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.

Militarism USA

A nuclear-capable B-2 Stealth Bomber flies over a gigantic flag at the 2012 Baseball All-Star Game
A nuclear-capable B-2 Stealth Bomber flies over a gigantic flag at the 2012 Baseball All-Star Game

W.J. Astore

As Veterans Day approaches, I thought I’d revive a column I wrote for TomDispatch.com back in 2009.  I continue to marvel at the militarism of the USA, and the way in which the troops are defined as “warriors” and “warfighters” who increasingly see themselves as being divorced from, and superior to, “civilians” in the USA.  Of course, there was a time in America when our troops were proud to define themselves as citizen-soldiers, with the emphasis on citizen.  Not anymore.  The ethos has changed, pushed toward a “professional” military that sees itself as a breed apart.  And that’s not good for democracy.

I still recall the example set by Major Dick Winters, memorialized in the “Band of Brothers” series on HBO.  Dick Winters swore that when the war was over against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, he’d return to his farm in Pennsylvania and leave soldiering and war behind.  And that’s exactly what he did. No “warrior” nonsense for him.

Anyway, here’s the article I wrote five years ago.  Sadly, its theme is more relevant today than it was in 2009.

What Ever Happened to Gary Cooper? A Seven-Step Program to Return America to a Quieter, Less Muscular, Patriotism
By William Astore

I have a few confessions to make: After almost eight years of off-and-on war in Afghanistan and after more than six years of mayhem and death since “Mission Accomplished” was declared in Operation Iraqi Freedom, I’m tired of seeing simpleminded magnetic ribbons on vehicles telling me, a 20-year military veteran, to support or pray for our troops. As a Christian, I find it presumptuous to see ribbons shaped like fish, with an American flag as a tail, informing me that God blesses our troops. I’m underwhelmed by gigantic American flags — up to 100 feet by 300 feet — repeatedly being unfurled in our sports arenas, as if our love of country is greater when our flags are bigger. I’m disturbed by nuclear-strike bombers soaring over stadiums filled with children, as one did in July just as the National Anthem ended during this year’s Major League Baseball All Star game. Instead of oohing and aahing at our destructive might, I was quietly horrified at its looming presence during a family event.

We’ve recently come through the steroid era in baseball with all those muscled up players and jacked up stats. Now that players are tested randomly, home runs are down and muscles don’t stretch uniforms quite as tightly. Yet while ending the steroid era in baseball proved reasonably straightforward once the will to act was present, we as a country have yet to face, no less curtail, our ongoing steroidal celebrations of pumped-up patriotism.

It’s high time we ended the post-Vietnam obsession with Rambo’s rippling pecs as well as the jaw-dropping technological firepower of the recent cinematic version of G.I. Joe and return to the resolute, undemonstrative strength that Gary Cooper showed in movies like High Noon.

In the HBO series The Sopranos, Tony (played by James Gandolfini) struggles with his own vulnerability — panic attacks caused by stress that his Mafia rivals would interpret as fatal signs of weakness. Lamenting his emotional frailty, Tony asks, “What ever happened to Gary Cooper?” What ever happened, in other words, to quiet, unemotive Americans who went about their business without fanfare, without swagger, but with firmness and no lack of controlled anger at the right time?

Tony’s question is a good one, but I’d like to spin it differently: Why did we allow lanky American citizen-soldiers and true heroes like World War I Sergeant Alvin York (played, at York’s insistence, by Gary Cooper) and World War II Sergeant (later, first lieutenant) Audie Murphy (played in the film To Hell and Back, famously, by himself) to be replaced by all those post-Vietnam pumped up Hollywood “warriors,” with Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger-style abs and egos to match?

And far more important than how we got here, how can we end our enduring fascination with a puffed up, comic-book-style militarism that seems to have stepped directly out of screen fantasy and into our all-too-real lives?

A Seven-Step Recovery Program

As a society, we’ve become so addicted to militarism that we don’t even notice the way it surrounds us or the spasms of societal ‘roid rage that go with it. The fact is, we need a detox program. At the risk of incurring some of that ‘roid rage myself, let me suggest a seven-step program that could help return us to the saner days of Gary Cooper:

1. Baseball players on steroids swing for the fences. So does a steroidal country. When you have an immense military establishment, your answer to trouble is likely to be overwhelming force, including sending troops into harm’s way. To rein in our steroidal version of militarism, we should stop bulking up our military ranks, as is now happening, and shrink them instead. Our military needs not more muscle supplements (or the budgetary version of the same), but far fewer.

2. It’s time to stop deferring to our generals, and even to their commander-in-chief. They’re ours, after all; we’re not theirs. When President Obama says Afghanistan is not a war of choice but of necessity, we shouldn’t hesitate to point out that the emperor has no clothes. Yet when it comes to tough questioning of the president’s generals, Congress now seems eternally supine. Senators and representatives are invariably too busy falling all over themselves praising our troops and their commanders, too worried that “tough” questioning will appear unpatriotic to the folks back home, or too connected to military contractors in their districts, or some combination of the three.

