I’ve written a lot about America’s warrior ethos and how it represents a departure from a citizen-soldier ideal as embodied by men like George Washington and Major Dick Winters (of “Band of Brothers” fame). This warrior ethos grew in the aftermath of defeat in Vietnam and the ending of the draft. It gained impetus during the Reagan years and was symbolized in part by the development of fictional rogue symbols of warrior-toughness such as John Rambo. Today’s U.S. military has various warrior codes and songs and so on, further reinforcing ideals of Spartan toughness.
My writings against this warrior hype have, on occasion, drawn fire from those who identify as warriors. I’d like to share two examples.
Here is the first:
The day that we encourage our soldiers to be anything but warriors is the day that we start losing battles and wars. If we are controlled by citizens who are our ultimate leaders then it is up to them to handle the niceties of diplomacy and nation building. But most of them don’t have the balls to get into the thick of things and try and convert the citizens of the place we are fighting to play at being nice children in the sand pile. We had to dominate Japan to the nth degree to get them to surrender and so the same for Germany. You academics never to cease to amaze me with your naïveté.
This reader cites World War II and America’s victory over Japan and Germany without mentioning the Greatest Generation’s embodiment of the citizen-soldier ideal and their rejection of Japanese and Nazi militarism. Back then, America’s victory was interpreted as a triumph of democracy over authoritarian states like Japan and Germany. While it’s true the Soviet Union played the crucial role in defeating Nazi Germany, the Soviets ultimately lost the Cold War, another “victory” by a U.S. military that didn’t self-identify as warriors. Despite this history, this reader suggests that America’s recent military defeats are attributable to weak civilian leadership and a lack of warrior dominance. He fails to notice how America’s new ethos of the warrior, inculcated over the last 30 years, has produced nothing close to victory in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.
My second example comes from a U.S. Marine:
I watched the transition we made from life takers and widow makers to peace keepers and other terms that did us no good whatsoever. Then, in 1987, along came a new Commandant, General Al Grey, who resurrected the warrior ethos in our Corps.
We were told, and accepted the fact, that the best way to win a war or battle was to kill the enemy in numbers that could not be sustained. We did just that during Desert Storm. I flew 67 combat missions in an F/A-18 and took great pride and satisfaction in killing as many Iraqis as I could so that when our infantry and other ground units pushed through the berms and other obstacles, they had a clear path to their objectives.
We need more emphasis on killing the enemy and maintaining a warrior ethos and less drivel from folks like you who think it’s some type of a debating match rather than combat we undertake when our nation goes to war.
Basically, this Marine argues that war is killing. Kill enough of the enemy and you win. Of course, winning by attrition and body count failed during the Vietnam War, but I’m guessing this Marine would argue that the U.S. military simply didn’t kill enough of the enemy there.
This Marine further sets up a straw man argument. Nowhere did I write or even suggest that war is “some type of debating match.” Nowhere did I write or even suggest that war doesn’t involve combat and killing. But criticism of the warrior ideal is often caricatured in this way, making it easier to dismiss it as “naïve” or “drivel.”
The warrior ethos is surging in America today, and not just within the military. Witness the U.S. media’s positive reaction to President Trump’s missile strikes on Syria or the use of “the mother of all bombs” against ISIS in Afghanistan. Gushing media praise comes to presidents who let slip the “beautiful” missiles and “massive” bombs of war.
Two centuries ago, the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air, did so over an American fortress that was under attack on our soil. They gave proof through the night that America’s citizen-soldiers were defending our country (our flag was still there). Nowadays, our rocket’s red glare appears in Syrian skies, our bombs bursting do so in remote regions of Afghanistan, giving proof through the night that America’s warrior ethos is anywhere and everywhere, killing lots of foreign peoples in the name of “winning.”
Call me naïve, say I write drivel, but I don’t see this as a victory for our democracy, for our country, or even for our “warriors.”
The National Review labels the idea of a military coup in Trump’s America “hysterical.” Here’s David French criticizing my recent article at TomDispatch.com:
Here we go again — another article talking about how the retired generals in Trump’s cabinet, civilians who are nominated by a civilian and confirmed by a civilian senate, represent the erosion of the principle of civilian control over the military. But this time, there’s a hysterical twist. The nomination of James Mattis for secretary of defense and John Kelly for secretary of homeland security and the selection of Michael Flynn for national security adviser is worse than a real-life coup. No, really.
