Tag Archives: military

The Military and the Search for Heroes in American Culture

American soldiers deserve the utmost respect, but that doesn't mean that American shouldn't question the government that sends them to war.

American soldiers deserve the utmost respect, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t question the organizations that send them to war.

Do you support the troops? In some respects, that’s a trick question. After all, how could you not support the troops? With each passing day, thousands of men and women in the American military put their lives on the line in far-off places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Lebanon, and even in a series of little-known strategic training operations in Africa — all in the name of protecting American freedom. And while these brave individuals are enduring all sorts of physical and psychological dangers, the rest of us are, well, not. The current American military consists of voluntary forces, and let’s be honest: most of us don’t want to volunteer for a job that involves getting shot, blown up, or other similarly unpleasant experiences that involve significant bodily harm.

And so, to make up for the fact that most of us aren’t in the military, we support the troops. But what, exactly, does that even mean? Of course, in our minds, we’re thanking them for their service; we’re wishing them the best of luck and the best of safety on their respective missions, and we might even stick a “support our troops” magnet on our vehicles. But other than vague, non-action-oriented displays of emotion, what can we really do to support the troops? Well, we hold benefit concerts; we send soldiers care packages, and we donate our frequent flyer miles.

Those are all good things to do, of course, but we as civilians also do something else for the troops that, however well-intended, is also deeply problematic: we double down on the platitudes by calling them “heroes” to the point where we run the risk of stifling legitimate criticism of U.S. military interventions. Furthermore, our platitudes create a culture of soldier worship that oversimplifies the complex beliefs and experiences of the people in uniform.

In a recent piece titled “Stop Thanking me for my Service,” Rory Fanning, a veteran of two deployments to Afghanistan, argues that the “heroism” of military service is often fraught with horrible experiences that are no cause for celebration, and that the American public usually isn’t aware of these experiences when they mouth patriotic platitudes to the troops. “[W]hat about that term ‘hero’?” Fanning writes, “[m]any veterans reject it, and not just out of Gary Cooperesque modesty either. He continues by noting that, “most veterans who have seen combat, watched babies get torn apart, or their comrades die in their arms, or the most powerful army on Earth spend trillions of dollars fighting some of the poorest people in the world for 13 years feel anything but heroic.” Here, Fanning emphasizes that in order to make soldiers into automatic heroes, you have to ignore the ugly realities of war, and you have to ignore the fact that not everything your government sends its soldiers to do is going to be for a worthy cause.

Fanning further quotes journalist Cara Hoffman, who writes that:

Hero’ refers to a character, a protagonist, something in fiction, not to a person, and using this word can hurt the very people it’s meant to laud. While meant to create a sense of honor, it can also buy silence, prevent discourse, and benefit those in power more than those navigating the new terrain of home after combat. If you are a hero, part of your character is stoic sacrifice, silence. This makes it difficult for others to see you as flawed, human, vulnerable, or exploited.

Building on Hoffman’s point about the super-human notion of idealized heroism, Fanning notes that, “Thank yous to heroes discourage dissent, which is one reason military bureaucrats feed off the term.” So why do we want to overly hero-ize American soldiers? Part of this tendency stems from the fact that we want to legitimize American military operations. We want to believe that when America fights, it does so for the right reasons, because it’s the best hope for freedom in the world — or so we think. But there’s another reason why we want to turn soldiers into heroes, one linked to the paradoxical ideal that NOT serving in the military is an inherent right for free Americans. Indeed, historically, compulsory military service has been associated with unfree, dictatorial governments the world over. In the eyes of many Americans throughout history, being forced to fight negated the very idea of American freedom. After all, if the state could force you to die in its name, how could you ever truly be free?

