The honor guard marched onto the field as patriotic music blared from the minor-league ballpark’s PA system. A contingent of US Marines wheeled smartly and marched to the infield under the billowing Stars and Stripes in their pressed dress blues, with their white caps gleaming under the lights. “Let’s show our appreciation to the brave men and women of the Armed Services, who protect us while we sleep!” The announcer said. The crowd roared. It was just another summer night in America.
The pervasive celebration of the military, as a proxy for and embodiment of the American nation and patriotism, is one of those things that you never really get used to if you grew up anywhere outside of the United States. Other countries celebrate their men and women in uniform, of course; the French march several brigades of gardes républicaines and légionnaires étrangères along the Champs Elysées every Bastille Day, and the British make a big deal of grenadiers in bearskin hats at Buckingham Palace. Even in mild and peaceful Canada, the “old soldiers” line up in their Royal Canadian Legion berets, with their chests full of poppies and medals, with serving members of the Canadian Armed Forces at the National War Memorial every Remembrance Day.
What makes the American veneration of all things military unique, however, is its ubiquity. Reminders of the US military, and its place in the narratives of citizenship and patriotism pervade almost every aspect of American life, even when it is not Veterans Day, or Memorial Day, or Independence Day, Armed Forces Day, or Fleet Week. American veterans are unique among the veterans of other countries’ armed forces in their propensity to wear baseball caps, t-shirts, and vests in the everyday lives proclaiming their campaigns, dates, and branch of their service.
These are not merely innocent performances of pomp and circumstance, or social practices that legitimately recognize the courage and sacrifice of men and women who have served their country. It goes much deeper than that. They help to place the military at the center of public life, deligitimize anti-militarist dissent, normalize a militaristic foreign policy, and preemtively undermine critiques of that policy. American militarism makes war patriotic and peace treasonous.
None of this is to say that all, or even most Americans are warmongers who unquestioningly goose-step at the command of brass-hatted generalissimos. While recent years have seen the alarming growth of paramilitary movements like the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters, whose members delight in dressing up in military fatigues and flak vests, extol a twisted sense of military valor as an expression of an aggrieved white masculinity, and equate democracy with automatic weapons, they remain a tiny – if noisy – minority. Most Americans see these would-be warriors for the camouflage-clad clowns that they are.
Yet, right-wing militia movements tap into a rich vein in American culture in which respect, if not outright reverence, for the military is virtually automatic. They are merely the most extreme manifestations of a patriotic ideology that rarely questions the service and sacrifice of military personnel and reflexively defends their honor on those grounds above all. Pundits and politicians on both sides of the American political divide, for example, were united in the defence of Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindman this week, after Fox News commentators impugned his integrity. What brought Democrat and Republican together (albeit briefly) was an attack on the reputation of a serving military officer; that Fox News had deployed the old antisemitic libel of dual loyalties against a Jewish soldier was incidental. Disrespect for the uniform was the greater offense.
That all makes sense, in a way. American civilians are persistently encouraged to show gratitude to both veterans and serving military personnel; wearing an “Operation Desert Storm Veteran” cap in a coffee shop checkout line virtually guarantees a discount, or at least an effusive “thank you for your service.” Although it is is not legally required, service men and women are routinely granted special privileges like early boarding at airports.
To a casual observer, military service is the most exalted of professions, and comes with significant social privileges. It can, in fact, be difficult to differentiate between the culturally normative practices of America today, and of the most militarist cultures of the past. In the darkest days of the Great War, when the German Empire had completely mobilized society for the war effort, the Socialist leader Karl Liebknecht described Prussian militarism in terms chillingly reminiscent of 21st century America: “… the soldier’s coat is represented as the most distinguished of all coats, the soldier’s honor is lauded as being of special excellence, and the soldier’s status is trumpeted forth as the most important and distinguished and is indeed endowed with many privileges.”
With the the ubiquitous black flags flying at virtually every public facility as a constant reminder of the the POW/MIA myth – an injunction to always remember the sacrifice of soldiers in a long-ago war – and the constant, highly-visible presence of armed soldiers patrolling airports, train stations, and tourist attractions, there can be little doubt that the United States is highly militarized. It is American culture’s deeply-rooted militarism, as in the German Empire a century ago, that makes that makes this possible, indeed, normal.
