Why Do Americans Admire the Military So Much?

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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.

School as Prison

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A blueprint for America’s schools of the future?

W.J. Astore

Back in the 1970s, when I was in high school, smart aleck students used to joke about high school as “prison.”  Nowadays, American schools have metal detectors, school police, even armed teachers.  And let’s not forget reinforced doors and lockdown drills–just like real prisons!  And all these guns and security devices and police presence is together touted as “the solution” to school violence.

I thought of this when I read this morning that Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where seventeen students were murdered last February, is adding metal detectors to protect students.  (Not that metal detectors would have kept out the former student/shooter, Nikolas Cruz, who murdered all those teenagers in cold blood.)  Perhaps the school is doing this to reassure parents; or to deter copy-cats; or to preempt possible lawsuits in case of future attacks.  Or maybe they really believe that having 3,200 students pass through metal detectors each and every morning is the cost of being “safe.”

One thing is certain: We’re raising our young people with a lockdown mentality.  We’re teaching them the best way to be safe is to submit passively to metal detectors and other forms of security screening.  We’re indoctrinating them with the idea that a guard with a gun is the very best form of security, and that even their teachers, charged with educating them, may be packing heat in the classroom — to keep them safe, naturally.  (These teachers may even be making a few extra bucks after completing gun training.)

Who says American students aren’t learning anything in our schools?  They’re learning every day they pass through a metal detector, or see heavily armed police in school corridors, or their teachers toting firearms.  Every day they have to submit to lockdown drills, they’re learning.

I don’t have a smart aleck observation here.  Just a sad one: that old joke about school as prison isn’t even worth a teenager’s smirk anymore.

The Races of Man

W.J. Astore

In the 19th century, many people believed in polygenism, and others used the concept of “the races of man,” where by “race” they often meant species.  At home, I have a framed copy of the races of man taken from an encyclopedia published in the 1890s.  Here’s a photo of it:

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Of course, there’s always an assumed hierarchy to the races of man concept.  White Europeans are at the top, since it’s they who defined and ordered the hierarchy.  Surprise!

In my photo, White Europeans take pride of place in the center, with some swarthy Italians at the top right (I’m half-Italian).  Meanwhile, Polynesian (pink flowers in hair) and Indian (from South America) women are shown with bare breasts.  “Primitives” are primitive precisely because they’re “immodest” in dress, a convention that allowed publishers to show nudity in illustrations and photos without being accused of pornography.  You might call this the “National Geographic” dispensation for nudity.

My college students were often amazed when I told them that science shows that all of us — all humans — came out of Africa.  Far too many people today still think of race as both definitive and as a rung on a ladder, and naturally they always place their own “race” on the top rung.

Even more disturbing is the resurgence of racialized (and often racist) thinking in the United States.  The idea of the races of man and the “scientific” ordering of the same was debunked a century ago, yet it’s back with a vengeance in much of the U.S.

Naturally, those who promote racialized thinking always put their own perceived race at the top.  In that sense, nothing whatsoever has changed since the 19th century and the “races of man” concept.

Hollywood Stars and Sports Heroes: Uncle Sam Wants You!

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No — Jimmy Stewart is not acting here.  He flew bombers in World War II and rose to the rank of brigadier general in the Air Force

W.J. Astore

Back in 2013, I wrote an article on U.S. wars and the absence of movie and sports stars in the ranks of those who serve.  Hollywood and sports leagues such as the NFL and MLB celebrate the military today, but that celebration does not extend to service and sacrifice.  Indeed, the main service is lip service: basically, cheap words to the effect that we celebrities “support” the troops.  It’s not exactly the kind of service we associate with the Greatest Generation of World War II, is it?

Yet the absence of Hollywood celebrities and sports “heroes” in the ranks may be indicative of another, much more serious, issue.  Maybe America’s wars simply aren’t vital to them — or to us?  And if they’re not vital, why are they still in progress?  Why can’t we end them?

Here is what I wrote in 2013:

The tradition of the citizen-soldier is still alive in this country — just look at our National Guard units. But the burden of military service is obviously not equally shared, with the affluent and famous tucked away safely at home. How many people remember that Jimmy Stewart, legendary Hollywood actor, flew dangerous combat missions in the skies over Europe during World War II? Stewart didn’t flaunt his combat service; in fact, playing against type, he stayed home as the unhallowed George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life, a movie that celebrated the heroism of the ordinary citizen. In the movie, Stewart’s quiet, home-based heroism, his powerful sense of fairness and decency, is even allowed to overshadow that of his younger brother, who returns from war with the Medal of Honor.

