The Militarization of Everything

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What’s wrong with this image?  For too many Americans, nothing is wrong with it.

W.J. Astore

In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I talk about militarism in the USA, a subject that’s been on my mind ever since President George W. Bush hid behind the bemedaled chest of General David Petraeus in 2007.  Here’s an excerpt from my article:

Besides TV shows, movies, and commercials, there are many signs of the increasing embrace of militarized values and attitudes in this country. The result: the acceptance of a military in places where it shouldn’t be, one that’s over-celebrated, over-hyped, and given far too much money and cultural authority, while becoming virtually immune to serious criticism.

Let me offer just nine signs of this that would have been so much less conceivable when I was a young boy watching reruns of Dragnet:

1. Roughly two-thirds of the federal government’s discretionary budget for 2020 will, unbelievably enough, be devoted to the Pentagon and related military functions, with each year’s “defense” budget coming ever closer to a trillion dollars. Such colossal sums are rarely debated in Congress; indeed, they enjoy wide bipartisan support.

2. The U.S. military remains the most trusted institution in our society, so say 74% of Americans surveyed in a Gallup poll. No other institution even comes close, certainly not the presidency (37%) or Congress (which recently rose to a monumental 25% on an impeachment high). Yet that same military has produced disasters or quagmires in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Somalia, and elsewhere. Various “surges” have repeatedly failed. The Pentagon itself can’t even pass an audit. Why so much trust?

3. A state of permanent war is considered America’s new normal. Wars are now automatically treated as multi-generational with little concern for how permawar might degrade our democracy. Anti-war protesters are rare enough to be lone voices crying in the wilderness.

4. America’s generals continue to be treated, without the slightest irony, as “the adults in the room.” Sages like former Secretary of Defense James Mattis (cited glowingly in the recent debate among 12 Democratic presidential hopefuls) will save America from unskilled and tempestuous politicians like one Donald J. Trump. In the 2016 presidential race, it seemed that neither candidate could run without being endorsed by a screaming general (Michael Flynn for Trump; John Allen for Clinton).

5. The media routinely embraces retired U.S. military officers and uses them as talking heads to explain and promote military action to the American people. Simultaneously, when the military goes to war, civilian journalists are “embedded” within those forces and so are dependent on them in every way. The result tends to be a cheerleading media that supports the military in the name of patriotism — as well as higher ratings and corporate profits.

6. America’s foreign aid is increasingly military aid. Consider, for instance, the current controversy over the aid to Ukraine that President Trump blocked before his infamous phone call, which was, of course, partially about weaponry. This should serve to remind us that the United States has become the world’s foremost merchant of death, selling far more weapons globally than any other country. Again, there is no real debate here about the morality of profiting from such massive sales, whether abroad ($55.4 billion in arms sales for this fiscal year alone, says the Defense Security Cooperation Agency) or at home (a staggering 150 million new guns produced in the USA since 1986, the vast majority remaining in American hands).

7. In that context, consider the militarization of the weaponry in those very hands, from .50 caliber sniper rifles to various military-style assault rifles. Roughly 15 million AR-15s are currently owned by ordinary Americans. We’re talking about a gun designed for battlefield-style rapid shooting and maximum damage against humans. In the 1970s, when I was a teenager, the hunters in my family had bolt-action rifles for deer hunting, shotguns for birds, and pistols for home defense and plinking. No one had a military-style assault rifle because no one needed one or even wanted one. Now, worried suburbanites buy them, thinking they’re getting their “man card” back by toting such a weapon of mass destruction.

8. Paradoxically, even as Americans slaughter each other and themselves in large numbers via mass shootings and suicides (nearly 40,000 gun deaths in 2017 alone), they largely ignore Washington’s overseas wars and the continued bombing of numerous countries. But ignorance is not bliss. By tacitly giving the military a blank check, issued in the name of securing the homeland, Americans embrace that military, however loosely, and its misuse of violence across significant parts of the planet. Should it be any surprise that a country that kills so wantonly overseas over such a prolonged period would also experience mass shootings and other forms of violence at home?

9. Even as Americans “support our troops” and celebrate them as “heroes,” the military itself has taken on a new “warrior ethos” that would once — in the age of a draft army — have been contrary to this country’s citizen-soldier tradition, especially as articulated and exhibited by the “greatest generation” during World War II.

What these nine items add up to is a paradigm shift as well as a change in the zeitgeist. The U.S. military is no longer a tool that a democracy funds and uses reluctantly.  It’s become an alleged force for good, a virtuous entity, a band of brothers (and sisters), America’s foremost missionaries overseas and most lovable and admired heroes at home. This embrace of the military is precisely what I would call soft militarism. Jackbooted troops may not be marching in our streets, but they increasingly seem to be marching unopposed through — and occupying — our minds.

Please read the entire article here at TomDispatch.com.

Update (10/25/19): Speaking of militarization, let’s not forget the popularity of video games (or “shooter” games) such as Call of Duty.  And with Halloween coming, who can resist costumes such as this (photo taken by a military friend):

IMG_0310

You thus have war reduced to a game and a costume party.  Welcome to Amerika!