French goes on to say the following:
Lots of people read this nonsense. Lots of people believe this nonsense. I’ve been arguing for some time that the prime threat to our national unity isn’t action but reaction. Activists and pundits take normal politics (retired generals have a long history of serving this nation in civilian offices, beginning with George Washington) and respond with an overreaction that pushes their fellow citizens into believing that the sky is falling.
In my article for TomDispatch.com, I made the same point that retired generals have a long history of serving this nation, beginning with Washington. But Washington was a special case, an American Cincinnatus, a citizen first, a soldier second. As I mentioned in my article, today’s generals are cut from a different cloth. They self-identify as warriors first and foremost. Even when they retire, they usually go to work immediately for the military-industrial complex, making millions in the process.
French seems to think that if a civilian like Donald Trump nominates four recently retired warrior/generals, and if a civilian Congress approves them, this in no way constitutes a coup. And, strictly speaking, that’s true.
Yet consider this. These four warrior/generals will direct the Department of Defense, Homeland Security, and the National Security Council. Professional warriors are filling the highest leadership positions in a superpower military complex that is supposed to be overseen by civilians. They will command budgetary authority approaching a trillion dollars annually. If this isn’t a de facto military coup, what is?
Consider as well that their boss, Donald Trump, professes to admire two American generals: George S. Patton and Douglas MacArthur. In choosing Patton and MacArthur, Trump has all the signs of an immature military hero-lover. Mature historians recognize that generals like George C. Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, and Omar Bradley were far more distinguished (and far more in keeping with the American citizen-soldier ideal) than Patton and MacArthur. Indeed, both Patton and MacArthur were over-hyped, deliberately so, for propaganda purposes during Word War II. MacArthur was a disaster in the Philippines, and Patton wasn’t even needed during D-Day. Both fancied themselves to be warriors; both were vainglorious showboats, stuck on themselves and their alleged military brilliance.
“Retired” warriors are simply not the right men in a democracy to ride herd on the military. Warrior/generals like Mattis, Flynn, and Kelly — men defined by the military and loyal to it for their entire lives — are not going to become free-thinkers and tough-minded critics in a matter of months, especially when they’ve already cashed in after retirement by joining corporate boards affiliated with the military-industrial complex.
Look, I realize some Americans see nothing wrong with generals taking charge of America. As one disgruntled reader wrote me, “I value the experience of generals who led Soldiers and Marines in combat on the ground.”
Well, I value that too. So does our country, which is why the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) advise our president. But what Trump has done is to surround himself with a rival JCS, his own band of warriors, generals that he sees as the equivalent to Patton and MacArthur. He’s created a dynamic in which the onlyadvice he’ll get on national security is from military minds. And if you’re looking to Congress as a check on military rule, consider that the last time Congress formally exercised its authority to declare war was December 1941. Yes, 75 years ago this month.
Hey, nothing to worry about here. Don’t get hysterical. Let the “civilian” generals rule! After all, what could possibly go wrong?
Further Thoughts: I think many in America equate militarism to fascism; they think that, so long as jackbooted troops aren’t marching loudly down American streets and breaking down doors, militarism doesn’t exist here.
But militarism, as a descriptive term, also involves the permeation of military attitudes and values throughout civil society and political culture in America. Since 9/11, if not before, Americans have been actively encouraged to “support our troops” as a patriotic duty. Those troops have been lauded as “warriors,” “war-fighters,” and “heroes,” even as the U.S. military has become both thoroughly professionalized and increasingly isolated from civil society. This isolation, however, does not extend to public celebrations of the military, most visibly at major sporting events (e.g. NFL football games). (A small sign of this is major league baseball players wearing camouflaged uniforms to “honor” the troops.)
Trump’s decision — to put four senior “retired” generals in charge of America’s military and national security — acts as an accelerant to the permeation of military attitudes and values throughout America’s civil society and political culture. Again, the USA, one must recall, was founded on civilian control of the military as well as the ideal of the citizen-soldier. The latter ideal is dead, replaced as it has been by a new ideal, that of the warrior.
And civilian control? With four generals in command, enabled by an inexperienced civilian commander-in-chief whose ideal general is defined by Patton and MacArthur, you have in essence a repudiation of civilian control.
In October 2005, during the Iraq War, historian David M. Kennedy noted that “No American is now obligated to military service, few will ever serve in uniform, even fewer will actually taste battle …. Americans with no risk whatsoever of exposure to military service have, in effect, hired some of the least advantaged of their fellow countrymen to do some of their most dangerous business while the majority goes on with their own affairs unbloodied and undistracted.”