There’s an interesting lesson there. In World War II, celebrities often risked life and limb in real military service, then after the war played against type to celebrate the virtues of a homespun heroism. Today’s celebrities avoid military service altogether but play tough in action films where they pose as “heroes.”

Other than Pat Tillman, who gave up a promising NFL football career to join the military after 9/11, I can’t think of a single celebrity who answered the call to arms as a citizen-soldier.

Then again, that call was never issued. After 9/11, President George W. Bush famously told us to keep calm and carry on — carrying on shopping and patronizing Disney, that is. He did so because he already had a large standing professional military he could call on, drawn primarily from the middling orders of society. This “all volunteer military” is often described (especially in advertisements by defense contractors) as a collection of “warfighters” and “warriors.” In the field, they are supplemented by privatized militaries provided by companies like Academi (formerly Blackwater/Xe), Triple Canopy, and DynCorp International. In a word, mercenaries. These bring with them a corporate, for-profit, mindset to America’s wars.

If we as a country are going to keep fighting wars, we need a military drawn from the people. All the people. As a start, we need to draft young men (and women) from Hollywood, from the stage and screen. And we need to draft America’s sports stars (I shouldn’t think this would be an issue, since there are so many patriotic displays in favor of the troops at NFL stadiums and MLB parks).

Jimmy Stewart served in combat. So too did Ted Williams. So too did so many of their Hollywood and sporting generation.

Until today’s stars of stage and screen and sports join with the same sense of urgency as their counterparts of “The Greatest Generation,” I’ll remain deeply skeptical of all those Hollywood and sporting world patriotic displays of troop support.

If this whole line of argument sounds crazy to you, I have a modest suggestion. Rather a plea. If our celebrities who profit the most from America are unwilling to defend it the way Stewart and Williams did, perhaps that’s not just a sign of societal rot. Perhaps it’s a sign that our wars are simply not vital to us. And if that’s the case, shouldn’t we end them? Now?

The U.S. Postal Service: Ripe for Privatizing?

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W.J. Astore

I got involved in a brief discussion on Facebook about privatizing the U.S. postal service.  Briefly, those in favor of privatization argued that the post office is inefficient and costly, and that exposing it to market forces through privatization will result in much improved efficiency at lower cost to the American taxpayer.

First of all, if you’re looking for a wasteful government agency to privatize, why not start with the department of defense, which spends roughly $750 billion a year, and which has never passed an audit?  Leaving that aside, the privatization enthusiasts assume that “market forces” will necessarily generate improvements in efficiency and improved service.  But what if it just monetizes everything, leading to higher prices and poorer service?

Furthermore, why should “efficiency” be the primary goal for a public service? Many small communities and villages rely heavily on local post offices. Under an “efficient” and private system, these local post offices are likely to be closed or consolidated in the name of efficiency, with prices rising for poor and rural communities. Those steps may be “efficient” to private owners, but they won’t be beneficial to all the people who just want mail and related services (and maybe a place to chat with neighbors).

Service to the public should be the primary goal of a public service, not “efficiency.” Sure, efficiency is a good thing, but so too is affordability, convenience, trustworthiness, courteousness, and so on.  When you elevate efficiency as the goal above all others, and measure that by metrics based on money, you are inevitably going to compromise important aspects of public service.

Consider the state of public education. When you privatize it, new metrics come in, driven by profit.  Private (charter) schools, for example, pursue better students and reject marginal ones as they attempt to maximize test scores so as to justify their approach and ranking.  Public schools have to take all students, the good and the bad, the affluent and the disadvantaged, and thus their ratings are often lower.

There’s a myth afoot in our land that government is always wasteful and inefficient, and that unions are always costly and greedy.  Our postal service employs roughly 213,000 people, fellow Americans who work hard and who, when they retire, have earned a pension and benefits.  Why are so many people so eager to attack public postal workers as well as public schoolteachers?

In my 55 years of living in America, I’ve been well served by a public post office and well educated by public schools. I see no compelling reason to privatize public services just because someone thinks a corporation driven by profit can do it more efficiently.