On the other side of that argument is the idea — so often quoted on sanctimonious bumper stickers everywhere — that “freedom isn’t free,” and that those who want to live free better be prepared to die free. But it’s this very conflict — between the idea that military service embodies freedom and the idea that military service can also be an example of state tyranny — that explains Americans’ complicated need to make soldiers into heroes. By doing so, we make their service compulsory in the sense that they act as vessels into which we pour all of our idealized notions of American freedom and goodness. They MUST serve so that we don’t have to; they bear burdens that we assume to be necessary. The problem is that those soldiers who deviate, however justifiably, from this idealized notion of heroism, such as Bowe Bergdahl, face accusations of treason, and the powerful interests who send them to distant war-zones remain in the shadows — unexamined; unquestioned; unhinged.

This cartoon from Harper's Weekly demonstrates how Confederate Conscription made its own heroes and villains.

This cartoon from Harper’s Weekly demonstrates how Confederate Conscription made its own heroes and villains.

In an era when military service is voluntary, those willing to die for their country (regardless of the worthiness of the respective cause they’re dying for) seem to embody a heroism that civilians can’t live up to. And on one level, this is certainly true: those in arms are indeed brave and they deserve our gratitude. But when we associate military service with automatic heroism, we legitimize a type of cultural totalitarian nationalism that stifles legitimate criticisms of military operations and the government and private interests that instigate them. If the soldiers who are the agents of the state (and its private sector partners) are sanctified as heroes, then the actions of the interests for which they fight also become unassailable. This is a dangerous development that has emerged in previous eras, and it was just as controversial then as it should be now.

Consider the conflict that defined modern American identity as we know it today: the Civil War. In April of 1862, the Confederate States of America instituted the first national draft in U.S. history, commonly known as the Confederate Conscription Act, to fight a war with the North that had already gone on longer than many on both sides had expected. Reception to the Conscription Act was decidedly mixed throughout the South. Some fighting-age men willingly acceded to it and joined the Confederate ranks to avoid being hunted down by conscript officers. Others, however, deserted the ranks or went into hiding to avoid compulsory service. Many believed that conscription favored the poor while exempting the rich from fighting (which wasn’t entirely true), and others maintained that the state had no right to force free men to fight in its name.

But so important was conscription to the southern war effort that Confederate president Jefferson Davis vigorously defended it in a December 26, 1862 speech in his home state of Mississippi. Addressing a crowd in the state capital of Jackson, Davis stated that the Confederate government needed to draft men to serve so that, “the men who had stayed at home — who had thus far been sluggards in the cause — should be forced, likewise, to meet the enemy.” The Conscription Act declared that all men from the ages of 18-35 were liable for military service, and Davis took pains to emphasize that donning the Rebel uniform was intimately linked to the Confederate struggle for freedom from the Union. “[W]ill you be slaves; will you consent to be robbed of your property…will you renounce the exercise of those rights with which you were born and which were transmitted to you by your fathers?” Davis asked. “I feel that in addressing Mississippians the answer will be that their interests, even life itself, should be willingly laid down on the altar of their country.”

This was an invocation for blood sacrifice to the Confederate cause, in which soldiers would die “on the altar of their country” so that the nation could live. But there was another issue that fueled Davis’ sanctification of military service: property. When Davis warned Mississippians that capitulation to the Union would result in them being “robbed of your property,” he was talking about slaves. Indeed, the Confederate quest for national independence was predicated on the notion that the South had the right to preserve slavery, and the most vociferous cheerleaders for southern independence just so happened to be men like Davis — men who were wealthy and powerful slaveholders. By turning military service into an act of devotion and heroism, Davis and other defenders of the Old South’s slave society made questioning the southern war effort — and, by extension, the powerful interests behind it — an act of treason. Those who fought in the Confederate armies for the South’s vested interests were labeled heroes, but those who objected were unpatriotic cowards who “skulk from the duties they owe their country.”

The Confederate experience with military service — as an either a heroic act of national devotion or a potential pawn of vested interests — rings loudly in modern America’s tendency to label all military service as heroism and all dissent as unpatriotic. As Steven Salaita writes, the powerful interests that run the U.S. in don’t necessarily have altruistic motives when they tout the heroism of American soldiers. “The terms we use to define the troops — freedom-fighters, heroic, courageous — are synecdoche for the romance of American warfare: altruistic, defensive, noble, reluctant, ethical,” Salaita writes. But now, as in the past, the service of individual soldiers can be admirable even as the greater cause remains less so. And the causes for which American armies fight, now as in the past, are rarely one-hundred percent pure-hearted.