As Liebknecht wrote in 1917, “militarism seeks to create and promote the military spirit above all and in the first line in the active army itself… finally in all the other parts of the population that are of importance for militaristic and anti-militaristic purposes.” In a militaristic society, this “military spirit” becomes synonymous with patriotism and “signifies in short a constant readiness to pitch into the exterior or the interior enemy whenever commanded to do so.”
This is abundantly evident in the American veneration for the flag – and insistence on public rituals of flag reverence – its equation with “the troops,” and their equation with the nation. It is extreme enough that a failure to show The Flag proper respect by failing to remove one’s hat at a baseball game during the national anthem, or remaining seated during the Pledge of Allegiance (to the flag) can bring down violence or even the threat of arrest on children. Inevitably, the crime is not showing appropriate respect to the military.
The offence that lost Colin Kaepernick his football career was “disrespecting” veterans and military personnel by kneeling during the national anthem. It is also a matter of significance that he chose to protest in this way after consulting with a veteran because the last thing he wanted to do was “disrespect” veterans and military personnel. Think about it: in America reverence for the military is so deeply ingrained that, not only is a protest during the national anthem widely regarded as an insult to the troops, but the protester feels an obligation to ensure that he does not offend the troops. These “troops” clearly have awesome cultural capital and social power, even while veterans as real people are neglected by their government.
The roots of American militarism run deep. This is, after all, a country that owes its very existence to a war and the iconography of that conflict, whether Emmanuel Leutze’s the famous painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware, or Archibald Willard’s The Spirit of ‘76, is etched deeply in representations of patriotic commitment and sacrifice. Ideals of citizenship and the defence of the homeland have been inextricably linked since at least 1861. Conventionally, military service is the bond that welds men (always men) into a nation. As Gary Gerstle wrote in American Crucible, the mythic “interethnic and interreligious” (but always white) combat units of post-World War II literature defined the contours of postwar citizenship.
This squad or platoon was “a melting pot, bringing together northerners and southerners, Jews and Gentiles, and privileged Ivy-League Protestants with working- and middle-class kids from Fordham and Holy Cross.” Collectively, they were alloyed into a single, un-hyphenated Americal citizenship in the blast-furnace of collective sacrifice and military valor. In the postwar peace, military service became not only the ticket to embourgeoisement through the G.I. Bill, but was the imprimatur of political and civic legitimacy. It is no accident that every US president elected between 1945 and 1992 had worn a uniform in the service of the United States. In the run-up to the 1992 election, in fact, the New York Times reported that Bill Clinton’s lack of a military record “has been a recurring issue in this year’s Presidential campaign partly because of the political power of veterans’ groups and partly because of the connotations of patriotism and good citizenship it involves.”
Wherever you look in America, you see military and military-style uniforms, and not just the Army-surplus BDU jackets favored by hipsters, anarchists, and survivalists. Government departments like the Public Health Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration might be civilian, non-military agencies but they are “uniformed services” under US law. That means that federal meteorologists, doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and oceanographers are kitted out in the same uniform as the United States Navy. Surgeon General Jerome Adams – the guy who warns smokers that they might get cancer – holds a rank equivalent to a Navy vice admiral, and has the gold braid on his sleeve to prove it.
Nor does it stop there. One of the most striking – and often perplexing – features of American educational life is the uniformed marching band. Virtually unknown anywhere else in the world, gifted youngsters in high schools and colleges across the country turn out at sporting events outfitted in Napoleonic shakos, military tunics, and hussar boots to play rousing martial music. These displays are most-often associated with the most military of American sports. Football is war, the great American comedian George Carlin once observed: “In football the object is for the quarterback, also known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use shotgun.”
While this kind of militarism has permeated American culture for centuries, it has become increasingly pervasive over the last 40 years, initially as a corrective for what became known, by 1980, as “Vietnam War Syndrome” and the conservative myth that Vietnam veterans were met with widespread abuse and condemnation on their return from the war. The US intervention in southeast Asia did mark a significant, if brief, caesura in American militarist culture. Always difficult for the Johnson administration to justify, it was the first American war met with widespread domestic resistance and it became increasingly unpopular even among conventionally-patriotic Americans after the disasters of 1968 and the revelations of My Lai and the Pentagon Papers.