We have, in essence, a post-democratic military in the U.S. today, which is the subject of my latest article for TomDispatch.com. You can read the entire article here; what follows is the first section on how our citizen-soldier tradition morphed into a professional force of volunteer-warriors augmented by privatized forces of mercenaries and corporations.
In the decades since the draft ended in 1973, a strange new military has emerged in the United States. Think of it, if you will, as a post-democratic force that prides itself on its warrior ethos rather than the old-fashioned citizen-soldier ideal. As such, it’s a military increasingly divorced from the people, with a way of life ever more foreign to most Americans (adulatory as they may feel toward its troops). Abroad, it’s now regularly put to purposes foreign to any traditional idea of national defense. In Washington, it has become a force unto itself, following its own priorities, pursuing its own agendas, increasingly unaccountable to either the president or Congress.
Three areas highlight the post-democratic transformation of this military with striking clarity: the blending of military professionals with privatized mercenaries in prosecuting unending “limited” wars; the way senior military commanders are cashing in on retirement; and finally the emergence of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) as a quasi-missionary imperial force with a presence in at least 135 countries a year (and counting).
The All-Volunteer Military and Mercenaries: An Undemocratic Amalgam
I’m a product of the all-volunteer military. In 1973, the Nixon administration ended the draft, which also marked the end of a citizen-soldier tradition that had served the nation for two centuries. At the time, neither the top brass nor the president wanted to face a future in which, in the style of the Vietnam era just then winding up, a force of citizen-soldiers could vote with their feet and their mouths in the kinds of protest that had only recently left the Army in significant disarray. The new military was to be all volunteers and a thoroughly professional force. (Think: no dissenters, no protesters, no antiwar sentiments; in short, no repeats of what had just happened.) And so it has remained for more than 40 years.
Most Americans were happy to see the draft abolished. (Although young men still register for selective service at age 18, there are neither popular calls for its return, nor serious plans to revive it.) Yet its end was not celebrated by all. At the time, some military men advised against it, convinced that what, in fact, did happen would happen: that an all-volunteer force would become more prone to military adventurism enabled by civilian leaders who no longer had to consider the sort of opposition draft call-ups might create for undeclared and unpopular wars.
In 1982, historian Joseph Ellis summed up such sentiments in a prophetic passage in an essay titled “Learning Military Lessons from Vietnam” (from the book Men at War):
“[V]irtually all studies of the all-volunteer army have indicated that it is likely to be less representative of and responsive to popular opinion, more expensive, more jealous of its own prerogatives, more xenophobic — in other words, more likely to repeat some of the most grievous mistakes of Vietnam … Perhaps the most worrisome feature of the all-volunteer army is that it encourages soldiers to insulate themselves from civilian society and allows them to cling tenaciously to outmoded visions of the profession of arms. It certainly puts an increased burden of responsibility on civilian officials to impose restraints on military operations, restraints which the soldiers will surely perceive as unjustified.”
Ellis wrote this more than 30 years ago — before Desert Storm, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, or the launching of the War on Terror. These wars (and other U.S. military interventions of the last decades) have provided vivid evidence that civilian officials have felt emboldened in wielding a military freed from the constraints of the old citizen army. Indeed, it says something of our twenty-first-century moment that military officers have from time to time felt the need to restrain civilian officials rather than vice versa. Consider, for instance, Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki’s warning early in 2003 that a post-invasion Iraq would need to be occupied by “several hundred thousand” troops. Shinseki clearly hoped that his (all-too-realistic) estimate would tamp down the heady optimism of top Bush administration officials that any such war would be a “cakewalk,” that the Iraqis would strew “bouquets” of flowers in the path of the invaders, and that the U.S. would be able to garrison an American-style Iraq in the fashion of South Korea until hell froze over. Prophetic Shinseki was, but not successful. His advice was dismissed out of hand, as was he.
Events since Desert Storm in 1991 suggest that the all-volunteer military has been more curse than blessing. Partially to blame: a new dynamic in modern American history, the creation of a massive military force that is not of the people, by the people, or for the people. It is, of course, a dynamic hardly new to history. Writing in the eighteenth century about the decline and fall of Rome, the historian Edward Gibbon noted that:
“In the purer ages of the commonwealth [of Rome], the use of arms was reserved for those ranks of citizens who had a country to love, a property to defend, and some share in enacting those laws, which it was their interest, as well as duty, to maintain. But in proportion as the public freedom was lost in extent of conquest, war was gradually improved into an art, and degraded into a trade.”