The soldiers fighting in the Middle East can rest comfotably at night knowing that America's mailboxes wholeheartedly support the military.

U.S. soldiers fighting in the Middle East can rest comfortably at night knowing that America’s mailboxes wholeheartedly support the military.

Whether it concerns defense contractors, oil oligopolies, or, in a previous era, slaveholders, war is profitable, and profits don’t discriminate between noble and ignoble motives. “Multinational corporations have a profound interest in cheerleading for war and in the deification of those sent to execute it. For many of these corporations, the U.S. military is essentially a private army dispatched around the world as needed to protect their investments and to open new markets,” Salaita writes. This is not to say that soldiers don’t fight out of patriotic motives in the name of national defense; rather, he cautions Americans to always critically assess why their military fights, and he warns that viewing soldiers as heroes in the service of the American empire makes such critical evaluations impossible. “If we recognize that the troops are in fact human beings, then we simultaneously accept that they are too complex to be reduced to patriotic ephemera,” Salaita observes.

Now, we should continue to “support the troops.” They are our friends, family members, and fellow Americans who shoulder a heavy burden by choosing to enlist, and their efforts are to be commended. That said, however, we should also remember that soldiers are nonetheless human beings who embody all of the hopes, fears, contradictions, and yes, dissent that characterizes the broader human experience. To be sure, soldiers can engage in great acts of heroism, but making them into default heroes ignores both the complexity of military service as well as the fact that soldiers can serve interests that shouldn’t be exempt from criticism.

The Confederate experience during the Civil War demonstrated how a critical stand against militant patriotism can be an act of legitimate dissent that sheds light on the bigger issues about war and the powerful interests behind it. When Jefferson Davis urged Mississippians to sacrifice themselves “on the altar of their country,” he referred to a country that served the interests of the slaveholding oligarchs. Thus, the men who fought in the southern armies fought bravely for a rather ignoble cause, and those who evaded conscription functionally refused to serve that cause — and that’s worth noting.

Americans would do well to remember the past before jumping mindlessly onto the “support our troops” bandwagon without ever considering the broader consequences of conflating military service with mythical heroism. Somewhere, in a deep, dark, possibly undisclosed location, executives from Triple Canopy, Academi (formerly known as Blackwater), and DynCorp are also calling the troops heroes — and that should concern every American.

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“Lone Survivor” and the Historical Legacy of Violence and American Militarism

Mark Wahlberg stars in "Lone Survivor:" a violent ode to 'Murica.

Mark Wahlberg stars in “Lone Survivor:” a violent depiction of the Afghanistan War. This conflict has surpassed the Vietnam War in terms of sheer length and ambiguity.

Americans are a violent people. Whether in a wartime or civilian context, we like to shoot guns, and we are good at killing people with those guns. This is an indisputable fact. The U.S. has by far the highest rates of gun ownership in the industrialized world, and, as the Washington Post reported shortly after the brutal Sandy Hook massacre in late 2012, the U.S. is only outranked in terms of gun violence by developing nations in South Africa and South America.

Many Americans unfortunately view violence as the go-to solution for all kinds of vexing problems. Historically, this has always been the case, and this obsession with firearms shows no signs of letting up in the 21st century. Indeed, a good many Americans take gun worship to a bizarrely fetishistic level. You can almost picture any number of the country’s self-proclaimed gun nuts spending their Friday nights hung from ceiling chains while wrapped in shiny leather and stroking one of their 300 AR-15s with scented oils.

American gun-nuttery begets an entire culture of violence that affects both domestic and foreign affairs. By mixing a jingoistic belief in American cultural superiority with an already insane domestic devotion to the proliferation of firearms, the U.S. has created a Frankensteinian, militaristic cultural monster that has reaped much bloodshed over the decades.

