Disturbing, upsetting, baffling: these words often apply when young troops face religious pressure or discrimination for the first time.
And it disturbs, upsets, and baffles me that a nation founded on religious freedom produces people that want to abridge or eliminate that freedom in the (false) name of following Christ.
It also disturbs, upsets, and baffles me that a military that is supposed to defend our Constitutional freedoms, to include freedom of religion, occasionally works in ways that undermine that very freedom.
I was born and raised within the Catholic church, but I would never push my religious beliefs on someone else. Certainly not in a military context, in which supervisory authority is nearly absolute.
I believe there is a place for God (or gods, or no god) in the military, and a place for chaplains. Troops should be able to worship freely in the military, as is their right as American citizens. But there’s no place for proselytizing, pressure, “mandatory” Bible studies, and all the rest of that.
I remember how much Colorado Springs and the Air Force Academy changed between my first tour there (1990-92) and my second (1998-2002). Lots of evangelical organizations (like Focus on the Family) built headquarters just to the east of the AF Academy. I started to see that evangelical influence permeate the Academy. I suppose I was lucky I left in 2002, just before the scandals involving religious discrimination broke.
The military attracts many young people looking for certitude as well as a mission, a calling. Some of these young people come to espouse a narrow form of “Christianity,” one that sees itself as uniquely American and uniquely suited to a military context.
Yet how can troops take an oath to support and defend the Constitution, which enshrines freedom of religion, and then work to curtail or offend the religious freedoms of others?
Here’s what people need to remember about military settings: the authority of your direct supervisor is nearly absolute. If your drill sergeant, your platoon commander, your company commander, makes it obvious that he or she favors Christianity, it puts enormous pressure on subordinates to conform, or at least to fake it.
If your boss in a civilian setting is an assertive Christian evangelist, at least you have the option of quitting (however painful that might prove). There is no option in the military of “quitting” your platoon, your company, your unit. Furthermore, in a war zone, refusing to conform to an evangelical zealot as a leader could literally become a matter of life and death. Hey, Private Jones, you’re an atheist: go ahead and walk point again, i.e. take the lead as the unit walks through dangerous enemy territory infested with IEDs and snipers. Maybe that’ll give you some faith in God. Ha ha.
Again, the U.S. military must remember its purpose: to support and defend the Constitution. In fulfilling that purpose, there is simply no place for evangelism of any religion, Christian or otherwise.
Note: Since 2005, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) has fought to ensure religious freedom within military settings. The foundation represents nearly 45,000 service members, 96% of whom identify as Christian. Find out more about the MRFF at http://www.militaryreligiousfreedom.org.
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.
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.
Privatization of war is making it far easier for America’s imperial state to wage endless war throughout the world. Consider the case of Afghanistan. The U.S. military is allegedly leaving that country, turning the fight over to the Afghan military, trained and equipped largely by America.
But the truth is different: the U.S. has simply privatized the Afghan War, turning it over to military contractors, secretive Special Forces, and the CIA, as reported in this article by Tim Shorrock, in which you’ll find the following quote:
“If you define combat mission as only having large numbers of US combat troops in the field, doing patrols, and engaging the Taliban, then, yes, it [the Afghan War] is coming to an end,” says David Isenberg, a Navy veteran and author who has been researching private security and military contractors since the early 1990s. “But if you define it as continuing to attack and degrade those you consider hostile, via drone or Special Forces or CIA paramilitaries, all of which are supported by contractors, then not so much.”
Not so much, indeed. The future is indeed bright for privatized military contractors. So much so that I have a slogan to offer the next Blackwater/Xe/Academi, the next DynCorp, the next Triple Canopy, the next global mercenary outfit:
My Slogan: Your Wish Is My Commando
Your imperial wish is also my profit, but we won’t mention that fact too loudly.
America was not supposed to go to war like this. Remember our Founders and their ideas on war? War was supposed to be a terrible decision, hotly contested among the people by their duly elected representatives in Congress. It wasn’t supposed to be an easy choice made by presidents, with no real input or debate by that Congress. It was supposed to involve citizen-soldiers motivated to defend the Constitution and sacred freedoms, not pay-for-hire mercenaries motivated by profit and spoils.
But our imperial state knows that it can’t fool all of the people all of the time on the need for endless wars in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, hence the recourse to wars fought largely in secret by hired guns and CIA/paramilitaries. The mainstream media, of course, is owned by some of the same corporations that profit from weapons sales overseas, so don’t expect push-back from them. No — the push-back will have to come from us. We will have to use all the tools at our disposal to fight for enduring peace.