As the U.S. has become more authoritarian and more expansive, its military has come to serve the needs of others, among them elites driven by dreams of profit and power. Some will argue that this is nothing new. I’ve read my Smedley Butler and I’m well aware that historically the U.S. military was often used in un-democratic ways to protect and advance various business interests. In General Butler’s day, however, that military was a small quasi-professional force with a limited reach. Today’s version is enormous, garrisoning roughly 800 foreign bases across the globe, capable of sending its Hellfire missile-armed drones on killing missions into country after country across the Greater Middle East and Africa, and possessing a vision of what it likes to call “full-spectrum dominance” meant to facilitate “global reach, global power.” In sum, the U.S. military is far more powerful, far less accountable — and far more dangerous.
As a post-democratic military has arisen in this country, so have a set of “warrior corporations” — that is, private, for-profit mercenary outfits that now regularly accompany American forces in essentially equal numbers into any war zone. In the invasion and occupation of Iraq, Blackwater was the most notorious of these, but other mercenary outfits like Triple Canopy and DynCorp were also deeply involved. This rise of privatized militaries and mercenaries naturally contributes to actions that are inherently un-democratic and divorced from the will and wishes of the people. It is also inherently a less accountable form of war, since no one even bothers to count the for-profit dead, nor do their bodies come home in flag-draped coffins for solemn burial in military cemeteries; and Americans don’t approach such mercenaries to thank them for their service. All of which allows for the further development of a significantly under-the-radar form of war making.
The phrase “limited war,” applied to European conflicts from the close of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648 to the French Revolution in 1789, and later to conventional wars in the nuclear age, has fresh meaning in twenty-first-century America. These days, the limits of limited war, such as they are, fall less on the warriors and more on the American people who are increasingly cut out of the process. They are, for instance, purposely never mobilized for battle, but encouraged to act as though they were living in a war-less land. American war efforts, which invariably take place in distant lands, are not supposed to interfere with business as usual in the “homeland,” which, of course, means consumerism and consumption. You will find no rationing in today’s America, nor calls for common sacrifice of any sort. If anything, wars have simply become another consumable item on the American menu. They consume fuel and resources, money, and intellect, all in staggering amounts. In a sense, they are themselves a for-profit consumable, often with tie-ins to video games, movies, and other forms of entertainment.
In the rush for money and in the name of patriotism, the horrors of wars, faced squarely by many Americans in the Vietnam War era, are now largely disregarded. One question that this election season has raised: What if our post-democratic military is driven by an autocrat who insists that it must obey his whims in the cause of “making America great again”?
I’ve written several articles about the United States and creeping militarism (see here and here, for example). This should be obvious, but I’ll say it again: Calling attention to the militarization of American society is pro-democracy, not anti-military. Indeed, back in the citizen-soldier era of my father, being “gung ho” for the military wasn’t even applauded within the military!
As one veteran wrote to me:
When I was in the military, being “gung ho” was not considered a compliment by most of my friends… Of course we were not professional military types, just taking our turns to do our duty. We remembered the American soldier epitomized by Bill Mauldin as “Willie” and “Joe” who fought successfully against the German Army and the Japanese fanatics…The popular war movies of WWII after the war usually pitted the austere, indoctrinated Nazis fighting to demonstrate the Nazi superiority against the average American citizen soldier. Remember the movie “Battleground”? Today the images of our Army uncomfortably remind me of the way the German superman was portrayed that we overcame.
[There is a] disjunction between the cult of military hero-worship in American society and American ignorance of veterans’ problems. I am continually disgusted with those who are pimping off the mystique [surrounding our troops] who don’t deserve any special regard for their military service. And a final but important point: many combat vets, knowing full well the realities of combat and its effects on combatants, do not want to be thanked at all [by the public].
America’s militarism both feeds and draws support from our endless wars. The war on terror has been ongoing since 2001. So too the war in Afghanistan. Iraq keeps getting more chaotic. Miscalculation in Syria could lead to World War III.
Speaking of future wars, just look at the rhetoric of our more popular political candidates for president, to include Donald “bomb those suckers” Trump and Ted “carpet bomb” Cruz. Chickenhawk politicians are nothing but opportunists. They may be leading the war charge, but they know they’re backed by a society in thrall to military spectacle (as represented, for example, by pom-pom shaking cheerleaders in skimpy camouflage outfits).