The prime characteristics of American cultural militarism are its embracing of violence as a means to an end, its idolistic bowing before anything with a trigger and ammunition, and its belief that America can do no wrong. Over the last few decades, American culture has become increasingly militarized both on a foreign and domestic level. The militarization has become so strong that even sensible gun regulation fails to become law, and the American military is seen in some circles as an unassailable institution, rather than as a collection of individuals who are to be admired and respected, but not unconditionally worshipped.

Consider the recent snafu over the film “Lone Survivor,” a war epic starring Mark Wahlberg that’s based on a memoir by former Navy Seal Marcus Luttrell; the lone survivor of an Afghanistan mission that went bad. L.A. Weekly film critic Amy Nicholson lambasted “Lone Survivor” as “a jingoistic snuff film” that drains all nuance from the Afghanistan conflict in order to create a “Rambo”style war porn spectacle that espouses simplistic notions of American Exceptionalism and military superiority. “These four men were heroes,” Nicholson writes, “but these heroes were also men. As the film portrays them, their attitudes to the incredibly complex War on Terror…were simple: Brown people bad, American people good.”

Part of Nicholson’s critique centered on the fact that Luttrell’s memoir was heavily ghost written by British novelist Patrick Robinson, who may have added more Taliban fighters to the story than were present during the actual events. This created additional scenes of violence that helped to spice up the film (Hollywood has long called this tactic dramatic emphasis). Nicholson was criticizing the film rather than the real-life soldiers upon whom the movie was based. But in right-wing American circles, criticizing the military, in either a real or fictionalized context, is considered grounds for extreme chastisement. Hence, when radio slime-ball Glenn Beck got wind of Nicholson’s criticism of the film, he went on the air and called her “a “vile, repugnant, and ignorant liar.”

Beck is nothing less than a shameless sycophant who built a multi-million dollar media empire by feeding gullible conservatives a steady diet of paranoia mixed with simmering white person resentment. So when his listeners heard that Nicholson had criticized “Lone Survivor,” they responded in a manner befitting of today’s right-wing jerk menagerie. As Salon reports, Beck’s minions went on Twitter, the world’s preeminent outlet for conflict resolution, and called Nicholson, among other things, a “military hating bitch.” Over at Beck’s website, one of the many commenters claimed that Nicholson meant to “demean the service of our soldiers,” a move that said commenter found “beyond words for me.” This online brouhaha over a movie lays bare the danger inherent in American militarism: it sanctifies violence as the highest form of patriotic expression, and it demands, in true authoritarian style, that the military be above criticism.

Since the colonial era, gun violence has been intimately linked to American national identity, a connection that has costs hundreds of thousands of lives.

Since the colonial era, gun violence has been intimately linked to American national identity, a connection that has costs millions of lives.

The idea that the American military should not be critiqued, lest critics face alarming accusations of treason and even death threats, is the byproduct of American militarism. On the domestic side, this trend manifests itself in a truly irrational cultural bias that favors the right to own and operate nearly any type of firearms without restriction. You don’t have to be a hippie pinko peacenik to support some gun limits: even most gun owners support background checks. But such has been the militarization of American society on all fronts that even basic gun regulations are viewed by the Gestapo/NRA as assaults on American freedom itself. The idea that guns and the military are above critique is a belief rooted in the regenerative power of violence — that violence can create rights out of wrongs. Hence, gun nuts think that a only “good” person with a gun can prevent a “bad” person with a gun from committing violence, and neo-conservatives think that American military force can “fix” foreign countries.

Unfortunately, the regenerative power of violence, and the type of gun-worshipping militarism that it produces, is as idea with deep historical roots. On the domestic side, blame the frontier. In a previous post I discussed how the frontier nurtured American gun culture, but its influence can’t be overstated.

