The Pentagon as Pentagod

W.J. Astore

The other day, retired General Michael Flynn called for “one religion under God” in the United States.

Ah, General Flynn, we already have one religion of militant nationalism and imperialism, and we already have one god, the Pentagod, which is the subject of my latest article for TomDispatch.com.

First, one religion. This weekend I watched the New England Patriots play the Cleveland Brown during which a Pentagon recruiting commercial broke out. The coaches wore camouflage jackets and caps, the game started with military flyovers of combat jets, and there even was a mass military swearing-in ceremony hosted by a four-star general and admiral. That same general claimed during an on-field interview during the game that the military is what keeps America free, which might just be the best definition of militarism that I’ve heard.

(Aside: In a true democracy, the military is seen as a necessary evil, because all militaries are essentially undemocratic. The goal of a true democracy is to spend as little as possible on the military while still providing for a robust defense.)

Here’s an illustration, sent by a friend, of America’s one religion:

So, according to the NFL and the mainstream media, “all of us” need to honor “our” military and indeed anyone who’s ever worn a uniform, no questions asked, apparently. I wore a military uniform for 24 years: four years as a cadet, twenty as a military officer, and I’m telling you this is nonsense — dangerous nonsense. Don’t “salute” authority. Question it. Challenge it. Hold it accountable and responsible. At the very least, be informed about it. And don’t mix sports, which is both business and entertainment, with military service and the machinery of war.

OK, so now let’s talk about America’s god. As I argue below, it certainly isn’t the Jesus Christ I learned about by reading the New Testament and studying the Gospels in CCD. America has never worshipped that god. Clearly the god we worship — at least as measured by money and societal influence — is the Pentagod, which leads me to my latest article at TomDispatch. Enjoy!

The Pentagon As Pentagod

Who is America’s god? The Christian god of the beatitudes, the one who healed the sick, helped the poor, and preached love of neighbor? Not in these (dis)United States. In the Pledge of Allegiance, we speak proudly of One Nation under God, but in the aggregate, this country doesn’t serve or worship Jesus Christ, or Allah, or any other god of justice and mercy. In truth, the deity America believes in is the five-sided one headquartered in Arlington, Virginia.

In God We Trust is on all our coins. But, again, which god? The one of “turn the other cheek”? The one who found his disciples among society’s outcasts? The one who wanted nothing to do with moneychangers or swords? As Joe Biden might say, give me a break.

America’s true god is a deity of wrath, whose keenest followers profit mightily from war and see such gains as virtuous, while its most militant disciples, a crew of losing generals and failed Washington officials, routinely employ murderous violence across the globe. It contains multitudes, its name is legion, but if this deity must have one name, citing a need for some restraint, let it be known as the Pentagod.

Yes, the Pentagon is America’s true god. Consider that the Biden administration requested a whopping $753 billion for military spending in fiscal year 2022 even as the Afghan War was cratering. Consider that the House Armed Services Committee then boosted that blockbuster budget to $778 billion in September. Twenty-five billion dollars extra for “defense,” hardly debated, easily passed, with strong bipartisan support in Congress. How else, if not religious belief, to explain this, despite the Pentagod’s prodigal $8 trillion wars over the last two decades that ended so disastrously? How else to account for future budget projections showing that all-American deity getting another $8 trillion or so over the next decade, even as the political parties fight like rabid dogs over roughly 15% of that figure for much-needed domestic improvements?

Paraphrasing Joe Biden, show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you worship. In that context, there can’t be the slightest doubt: America worships its Pentagod and the weapons and wars that feed it.

Prefabricated War, Made in the U.S.A.

I confess that I’m floored by this simple fact: for two decades in which “forever war” has served as an apt descriptor of America’s true state of the union, the Pentagod has failed to deliver on any of its promises. Iraq and Afghanistan? Just the most obvious of a series of war-on-terror quagmires and failures galore.

That ultimate deity can’t even pass a simple financial audit to account for what it does with those endless funds shoved its way, yet our representatives in Washington keep doing so by the trillions. Spectacular failure after spectacular failure and yet that all-American god just rolls on, seemingly unstoppable, unquenchable, rarely questioned, never penalized, always on top.