Unstinting praise of America’s “warriors” and “heroes” is reinforced by feel-good corporate/military advertising. Recall Budweiser’s “welcome home” party for an Army lieutenant that aired during the Super Bowl a couple of years back. Or red-white-and-blue Budweiser cans to “honor” the troops on July 4th. “Saluting” the troops with colorful beer cans – really?
Signs of militarism USA are everywhere. Police forces with MRAPs and similar tank-like vehicles. Colleges and universities jostling for “defense” funding (even bucolic campuses want those war bucks). Popular games that glorify military mayhem, such as the “Call of Duty” video games. Even mundane items like camouflage headsets for NFL coaches.
The passionate discussion generated by our last article, America’s Military Academies Are Seriously Flawed, was heartening. Our military academies will not be improved if we merely accept the status quo, with allowance for minor, mainly cosmetic, reforms. But truly radical reforms are difficult to achieve since the academies are so deeply rooted in tradition. A reluctance to change can be a good thing, especially when an institution is performing well. Yet since the Korean Conflict, and certainly since the Vietnam War, America’s military performance has been mediocre. Placing blame here is obviously contentious, with military professionals tending to point to poor decisions by civilian leaders, among other causes.
Rather than placing blame, let’s entertain some probing questions about the future structure and mission of military academies, with the intent of making them better schools for developing military leaders, as well as better institutions for defending America and advancing its values.
Here in no particular order are a few questions and proposals:
1. Is America best served by military academies that emulate undergraduate colleges in providing a course of study lasting four years? Or should the academies recruit from students who have already finished most (or all) of an undergraduate degree? The academies could then develop a concentrated course of study, specifically tailored to military studies, lasting roughly two years. In effect, the academies would become graduate schools, with all cadets graduating with master’s degrees in military studies with varying concentrations (engineering, science, English, history, and so on). Such a change would also eliminate the need to kowtow to undergraduate accreditation boards such as ABET.
2. West Point and the AF Academy rely primarily on serving military officers as instructors, whereas Annapolis relies primarily on civilian instructors. Is this a distinction without difference? Would West Point and the AF Academy profit from more civilian instructors, and Annapolis from more military ones? Should all the service academies work harder to bring in top instructors from the Ivy League and similar universities as full-time visiting professors?
3. How much of today’s experience at military academies is busy work? Or work driven mainly by tradition, i.e. “We do this because we’ve always done this.” Do we still need lots of inspections, marching, parades, and the like? Do freshman (call them plebes, doolies, smacks, what have you) truly profit from being sleep-deprived and harassed and otherwise forced into compliance as a rite of passage in their first year? Does this truly develop character? Or are cadet schedules so jam-packed that they have little time to think?
4. Why do cadets continue to have limited exposure to the enlisted ranks? NCOs are the backbone of a professional military, a fact that is not stressed enough in officer training. How do we increase opportunities for cadets to work with NCOs in the field?
5. A strong emphasis on physical fitness and sports is smart. But is it necessary to place so much emphasis on big-time sports such as Division I-A football? What is gained by focusing academy recruiting on acquiring athletes that will help to win football games? What is gained by offering such athletes preferential treatment within the corps of cadets? (Some will claim that athletes receive no preferential treatment; if you believe this, I suggest you listen very carefully to cadets who are outside of the charmed circle of celebrated athletes.)
6. When I was a serving officer at the AF Academy, cadets used to ask me whether I believed they were “the best and the brightest.” Certain senior leaders had told them that, by virtue of being selected to attend a military academy, they were better than their civilian peers at universities such as Harvard or MIT. Is it wise to sell cadets on the idea that they are America’s best and brightest?
How I answered the question: I told my cadets that comparing military academies to universities such as Harvard or MIT was an apples/oranges situation. First and foremost, military academies were and are about developing military leaders of strong character. If you compared cadets to their peers at Harvard or MIT, of course you’d find smarter students at these and similar top-flight universities. But that wasn’t the point. Military academies had a different intent, a different purpose, a different mission. This answer seemed to satisfy my cadets; what I sensed was that they were tired of being told they were America’s best, when they could see for themselves that this often wasn’t true.