More importantly, it was one of the few armed conflicts that the United States, with its overwhelming military superiority, did not win. Despite President Richard Nixon’s assurance that he had achieved “Peace with honor” in 1973, and the popular Republican cant that the US had withdrawn before the fall of South Vietnam – and so did not really lose – the overwhelming consensus among historians is that Vietnam was an ignominious defeat. One of the consequences of this was that, for a few years following the US withdrawal, there was no official public recognition of the soldiers’ sacrifice and heroism. Put bluntly, it is difficult to celebrate a defeat.
President Reagan was receptive to rehabilitating both the cultural prestige of the military and US power, and the memory of the Vietnam war, which he had called “a noble cause” in an August 1980 campaign speech. In that election, he ran on the slogan “let’s make America great again,” and that meant getting over an experience which had left American leaders gun-shy and inclined to a less belligerent foreign policy since 1973. It meant proudly embracing the war’s veterans as heroes.
These two goals were closely interconnected, as the cultural rehabilitation of the Vietnam War led to a vast expansion both in US defense spending – from $367 billion in 1976 to $581 billion in 1986 (adjusted 2013 dollars) – and in military interventions abroad. While the US hadn’t exactly been silent in the aftereffects of “Vietnam War Syndrome,” the so-called Reagan Doctrine committed the US to increasingly muscular uses of military force, starting with covert support for right-wing rebels in Angola and Nicaragua, and lead to the overt shelling and intervention of Lebanon in 1982 and the invasion of Grenada in 1983.
This paralleled a rediscovery of the “military spirit” in American popular culture. In 1978 the films Coming Home and The Deer Hunter had meditated on the human costs of war and militarism, but by the mid-1980s Chuck Norris’s James Braddock in Missing in Action, and Sylvester Stallone in Rambo: First Blood Part II were not only celebrating resurgent American militarism, they were going back to Vietnam and singlehandedly re-fighting and winning the war. Vietnam veterans finally got their triumphal parade in 1986, and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, dedicated in 1982, with a more traditionally martial sculpture of three soldiers added three years later, touched-off a war memorial-building frenzy that continues to this day.
Newly re-energized, militarism regained its place at the center of American culture, becoming even more deeply entrenched in the wake of the Gulf Wars and, especially, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Extreme militarist displays became synonymous with an increasingly jingoistic patriotism, as Pentagon propagandists threw taxpayer dollars into lavish half-time show celebrations of “military spirit” in football stadiums and ballparks, and sports teams like the San Diego Padres donned camouflage uniforms to honor the troops. By 2012, movie audiences could cheer patriotic torture in Zero Dark Thirty and, in 2014, thrill to the exploits of an assassin played by Bradley Cooper in American Sniper.
What end does the celebration of the “military spirit” seek? In September 1914, the German artist Kaethe Kollwitz noted in her diary that it “seems so stupid that the boys must go to war.” Yet her sons had answered their nation’s call and enlisted. A socialist and a pacifist, Kollwitz felt her objections worn down by the constant drumbeat of martial propaganda that equated war and sacrifice with Imperial citizenship. She had read an article by the novelist Gabriele Reuter in Der Tag on the duty of women during wartime. “She spoke of the joy of sacrificing – a phrase that struck me hard. Where do all the women who watched so carefully over their beloved ones get the heroism to send them to face the cannon?” She despaired at the carnage that had only begun to mow down a generation of young men. “Only one state of mind makes it all bearable: to receive the sacrifice into one’s will.”
Her son Peter died on the Western Front three weeks later.
The culture of militarism makes the unbearable acceptable, and the the unthinkable mundane. It tells parents that there is no greater honor than to give up their children as a sacrifice to the nation – a notion that, in the depths of grief, Kollwitz repudiated – and that there is no greater service that a young woman or man can provide to their community than killing and dying. Reverence of military heroism in popular culture and public displays of patriotism, the uniformed regimentation of civil servants and highschoolers alike all these normalize the military and make war a commonplace.
