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.

Is the Idea of a Military Coup Hysterical?

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Unlike George Washington or Cincinnatus, today’s warrior-generals don’t return to the plough.  They cash-in at the trough of the military-industrial complex

W.J. Astore

The National Review labels the idea of a military coup in Trump’s America “hysterical.” Here’s David French criticizing my recent article at TomDispatch.com:

Here we go again — another article talking about how the retired generals in Trump’s cabinet, civilians who are nominated by a civilian and confirmed by a civilian senate, represent the erosion of the principle of civilian control over the military. But this time, there’s a hysterical twist. The nomination of James Mattis for secretary of defense and John Kelly for secretary of homeland security and the selection of Michael Flynn for national security adviser is worse than a real-life coup. No, really.

French goes on to say the following:

Lots of people read this nonsense. Lots of people believe this nonsense. I’ve been arguing for some time that the prime threat to our national unity isn’t action but reaction. Activists and pundits take normal politics (retired generals have a long history of serving this nation in civilian offices, beginning with George Washington) and respond with an overreaction that pushes their fellow citizens into believing that the sky is falling.

In my article for TomDispatch.com, I made the same point that retired generals have a long history of serving this nation, beginning with Washington.  But Washington was a special case, an American Cincinnatus, a citizen first, a soldier second.  As I mentioned in my article, today’s generals are cut from a different cloth.  They self-identify as warriors first and foremost.  Even when they retire, they usually go to work immediately for the military-industrial complex, making millions in the process.

French seems to think that if a civilian like Donald Trump nominates four recently retired warrior/generals, and if a civilian Congress approves them, this in no way constitutes a coup.  And, strictly speaking, that’s true.

Yet consider this.  These four warrior/generals will direct the Department of Defense, Homeland Security, and the National Security Council.  Professional warriors are filling the highest leadership positions in a superpower military complex that is supposed to be overseen by civilians.  They will command budgetary authority approaching a trillion dollars annually. If this isn’t a de facto military coup, what is?

Consider as well that their boss, Donald Trump, professes to admire two American generals: George S. Patton and Douglas MacArthur.  In choosing Patton and MacArthur, Trump has all the signs of an immature military hero-lover. Mature historians recognize that generals like George C. Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, and Omar Bradley were far more distinguished (and far more in keeping with the American citizen-soldier ideal) than Patton and MacArthur. Indeed, both Patton and MacArthur were over-hyped, deliberately so, for propaganda purposes during Word War II. MacArthur was a disaster in the Philippines, and Patton wasn’t even needed during D-Day. Both fancied themselves to be warriors; both were vainglorious showboats, stuck on themselves and their alleged military brilliance.

“Retired” warriors are simply not the right men in a democracy to ride herd on the military. Warrior/generals like Mattis, Flynn, and Kelly — men defined by the military and loyal to it for their entire lives — are not going to become free-thinkers and tough-minded critics in a matter of months, especially when they’ve already cashed in after retirement by joining corporate boards affiliated with the military-industrial complex.

Look, I realize some Americans see nothing wrong with generals taking charge of America. As one disgruntled reader wrote me, “I value the experience of generals who led Soldiers and Marines in combat on the ground.”

Well, I value that too.  So does our country, which is why the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) advise our president.  But what Trump has done is to surround himself with a rival JCS, his own band of warriors, generals that he sees as the equivalent to Patton and MacArthur. He’s created a dynamic in which the only advice he’ll get on national security is from military minds.  And if you’re looking to Congress as a check on military rule, consider that the last time Congress formally exercised its authority to declare war was December 1941.  Yes, 75 years ago this month.

Hey, nothing to worry about here.  Don’t get hysterical.  Let the “civilian” generals rule! After all, what could possibly go wrong?

Further Thoughts: I think many in America equate militarism to fascism; they think that, so long as jackbooted troops aren’t marching loudly down American streets and breaking down doors, militarism doesn’t exist here.

But militarism, as a descriptive term, also involves the permeation of military attitudes and values throughout civil society and political culture in America.  Since 9/11, if not before, Americans have been actively encouraged to “support our troops” as a patriotic duty.  Those troops have been lauded as “warriors,” “war-fighters,” and “heroes,” even as the U.S. military has become both thoroughly professionalized and increasingly isolated from civil society.  This isolation, however, does not extend to public celebrations of the military, most visibly at major sporting events (e.g. NFL football games).  (A small sign of this is major league baseball players wearing camouflaged uniforms to “honor” the troops.)

Trump’s decision — to put four senior “retired” generals in charge of America’s military and national security — acts as an accelerant to the permeation of military attitudes and values throughout America’s civil society and political culture.  Again, the USA, one must recall, was founded on civilian control of the military as well as the ideal of the citizen-soldier.  The latter ideal is dead, replaced as it has been by a new ideal, that of the warrior.

And civilian control?  With four generals in command, enabled by an inexperienced civilian commander-in-chief whose ideal general is defined by Patton and MacArthur, you have in essence a repudiation of civilian control.

 

Betraying the military (and democracy) by loving indifference

A grim reality of military service that we often prefer not to see
A grim reality of military service that we often prefer not to see

W.J. Astore

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’s War 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.