Talk about blind faith!

To read the rest of my article, please go to TomDispatch here. Here’s my conclusion:

Yet, before I bled Air Force blue, before I was stationed in a cathedral of military power under who knows how many tons of solid granite, I was raised a Roman Catholic. Recently, I caught the words of Pope Francis, God’s representative on earth for Catholic believers. Among other entreaties, he asked “in the name of God” for “arms manufacturers and dealers to completely stop their activity, because it foments violence and war, it contributes to those awful geopolitical games which cost millions of lives displaced and millions dead.”

Which country has the most arms manufacturers? Which routinely and proudly leads the world in weapons exports? And which spends more on wars and weaponry than any other, with hardly a challenge from Congress or a demurral from the mainstream media?

And as I stared into the abyss created by those questions, who stared back at me but, of course, the Pentagod.

Why I Still Watch NFL Football

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Nothing screams “America!” like huge stadiums, big bombers, and giant flags 

W.J. Astore

A few weeks ago, a reader asked me a fair question: Why do I continue to watch football, given my comments on violence in the sport and the militarization of the game, including camouflage uniforms (even for coaches and cheerleaders!).  I could have hedged and said I don’t watch much football.  I don’t watch college games, and the only NFL game I regularly watch features my home team.  In short, I watch about three hours a week, and a little more during the playoffs.  Nevertheless, I still watch, so why do I do it?

I wrote back and identified four reasons: Because I’ve watched football since I was a kid (habit) and I enjoy the sport.  Because I put my mind in neutral during the game and just enjoy the action (a form of denial, I suppose).  Because, like so many Americans, I get caught up in the spectacle of it all, its ritualistic nature.  Because it’s often unpredictable and real in a way that “reality” shows are not.

After sending that answer along, another reader noted how my reasons could be made to serve as partial justification for supporting America’s wars, and to be honest the thought had occurred to me before I sent my answer.  So, you could say I’ve watched wars since I was a kid and on some level “enjoyed” them (the action, the drama, the spectacle of it all, the way things are “played for keeps”).  Perhaps I put my mind in neutral as well (TV trance) while enjoying the “reality” and rooting for the home team (America!).  Sports and war are connected in complex ways, and I’m only scratching the surface here.

I’d like to add two more reasons why I watch football.  I enjoy rooting for “my” team, and when they win, I’m pleased.  When they don’t, I’m bummed.  I get over it quickly (after all, it’s just a game, right?), but on some level the games have meaning to me.  I identify with “my” team, simple as that.

One more reason: nostalgia.  These games recall a simpler time, when we threw a ball around with friends or our dad, then quit for the day to watch a game and scream and shout at the stadium or in our living rooms.  (Such nostalgia is not unknown among combat veterans, who look back on war with mixed feelings of horror but also of love, or at least attraction in the sense of a powerful camaraderie and sense of belonging shared by those who were there.  It’s one reason for war’s peculiar attraction and perhaps its endurance as well.)

What say you, readers?  Do you watch football and, if so, why?

A Few Observations on War, Sports, Fortresses, America, and Life

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America the beautiful?  Yes, that’s a stealth bomber designed for nuclear attack cruising over a football stadium, because America!

W.J. Astore

It’s a new year!  And as we adjust to 2019, I thought I’d share a few random observations (hopefully of some import).

“Retirement”: Many Americans fear the concept of retirement.  Part of the challenge is coming to grips with the word.  In America, your identity often hinges on your title, your job, and your paycheck.  Since retiring from teaching (after retiring from the military), I’m still mentally adjusting to not having a fixed schedule, to not having expectations on the job that have to be met. I’ve never been an especially driven person but I’ve always sought to do well. Now I have to do well on terms defined by me. It’s a mental adjustment.