We do our cadets no service when we applaud them merely for showing up and working hard, just as our civilian leaders do the military no service when they applaud us as the best-led, best-equipped, best-trained, and so on, military force in all of human history. Any student of military history should laugh at such hyperbolic praise.
7. And now for a big question: Are the academies contributing to America’s current state of perpetual war? Have we abandoned Washington’s ideal of Cincinnatus, the citizen-soldier, the soldier who fights reluctantly and who seeks not military honors but only a return to normalcy and an end to war?
Some will argue that the world today demands perpetual vigilance and a willingness to use overwhelming “shock and awe” force to intimidate and defeat America’s enemies. And that only a professional corps of devoted regulars can lead such a force. Perhaps so.
But is it time to consider new paradigms?
What are the most serious threats that America faces today? For example, American infrastructure is crumbling even as we spend hundreds of billions in Iraq and Afghanistan with indifferent results. Should West Point return to its roots, unleashing its officer-engineers to lead a new Civilian Conservation Corps to rebuild America? (Recall that George C. Marshall ran the CCC.) Should America’s military be refocused not on winning the “global war on terror” (unwinnable by definition, for terror will always be with us), but on preserving the global environment?
As humans wage war against our planet and biosphere, should not a force dedicated to the defense of America focus on preserving our livelihood as represented by our planet’s resources? With its global presence, the American military is uniquely situated to take the lead here. Indeed, the U.S. Navy already advertises itself as “A global force for good.” Can we make that a reality?
Too pie in the sky? The U.S. military has enormous resources and a global role in leadership. What would it mean to America if our military took the lead in preserving the earth while rebuilding the core strength of America? Aren’t these “wars” (against global environmental degradation; for America’s internal infrastructure) worth fighting? Are they not more winnable than a perpetual war on terror?
There you have it. Let’s hear your ideas in the comments. And thanks.
As Veterans Day approaches, I thought I’d revive a column I wrote for TomDispatch.com back in 2009. I continue to marvel at the militarism of the USA, and the way in which the troops are defined as “warriors” and “warfighters” who increasingly see themselves as being divorced from, and superior to, “civilians” in the USA. Of course, there was a time in America when our troops were proud to define themselves as citizen-soldiers, with the emphasis on citizen. Not anymore. The ethos has changed, pushed toward a “professional” military that sees itself as a breed apart. And that’s not good for democracy.
I still recall the example set by Major Dick Winters, memorialized in the “Band of Brothers” series on HBO. Dick Winters swore that when the war was over against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, he’d return to his farm in Pennsylvania and leave soldiering and war behind. And that’s exactly what he did. No “warrior” nonsense for him.
Anyway, here’s the article I wrote five years ago. Sadly, its theme is more relevant today than it was in 2009.
What Ever Happened to Gary Cooper? A Seven-Step Program to Return America to a Quieter, Less Muscular, Patriotism By William Astore
I have a few confessions to make: After almost eight years of off-and-on war in Afghanistan and after more than six years of mayhem and death since “Mission Accomplished” was declared in Operation Iraqi Freedom, I’m tired of seeing simpleminded magnetic ribbons on vehicles telling me, a 20-year military veteran, to support or pray for our troops. As a Christian, I find it presumptuous to see ribbons shaped like fish, with an American flag as a tail, informing me that God blesses our troops. I’m underwhelmed by gigantic American flags — up to 100 feet by 300 feet — repeatedly being unfurled in our sports arenas, as if our love of country is greater when our flags are bigger. I’m disturbed by nuclear-strike bombers soaring over stadiums filled with children, as one did in July just as the National Anthem ended during this year’s Major League Baseball All Star game. Instead of oohing and aahing at our destructive might, I was quietly horrified at its looming presence during a family event.
We’ve recently come through the steroid era in baseball with all those muscled up players and jacked up stats. Now that players are tested randomly, home runs are down and muscles don’t stretch uniforms quite as tightly. Yet while ending the steroid era in baseball proved reasonably straightforward once the will to act was present, we as a country have yet to face, no less curtail, our ongoing steroidal celebrations of pumped-up patriotism.
It’s high time we ended the post-Vietnam obsession with Rambo’s rippling pecs as well as the jaw-dropping technological firepower of the recent cinematic version of G.I. Joe and return to the resolute, undemonstrative strength that Gary Cooper showed in movies like High Noon.