21 thoughts on “The Militarization of Everything

  1. I read the full article at TomDispatch. Well done, Bill. May I offer a few addenda? It is absolutely essential to recognize that this creeping (moving along more like a juggernaut now) militarism is absolutely as much the fault of the Democrats as Republicans. (No, I’m not implying you were one-sided in criticizing GOP in your article.) Here is a fundamental truth about the use of US military in our nation’s history: mainland USA has not been attacked by a foreign power since the War of 1812. [Notes: 1.) Hawaii, site of Pearl Harbor Naval Base, a once “independent kingdom,” was seized by the US in the 19th Century. Further, it was not considered a state in 1941, and is thousands of miles from our mainland; 2.) we occasionally hear of Nazi or Japanese mini-submarines, or individual saboteurs, that attempted to make mischief on N. American continent during WW II, but apparently no significant damage was done; 3.) the attacks of 9/11/2001 were apparently carried out by “non-state” actors, having nothing to do with Afghanistan. This did not stop Dick Cheney and company (some chap named George W. someone-or-other was supposedly involved in governing at the time) from launching military aggression against Afghanistan because its supposed rag-tag “government” was supposedly sheltering the bad guys. As we know, this US aggression continues to this day.] Note the howls of protest, wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth on both sides of the aisle when Trump recently threatened an outbreak of “peace” in Syria. That speaks volumes about the state of our republic (we’ve never been a democracy, though supposedly we citizens–heaven help you if you can’t prove you’re a bona fide citizen!–enjoy certain democratic rights). I’ve seen it claimed that for only 37 years in US’s existence have troops not been engaged in combat somewhere on the planet. I can’t vouch for accuracy of that figure, but I find it plausible. This country, land of my birth and citizenship, now has zero claim to “moral authority” in the world. This would be obvious to our fellow citizens if they weren’t so awash in the kind of pro-military (i.e. pro-war) propaganda addressed in the original article. And Bill, you neglected to mention the NFL games where sideline personnel dress in pseudo-camouflage uniforms to show they “support our troops”!! Me, I do not now and never will “support our troops” when they are engaged in unjustified aggression anywhere on Earth. [Note to readers: I happen to be a veteran myself, thank you very much!] I say withdraw them all from abroad and put the money saved to good use. This comment is getting way too long, but speaking of pro sports I can’t resist one last observation: according to CNN website today, a Major League Baseball umpire is under scrutiny right now for having posted on social media that the move to impeach current POTUS is inspiring him to personally acquire an AR-15 assault rifle. Is this a great society, or what?! [My article on US never having been a democracy, and on the adventures of ‘Bowe’ Bergdahl, a self-styled super-patriot, in deployment to Afghanistan–both originally published on the blog site The Contrary Perspective–can be found at http://www.gregorylaxer.com ]

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      1. Bill, you’ve written good stuff on this topic. But since you brought up the NFL in today’s post, I thought it was relevant to bring up the stupid camou-wear on the sidelines. Turns my stomach every time I see it!

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        1. Yes — it is relevant. Again, 50 years ago, you saw camo in two places, if memory serves: the military and hunting. That was it. Now camo is everywhere. And that’s not a good thing.

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  2. When we talk of militarism and the USA, we could easily add other facets. I almost added a #10 about how the military deeply influences education at all levels, e.g. ROTC in high school and college, but most especially how colleges and universities are deeply dependent on military spending to keep the lights on. So now we see retired generals and admirals appointed to run colleges and universities at the state level. It’s not because they’re experts in education!

    Also, we can talk about the militarization of schools. There’s an industry now to fortify schools against shooters that made $2.7 billion last year (and rising). Also, on a personal level, concerned parents can now buy “bulletproof” backpacks for their kids to bring to school with them. Also, let’s not forget the NRA’s idea of arming teachers in the classroom, or some school systems allowing guns on campus, all in the name of “safety.”

    It goes on and on …

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  3. thank the equipollent spirits who stride across northern climes that our family is canadian [though birthed in the US, kismet led me to marry a canadian]. our apex-apprehension is that ‘we are next’… that we will soon be the target of a mentally deranged president and the pugilistic generals w/ whom he is besotted… not so much for our abundant resources, but for asseverating dump-trump’s power over others and his pudgy fist-pumping, self-aggrandizing, pathological narcissism. we canadians are vulnerable, particularly given that we spend only 4% of canadian citizenry’s tax dollars on our military, whereas the US spends at least 40% on their military/homeland ‘insecurity’… perhaps more, but data on such expenditures is decidedly recondite.

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    1. Until the English-speaking segment of Canada’s population ceases spelling color “colour,” etc., etc., our northern neighbo(u)rs must be viewed with deep suspicion! Bloody Tories! “Build the wall! Build the wall!”…along the Canuck border!! 🙂

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      1. Not just bloody Tories 🙂 ! Properly educated & not yet McDonaldised Europeans also prefer colour and metres :-). Come to think of it, that may even be one of the few ways we the powerless neighbours at the receiving end of US dominance, can resist without being hit by some ludicrous sanctions…
        Besides old world linguistics though, thanks for being one of exceptionally few to outright condemn the occupation of Afghanistan, which for some reason tends to be considered ‘legitimate’ just because the taliban refused to extradite an unpopular guest who had overstayed his welcome, without first receiving proof of his guilt. 18 years and counting.