One thing I know: Without our push-back, enduring (as in endless) war is a certainty for America’s future.
Bonus Lesson: Isn’t it nice to know that this is Ashton Carter’s first day on the job as Secretary of Defense? And that he’s open to sending more American troops to Afghanistan? Just the man we needed at the Pentagon. No wonder he was confirmed 93-5 by the Senate.
I spent four college years in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) and then served 20 years in the U.S. Air Force. In the military, especially in basic training, you have no privacy. The government owns you. You’re “government issue,” just another G.I., a number on a dogtag that has your blood type and religion in case you need a transfusion or last rites. You get used to it. That sacrifice of individual privacy and personal autonomy is the price you pay for joining the military. Heck, I got a good career and a pension out of it, so don’t cry for me, America.
But this country has changed a lot since I joined ROTC in 1981, was fingerprinted, typed for blood, and otherwise poked and prodded. (I needed a medical waiver for myopia.) Nowadays, in Fortress America, every one of us is, in some sense, government issue in a surveillance state gone mad.
Unlike the recruiting poster of old, Uncle Sam doesn’t want you anymore — he already has you. You’ve been drafted into the American national security state. That much is evident from Edward Snowden’s revelations. Your email? It can be read. Your phone calls? Metadata about them is being gathered. Your smartphone? It’s a perfect tracking device if the government needs to find you. Your computer? Hackable and trackable. Your server? It’s at their service, not yours.
Many of the college students I’ve taught recently take such a loss of privacyfor granted. They have no idea what’s gone missing from their lives and so don’t value what they’ve lost or, if they fret about it at all, console themselves with magical thinking — incantations like “I’ve done nothing wrong, so I’ve got nothing to hide.” They have little sense of how capricious governments can be about the definition of “wrong.”
Consider us all recruits, more or less, in the new version of Fortress America, of an ever more militarized, securitized country. Renting a movie? Why not opt for the first Captain America and watch him vanquish the Nazis yet again, a reminder of the last war we truly won? Did you head for a baseball park on Memorial Day? What could be more American or more innocent? So I hope you paid no attention to all those camouflaged caps and uniforms your favorite players were wearing in just another of an endless stream of tributes to our troops and veterans.
Let’s hear no whining about militarized uniforms on America’s playing fields. After all, don’t you know that America’s real pastime these last years has been war and lots of it?
Be a Good Trooper
Think of the irony. The Vietnam War generated an unruly citizen’s army that reflected an unruly and increasingly rebellious citizenry. That proved more than the U.S. military and our ruling elites could take. So President Nixon ended the draft in 1973 and made America’s citizen-soldier ideal, an ideal that had persisted for two centuries, a thing of the past. The “all-volunteer military,” the professionals, were recruited or otherwise enticed to do the job for us. No muss, no fuss, and it’s been that way ever since. Plenty of war, but no need to be a “warrior,” unless you sign on the dotted line. It’s the new American way.
But it turned out that there was a fair amount of fine print in the agreement that freed Americans from those involuntary military obligations. Part of the bargain was to “support the pros” (or rather “our troops”) unstintingly and the rest involved being pacified, keeping your peace, being a happy warrior in the new national security state that, particularly in the wake of 9/11, grew to enormous proportions on the taxpayer dollar. Whether you like it or not, you’ve been drafted into that role, so join the line of recruits and take your proper place in the garrison state.
If you’re bold, gaze out across the increasingly fortified and monitoredborders we share with Canada and Mexico. (Remember when you could cross those borders with no hassle, not even a passport or ID card? I do.) Watch for those drones, home from the wars and already hovering in or soon to arrive in your local skies — ostensibly to fight crime. Pay due respect to your increasingly up-armored police forces with their automatic weapons, their special SWAT teams, and their converted MRAPs (mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles). These vintage Iraqi Freedom vehicles are now military surplus given away or sold on the cheap to local police departments. Be careful to observe their draconian orders for prison-like “lockdowns” of your neighborhood or city, essentially temporary declarations of martial law, all for your safety and security.
Be a good trooper and do what you’re told. Stay out of public areas when you’re ordered to do so. Learn to salute smartly. (It’s one of the first lessons I was taught as a military recruit.) No, not that middle-finger salute, you aging hippie. Render a proper one to those in authority. You had best learn how.
