Ending America’s Cult of the Warrior-Hero

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A letter to my dad from 1945

W.J. Astore

Every now and again I look over my dad’s letters from World War II.  He was attached to an armored headquarters company that didn’t go overseas, but he had friends who did serve in Europe during and after the Battle of the Bulge in late 1944.  Also, he had two brothers, one who served in Europe attached to a quartermaster (logistics) company in the Army, the other who served in the Pacific as a Marine.

Reading my dad’s letters and those from his friends and brothers, you get a sense of the costs of war.  They mention friends who’ve been killed or wounded in action; for example, a soldier who lost both his legs when his tank ran over a mine.  (His fellow soldiers took up a collection for him.)  They talk about strange things they’ve seen overseas, e.g. German buzz bombs or V-1 rockets, a crude version of today’s cruise missiles.  They look forward to furloughs and trips to cities such as Paris.  They talk about bad weather: cold, snow, mud.  They talk about women (my dad’s brother, Gino, met a Belgian girl that he wanted to marry, but it was not to be).  But perhaps most of all, they look forward to the war’s end and express a universal desire to ditch the military for civilian life.

All of my dad’s friends wanted to get out of the military and restart their civilian lives.  They didn’t want a military career — not surprising for draftees who thought of themselves as citizen-soldiers (emphasis on the citizen).  In their letters, they never refer to themselves as “warriors” or “warfighters” or “heroes,” as our society is wont to do today when talking about the troops.  War sucked, and they wanted no part of it.  One guy was happy, as he put it, that the Germans were getting the shit kicked out of them, and another guy was proud his armored unit had a “take no prisoners” approach to war, but this animus against the enemy was motivated by a desire to end the war as quickly as possible.

Reading these letters written by citizen-soldiers of the “greatest generation” reminds me of how much we’ve lost since the end of the Vietnam War and the rise of the “all volunteer” military.  Since the 9/11 attacks in particular, we’ve witnessed the rise of a warrior/warfighter ideal in the U.S. military, together with an ethos that celebrates all troops as “heroes” merely for the act of enlisting and putting on a uniform.  My dad and his friends would have scoffed at this ethos — this idolization of “warriors” and “heroes” — as being foreign to a citizen-soldier military.  Back then, the country that boasted most of warriors and heroes was not the USA: it was Nazi Germany.

Discarding the citizen-soldier ideal for a warrior ethos has been and remains a major flaw of America’s post-Vietnam military.  It has exacerbated America’s transition from a republic to an empire, even as America’s very own wannabe Roman emperor, Donald Trump, tweets while America burns.

Men (and women) of the greatest generation served proudly if reluctantly during World War II.  They fought to end the war as quickly as possible, and they succeeded.  America’s endless wars today and our nation’s rampant militarization dishonor them and their sacrifices.  If we wish to honor their service and sacrifice, we should bring our troops home, downsize our empire and our military budget, and end our wars.

Uncle Sam Wants You, Stars of Stage and Screen and the Sporting World

Brigadier General Jimmy Stewart (for real)
Brigadier General Jimmy Stewart (for real)

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?

Astore writes regularly for TomDispatch.com and The Contrary Perspective and can be reached at wjastore@gmail.com.

Martial Virtue: Promise and Peril

It's unwise to worship without question the god of war (Worcester Art Museum, image of Ares)
It’s unwise to worship without question the god of war (Worcester Art Museum, image of Ares)

W.J. Astore

Ever since the attacks of 9/11/2001, the United States has actively celebrated martial virtue.  We’ve portrayed our troops as heroes.  Presidents have celebrated them as the best led and best trained and most effective military in all of human history.  To question the wisdom of such hagiographic portrayals is to be dismissed as ungenerous and un-American.  Just ask the journalist Chris Hayes.

But the hard truth is that martial virtue is consistent both with republican freedoms and with imperial or despotic agendas, to include the suppression of freedom.

History teaches us that martial virtues (such as they are) are readily enlisted or perverted to serve imperial or even fascist regimes.  Sparta celebrated military virtues even as they lived off of slavery and exposed the “weak” to death.  The Romans, in ruthlessly pursuing an empire, created deserts and called them “peace,” to quote Tacitus, one of the great historians of Rome.  Both under the Kaiser and under Hitler, Germany elevated martial virtues and waged two utterly devastating wars.

This is not to say that martial service can’t be ennobling.  Organizing and fighting for what’s right is commendable.  To cite just one example, think of the Jews who organized to resist the Nazis during World War II.  Jewish partisans fought for a cause, for freedom from murderous oppression, a fight in which they found their “treasure,” the treasure of pure acts of will.  In Hannah Arendt’s words (which she applied to the French resistance), “they had become ‘challengers,’ had taken the initiative upon themselves and therefore, without knowing or even noticing it, had begun to create that public space between themselves where freedom could appear.”

During World War II, Jewish (and other) resisters tapped the nobility of martial service, carving out public spaces where decisions were made freely for the purpose of defeating a regime dedicated to their destruction.  Under these conditions, martial virtue upheld freedom.

Martial virtue, in other words, is not an oxymoron.

Did martial virtue help to make “the greatest generation” in America?  No.  It was the events that came before World War II, not the war itself, that “made” this generation.  My dad, born in 1917, had to endure the Great Depression, had to serve in the Civilian Conservation Corps in the mid-1930s, had to work long hours in the factory prior to the war, to support the family.  From this he learned the value of hard work and the reality that life often isn’t fair.  His service in the Army during the war was a duty he performed to the best of his ability, but it was largely what he and his generation endured before the war, and the nation they built after the war, that made them “great.”

American troops during World War II were citizen-soldiers.  Unseduced by Mars, the god of war, most of them endured the degradations of war without becoming degraded themselves.  You can’t say the same of the German Wehrmacht or the Soviet Army. 

And there’s the rub.  Martial service is also consistent with totalitarian states.  Indeed, such states take pains to celebrate the military in order to co-opt its honorable qualities for disreputable ends.  Military service loses its nobility as it is monopolized by the state in the name of furthering anti-democratic agendas.

All of this is to say that the celebration of martial virtue is powerful — and powerfully dangerous.  It may be consistent with protecting freedom, but so too may it be consistent with denying freedom.

Our nation’s founders knew this when they created a small “standing” military, placing it firmly under the control of Congress and a civilian commander-in-chief, augmented by state militias under the control of governors.  Founders like James Madison warned us of the dangers of perpetual war and its corrosive impact on democratic principles.  They were wise to do so.

And we would be wise to heed their counsel.  We would be wise not to celebrate a military setting as being uniquely suited to creating “heroes.”  And we would also be wise not to embrace martial qualities as being uniquely virtuous.

America is not exceptional when we commit to martial virtues; America is exceptional when we commit ourselves to liberty.