President Joe Biden favors ending major speeches with an invitation or invocation to God to protect “our” troops, as he did last night in his address to Congress. I don’t doubt the sincerity of the sentiment, but would it not be far better for Biden himself to protect those same troops by ending all of America’s needless wars?
U.S. Presidents traditionally favor asking God (there’s a sense that God would never deny this ask) to bless America as a way of ending speeches. Biden’s new “ask” of God goes a big step further by specifically identifying troops for special protection.
As a friend of mine, a retired military officer, put it about Biden’s rhetoric:
“This is new programming and it hits me like a scratched record every time I hear it—even his most militant predecessors stopped at ‘God bless America.’ It’s unclear to me whether he’s signaling that we’re all in danger all the time and that the troops will always have to be out there or if he thinks it’s the shibboleth he needs to use to gain some support from unaware Midwesterners and Southerners. Regardless, it engraves a new precedent into our political thought: a constant reinforcement that we are always in danger and you can watch your 70” TV only because the troops are out there.”
To be clear, my friend and I have nothing personal against the troops, seeing that we’re both career military. But why single out the troops for God’s protection? Why not ask God to protect the poor? The sick? The vulnerable and needy and suffering?
Most Americans know that Joe Biden lost a beloved son, Beau, to brain cancer, and that he’d served in Iraq, where he possibly contracted his illness due to exposure to toxic chemicals in burn pits there. One can understand a father’s grief for his son, and his desire for Beau’s fellow troops to be protected from harm.
As a human sentiment, it resonates with me. But I share my friend’s unease with those who would beseech God for special protection for troops whose reason for being is centered on the use of deadly force around the globe. Especially when the sentiment was used in a campaign ad to court voters.
Perhaps we should leave it up to God to decide whom He wishes to protect, and even which country or countries He wishes to bless.
A reader recently posed a simple question: If the U.S. military hasn’t won a war decisively since 1945, why do Americans continue to place so much faith in it and its leaders? I’ve tackled this issue before, but it got me to thinking again about the roots of military admiration — and adulation — within our society.
Here are a few reasons I came up with:
1. Although the U.S. military lost in Vietnam, stalemated in Korea, and got bogged down in seemingly endless wars recently in Iraq and Afghanistan, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t won victories in battles, such as Desert Storm in 1991 or the beginning of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. Its defeats were not primarily the fault of the troops but of poor leadership at the top (both military and government). In other words, when Americans say they admire and trust the military, what they mean, perhaps, is they appreciate the spirit of service and sacrifice of the troops, while reserving judgment on presidents and generals.
2. Let’s not forget victory in the Cold War. The fall of the “Iron Curtain,” the collapse of the Soviet Union, the reunification of Germany, the end of the Warsaw Pact — these were momentous events for the West.
3. The U.S. military may not win wars, but it does accomplish good things, e.g. rescue work, disaster relief, humanitarian missions. Critics often neglect these non-hostile missions.
4. Pro-military propaganda. There are many, many, examples of this, e.g. President Reagan and the myth of the noble cause in Vietnam, or presidents from Bush to Obama to Trump consistently praising the military as the finest fighting force in all of history. This is supported by Hollywood and TV. Think of all the movies and television shows that depict the military and war as ennobling and exciting and energizing.
5. The military-industrial complex and its power to control the narrative. The national security state has become a fourth branch of government with enormous influence and power in society. The mainstream media, for example, is dominated by pro-military talking heads, most of whom are retired colonels or generals.
6. Guilt. The U.S. military is “all volunteer.” The vast majority of Americans not only choose not to serve — they choose not to pay much attention. And I think many have some guilt for this, which they assuage with “support our troops” bumper stickers and other easy gestures of conformity.
7. Exposure to the military may be limited, but that doesn’t mean it’s not emotional. Indeed, when they think of the military, Americans may think of a son or daughter who serves, or granddad who served, or maybe that nice boy or girl down the street in uniform. They know nothing of the Pentagon, the military-industrial complex, war crimes, and so on.
8. For many Americans, the military is a point of pride. A symbol of strength but also a symbol of service and sacrifice.
My point is not to praise the military — it gets plenty of praise already, indeed, way too much praise, so much so that admiration becomes adulation. My intent here is rather to explicate some of the reasons why Americans continue to place so much confidence in the military, even when the results are disastrous.