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  4. apologies for my inaccurate data, but it appears astore’s claim of two-thirds [of discretionery funding from US tax coffers] is closer to the vexatious figure of monies earmarked for the military in 2020. w/ no end in sight, when will that unspeakable, hideous govt. implode????

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    1. The total war budget of US is impossible to nail down accurately due to state secrecy. But I think those of us critical of it are absolutely correct to insist that ALL the costs be taken into account: cost for maintaining current active-duty troop level, which includes the extremely wasteful employment of fossil fuels; cost of research and development for still more deadly (and wasteful!) weaponry–if you don’t believe that a little agency called DARPA is hard at work developing killing robots, you are naive as hell; cost of generous pensions to retired admirals, generals, etc.; cost of ongoing medical care for the wounded and retirees; cost of environmental amelioration (something the Pentagon doesn’t want to hear about!); costs associated with espionage; direct or indirect military aid to foreign nations (some of it just plain given away!); and the share of the ever-swelling national debt that can be attributed to Pentagon expenditures. If the true cost could be ferreted out, I would not be at all surprised if it’s already reached the trillion dollar level annually. How can this madness go on? Well, you see, boys and girls, the Federal Government controls this thing called the printing press. As long as people believe the paper-linen stuff called “dollars” still has some kind of value, the fraud continues. Eventually, we will be the Weimar Republic or Zimbabwe of the North American continent. Oh, joy!

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      1. oh goodie, tho’ i await the inevitable tremblor w/ restive anticipation. unfortunately, if the US economy implodes, it will drag many countries into fiscal desuetude along w/ its interpenetrative banking scams. only the global but immune 1% will avoid drowning in this dystopian sewer. i suggest that such a recrudescence via destruction is precisely what we need in order to crawl out of this global sewer of inequitability.

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        1. Since Capitali$m is light years beyond being malleable in some kind of reform, absolutely the whole bloody system needs to implode before fundamental change can take place. I’m not sure I’ll still be around to personally eyewitness what will doubtless be, in hindsight, “days that shook the world.” (I can’t predict how many days will be involved, though I expect the number to exceed the ten that John Reed used to describe the Bolshevik Revolution!)

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  5. Excellent but long article on military spending. Military Spending’s Out of Control While Slashing It Could Easily Fund Medicare for All.

    Something very unusual happened on Thursday, Oct. 17. The New York Times suddenly ran an article on its opinion page explaining how to cut $300 billion from the $1-trillion military budget — enough, the article explained, to fund Bernie Sanders’ proposed program for an expanded Medicare program to cover all Americans without raising a dime in new taxes.
    https://www.counterpunch.org/2019/10/23/military-spendings-out-of-control-while-slashing-it-could-easily-fund-medicare-for-all/

    It is disturbing that long after Truman – Lost China per the Neo-Cons of the early 1950’s, the Democrats with some exceptions are still afraid of being labeled “Soft on Someone”.

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  6. What’s the NY Times Editorial Board smoking these days? These are the very same folks who put up a howl heard on Pluto-Charon when it looked like Trump might actually be withdrawing some troops from Syria! He didn’t, of course; they were merely redeployed elsewhere. SOP. I guess someone at The Times felt a need to put a little distance between themselves and the most rabid warmongers.

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  7. It’s also scary that the military is considered above reproach and criticism. It begins with “support the troops” and is entrenched when we identify participation in the military with “serving my country.” Once upon a time it was a cultural norm to profane and satirize the military. Today, we are building a military caste with almost sacred status. A democracy cannot exist under such a structure. https://madsociologistblog.com/2019/07/03/remember-when-it-was-okay-to-criticize-the-military/

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  8. Oh Boy! I’m not a movie buff but watched “Sunset Boulevard” by Billy Wilder. The last scene I find most appropriate to the above: ‘Norma Desmond’ murdered her Gigolo/Lover, yet the Cops don’t know how to arrest her. Well, one does; but he’s a simple flatfoot: Handcuff her. Rejected, The other says: “But she’s a STAR!” So this demented person goes down the grand stairs to flashbulbs for jail – not new movies: “I’ll make MORE & MORE!”
    You wrote an EXCELLENT article WJAstore, but if you sleep on it, they’re disastrous mistakes are about the the same!

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  9. EXCELLENT, incisive piece WJA, and great comments by GREGLAXER & MAD SOCIOLOGIST! It’s SO refreshing to read some STRAIGHT-TALK about the militarism in the US, and ‘soft-militarism’ is an excellent term for our current cultural version, though IMO it’s functionally very similar to the Roman Empire’s imperialism. While it’s a reality that all countries still need some sort of nominal military force for defense, the US has long-ago swung to the other end of the spectrum, to the point where the US military is now creating more problems than the problems that it is protecting us from…

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