In the flood of commentary about the Newtown massacre and broader US gun violence, liberals tend to blame failures of gun control while conservatives blame the mentally ill and Hollywood. But they are both missing one important and overlooked explanation: the domestic consequences of a militarized superpower engaged in chronic wars around the world.
The US spends more money on the military than the next ten countries together. It also has the highest level of domestic gun violence in the developed world. Highly militarized societies cannot compartmentalize foreign from domestic violence. They cannot prevent wars – and guns – from coming home.
Christopher Dorner certainly brought the war home. On February 3, 2013, he began a killing rampage, shooting his lawyer’s daughter and her fiancé, firing at three police officers, killing one and issuing a manifesto threatening to kill at least 12 more. Dorner is a former Navy lieutenant, a specialist in undersea warfare, a rifle marksman and a pistol expert who lost his job in the Los Angeles police department. The LAPD announced that the weapons training Dorner received in the Navy makes him a very serious threat.
Europe provides a clear contrast to the United States. Since World War II, as the United States became the sole superpower, Europe largely renounced militarism and war. Demilitarization is one of the reasons why many European countries, such as Sweden, have high levels of gun ownership for hunting and sports, but have one-tenth the US level of gun violence. Demilitarization weakens the cultural foundation of violence in civil society – If violence is not acceptable abroad, it can hardly be seen as honorable at home.
US analysts tend to focus on the growing separation of the military and its values from the larger society. The liberal MSNBC cable television host Rachel Maddow, argues in her book Drift that American civilians have little connection with soldiers or military culture, making it easier for them to detach from the grim realities of war. Civilians and soldiers are living in separate cultural universes. Neoconservatives such as pundits Robert Kagan and Max Boot agree that Americans are focused on their own lives at home and have little engagement with the military values and threats that support US wars.
But the assumption that the military is increasingly walled off from civil society needs to be re-examined. True, the lack of a draft and the rise of a volunteer military distance young people from war today unlike during the Vietnam War. Even without a draft, though, ideas, values and profits emerging from the war sector flood civilian society, a torrent that a draft would only increase.
A militarized society develops a culture and institutions which program civilians for violence at home as well as abroad. War celebrates the heroism of soldiers who use the same style weapons and ammunition used by the mass shooters at Newtown, Los Angles or Columbine. A warrior society values its armed forces as heroic protectors of freedom, sending a message that the use of guns is morally essential. Such messaging can easily confuse youth, and particularly angry or distressed young men such as the shooters in school rampages like Newtown or Columbine, who tend to see themselves as moral avengers and martyrs. It can lead many more Americans to see gun violence as honorable on the home front.
Mass killers often obsess over the military, even if they are not soldiers or veterans. At several school rampages, the killers were fixated on military equipment, war stories and the military bases near their schools. This was demonstrated by Michael Moore in his film on Columbine. One of the Columbine shooters lived on an Air Force base, which displays a plane with a plaque, proclaiming that it killed people in Vietnamese villages on Christmas Eve. Moore asks, “Don’t you think the kids say to themselves, ‘Dad goes to work everyday. He builds weapons of mass destruction. What is the difference between that mass destruction and the mass destruction over at Columbine High School?'”
New war technologies and policies may inspire even more violence. Drone warfare, as carried out by the Obama administration, targets and kills “enemy combatants, whether or foreign or American,” without judicial oversight. Each week, John Brennan, Obama’s nominee for head of the CIA brings Obama a “kill list,” with the names of people to be “eliminated.” As President Nixon declared, “When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” If the president can kill Americans in the name of honor and security, with nobody empowered to question his judgment, other Americans may decide they too can shoot to kill based on their own morals and view of the threat.
The military has been directly involved in shaping cultural attitudes for centuries. Since 1916, Junior ROTC, for example, which now operates in 1,645 high schools, has tried to mold civilian society and bring military moral messages to America’s young. JROTC defines its mission as “The study of ethics, citizenship, communications, leadership, life skills and other subjects … focusing on character building and civic responsibility … being presented in every JROTC classroom.”
The power of military culture in civilian life is not lost on the gun industry. It knows that 50 percent of all sporting rifle owners in the US are present or former veterans or work in law enforcement. The industry is now actively working to increase that percentage, targeting veterans and their families with advertising, particularly for the kinds of assault guns veterans used in the service, which the gun industry argues are both necessary for the safety of your family in your neighborhood and for fun in civilian life. They highlight that gun use is part of the fabric of US constitutional and moral values and makes our society morally exceptional.
As spelled out in Shooting Industry Magazine in July 2012, the industry praised the social network of “America’s modern veteran,” involving “hundreds of thousands of dads, brothers, uncles, wives, sisters, aunts, cousins and extended family and friends, who served or are serving in Iran and Afghanistan. They are respected and admired. They carried firearms to protect our country. That factor, that imagery, has had a huge positive impact on how firearms are viewed in our country.”
The military does not act alone in causing gun violence. Gun violence is partly a response to poverty, but it also has roots in American culture. America enshrines gun ownership as a fundamental right in the interpretation of the Second Amendment. The gun culture is particularly important in the South and the West, where it evolved largely to keep blacks and Native Americans in their place. In fact, one of the motives for passing the Second Amendment was to establish patrols to capture escaped slaves. Today, the South and the West are the regions that have the highest rate of domestic gun violence and the largest percentage of their population in the military, as well as the most military bases and the strongest support for military adventurism.
A militarist state must raise boys ready and able to commit violence enthusiastically, providing it is directed against peoples whom their rulers deem enemies. As the typical American boy grows up, the media inundates him with violence. For generations, boys have been watching John Wayne Westerns, showing how lawmen must conquer outlaws and the land must be purged of savages. Bomber pilots, like John McCain, are upheld as paragons of heroic moral virtue. The same day as a former Navy lieutenant and police officer was on his rampage in Los Angels, CNN broadcast a long segment praising Clinton Romesha, a newly minted winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor as the “bravest of the brave,” who directed the killing of over thirty Afghani “enemies” in a 12-hour battle which left eight Americans dead.
Military societies cannot reproduce themselves without sustaining the commitment to guns and the morality of gun violence in the larger society. In his Farewell Address, President Eisenhower warned of the dangers of the penetration of the values and economic interests of the military-industrial complex into the heart of civil society. The Newtown massacre and the ex-LA police officer’s rampage are powerful reminders of Eisenhower’s understanding of how the military inevitably shapes the morality and conduct of civilians and companies, always threatening to bring wars home. As Martin Luther King lamented at the height of the war in Vietnam, “I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today – my own government.”
King went on to say: “The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit.”