One more thought: We live in a “selfie” society, a me-first culture. Whatever the military is, it’s not typically me-first. So when people say they respect or trust the military, perhaps they’re thinking of an organization that values teamwork — that puts the many before the few. In an America marked by divisiveness, it’s an ideal that resonates still.
Readers, what do you think?
Postscript: In my list above, I should have highlighted more strongly the role of lying by the military and government (think of the initial lies/reports about Pat Tillman’s death in Afghanistan, for example). I’m currently reading Sy Hersh’s new book, “Reporter.” Hersh’s accounts of systematic lying by the military and government during the Vietnam War are sober reminders to Americans. Yes, our government and military will often lie to us, sometimes for the most mundane reasons, but often to avoid accountability and to maintain control over the narrative.
When we think of the American press corps in the Vietnam War, names like Hersh and David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan come to mind, hardboiled reporters who sought the truth, no matter how shattering it proved to be. But these men, and reporters like Izzy Stone, were truly exceptional. Most reporters were more or less willing to repeat government and military explanations verbatim and without pushback. Hersh cites Arthur Sylvester, who served as Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s senior press aide, as describing the Pentagon press corps as “shabby” and gullible. “Cover stories [lies],” Sylvester wrote, “go down smooth as cream [and for six years], when I thought they would cause a frightful gargle” among reporters.
So, even as the Pentagon fooled many reporters and most Americans about progress in and prospects of the war, they didn’t fool the North Vietnamese themselves, who decisively won the war. “There was no learning curve among the men in the Pentagon running the war,” Hersh concludes (p. 62). Perhaps all these men really learned was how to lie better in the future — and how to shift blame from themselves to the usual suspects (hippies, leftists, commies, anti-war protesters, and so on).
As David Vine reports for TomDispatch.com, the U.S. has roughly 800 military bases in foreign countries. Maintaining these bases costs upwards of $100 billion each year, more than the federal government spends on U.S. education.
The sheer extent and cost of these bases got me to thinking. Each base is basically a “little America,” with a few of those bases being large enough to constitute an American city. If we can envision them collectively, would they not constitute America’s 51st state? But instead of adding one more star to the American flag, we’d have to add a white Pentagon to the field of blue to represent the controlling interest of “base world,” our 51st state.
Fifty stars and one Pentagon: Or, if you prefer, 51 stars arranged in the shape of a Pentagon.
Sound crazy? Not when you consider “base world’s” population, its corporate interests, its influence on American politics, and its leading role in American foreign policy. “Base world” is at least as significant to U.S. interests as real states like Wyoming. We really should have two U.S. senators elected from “base world.” Then again, they’re not really needed, since all 100 of our current U.S. senators represent the Pentagon (as long as the Pentagon keeps funneling money to their respective states, of course).
We have all these foreign bases because America needs them to protect our far-flung national interests against evil-doers. Right? Let’s think about these bases for a moment, the influence they wield, and the image they present of America. After all, for many foreigners, the USA = base world. What they know of America is represented by our military facilities and our troops. Most of our troops are decent individuals; believe me, I’ve known a lot of them. But there’s a reason why the Third Amendment to the U.S. Constitution forbids the quartering of troops in American households.
Ever been around a major military base in the USA? Often it’s easy to find them. Look for pawn shops, strip clubs, tattoo parlors, payday loan shops, and predatory car dealers. And if you think such “attractions” are a little sordid, perhaps you best not go overseas. This may surprise a few people, but young troops overseas are not always chaste and sage ambassadors of democracy. America’s “base world” is often not pretty, as young troops look for cheap suits and cheaper women, among other “bennies” (benefits) of an overseas deployment.
Statement of the obvious: Young troops of any nationality misbehave, especially when abroad. And that’s how many foreigners come to know America: through the misbehavior of our young troops from “base world.”
And here’s another point about “base world” that’s as obvious as it’s rarely made: How many Americans would like it if foreign troops had major military facilities near or within our cities? Perhaps some Russians or Saudis or Iranians in LA and Chicago and NYC. Because those “allies” would be “protecting” us with their bases on American soil. Right? Let’s add some foreign fighter jets into the mix, and perhaps some aerial drones as well. Surely we can trust our allies and their jets armed with bombs above our heads — right?
Incredibly expensive, often counterproductive, and sometimes disruptive, America’s “base world” needs to be downsized dramatically. If you truly want to shrink government, don’t start with your local post office. Start with America’s mega military bases overseas.
