The old cliché about a fish not knowing it’s in water has survived for a reason. Our cultural currents can drive us toward normalizing or, worse, glorifying what we might otherwise find objectionable. This can take shape in blatant or subtle ways, but there can be no doubt that by underscoring certain narratives and opinion to the exclusion of others, culture is a powerful forger of both material conditions and psychology. As Americans we swim in cultural waters that glorify war.
The U.S. honors its military and reinforces warrior behaviors with holidays, ceremonies, parades, Hollywood movies, TV shows, and memorials to soldiers, wars, and wartime presidents. Individual military members/veterans enjoy medals, promotions, vanity license plates, tax exemptions, free admissions, reserved parking spaces, airline boarding preferences, veteran discounts, and other privileges. These honors and privileges reinforce militarism in the U.S.; no other group of citizens is as revered.
Joe Biden ended his inauguration address, presidential victory speech, and his Democratic National Convention nomination acceptance speech with the words “And may God protect our troops.” Donald Trump usually ended his speeches with “God bless our great military.” Patriotic ceremonies and public recognitions of the military are so commonplace that few Americans even think about, much less question, them.
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In my decades as a peace activist, I have attended many protest demonstrations in front of the White House. Most rallies naturally overflowed into Lafayette Park, on the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue. As you see throughout the city, there are war memorials almost everywhere. In this park alone, there are statues of many famous soldiers that include depictions of fourteen swords and three spears, as well as six full-sized cannons. No peacemakers are represented, except when demonstrators are present.
The small town that I call home has recently installed a massive illuminated metal arch spanning the downtown shopping district street at the most prominent intersection. It proclaims, “Defending Freedom; Honoring U.S. Military.” Directly across the street is the Purple Heart Park with its stone American Legion monument and plaques to combat veterans. Within sight of this, one block away in another city park, is a large stone Veterans of Foreign Wars monument to soldiers from all fifty states. There are no signs anywhere in this quaint community demonstrating that peacemakers are valued.
These activities and symbols are all part of sustaining the culture of war. National and community leaders and the media continually reinforce this by referring to those in the military as heroes — not because of any particular act of bravery, but simply because they joined the armed forces of the United States. The talking heads on the major network news/commentary programs go out of their way to thank veterans and soldiers for their service but fail to report news about those shining a spotlight on the horrors of war and working to bring an end to it.
Before continuing, I want to make it clear that I acknowledge the tragic plight of many soldiers and veterans, which has been discussed in depth elsewhere. In fact, changing the U.S. militaristic culture could save future military members from traumatic and crippling injuries, PTSD and other mental health problems, homelessness, drug use, chronic and infectious diseases, detrimental social/economic conditions, and of course, the ultimate sacrifice of death.
The U.S. war culture is insidious. It has invaded not only our government, but our schools, police, universities, healthcare institutions, workplaces, sports, concerts, places of worship, industry, transportation, stores and media — all aspects of our lives and culture. It is hard to attend a public event or use a public service without being confronted by the symbols of the military state, even at theme parks. For example, there is a significant salute to soldiers before the trained killer whale demonstration at Sea World and a monument to military veterans near the children’s area at Busch Gardens. Even the word “veteran” is assumed by many to refer only to former soldiers.
Before COVID-19, many airlines began loading the aircraft by thanking soldiers and inviting active military personnel to board first. Others also make significant contributions to our country. A nation that values its warriors above all others is destined to decline. What the airlines do is part of maintaining the culture that supports endless wars.
Finally, with a pandemic calling attention to the courage and service of healthcare workers and a variety of other essential personnel, we are starting to see tributes and praise that has heretofore been reserved for the military. I wonder how long that will last. Flyovers of fighter jets as a way of showing appreciation to healthcare workers treating COVID-19 demonstrates an effort to tie all aspects of our life, even this most desperate public health situation, into the U.S. war culture. Obviously, the cost of these nationwide military tributes, which is significant, could have provided medicine, testing, N-95 face masks, and other items in short supply that are needed to help stem the spread of disease. Perhaps these expensive warlike public relations stunts were an effort to distract us from the government’s continuing failed leadership in handling of the COVID-19 crisis.