Or perhaps you don’t even have to, since so much that we now do automatically is structured to render that salute for us. Repeated singings of “God Bless America” at sporting events. Repeated viewings of movies that glorify the military. (Special Operations forces are a hot topic in American multiplexes these days from Act of Valor to Lone Survivor.) Why not answer the call of duty by playing militarized video games like Call of Duty? Indeed, when you do think of war, be sure to treat it as a sport, a movie, a game.
Surging in America
I’ve been out of the military for nearly a decade, and yet I feel more militarized today than when I wore a uniform. That feeling first came over me in 2007, during what was called the “Iraqi surge” — the sending of another 30,000 U.S. troops into the quagmire that was our occupation of that country. It prompted my first article for TomDispatch. I was appalled by the way our civilian commander-in-chief, George W. Bush, hid behind the beribboned chest of his appointed surge commander, General David Petraeus, to justify his administration’s devolving war of choice in Iraq. It seemed like the eerie visual equivalent of turning traditional American military-civilian relationships upside down, of a president who had gone over to the military. And it worked. A cowed Congress meekly submitted to “King David” Petraeus and rushed to cheer his testimony in support of further American escalation in Iraq.
Since then, it’s become a sartorial necessity for our presidents to donmilitary flight jackets whenever they address our “warfighters” as a sign both of their “support” and of the militarization of the imperial presidency. (For comparison, try to imagine Matthew Brady taking a photo of “honest Abe” in the Civil War equivalent of a flight jacket!) It is now de rigueur for presidents to praise American troops as “the finest military in world history” or, as President Obama typically said to NBC’s Brian Williams in aninterview from Normandy last week, “the greatest military in the world.” Even more hyperbolically, these same troops are celebrated across the country in the most vocal way possible as hardened “warriors” andbenevolent freedom-bringers, simultaneously the goodest and the baddest of anyone on the planet — and all without including any of the ugly, as in the ugliness of war and killing. Perhaps that explains why I’ve seen military recruitment vans (sporting video game consoles) at the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Given that military service is so beneficent, why not get the country’s 12-year-old prospects hopped up on the prospect of joining the ranks?
Too few Americans see any problems in any of this, which shouldn’t surprise us. After all, they’re already recruits themselves. And if the prospect of all this does appall you, you can’t even burn your draft card in protest, so better to salute smartly and obey. A good conduct medal will undoubtedly be coming your way soon.
It wasn’t always so. I remember walking the streets of Worcester, Massachusetts, in my freshly pressed ROTC uniform in 1981. It was just six years after the Vietnam War ended in defeat and antiwar movies likeComing Home, The Deer Hunter, and Apocalypse Now were still fresh in people’s minds. (First Blood and the Rambo “stab-in-the-back” myth wouldn’t come along for another year.) I was aware of people looking at me not with hostility, but with a certain indifference mixed occasionally with barely disguised disdain. It bothered me slightly, but even then I knew that a healthy distrust of large standing militaries was in the American grain.
No longer. Today, service members, when appearing in uniform, are universally applauded and repetitiously lauded as heroes.
I’m not saying we should treat our troops with disdain, but as our history has shown us, genuflecting before them is not a healthy sign of respect. Consider it a sign as well that we really are all government issue now.
Shedding a Militarized Mindset
If you think that’s an exaggeration, consider an old military officer’s manual I still have in my possession. It’s vintage 1950, approved by that great American, General George C. Marshall, Jr., the man most responsible for our country’s victory in World War II. It began with this reminder to the newly commissioned officer: “[O]n becoming an officer a man does not renounce any part of his fundamental character as an American citizen. He has simply signed on for the post-graduate course where one learns how to exercise authority in accordance with the spirit of liberty.” That may not be an easy thing to do, but the manual’s aim was to highlight the salutary tension between military authority and personal liberty that was the essence of the old citizen’s army.
It also reminded new officers that they were trustees of America’s liberty, quoting an unnamed admiral’s words on the subject: “The American philosophy places the individual above the state. It distrusts personal power and coercion. It denies the existence of indispensable men. It asserts the supremacy of principle.”
Those words were a sound antidote to government-issue authoritarianism and militarism — and they still are. Together we all need to do our bit, not as G.I. Joes and Janes, but as Citizen Joes and Janes, to put personal liberty and constitutional principles first. In the spirit of Ronald Reagan, who toldSoviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this [Berlin] wall,” isn’t it time to begin to tear down the walls of Fortress America and shed our militarized mindsets? Future generations of citizens will thank us, if we have the courage to do so.