In the HBO series The Sopranos, Tony (played by James Gandolfini) struggles with his own vulnerability — panic attacks caused by stress that his Mafia rivals would interpret as fatal signs of weakness. Lamenting his emotional frailty, Tony asks, “What ever happened to Gary Cooper?” What ever happened, in other words, to quiet, unemotive Americans who went about their business without fanfare, without swagger, but with firmness and no lack of controlled anger at the right time?
Tony’s question is a good one, but I’d like to spin it differently: Why did we allow lanky American citizen-soldiers and true heroes like World War I Sergeant Alvin York (played, at York’s insistence, by Gary Cooper) and World War II Sergeant (later, first lieutenant) Audie Murphy (played in the film To Hell and Back, famously, by himself) to be replaced by all those post-Vietnam pumped up Hollywood “warriors,” with Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger-style abs and egos to match?
And far more important than how we got here, how can we end our enduring fascination with a puffed up, comic-book-style militarism that seems to have stepped directly out of screen fantasy and into our all-too-real lives?
A Seven-Step Recovery Program
As a society, we’ve become so addicted to militarism that we don’t even notice the way it surrounds us or the spasms of societal ‘roid rage that go with it. The fact is, we need a detox program. At the risk of incurring some of that ‘roid rage myself, let me suggest a seven-step program that could help return us to the saner days of Gary Cooper:
1. Baseball players on steroids swing for the fences. So does a steroidal country. When you have an immense military establishment, your answer to trouble is likely to be overwhelming force, including sending troops into harm’s way. To rein in our steroidal version of militarism, we should stop bulking up our military ranks, as is now happening, and shrink them instead. Our military needs not more muscle supplements (or the budgetary version of the same), but far fewer.
2. It’s time to stop deferring to our generals, and even to their commander-in-chief. They’re ours, after all; we’re not theirs. When President Obama says Afghanistan is not a war of choice but of necessity, we shouldn’t hesitate to point out that the emperor has no clothes. Yet when it comes to tough questioning of the president’s generals, Congress now seems eternally supine. Senators and representatives are invariably too busy falling all over themselves praising our troops and their commanders, too worried that “tough” questioning will appear unpatriotic to the folks back home, or too connected to military contractors in their districts, or some combination of the three.
Here’s something we should all keep in mind: generals have no monopoly on military insight. What they have a monopoly on is a no-lose situation. If things go well, they get credit; if they go badly, we do. Retired five-star general Omar Bradley was typical when he visited Vietnam in 1967 and declared: “I am convinced that this is a war at the right place, at the right time and with the right enemy — the Communists.” North Vietnam’s only hope for victory, he insisted, was “to hang on in the expectation that the American public, inadequately informed about the true situation and sickened by the loss in lives and money, will force the United States to give up and pull out.”
There we have it: A classic statement of the belief that when our military loses a war, it’s always the fault of “we the people.” Paradoxically, such insidious myths gain credibility not because we the people are too forceful in our criticism of the military, but because we are too deferential.
3. It’s time to redefine what “support our troops” really means. We console ourselves with the belief that all our troops are volunteers, who freely signed on for repeated tours of duty in forever wars. But are our troops truly volunteers? Didn’t we recruit them using multi-million dollar ad campaigns and lures of every sort? Are we not, in effect, running a poverty and recession draft? Isolated in middle- or upper-class comfort, detached from our wars and their burdens, have we not, in a sense, recruited a “foreign legion” to do our bidding?
If you’re looking for a clear sign of a militarized society — which few Americans are — a good place to start is with troop veneration. The cult of the soldier often covers up a variety of sins. It helps, among other things, hide the true costs of, and often the futility of, the wars being fought. At an extreme, as the war began to turn dramatically against Nazi Germany in 1943, Germans who attempted to protest Hitler’s failed strategy and the catastrophic costs of his war were accused of (and usually executed for) betraying the troops at the front.
The United States is not a totalitarian state, so surely we can hazard criticisms of our wars and even occasionally of the behavior of some of our troops, without facing charges of stabbing our troops in the back and aiding the enemy. Or can we?
4. Let’s see the military for what it is: a blunt instrument of force. It’s neither surgical nor precise nor predictable. What Shakespeare wrote 400 years ago remains true: when wars start, havoc is unleashed, and the dogs of war run wild — in our case, not just the professional but the “mercenary” dogs of war, those private contractors to the Pentagon that thrive on the rich spoils of modern warfare in distant lands. It’s time to recognize that we rely ever more massively to prosecute our wars on companies that profit ever more handsomely the longer they last.