Widespread devotion to the military has intensified since the United States abandoned the draft of citizen soldiers following the disastrous war against the people of Indochina. We now have a mercenary army much like the French Foreign Legion, which our executive branch may use with few consequences, partially because the soldiers have volunteered to be in harm’s way. No longer are conscripts among the fallen.
Our country “sells” the military with TV and social media campaigns and encourages — and often even pays — businesses to “honor the warrior.” For example, the Obama administration paid NFL teams to hold patriotic halftime shows celebrating soldiers. This practice is then picked up, at no cost, by high school and college teams.
As a nation we are in a transitional state regarding our military veterans. Those serving through 1973 were largely citizen soldiers forced by threat of prison to risk death to serve the whims of our political leaders. Most Americans would agree they should be appropriately honored for their “service” even if it involved the murder of civilians because the alternative for them was prison, public shaming, or worse. Since we lost the war in Vietnam, however, the new soldiers are volunteers who are compensated well and have chosen this career. To maintain recruiting, the government engages in intensive promotional and incentive programs to enlist young soldiers and to convince the American public of the indispensable value of the military.
There are few indications that American society values those who oppose war. To the contrary, U.S. citizens, media, police, courts, and government leaders often hold in derision those who call for peace. The government regularly places restrictions on free speech, using many mechanisms to intimidate those who speak out for peace. For example, spontaneous demonstrations such as those witnessed during the “fall of Communism” or the “Arab Spring” would not be tolerated in most regions of the United States. Instead, demonstrators are required to have the government’s permission in the form of an official permit to hold a peaceful demonstration. Even with permission, protests and demonstrations are often restricted to “free speech zones” that are located out of hearing and sight of those intended to receive the message. The U.S. Department of Interior has recently considered further suppressing public protests by charging citizens a series of “fees” to hold demonstrations in front of the White House, on federal grounds, or in front of a Trump hotel.
To change our deep-rooted culture of war to a culture of peace, we must begin to question the individuals and organizations we choose to applaud and praise. One might ask, “Why don’t we recognize teachers, healthcare providers, parents, grandparents, volunteers, farmers, trades and salespeople, government employees, and the other essential workers?” After all, they make important and indispensable contributions to our community. Instead, expressions of highest public praise are usually reserved for soldiers, military veterans, and occasionally semi-militarized “first responders.” When the president or any other politician asks us to support our troops, they are really asking us to support war. How many of us would actually stand and applaud war?
We have seen some hope for change as the mass protests following the execution of George Floyd overcame aggressive police and soldiers and seemed to garner the support of the nation. What a great model for action if the American people should ever become outraged by U.S. mass murder and violence abroad. It might be a natural progression considering that Black and Brown people are disproportionately affected by war and militarization.
Ever since the grim years of the long and brutal war against Vietnam, the U.S. government and media — under the guise of “patriotism” — have worked diligently to prevent images of body bags or flag-draped coffins of fallen soldiers from reaching the American public. Reporters interested in documenting the human toll of U.S. war are not permitted free access to the kill zones. They must be “embedded” with the invading forces, which means they are only able to give firsthand reports on pre-approved, staged, and sanitized versions of the “truth.” The American public is not shown the impact of war on local people and communities devastated by our military and C.I.A. We only rarely hear about or discuss civilian victims who routinely die or become refugees during these conflicts.
The United States also uses contract mercenaries to further reduce the number of uniformed men and women reported dead or missing. A 2016 article in The Atlantic by foreign policy expert Sean McFate of the Atlantic Council think tank noted that, in recent years, “more contractors are killed in combat than soldiers” and since 2009, the ratio of contractors to troops in war zones has increased from 1:1 to about 3:1. In the 2014 fiscal year, the Pentagon paid $285 billion to federal contracts (to hire private mercenary operatives) — more money than all other government agencies received, combined. It is also worth noting that contractor mercenaries are not bound by the same codes, rules, and restrictions as the U.S. military. By hiring for-profit commercial armies, any country — or any one individual — with enough money can wage war for any reason and with no accountability to the world.