For George W. Bush, American troops were the greatest force for human freedom in the world. For Barack Obama, the troops represented the world’s finest fighting force, not just in this moment, but in all of human history. What is the reason for such hyperbolic, I’d even say unhinged, praise for our troops? Well, presidents obviously think it is both politically popular with the heartland and personally expedient in making them seem thankful for the troops’ service.
But here’s the problem: We don’t need hyperbolic statements that our military is the “finest fighting force” ever or that our troops are the world’s liberators and bringers of freedom. Such words are immoderate and boastful. They’re also false, or at least unprovable. They’re intended to win favor both with the troops and with the people back home, i.e. they’re politically calculated. And in that sense they’re ill-advised and even dishonest; they’re basically nothing more than flattery.
If I were president, I’d say something like this: “I commend our troops for their dedication, their service, their commitment, their sacrifice. They represent many of the best attributes of our country. I’m proud to be their commander in chief.”
Our troops and most everyone else would be more than satisfied with that statement. Our troops don’t need to hear they’re the best warriors in all of history. At the same time, they don’t need to hear they’re the bringers of freedom (“a global force for good,” to use the U.S. Navy’s slogan, recently dropped as demotivating to sailors and Marines). Let’s pause for a moment and compare those two statements. The toughest warriors and the finest liberators? Life-takers and widow-makers as well as freedom-bringers and world liberators? You think there just might be some tension in that equation?
We need honesty, not immodesty, from America’s presidents. Give me a president who is able to thank the troops without gushing over them. Even more, give me a president who thanks the troops by not wasting their efforts in lost causes such as Afghanistan and Iraq. Give me a president who thanks the troops by downsizing our empire while fully funding benefits and health care for wounded veterans.
That’s the kind of thanks our troops really need – not empty flattery.
I served for twenty years in the Air Force. Service in the military involves sacrifice even when combat isn’t involved, but it also conveys privileges and provides opportunity, or at least it did so for me. I can’t recall people thanking me for my service when I wore a uniform, nor did I expect them to. I just saw myself as doing my duty to the best of my ability, and therefore deserving of no special thanks or commendation.
At TomDispatch.com, former Army Ranger Rory Fanning talks about his discomfort with the thank you parade directed at “our” troops. His honest words are a reminder that a thank you repeated again and again loses its meaning, especially when it’s appropriated by megastars and sponsored by corporations. Think, for example, of that Budweiser ad during last year’s Super Bowl that featured a returning LT. We see him greeting his pretty wife at the airport, then we cut to a surprise parade in his honor down Main Street USA complete with the Budweiser Clydesdales and teary-eyed veterans. The sentiment, however honest to many of the celebrants, is cheapened as heart strings are tugged to sell beer. Or consider those Bank of America ads for wounded warriors airing during this year’s World Series. Images of wounded troops continuing to triumph in spite of war injuries are appropriated to associate a huge bank with the sacrifices endured by ordinary GIs. Again, however well-intentioned such ads may be, heart strings are being tugged by a bank with a dubious record of sympathy for the little guy and gal.
As retired Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich has noted, elaborate thank you ceremonies can be a form of cheap grace in which Americans clap themselves on the back in spasms of feel-good celebratory pageantry. Some of these celebrations are so over the top in their flag-waving thanks that you just can’t help having darker thoughts. Is this a recruitment video? Are we even meant to think at all or just gush with pride? Are we simply meant to bask in the reflected glow of the medals on the chests of our young men and women in uniform?
We thank our troops for complicated reasons as well as simple ones. The simple are easy to write about: genuine thanks, from one person to another, no megastars, no corporations. Just a handshake and a nod or a few kind words. I’ve had people thank me in that way since I retired from service, and I appreciate it and respond graciously.
But the complicated reasons – well, these reasons are not as easy to write about. The guilt of those who avoid service. Pro forma thanks. The thanks that comes from people who believe their involvement with the military both starts and ends there. The related idea that if one thanks the troops, one has done one’s bit for the war (whichever war our president says we’re fighting today).
More disturbingly is the thanks that allows us all to deny the reality of America’s wars (the reality of all wars): the sordidness of wartime bungling and mismanagement and violence and murder. Often the latter is drowned out by the bugle calls of thanks! thanks! thanks! coming from the cheering multitudes.
My father taught me “an empty barrel makes the most noise.” I think that’s true even when the noise is presented as thanks to our troops.