5. Let’s not blindly venerate the serving soldier, while forgetting our veterans when they doff their spiffy uniforms for the last time. It’s easy to celebrate our clean-cut men and women in uniform when they’re thousands of miles from home, far tougher to lend a hand to scruffier, embittered veterans suffering from the physical and emotional trauma of the battle zones to which they were consigned, usually for multiple tours of duty.
6. I like air shows, but how about — as a first tiny step toward demilitarizing civilian life — banning all flyovers of sporting events by modern combat aircraft? War is not a sport, and it shouldn’t be a thrill.
7. I love our flag. I keep my father’s casket flag in a special display case next to the very desk on which I’m writing this piece. It reminds me of his decades of service as a soldier and firefighter. But I don’t need humongous stadium flags or, for that matter, tiny flag lapel pins to prove my patriotism — and neither should you. In fact, doesn’t the endless post-9/11 public proliferation of flags in every size imaginable suggest a certain fanaticism bordering on desperation? If we saw such displays in other countries, our descriptions wouldn’t be kindly.
Of course, none of this is likely to be easy as long as this country garrisons the planet and fights open-ended wars on its global frontiers. The largest step, the eighth one, would be to begin seriously downsizing that mission. In the meantime, we shouldn’t need reminding that this country was originally founded as a civilian society, not a militarized one. Indeed, the revolt of the 13 colonies against the King of England was sparked, in part, by the perceived tyranny of forced quartering of British troops in colonial homes, the heavy hand of an “occupation” army, and taxation that we were told went for our own defense, whether we wanted to be defended or not.
If Americans are going to continue to hold so-called tea parties, shouldn’t some of them be directed against the militarization of our country and an enormous tax burden fed in part by our wasteful, trillion-dollar wars?
Modest as it may seem, my seven-step recovery program won’t be easy for many of us to follow. After all, let’s face it, we’ve come to enjoy our peculiar brand of muscular patriotism and the macho militarism that goes with it. In fact, we revel in it. Outwardly, the result is quite an impressive show. We look confident and ripped and strong. But it’s increasingly clear that our outward swagger conceals an inner desperation. If we’re so strong, one might ask, why do we need so much steroidal piety, so many in-your-face patriotic props, and so much parade-ground conformity?
Forget Rambo and action-picture G.I. Joes: Give me the steady hand, the undemonstrative strength, and the quiet humility of Alvin York, Audie Murphy — and Gary Cooper.
A visitor to my home today saw my retirement plaque, which marks my twenty years of service in the US Air Force. He immediately thanked me for my service to my country.
I appreciated his thanks because I took (and take) some pride in having served honorably in the military. But people who thank me make me uncomfortable. Why, you ask?
Because I believe it was an honor to serve my country. It was an honor to be entrusted by the people of our great land with their trust.
So when people thank me, I always feel like thanking them back for allowing me to serve; for giving me this honor, this privilege.
Now, I write articles that are often critical of today’s military. And there’s lots of things to criticize. But I don’t believe in criticizing the military’s ethic of service, an ethic that should be based on humility and tinged with pride. Because our nation’s ideal is a citizen-soldier military. Note how the word “citizen” comes first. We are not supposed to want a military composed of mercenaries or warriors. Such a military is inconsistent with our democratic ideals.
Also inconsistent with our democratic ideals is our national tendency to idolize officers of high military rank. You know, the generals and admirals, men like Tommy Franks or David Petraeus. Why? Because any citizen-civilian outranks any citizen-soldier in the military, generals included.
We must always remember that military members serve us: we the people. We don’t serve them. And we must remember as well that our president, a civilian commander-in-chief, is first and foremost exactly that: a civilian. And that he’s not the commander-in-chief of all Americans; merely of those Americans who choose to don a uniform and take the oath of office (to include active duty, reserves, and National Guard members).
These are fundamental points (or they should be). They are derived from our Constitution. Our founders saw (reluctantly) the need for a military, and perhaps our greatest founder, George Washington, was also arguably our greatest military leader. Not because he was a Napoleon, but precisely because he wasn’t. He was our Cincinnatus, a citizen-soldier, with the emphasis firmly placed on citizen. A man who placed his duty to the Constitution, and to the people, before himself and military vainglory.
If you wish to thank a service member for his or her service, by all means do so. Just don’t be completely surprised when they deflect your thanks, or even thank you back for the honor and privilege of being able to serve in the name of the people to protect our highest ideals as enshrined in our Constitution.