One thing is certain: society is always trying to pigeonhole us.  When I tell people I’m “retired,” the immediate response is “You’re too young” or “But what do you do?” said in an incredulous voice.  To avoid this problem, sometimes I tell people I’m a writer or a historian, both true, though I currently have no salaried position as such.  To state the obvious, American culture is job-centered. Look at our health care: lose your job, lose your health insurance. So much of our identity, as well as our ability to navigate American society, is based on our jobs.

People find meaning in work.  But inspiration can be found elsewhere.  Find something of value to you that’s inspiring and I don’t think you’ll ever be “retired.”

“A man’s home is his castle”: Is it good that men are encouraged to think of their homes as their castles?  For what are castles but fortresses? And fortresses need defending, with guns and security alarms and fences and all the rest.  And if a man is Lord of his Castle, then everyone else is his subject, including his wife and children. Perhaps especially his wife and children.  We need to think of home as home, not as a castle, not as a fortress in which a man fortifies and actuates his own fears and aggression.  (This observation was inspired by an article on male violence in the home.)

On Mourning America’s War Dead: A subject worthy of discussion is how we mourn our troops. When flag-draped caskets return to American soil, our troops are honored. But they are mourned mainly within family settings, or among neighbors in close-knit communities. Rarely are they mourned within wider communal settings. And I sense that some families are torn: there is little serenity for them, not only because they lost a loved one, but because there is a sense, a suspicion, that loved ones died for lesser causes, causes unrelated to ideals held sacred.

Of course, a soldier never dies in vain when he dies for his fellow troops. But that can be said of all soldiers on all sides in all wars. In a republic like the USA, or a polis as in ancient Greece, soldiers are supposed to die for something greater than the unit. That larger purpose is a communal ideal. Call it truth, justice, and the American way. Or call it something else, a sense of rightness if not righteousness.

But where is the rightness in America’s wars today?

On America’s Standing Military and Congressional Authority:  The nation’s founders knew there’d be national emergencies that would require a larger “standing” military (i.e., not just state militias of “minutemen”), but they wanted to prevent a state of permanent war, which they attempted to do with the two-year appropriation clause. They were well familiar with history and all those hundred years’, thirty years’, and seven years’, wars.  By giving the people (Congress) the power of the purse, they hoped to prevent those long wars by cutting off open-ended funding.

Of course, today that doesn’t apply.  The AUMF (authorization for the use of military force) that dates from 2001 is used to justify a state of perpetual war and the funding of the same.  Congress has abnegated its responsibility to check overweening Executive power for war-making, but actually it’s worse than that: Congress has joined the Executive branch in pursuing perpetual war. We no longer even bother with formal Congressional declarations; permanent war is considered to be the new normal in America: business as usual.

Not only have we created a permanent standing military — we devote the lion’s share of federal resources to it and brag about how great it is.  That reality is antithetical to our national ideals as imagined and articulated by this nation’s founders.

Sports, Movies, and the Military in America:  There’s a tendency for people to dismiss sports as “just sports” or movies as “just movies.” Yet astute people recognize the power of both. The classic case is Nazi Germany and the 1936 Olympics, and of course Leni Riefenstahl and spectacles like “The Triumph of the Will.” These, of course, were blatant, in-your-face, rallies. Today, U.S. sports/military celebrations may not be as blatant, but sports connects powerfully to feel-good patriotism as fanatical boosterism, which is precisely why the military is so eager to appropriate sports imagery (and to infiltrate sporting events). The corporate sponsors see it as a win-win: a win for profits, and a win for their image as “patriots.”

Hollywood is the dream factory. Sports too has a strong fantasy element. Speaking as an American male, who hasn’t dreamed of hitting the big home run like Big Papi or pitching a no-hitter like Matt Scherzer?

Man does not live by bread alone; to a certain extent, we live by dreams. Through our aspirations. And our dreams and aspirations are being channeled along certain lines: along more military lines, both at and by sporting events as well as at the movie theater.

It’s not just crass commercialism. It’s about shaping dreams, defining what’s appropriate (and what isn’t).

Thank you for indulging me as I cram into this article a few observations I’ve been kicking around.  I’d also like as ever to thank all my readers and especially my faithful commenters and correspondents.  Fire away in the comments section, readers!