Militarism Is Deeply Entrenched
in the American Psyche
by William Astore
www.alternet.org/, February 6,
Hardly a week passes in which we don't
hear about what the fallout from two disastrous wars is doing
to the overextended, overstrained U.S. military, not to speak
of the problems the armed forces are facing in retaining and recruiting
members. Recently, there have been reports on a startling rise
in war-related suicides, figures that "could push the Army's
overall suicide rate to its highest level since [it] began keeping
such records in 1980"; on a possible link between the concussions
one in six American combat troops suffer from roadside bombs in
Iraq and a heightened risk of developing post-traumatic stress
disorder or a variety of other ailments; on another lowering of
recruitment standards ("the percentage of new recruits entering
the Army with a high school diploma dropped to a new low in 2007
..."); on increasingly over-deployed, ill-equipped, ill-prepared
Reserve and National Guard units that may be incapable of coping
with future domestic crises ("Guard readiness has continued
to slide since last March, when the panel found that 88 percent
of Army National Guard units were rated 'not ready ...'");
and on the ever more slippery slope downhill in the "forgotten
war" in Afghanistan. This is certainly one aspect of the
U.S. military equation -- the one readers at Tomdispatch are most
likely to hear about.
But there is another aspect to this --
and it's important. Retired U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel
William Astore last wrote for this site on military officials
and right-wing politicians who were preparing their own exit strategies
from Iraq in the form of stab-in-the-back theories. Now, he makes
clear how striking it is that, under the most demanding of conditions,
volunteers still arrive at military recruitment offices in surprising
numbers; and, no less significantly, that Americans still trust
their military above all other institutions in this society. Consider
his canny analysis of what to make of this below. Introduction
written by TomDispatch editor Tom Englehardt.
The Tenacity of American Militarism_What
Progressives and Other Critics Don't Get about the U.S. Military_By
William J. Astore
Recent polls suggest that Americans trust
the military roughly three times as much as the president and
five times as much as their elected representatives in Congress.
The tenacity of this trust is both striking and disturbing. It's
striking because it comes despite widespread media coverage of
prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, the friendly-fire cover-up in the
case of Pat Tillman's death, and alleged retribution killings
by Marines at Haditha. It's disturbing because our country is
founded on civilian control of the military. It's debatable whether
our less-than-resolute civilian leaders can now exercise the necessary
level of oversight of the military and the Pentagon when they
are distrusted by so many Americans.
What explains the military's enduring
appeal in our society? Certainly, some of this appeal is obvious.
Americans have generally been a patriotic bunch. "Supporting
our troops" seems an obvious place to go. After all, many
of them volunteered to put themselves in harm's way to protect
our liberties and to avenge the terror attacks of September 11,
2001. For this, they receive pay and benefits that might best
be described as modest. Trusting them -- granting them a measure
of confidence -- seems the least that could be offered.
Before addressing two other sources of
the military's appeal that are little understood, at least by
left-leaning audiences, let's consider for a second the traditional
liberal/progressive critique. It often begins by citing the insidious
influence of Eisenhower's "military-industrial complex,"
throwing in for good measure terms like "atrocity,"
"imperialist," "reactionary," and similar
pejoratives. But what's interesting here is that this is often
where their critique also ends. The military and its influence
are considered so tainted, so baneful that within progressive
circles there's a collective wringing of hands, even a reflexive
turning of backs, as if our military were truly from Mars or perhaps
drawn from the nether regions where Moorlocks shamble and grunt
in barbarian darkness.
If you want to change anything -- even
our increasing propensity for militarism -- you first have to
make an effort to engage with it. And to engage with it, you have
to know the wellsprings of its appeal, which transcend corporate
profits or imperial power.
Our Military, Ourselves
Despite often compelling evidence to the
contrary, Americans like to think of their societal institutions
as being open, fair-minded, and democratic. If you look without
prejudice at our all-volunteer military, you quickly realize that
it truly is one of the least elitist, most diverse institutions
of power in American society. Most progressive voices fail to
recognize this. Yet it's my belief most Americans do and it's
a big reason why they say they trust it.
Our military is demonstrably diverse --
racially, by class, and even more politically than most critics
imagine. As a retired military officer who now finds himself a
liberal arts professor in academia, I'm struck by the relative
conformity of the latter, at least when contrasted to the diversity
I found in my former life. Racial minorities from the lower classes
are well represented in our military. (Some critics have claimed
that they are over-represented, at least in frontline infantry
units.) I've seen more black or brown faces in positions of authority
within our military than in academia. (In my last job in the Air
Force, my boss was a black female colonel.) Indeed, until very
recently in American society, our military was one of the few
places where African Americans and Hispanics routinely bossed
around whites. (Louis Gossett Jr.'s drill instructor in the 1982
movie An Officer and A Gentleman was not exceptional; many times
I've witnessed real versions of him in action.)
Politically, our military tends, of course,
to be conservative, though not necessarily monochromatically Republican.
Again, the world of academia provides a stark contrast, especially
in liberal arts departments in top-tier colleges and universities,
which do tend to be overwhelmingly Democratic and left of center.
To cite only one example, of 42 professors in the English, history,
sociology, and political science departments at Brown University
who registered to vote, all registered as Democrats.
