military invades the humanitarian field of endeavour?

            Best wishes


          2. Great question, Mike. It’s not only the military invading humanitarian missions but government agencies like the CIA. What happens is that people lose trust; they come to suspect doctors; they come to distrust even the most benign and disinterested agencies.

            It’s a big problem in the field from what I’ve read — I admit not to having first-hand experience.

            And you’re right: programs that are imposed on locals usually fail. The U.S. military has a tendency to take over; locals are often shunted aside. We don’t have much patience, in other words. And that’s not a formula for building lasting partnerships and trust.


        2. >> When has the US military undertaken a significant humanitarian relief exercise? <> Wouldn’t it be more effective to establish a rapid reaction task force, equipped with these types of devices and able to respond immediately when disasters occur? <<

          Yes, I think you are right.


          1. Dear FESAPO
            Thank you for your comment.

            I don’t want to drag this discussion out unnecessarily, but, here in Lao PDR, we are in the midst of an humanitarian crisis that began with some general flooding of low-lying land in mid-late July, and was hugely exacerbated by the collapse of a dam in the deep south of the country on July 23rd. Thirteen villages were either swept away or severely damaged, with a loss of life that is subject to discussion at present.

            The most immediate response was by the general populace. Slowly, an official reaction set in, but it has been characterised by lack of experienced logistics and clear thinking. Altogether, the response has been chaotic: enthusiastic amateurism combined with incompetent officialdom.

            I had expected that the British Disaster Relief Committee would click into action, but it didn’t and I have been in discussion with them to find out why not. It needed people with the experience to hit the ground running, pronto. They need that experience and logistical base, plus the immediate availability of a range of emergency supplies, and the equipment to tackle this specific problem. Helicopters have been OK, but better would have been hovercraft and airboats, able to cross not just water and land, but deep mud.

            In circumstances such as these, using organisations whose primary purpose is something else, is not necessarily going to get the job done to best effect.

            Now, four weeks after the dam failure, many of the international humanitarian/development organisations have withdrawn and left the field to perhaps the worst-prepared of all, the government of Lao PDR. Reports coming in yesterday and Saturday show that the chaos is continuing and that survivors are not getting even food. And now, the waters are rising again, throughout the country, as a result of a second Tropical Storm (Bebinka) within a month, and the massive release of water from dams in many parts of the country (currently 50) to try and avoid a repetition of dam failure. Some dams are releasing in excess of 3,000 cubic metres of water PER SECOND (cumecs): that is a heck of a lot of water.

            This crisis has a long way yet to run, and the response is a second – or third – disaster.


        3. I was an active duty Air Force C130 mechanic. I did two tours in Japan, every typhoon season we did humanitarian relief missions. They might of only been a couple of aircraft, but we were there hauling relief supplies to the people in need. After the earthquake in Kobe Japan, 1995, our wing was leaning so far forward when we finally got permission to go the first aircraft was airborne 29 minutes later.


          1. Dear David
            That is a good story: there are regular typhoons in Japan and they appear to be getting worse, as everywhere. People who are disciplined, and who enter the fray on a regular basis, can be very helpful. Discipline and experience are both essential and need the addition of good and appropriate equipment, well-maintained. It sound like you had all of that.


  2. We can go back all the way to antiquity to view the monuments that extol the conquests of certain leaders, carved into stone, or in Julius Caesar case his commentaries. Military conquests validate the belief of say Assyrian Exceptionalism and confer upon the people in an indirect way superiority over all others. It is like when I hear people today talking about sports teams how “our team” or “we” won, even though they had absolutely nothing to do with the win. So, the idea is developed that the fans in the stands have some control over the out come of the big game.

    Back at least in Civil War times an Army Commander who was defeated in battle was for the most part solely responsible. The flip side was the victorious Army Commander led his troops to victory.

    The industrialization and mass production for war, meant for the most part the larger and more efficient the economic base – the more likely you would be a victor in warfare. The US had it’s share of good Admirals and Generals in WW 2, but the production of war materials and the ability to project the power meant the Axis was going to be submerged eventually.

    WW 2 was in keeping with past wars. The development of and delivery of nuclear weapons changed everything. What it did not change was the idea that the somehow through the application of overwhelming firepower a victory would be the result. No General or Admiral was going to “win” these new wars. The Elder Bush scored a battlefield victory, but he seemed to know pressing forward to Baghdad was bad idea.