Our political and military leaders use euphemistic phrases such as “collateral damage” to describe civilian casualties and destruction in foreign wars. Presidents no longer ask Congress to “declare war.” They request “authorization for the use of military force,” or may simply decide to invade a foreign nation, without having any oversight or justification related to defending the country. Our hostile actions are justified by claiming a tenuous link to national security as if our county was actually under threat of attack.
Our children are not taught to think, consider, or debate potential alternatives to war. There is nothing substantial in middle- or high-school textbooks about the peace movement nor the countless numbers of Americans who have demonstrated against military interventions in poor, defenseless, and distressed regions of the world. U.S. textbooks describe a revisionary version of our nation’s history with scant mention of the atrocities committed by European colonizers against indigenous peoples, keeping the focus primarily on a glorified Revolutionary War and a romanticized Civil War, the Industrial Revolution, World Wars I and II, the Space Race and the Civil Rights Movement, and finally finishing with jingoistic interpretations of modern U.S. wars.
The United States is often portrayed as the only truly virtuous nation on Earth — the “shining city upon a hill” a la Ronald Reagan. While pretending to have the mission of protecting the world, we actually foment war on foreign soil for our special corporate and ideological interests. We claim American exceptionalism, drop out of treaties meant to reduce wars and nuclear proliferation, and refuse to subject ourselves to the International Criminal Court or even to join treaties to improve the environment or ban landmines and torture.
Children grow up believing that soldiers are heroes and role models. They wear trendy camouflage clothing and play video games that simulate war. They watch movies that glorify war. Junior ROTC and military recruitment begin in middle school, targeting students from poor or lower-middle-class families. Young men and women graduating from high school without resources, a plan for the future, or who are in trouble with the law, are often lured or pressured into joining the military with promises of a good salary and free education. This modern economic conscription disproportionately affects racial minorities and people who are in violation of immigration laws. Youthful experiences as soldiers contribute to sustaining the culture of war, most likely without the participants questioning the sacrifice of personal freedom for a state of just-following-orders discipline. In fact, we are training young people to not be critical thinkers. This can damage the very fabric of our “democracy.”
It may surprise readers to learn that U.S. soldiers are paid very well for their “service,” and receive benefits and inducements unavailable to most employees. Salaries range from over $25,000 for a Private First Class to well over $200,000 for an officer. Plus, there are enlistment bonuses; education, medical, dental, housing, and reimbursement benefits; retirement; and special pay adjustments for hazardous duty.
Many Americans have been sold the concept that there can be no peace without war. This is a concept left over from the World Wars: you earn peace by winning the war. Violent actions by our military are either downplayed or glorified by the media. When acts of military aggression by the U.S. are reported, these incidents are presented as if the actions are justified to preserve our freedom and our ill-defined “American way of life.”
In 1947, historian Charles Beard characterized the foundation of American foreign policy as “perpetual war for perpetual peace.” A lifetime later his observation still holds true, and few Americans question it. The Honorable David Swanson, a US Peace Prize recipient, wrote: “By promoting military solutions to political problems and portraying military action as inevitable, the military often influences news media coverage, which in turn, creates public acceptance of war, or a fervor for war. . . .”
Countless American lives have been unnecessarily and tragically lost in heartbreaking wars that were waged for global expansion and imperialism. Rather than recognizing these wars for what they are and considering who profits from them, our culture instead embraces military might, and all the nationalistic trappings that go along with it, under the banner of “patriotism.”
Perhaps the Honorable Medea Benjamin, US Peace Prize recipient, says it best: “It is our responsibility as global citizens to learn to communicate with those we are taught to see as enemies. For it is only when we understand each other, love each other, and think of every man and woman as our brother and sister that we will finally be on our way to ending war.”
Note: This excerpt has been lightly edited for publication in Truthout.