People think that corporations driven by the profit motive will inevitably produce a better system with improved service.  While profit can be made by providing superior service, it can also be made by providing shoddy service or even no service at all, especially in a market resembling a monopoly, or one where corporations are protected by powerful interests.

To recap: public service and efficiency are not identical. Nor should we think of ourselves merely as consumers of a product, whether that product is mail service or education.  We need to think of ourselves as citizens, and the post office as composed of citizens like us providing a public service for us, a service where “efficiency” is only one driver, and not the most important one.

A final, perhaps obvious, point: often those who argue for privatization are also those with the most to gain, financially, from it.  A lot of people are making money from charter schools, for example.  It’s not “efficiency” that’s the driver here: it’s the chance to make a buck, and despite what Gordon Gekko said, greed isn’t always good and right, especially when public service is involved.

What do you think, readers?

On Love

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My Aunt Mary, on the left, with a friend

W.J. Astore

In Memory of My Aunt Mary (died 2012)

When I was in CCD and preparing to be confirmed at St. Patrick’s Church in the late 1970s, our teachers tried to teach us kids what “love” is.  We were asked to give definitions.  As teenagers, we came up with the usual definitions of romantic love, all valentines and holding hands and smooching.

No, our teachers explained, love should be selfless.  It’s not about you.  Love is about giving without expecting anything in return.

Throughout her long life, Aunt Mary demonstrated that kind of love.  She gave to her own mother, caring for her as she aged.  She gave to her sister Corrine through her struggles.  She gave to her brother Gino.  She gave to us all, and she did so with generosity and goodness and grace.  She gave without expecting anything in return.

She loved.

So, if my old CCD teachers asked me today for a definition of love, my answer would be a simple one.  “ ‘Love,’ ” I’d say, “is my Aunt Mary.”

Aunt Mary blessed our lives for 94 years.  Let us give thanks to God that she was with us for so long.  And let us all learn from her shining example the true meaning of love.

Trump and Noxious Notions of Masculinity

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W.J. Astore

A friend recently sent me a passage from H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895) that resonated with me.  It comes when the main character journeys deep into the future.  He muses about what kind of human beings he will face:

What might not have happened to men? What if cruelty had grown into a common passion? What if in this interval the race had lost its manliness and had developed into something inhuman, unsympathetic, and overwhelmingly powerful? I might seem some old-world savage animal, only the more dreadful and disgusting for our common likeness–a foul creature to be incontinently slain.

Writing in the late Victorian era, Wells put a heavy stress on manliness that is decidedly unfashionable today.  Yet his description of manliness is interesting: he contrasts it to men who are “inhuman, unsympathetic, and overwhelmingly powerful.”  For Wells, true manliness taps humane qualities; it values sympathy; it resists being consumed by a will to power.

And it struck me that in men like Trump, a portion of the dystopic future Wells envisions in The Time Machine is now.  For Trump, being “manly” is about acquiring power, commanding obedience, forcing other men to submit while grabbing pussy whenever you can.  It’s a noxious notion of masculinity, an unsympathetic, even an “inhuman” one.

Another interesting passage I came across this week appears in Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity (1980). The main female character in that book, a Canadian economist by the name of Marie, muses about the men she’s encountered in government employ, at the highest and most secretive levels:

Oh, God, she loathed them all!  Mindless, stupid men.  Playing with the lives of other men, knowing so little, thinking they knew so much.

They had not listened!  They never listened until it was too late, and then only with stern forbearance and strong reminders of what might have been—had things been as they were perceived to be, which they were not.  The corruption came from blindness, the lies from obstinacy and embarrassment.  Do not embarrass the powerful; the napalm said it all.

And again it got me thinking of Trump and men like him.  Trump is all about his “instincts.”  He doesn’t bother to read or study, and he sure as hell is not a listener.  And he lies and lies just to stay in shape.

But Trump is less cause than symptom.  America produced him, and voters voted for him.  Roughly one-third of Americans continue to say they support him, irrespective of his serial lying, serial infidelity, and his greedy and grasping policies that favor the richest few over the poorest many.

As Marie said in The Bourne Identity, America has too many “mindless, stupid men.”  Men whose ideas about masculinity are defined in opposition to that of H.G. Wells’ concept.  Men who are driven by power, who think being manly is about suppressing any sympathy for those less fortunate, men who are proud to be “tough” by being inhumane and nasty.  “Empty souls,” as my wife succinctly said this morning.