Here’s something we should all keep in mind: generals have no monopoly on military insight. What they have a monopoly on is a no-lose situation. If things go well, they get credit; if they go badly, we do. Retired five-star general Omar Bradley was typical when he visited Vietnam in 1967 and declared: “I am convinced that this is a war at the right place, at the right time and with the right enemy — the Communists.” North Vietnam’s only hope for victory, he insisted, was “to hang on in the expectation that the American public, inadequately informed about the true situation and sickened by the loss in lives and money, will force the United States to give up and pull out.”

There we have it: A classic statement of the belief that when our military loses a war, it’s always the fault of “we the people.” Paradoxically, such insidious myths gain credibility not because we the people are too forceful in our criticism of the military, but because we are too deferential.

3. It’s time to redefine what “support our troops” really means. We console ourselves with the belief that all our troops are volunteers, who freely signed on for repeated tours of duty in forever wars. But are our troops truly volunteers? Didn’t we recruit them using multi-million dollar ad campaigns and lures of every sort? Are we not, in effect, running a poverty and recession draft? Isolated in middle- or upper-class comfort, detached from our wars and their burdens, have we not, in a sense, recruited a “foreign legion” to do our bidding?

If you’re looking for a clear sign of a militarized society — which few Americans are — a good place to start is with troop veneration. The cult of the soldier often covers up a variety of sins. It helps, among other things, hide the true costs of, and often the futility of, the wars being fought. At an extreme, as the war began to turn dramatically against Nazi Germany in 1943, Germans who attempted to protest Hitler’s failed strategy and the catastrophic costs of his war were accused of (and usually executed for) betraying the troops at the front.

The United States is not a totalitarian state, so surely we can hazard criticisms of our wars and even occasionally of the behavior of some of our troops, without facing charges of stabbing our troops in the back and aiding the enemy. Or can we?

4. Let’s see the military for what it is: a blunt instrument of force. It’s neither surgical nor precise nor predictable. What Shakespeare wrote 400 years ago remains true: when wars start, havoc is unleashed, and the dogs of war run wild — in our case, not just the professional but the “mercenary” dogs of war, those private contractors to the Pentagon that thrive on the rich spoils of modern warfare in distant lands. It’s time to recognize that we rely ever more massively to prosecute our wars on companies that profit ever more handsomely the longer they last.

5. Let’s not blindly venerate the serving soldier, while forgetting our veterans when they doff their spiffy uniforms for the last time. It’s easy to celebrate our clean-cut men and women in uniform when they’re thousands of miles from home, far tougher to lend a hand to scruffier, embittered veterans suffering from the physical and emotional trauma of the battle zones to which they were consigned, usually for multiple tours of duty.

6. I like air shows, but how about — as a first tiny step toward demilitarizing civilian life — banning all flyovers of sporting events by modern combat aircraft? War is not a sport, and it shouldn’t be a thrill.

7. I love our flag. I keep my father’s casket flag in a special display case next to the very desk on which I’m writing this piece. It reminds me of his decades of service as a soldier and firefighter. But I don’t need humongous stadium flags or, for that matter, tiny flag lapel pins to prove my patriotism — and neither should you. In fact, doesn’t the endless post-9/11 public proliferation of flags in every size imaginable suggest a certain fanaticism bordering on desperation? If we saw such displays in other countries, our descriptions wouldn’t be kindly.

Of course, none of this is likely to be easy as long as this country garrisons the planet and fights open-ended wars on its global frontiers. The largest step, the eighth one, would be to begin seriously downsizing that mission. In the meantime, we shouldn’t need reminding that this country was originally founded as a civilian society, not a militarized one. Indeed, the revolt of the 13 colonies against the King of England was sparked, in part, by the perceived tyranny of forced quartering of British troops in colonial homes, the heavy hand of an “occupation” army, and taxation that we were told went for our own defense, whether we wanted to be defended or not.

If Americans are going to continue to hold so-called tea parties, shouldn’t some of them be directed against the militarization of our country and an enormous tax burden fed in part by our wasteful, trillion-dollar wars?

Modest as it may seem, my seven-step recovery program won’t be easy for many of us to follow. After all, let’s face it, we’ve come to enjoy our peculiar brand of muscular patriotism and the macho militarism that goes with it. In fact, we revel in it. Outwardly, the result is quite an impressive show. We look confident and ripped and strong. But it’s increasingly clear that our outward swagger conceals an inner desperation. If we’re so strong, one might ask, why do we need so much steroidal piety, so many in-your-face patriotic props, and so much parade-ground conformity?

Forget Rambo and action-picture G.I. Joes: Give me the steady hand, the undemonstrative strength, and the quiet humility of Alvin York, Audie Murphy — and Gary Cooper.

Copyright 2009 William J. Astore