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?
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”?
Since the end of the Vietnam War, when it eliminated the draft, the United States has relied on an “all-volunteer military,” or AVM. But that military, as one would expect, has not drawn equally from all segments of American society. Its recruits have been more rural than urban, more Southern and Midwestern than from coastal regions, more conservative and evangelical than liberal and non-denominational, and certainly more working and middle class than from the affluent upper classes.
Is there a problem here? Some would answer “no,” but today’s AVM is not the citizen-military of World War II, which drew in a fairly equitable way from all sectors of American society. Today’s AVM defines itself as a breed apart, as separate from and superior to the masses who choose not to serve. And in some sense it is a breed apart, because we have allowed it to become so.
This band of self-styled warriors is augmented increasingly by privatized military corporations, or mercenaries in plain speak. (Indeed, some service members, when they leave the AVM, choose to join privatized military corporations, often doubling or tripling their salaries in the process.) National Guard and Reserves complete the picture, units of which have been deployed to war zones far more frequently than anticipated since 9/11.
So, the U.S. military today is a curious amalgam. An AVM or “professional” military, supported by privatized corporations/mercenaries and “weekend warriors,” deployed to foreign locations, acting to guard and sometimes to extend an imperial frontier, often celebrated by gushing politicians and a fawning media as “heroes” and as “the finest fighting force ever,” even as that military is connected less and less tangibly to the American citizenry.
And it’s that very decline in tangible connections that accounts for much of the military boosterism in America. Most Americans lack any clear sense of what the military does; they certainly care less than they should; but what they are willing to do is to “salute” the troops by buying a beer in a red-white-and-blue can or putting a magnetic ribbon on their SUV as an expression of “support.”
A military that is not drawn equitably and broadly from the people is a military that is potentially corrosive to democracy. Perhaps not surprisingly, today’s military is also one that is rarely sent on the people’s business in anything but name. Instead, it is sent on the government’s business, a government riddled by special interests, a deeply compromised government.
Having served myself in the AVM for twenty years, I confess to respect aspects of it while increasingly being uneasy at its current composition and direction. Why? Because its composition is less than democratic, and its missions are even less so. These hard facts are nothing new in history, even in America’s history, even when we had a draft. Just read General Smedley Butler’sWar Is A Racket. What’s new is our acquiescence as a people in the transformation of our military as warriors and mercenaries to well-heeled special interests.
Our nation has betrayed its troops in a strange way — by loving indifference. Even as the military kills in our name, we choose to look away, sometimes in horror at the face of war, most often in lack of interest. Even when we show interest, it’s the interest of cheerleaders jumping in celebration, or of fans enthusiastically or politely applauding from the sidelines. The vast majority of Americans choose to have no real skin in the game.
What our military needs is not gushing cheerleaders or applauding fans but determined critics. It needs to be challenged. It needs a good ass-chewing, especially of its decision-makers at the top, the brass. We sure as hell can’t wait for our “leaders” to do this.
Recent presidents have become cheerleaders-in-chief rather than commanders, nearly all of our Members of Congress have joined the pep squad, and the few critics who exist have been marginalized or attacked as being unpatriotic.
Even as our military becomes less democratic, less a representative sample of the people, we the people refuse to know our military. We especially don’t want to know what it does in our name (especially the bad stuff, which is largely kept secret from us anyway). So we end up worshiping a fantasy military, a manic pixie dream military, a figment of our imagination, an amalgam of films like Saving Private Ryan (WWII idealism), Top Gun (technological wargasm), and Act of Valor (Rambo/cowboy histrionics).
We refuse to know our military and what it does. And if the people don’t know the military, and if the military is not drawn fairly from the people, you have a ripple, a rent, maybe even a fatal fault line, in the political and social life of the Republic.
We don’t know what kind of military we have, we don’t know what it does, but we worship it anyway. That’s not democracy; that’s militarism as a national religion.