American militaristic culture is the ideological foundation of the US government’s policies of militarism; it is what makes war possible. Carl von Clausewitz infamously observed that war is “a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means.” Yet, the culture of militarism has made it possible for the American state to turn the equation around. Rather than being an extension of it, the threat and application of military force has utterly supplanted “political commerce” in American international affairs. The US government appropriated $693 billion for the military in 2019, and only $56 billion for all other international affairs expenses. Only militarism makes it possible for a country to spend almost thirteen times as much on war as diplomacy.
This enormous military investment makes war nigh inevitable. The very existence of the vast military apparatus built after the adoption of NSC 68 in 1950 made the disastrous US intervention in Vietnam virtually a foregone conclusion. As both the foundation and instrument of US foreign policy, the historian Mary Sheila McMahon has noted, NSC 68’s “rationale for a ‘national security state’ asserted that ‘democracy’ could not survive unless the United States supported a sustained administrative capacity to resist the Soviet Union.”
Yet, as President Eisenhower himself suggested in his 1961 farewell address, the resulting construction of the “military-industrial complex” created a crisis of legitimacy for the swollen American military. The unprecedented growth of the American Cold War “national security state” and its military apparatus had to be sold to the American people by emphasizing the continuing threat of Communism, and that could be reliably demonstrated only by responding to the threat. Thus military intervention was the justification for building the means for military intervention. Put another way; by building the largest, most expensive, peacetime armed forces in American history, the United States had to use it.
It is not difficult to see a correlation between US military spending – which began to grow in the early-1960s, just before the Vietnam War, in the early 1980s, just before the invasions of Grenada, Panama and Iraq, and in the late-1990s, just before the invasion of Afghanistan and the the second Gulf War – and the aggressive use of military power. In each case, escalating cultural militarism normalized military and a flush armed forces made war more appealing.
In his 1987 book Thinking About Peace and War, Martin Ceadel argued that liberal democracies are essentially inclined toward peace, but differ with regard to how to obtain and preserve it. So, he devised a framework of what he called “peace-war theories” to explain how liberal democracies go about seeking peace. These fall on a spectrum running from “pacifism” – the complete rejection of war as a legitimate policy – to “militarism,” the endorsement of war as policy, for its own sake. In the context of the United States today, Thinking About Peace and War makes for alarming reading.
Throughout most of the last century, American policy vacillated between the poles of what Ceadel called “defencism” and “crusading.” Both “peace-war theories” implicitly accept the the rule of law and the existence of a rational international system that, if not always perfect, is perfectible. American foreign policy leading up to the Second World War and throughout most of the Cold War was defencist. In both periods, American policy was simultaneously pessimistic about the motivations of other powers, and optimistic about the prospects of maintaining a rational “balance of powers” – between the European powers, Japan, and the United States in the 1920s and 1930s, and between the capitalist and communist blocs after 1945 – that would make war unlikely. Ceadel noted that a defencist policy is predicated on the notion that, while military aggression is always wrong, defense is always right. Consequently, a state must be constantly prepared to protect itself, even to the point of taking preemptive action, if necessary.
America’s willingness to act preemptively in the interests of defence was periodically rearticulated during the 20th century as a proactive mission of crusading, embraced by the US government, and mobilizing vast segments of the American population. Crusading accepts Immanuel Kant’s dictum that peace does not just happen, it must be established, and concludes that this can only happen through the force of arms. Thus, the crusading United States entered the First World War with the goal of establishing an international congress and the belief that responsible governments would make international conflicts obsolete. “The goals of the crusade were both the liberal one of achieving self determination and establishing a League of Nations and the radical one of subordinating old elites to democratic control,” Ceadel wrote.
Although it seems quaint today, in a sepia-toned Downton Abbey sort of way, the high-minded rhetoric of the crusade to “make the world safe for democracy” seemed to be justified by the conclusion of the Great War – the war to end wars. Most importantly, although the United States retreated into isolationism after the 1921, and abdicated its place in the “New World Order” it helped create, the crusade cemented its position as a preeminent global power on par with British and French empires.
It was a successful crusade and, because of this success, crusading became a defining aspect of American national identity and self-representation. Admittedly, it was often a target of bitter satire, as in Marc Blitzstein’s 1938 musical The Cradle Will Rock, where Reverend Salvation and Mrs. Mister sing:
Make the world safe for democracy
Make the world safe for Liberty
Make the world safe for Steel and the Mister Family…
Of course it’s peace we’re for –
This is war to end all war.