    What we have now is what Masao Maruyama has called “the system of nonresponsibilty”. Responsibility is shared to the point by the President, Defense Department and Congress that the point is reached where no one is responsible.

    This lack of responsibility for failure extends into the civilian arena. However, to justify our the enormous expenditures by the Pentagon they must create a myth, that obscures the failures. A sober assessment of our political-military failures, would lead to the terrible conclusion that we as Americans have failed. Americans would rather buy into the myth.


  3. Irony has truly died in the United States. Just think of all those major-league baseball teams putting on U.S. military camouflage caps and then losing to minor-league farm teams for the next seventy years while the tax-paying fans wind up 21 trillion dollars in debt buying the club owners their stadiums and fleets of private jet aircraft while paying them lavish bonuses for putting on such an unmitigated shit show.

    Personally, I’d rather watch a cricket match between Pakistan and Bangladesh. At least players from those countries do not feel the need to disguise themselves from view — the actual purpose of camouflage — so as not to get shot by the local peasants enraged at the boorish bumpkin invaders fucking up soup sandwiches, bombing weddings and funerals, throwing “military age” (old enough to throw rocks) males in prison, and expecting eternal gratitude from those whose lives they have ruined just to make a handful of filthy-rich international corporate stockholders even wealthier.

    The U. S. Military: Major League Bunglers, indeed. If only their idea of camouflage actually worked and we didn’t have to witness them strutting around like permanent erections prematurely ejaculating incomprehensible jargon, euphemisms, and lies about all the “progress” they keep making while not even getting to first base for the last thirty innings. Come to think of it, baseball as played by the U.S. military actually does resemble an interminable cricket match, only with “players” that no one can actually see.


    1. Mike: It’s a strange thing in the USA that people now wear military-style camouflage as a fashion statement — I guess it’s considered cool and patriotic. And then you have camo hats and other gear emblazoned with bright logos that defeat the purpose of the camo of blending in.

      I remember when camo was worn by the military and by hunters in the field — and that’s it. You didn’t see it on kid’s bikes or even pickup trucks (I kid you not) and underwear and elsewhere.

      There are a lot of military wannabes in the USA.


      1. Again, it bears repeating that the wearing of “camouflage” has the purpose of blending the person wearing it into the background so as to make him or her (or whatever) relatively invisible and therefore difficult to target. But the wearing of jungle or desert camouflage against the background not of trees or sand but of a shopping mall or baseball stadium has exactly the opposite effect, rendering the subject even more visible and distinct from the general background environment. Now, of course, fashion wear has precisely this objective of increasing the visibility of the consumer, at least until other imitative consumers adopt the new fashion and everyone again looks just the same as everyone else. So much for the civilian wearing of “military” camouflage clothing.

        On the other hand, 58,000 dead American troops in Southeast Asia and another 6,000 dead in Iraq and Afghanistan — not to mention the even greater number of wounded or suicidally self-terminated — ought to conclusively demonstrate that their respective camouflage clothing (green or tan) did not appreciably protect them from quiet, diminutive natives — Southeast Asian or Middle Eastern Muslim — who had no trouble picking out and shooting hulking, loudmouth Americans throwing money around, shooting at anything that moves, and bellowing incomprehensible high-school “English,” no matter what color or type of clothing the Americans might wear.

        Not to put too fine a point on it, but U.S. military camouflage clothing ultimately works neither as “protection” for American enlisted targets or as conspicuous consumption for American civilians and flag-rank military officers. But then, since not much of what the U.S. military does has any relationship to effectiveness or national public purpose, why should anyone expect our Vaunted Visigoths or their leisure-class civilian groupies to dress as if they actually had some legitimate reason for existing in the first place?


  4. As a Canadian, I think Reason #6 (Guilt) has a lot to do with. Cozy middle class people from good families do not volunteer for the military. They just don’t. But occasionally, and just occasionally, they become vaguely aware that there is a sub-species of humans who volunteer for harsh discipline, danger and low pay to work in an environment that, for the most part, values team over the individual. Fortunately for those cozy middle class people from good families, they can entirely assuage their inconvenient twinge of guilt by putting a vapid “Support Our Troops” sticker on the bumper of their Volvos or by offering other empty gestures to veterans.


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