I occasionally travel from north central Pennsylvania, a mostly rural, generally conservative, area to Amherst, Massachusetts, home of generally liberal colleges like Amherst and Smith. It’s an adventure in dueling bumper stickers.
In Amherst, I’m told to “coexist” with my neighbors, to “enlighten up,” to seek “peace.” I’m told to go organic and to support my local farmers. Perhaps my favorite Amherst bumper sticker was the one that told me, “I’m already against the next war.”
Just today in Pennsylvania, I was taught different lessons by different stickers. I was told to seek “peace thru superior firepower.” I was encouraged to join the NRA (National Rifle Association, of course) and to “stand and fight.” I was reminded that “All gave some — some gave all,” with the image of a soldier kneeling next to the grave of a comrade in arms. “Don’t tread on me,” the slogan of tea partiers, is a common t-shirt and flag.
I suppose these are visible reminders of red versus blue America. The America of “freedom isn’t free,” that we need to be tough and strong and assertive to defend ourselves against evil-doers, versus the America of harmony and accord to be achieved through greater understanding and tolerance.
The conservatives always seem to have the funnier stickers. My all-time favorite (seen many years ago in Colorado) is “Ted Kennedy’s Car Has Killed More People Than My Gun.”
Perhaps there’s a lesson in this. Always suspect slogans, especially those that fit on a bumper sticker. And not only conservative ones. Let’s not forget the vapid “hope” and “change” of the Obama campaign, words that were so malleable and fuzzy that they basically meant nothing. Or they meant what you wanted them to mean, which is almost the same thing.
Maybe a friend of mine is right when he expresses a wish that Americans would just shut up and stop airing their political and social views on their cars and trucks.
It is something that is peculiarly American. Can we imagine a German citizen with a sticker on his BMW that says “Peace thru superior firepower,” with a Stuka dive bomber featured? Yet Americans think little of having such a sticker featuring the image of a B-52 Stratofortress.
Lessons? I don’t know. I catch the humor in some of these stickers, but some of them really make me wonder.
America is a bellicose land: even our bumper stickers are at war with each other!
Andrew Bacevich, a retired U.S. Army colonel and professor of international relations, writing in January 2009 as Barack Obama took office as president, made the following cogent observation about the need for true “change” in Washington:
When it comes to national security, the standard navigational charts used to guide the ship of state are obsolete. The assumptions, doctrines, habits, and routines falling under the rubric of “national security policy” have outlived their usefulness. The antidote to the disappointments and failures of the Bush years, illustrated most vividly in the never-ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is not to try harder, but to think differently. Only then will it become possible to avoid the patently self-destructive behavior that today finds Americans facing the prospect of perpetual conflict that neither our army nor our economy can sustain.
Of course, Obama promised “change,” but with respect to national security policy, the sum total of the last five years of his watch has simply been more of the same.
Admittedly, the war in Iraq finally ended (for U.S. troops, not for the Iraqi people), but that was only because the Iraqis themselves refused to countenance the eternal presence of our troops there (of course, our boondoggle of an embassy in Baghdad survives). Obama didn’t get us out of Iraq; he acquiesced to a deal Bush had already struck with the Iraqis.
Meanwhile, the U.S. remains ensnared in Afghanistan, squandering lives and resources to the tune of $100 billion a year. Vague promises are made of an American withdrawal in 2014, but with an “enduring presence” (God help us) for another ten years after that. Under Obama, drone strikes have expanded and continue; the national security state remains fat as it ever was, garrisoning the globe and spying on the world (including, as we recently learned, American citizens); and various tough-talking “experts” in Congress continue to call for new military interventions in places like Iran and Syria.
Why has this happened? One reason is that Obama and his team wanted to be reelected in 2012, so they embraced the Bush neo-conservative approach of a hyper-kinetic, interventionist, foreign policy. Fresh thinking was nowhere to be found, since any downsizing of American military commitments or its national security apparatus would have exposed Obama to charges of being “soft” on (Muslim) terror.
With respect to a bloated national security apparatus and wasteful military interventions, change didn’t come in 2008. It was a case, as The Who song says, of “Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.” Nor is change coming, seemingly, in the future. Americans remain wedded to a colossal national security state that neither the president nor the Congress appears willing to challenge, let alone change.
Fresh thinking is the one thing you can’t buy in Washington because it’s priceless. And for the lack of it, we’re paying a very high price indeed.
Next Article: Some fresh thinking on where we should be headed.