Originally published in El Pais, 7/18/10
American culture is saturated with military imagery, language, memory and fantasy. The American version of militarism did not originate in the two World Wars or the Cold War, but at the origins of the Republic. Many of the men who led the armed revolt against Great Britain had served her in the war against France that preceded the revolution. The revolt was an incident, if a very large one, in the European conquest of the continent—which required permanent warfare. The new republic made it clear that its army would rule the continent, and its navy was from the beginning charged with a global mission. North American history joins economic and social development with the systematic growth of the most modern military capacities—from our first ship, the USS Constitution (still, symbolically, in active service) to the newest drones. The armed forces were continuously recruited from a changing society, and altered their ethnic, racial and social composition as the nation grew. What also increased was war’s centrality in national myth and political reality.
When Hillary Clinton entered the Senate, she chose membership of the Armed Services Committee to further her Presidential ambitions. Candidates for ordinary offices often exaggerate (and sometimes invent) military records. To be taken as authentic, however, these have to be joined to rhetorical bellicosity. Former Senator McGovern, as Presidential candidate in 1972, was derided as cowardly for calling for an end to the lost war in Vietnam. In World War II he was a bomber captain who flew extremely dangerous missions. A visitor unfamiliar with the US encountering books and film, video games and TV dramas, the ritualized celebration of the military profession, might well think the US an electronic parody of Sparta. Parody does not stop there. A German visitor expressed his astonishment at learning that southerners regularly re-enact Civil War battles. “No one in Germany would put on Wehrmacht uniform to re-enact the battle of Stalingrad.” No doubt, but the Civil War still is visible in the electoral habits of the south, where the Republicans have forgotten Lincoln to celebrate a preposterously idealized Confederate past.
In the Civil War, a professor of classical literature from Maine, at the head of his regiment, saved the Union in the battle of Gettysburg. Today, he would spare himself the tedious necessity of combat and would be professing vicarious bravery in the opinion columns. For every General Petraeus with a Princeton doctorate in international relations there are ten or twenty academic experts on warfare whose battlefield visits are conducted tours. The US had conscription in the Civil War, the two World Wars, the Korean and Vietnam wars. The Vietnam War was ended, in part, by mutiny in the armed services and since then we have had a professional army. Its ordinary ranks are filled disproportionately by Afro-Americans, Latinos, and impoverished whites. Its officers use the army as a means of social ascent. Questioning its competence, morality or utility is politically dangerous as that large part of the nation which does no military service compensates for it by frenetic chauvinism.
Civil and military institutions are inextricably integrated, as our repeated foreign policy disasters demonstrate. The military as an independent force in society already has a disproportionate role in the functioning of our democracy. Whether, one day, it will resort to force domestically is not quite an hypothetical question. It is the military, often, who execute the arbitrary emergency powers of imprisonment and execution legitimated by the ever expanding and endless “war on terror.”
The military budget amounts, officially, to nearly five percent of gross national product, and on alternative calculations may be nearer seven percent. The indirect costs of deformation in resource allocation may be greater. On other criteria of national strength, the resources could be used for more constructive and rational ends. The President, however, specifically exempted military spending from the agenda of the new National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. War, and preparation for it, has become an integral part of the economy and polity. No state (and no congressional district) is without military installations, factories making arms, research laboratories and university programs financed by the military. That requires legislators to accept the Pentagon budget. The enormous cost of weapons makes it necessary to sell these to other nations —and so makes permanent involvement in their military affairs inevitable. Espionage, covert action, the many forms of intervention in other nations militarizes our entire foreign policy. Our armed forces are the one American institution deemed too big to fail. The interests of the armed services, their self enclosed culture, hardly assures that their powers will always serve the larger values of democracy.
The unreality of the current debate on Afghanistan, where contradictory and different official explanations for our presence crowd against each other, exemplifies the way military missions have become detached from serious political thought. The more profound the mistake, the more difficult its rectification—since admission of it would damage our “credibility.” The preposterous episode of General McChrystal’s self-destruction in a pop culture publication was depicted in Washington as a major crisis of the republic. Perhaps. President Obama as a Senator expressed great skepticism at Petraeus’ proposals for a “surge” in Iraq. The President has now sent Petraeus to lead yet another “surge” in Afghanistan, —-despite the obvious arguments as to its scant chances of success.
The founders of the Republic were educated gentlemen who knew about Athens and Rome. Athens foundered on its expeditions to Sicily. The Roman Republic was transformed into empire by its own generals. Would the founders recognize themselves in the present American state? The army was supposed to secure our independence, the Navy to protect our shipping and put potential invaders at risk. Our fifth President, James Monroe, wished to reduce to a minimum European power in the western hemisphere; none would have imagined their descendants fighting in Afghanistan. Military power in the US has become its own justification, and its retention and indeed enlargement have become ends in themselves. The President has dismissed an undisciplined general. His successor has more politely voiced objections to the President’s cautious timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan. McChrystal gone, the President still confronts the undisciplined power of our nation’s militarism.