Ordinary Americans trust the military,
in part, because the "have-nots" have direct access
to it -- far more access than most will ever have to elite universities,
elite law firms, mainstream media outlets, Washington lobbying
outfits, or other institutions of influence and power. Indeed,
our military remains deeply rooted in the broad middle-and working-class
elements of society. Our Ivy League schools, our white-shoe law
firms, Boston's Beacon Hill, New York's Upper West Side have little
presence in it. Yet everywhere you go in small-town and rural
America, you bump into ordinary people who know someone in the
military: a nephew, a cousin, a close buddy from high school,
even, these days, the girl next door.
If you were to place yourself among the
rank-and-file of today's military, you'd find yourself among young
people (many of color, some of them recent immigrants) who more
accurately mirror the composition of our old small towns and new
inner city neighborhoods than nearly any other institution of
power. In that sense, the military is a grandly successful social
mélange, with, of course, a notable exception. Women. The
all-volunteer military is predominately male and will remain so,
at least for the foreseeable future. Military service remains
largely a gendered activity, commonly associated within academia
with retrograde notions of aggressive (and disreputable) masculinity
and therefore dismissed as outmoded, even pathologically so.
Our Military, Our Young Men
Of course, supporting -- and trusting
-- the military is hardly the same thing as joining it. Increasing
numbers of Americans, not just academics or the obvious critics,
no longer see joining its ranks as part of anyone's citizenly
duty. This is now well known in a society where the first urge
of a commander-in-chief/president, when it comes to the public,
is not to mobilize them for duty in what he's termed "war
time," but to urge them to visit Disney World and keep on
spending. Nonetheless, surprising numbers of young men do continue
to join up, despite increasingly unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This leads me to the second blind spot
in the academic/progressive critique of our military -- the failure
to recognize the enduring attractiveness of military service to
young men seeking to construct their own identities. To many of
these potential recruits, American culture today appears feminized
-- or, at least demasculinized -- a mommy-state, a risk-averse
society with designer drugs and syndrome-of-the-day counselors
to ease our pain. In response, what we're seeing is a romantic
yearning among young men for the very hardness, the brutality
even, epitomized by military service and warfare.
In talking to young men in the rural,
conservative area of Pennsylvania where I live, what strikes me
is how many of them have seen all 10 episodes of the HBO World
War II series, Band of Brothers, and how many admire the bravery,
camaraderie, and sacrifice it depicts in portraying paratroopers
of the 101st Airborne fighting their way across France and into
Germany in 1944-45. Seasoned Marines, a colleague reports, confess
that one thing working to sustain recruiting, despite the war
in Iraq and regular news reports on an overstrained and exhausted
military, is young men who, raised in self-esteem-touting, gender-bending
environments (on TV, if nowhere else), sign up to experience "the
It's easy to dismiss such yearnings as
Neanderthal. The irony is that that very dismissal creates an
inviting taboo for a whole segment of young American males to
challenge. For academia and progressives, war is today what sex
was to society in the Victorian age, involving as it does emotions
nice people don't feel and acts nice people don't opt to commit.
Yes, many volunteers join the military with educational or career
possibilities in mind, but among young men who enlist, there is
also a certain element, conscious or unconscious, of taboo-breaking
-- and of self-affirmation.
For women, gender identity is often shaped
by biological rites of passage: menstruation, pregnancy, menopause.
Male identity is arguably less secure and defined more by the
gaze of other men -- you're a man when other men, men you respect,
say you are. Men have gender too -- and many seek to construct
and assert their maleness within the military, a cultural setting
they perceive as patriotic, meritocratic, and sanctioned by the
trust and respect of friends, family, and community.
The challenge for progressives is to recognize
this and then to work to create viable alternatives to military
service in which masculinity and patriotism can be demonstrated
in non-lethal settings. An example is my father's service as a
forest laborer and firefighter in the Civilian Conservation Corps
in Oregon from 1935 to 1937. There could be many opportunities
for our young men to assert their masculinity in non-military
and nonviolent settings -- fixing our nation's roads and bridges,
rebuilding our inner cities, rescuing places torn apart by disaster,
natural or otherwise, like New Orleans; and from these, too, funded
educational openings and future career possibilities could arise.
To Transform, We Must Engage
The point is this: It's not enough simply
to rail against the military or militarism, however enlightened
it makes you feel. There are powerful reasons why Americans trust
our military and continue to join its ranks. Unless these are
grasped, efforts to redirect our nation along less militaristic
lines will founder on the shores of incomprehension.
After all, isn't the full media story
not only that our all-volunteer military is having trouble meeting
its recruiting goals -- hardly surprising, given two major, exceedingly
hard wars in which victory, however defined, remains frustratingly
out of sight -- but also that the military is nonetheless close
to meeting those goals? Admittedly, recruiting standards have
been relaxed, signing bonuses increased, and waivers and promotions
liberally granted. Even so, our military is not just signing up
the rural poor, urban dead-enders, or knuckle-dragging hayseeds
(though some critics seem to think otherwise, judging by the unfortunate
title of a recent piece in Slate, "Dumb and Dumber").
The comment by John Kerry in 2006, to the effect that students
who can't make it in college end up "stuck in Iraq,"
struck many Americans as grossly unfair precisely because military
service still remains a proud first-choice for many young Americans.
If the operating equation is military
= bad, are we not effectively excusing ourselves or our children
from any obligation to serve -- even any obligation simply to
engage with the military? Indeed, are we even patting ourselves
on the back for the wisdom of our non-choice and our non-participation?
Rarely has a failure to sacrifice or even to engage come at a
more self-ennobling price -- or a more self-destructive one for