More often, however, crusading – and the United States’ role as a global paladin – was articulated uncritically, and without further comment. In the 1933 film Gabriel Over the White House, a fictional (and decidedly fascistic) American President Judson Hammond (played by Walter Houston) uses the United States’ postwar economic muscle and, significantly, vast military power to cow all of the the worlds’ leaders into signing the “Washington Covenant,” an international agreement that would establish an enduring world peace – on America’s terms. The film was only a middling box office success, but it was received enthusiastically in the Roosevelt White House.
Virtually all of the United States’ wars in the century following the Great War were framed as crusades, either to bring stability to the world, or to defend freedom and to export the blessings is of democracy. Most of the crusading rhetoric appears threadbare on closer inspection, of course. The defence of “democracy” in South Vietnam meant propping up General Nguyen Khahn’s corrupt military dictatorship and its equally corrupt successors, and the mission to produce “regime change” in Baghdad and bring democracy to the Iraqi people was justified by lies and was, it turns out, motivated more by the ambition to secure access to Middle Eastern oil. Yet, the official story, at least, was always that war itself was not the goal.
That began to change after the end of the Cold War, and the emergence of a potent conservative-nationalist historical bloc. In its September 2000 white paper Rebuilding America’s Defenses, the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) committed itself to expanding the military and its global presence as a means to translate “U.S. military supremacy into American geopolitical preeminence.” Some of the old crusading rhetoric remained – the PNAC justified American military supremacy as means to ensure “the relatively peaceful, prosperous and free condition the world enjoys today” – but the overall message was that American geopolitical and military interests are identical and that, consequently, a militaristic policy is always in national interests.
Many of the PNAC’s prime movers – Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and Paul Wolfowitz, among others – were also the architects of the George W. Bush administration’s militarized foreign policy that embroiled the United States in generational wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, they did so with the consent of the American people. It was a simple matter to mobilize public opinion for war by leveraging the “military spirit” that had become such an essential part of American culture since the 1980s.
To read the editorials and op-ed articles in American newspapers in the late-summer and fall of 2001 is to encounter the same kind of patriotic war fever that Kaethe Kollwitz responded to 87 years before. Yet unlike the Great War, whose horrors lasted a little over four years, the wars of 2001 go on. American military personnel remain on the front lines 18 years later, and the martial excitement and “military spirit” has continued so long that it has become institutionalized.
Indeed, four decades after the “Reagan Revolution,” and the rehabilitation of the Vietnam War – which, in the telling of Ken Burns today is an American wound to be healed, not a crime against humanity and the people of Vietnam – Americans are prepared to accept perpetual war, as their government celebrates war criminals as “honorable men.” Writing in The Atlantic on the 50th anniversary of the massacre at My Lai, where the “honorable men” of the US Army’s 20th Infantry regiment butchered hundreds of Vietnamese civilians, Connor Friedersdorf noted that the US government “remains willing to tolerate war criminals as it fights its enemies, and that the public is often oblivious to misbehavior by its soldiers.”
That is revealing. Many Americans are not merely willing to excuse war criminals, they call them them as heroes. Supporters of Edward Gallagher, the Navy SEAL tried for participating in the murder of Taliban prisoners, and the later desecration of their bodies insist that his “service demands the respect and honor owed to the special breed of warrior ready to answer our Nation’s call.” In social media, Mathew Golsteyn, the Army officer who is facing court martial summarily murdered an Afghan man he suspected of being a bomb maker, is widely celebrated as a hero who “deserves a medal.” President Trump is considering a pardon.
This is America a century after the end of the “war to end war,” a half-century after My Lai, and 18 years after the beginning of generational “War on Terror” began. The most craven murderers are heroes, the White House undertakes begins and ends military operations based on a transactional balance sheet, and hires out the Army as mercenaries for payment in petrodollars. The notions that United States arms itself for defence, or fights crusades for peace and democracy seem quaintly absurd. Unlike the liberal democracies Ceadal studied, the United States no longer inclines to peace, but to war. Today, America fights to fight – and we love it.
This is American Militarism.
Photo by Sam Roberts