In his book Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860, historian Richard Slotkin identifies frontier violence as a key component of American national mythology. Early American culture was shaped by the notion that the New World, populated as it was by “savage” native peoples who didn’t know how to utilize its bounty, had to be “liberated from the dead hand of the past and become the scene of a new departure in human affairs.”* Guns were the preferred tools of this “liberation,” as the American frontier became a killing ground in which white Americans nearly obliterated the nation’s native past to bring about that “new departure” that became the United States. Slotkin reminds us that violence was integral to this transformation. The idea that Americans “tore violently a nation from the implacable and opulent wilderness” by killing the Indians who were “the special demonic personifications” of that wilderness are “the foundation stones” of American historical mythology.*

When the regenerating power of violence transformed the frontier from “savage” outpost to “civilized” America, it also shaped an American notion that frontiers of various kinds must constantly be subdued with violence in order for the U.S. to retain its supposed moral and cultural superiority. Way back in 1970, the late American historian Richard Hofstadter wrote that “there is far more violence in our national heritage than our proud, sometimes smug, national self-image admits of.” Hofstadter argued that recognizing the American propensity for violence was crucial: “In our singular position,” he observed, “uncontrolled domestic violence coincides with unparalleled power, and thus takes on a special significance for the world.”* This statement is nothing if not prescient today. The modern militarized culture creates new frontiers out of urban crime areas, sites of mass shootings, and pesky foreign countries where gun-carrying Americans must regenerate the U.S. through violence, both at home and abroad.

Consider our current cultural unwillingness to view American overseas military endeavors with a more critical eye. As historian Susan Brewer writes in Why American Fights: Patriotism and War Propaganda from the Philippines to Iraq, U.S. government leaders have consistently sold their war aims to the general public by packaging them as “official narratives” of propaganda. “The official narratives,” Brewer notes, “have presented conflict as a mighty clash between civilization and barbarism in the Philippines and Word War I, democracy and dictatorship in World War II, freedom and communism in Korea in Vietnam, and…civilization and terrorism in Iraq.” These “official narratives” draw on a long tradition in which Americans have used violence to assert their alleged cultural superiority via “the message that what is good for America is good for the world,” and it is this type of militaristic thinking that has, over time, created America’s distinct culture of violence.*

The result has been the seeping of cultural militarism into all aspects of American life to the point where it even influences reviews of war movies like “Lone Survivor.” U.S. soldiers, nay, the military itself must not be criticised, because to criticize the military is to criticize America, which is above criticism. Taken to its logical extreme, this type of thinking threatens to ideologically reshape the U.S. along the lines of a military junta; a type of government that has committed some of the worst atrocities in human history, from Argentina, to Chile, to MyanmarPolitical scientist (and Vietnam veteran) Andrew Bacevich calls this development the “New American Militarism,” in which “misleading and dangerous conceptions of war, soldiers, and military institutions…have come to pervade the American conciousness.”* 

U.S. soldiers do their best with the near impossible tasks they've been given in Iraq and Afghanistsan. But while sometimes violence is the answer, more often than not it begats more violence in a never-ending cycle.

U.S. soldiers do their best with the near impossible tasks they’ve been given in Iraq and Afghanistan. But while sometimes violence is the answer, more often than not it begets more violence in a never-ending cycle.

The militarization of American society, both in the military and civilian spheres, is a dangerous development that threatens the fundamental identity of the U.S. a small “r” republican nation. Militaries are, by their very nature, authoritarian, deeply hierarchical institutions. This is why they are good at protecting nations but bad at ruling them: authoritarianism and democracy don’t mix, which is why the U.S. (for now) has civilian control over its armed forces. But the problem runs deeper than mere soldier worship. A highly militarized society is also a paranoid society that will inevitably degenerate into an irrational orgy of circular violence in the name of regenerating its supposed previous greatness. Such societies are also intolerant of dissent, incapable of rational argument, and paralyzed by the limited options presented by itchy trigger fingers.

The U.S. today finds itself at this particular crossroads. After fostering a culture of gun violence born in the frontier and nurtured in countless wars, both domestic and foreign, official and unofficial, America in 2014 cannot seem to wrest itself from the idea that violence solves all problems. Thus, no matter how many school kids are blown away with assault weapons; no matter how many brown people are ripped to shreds overseas; and no matter how many American soldiers are killed or maimed in the name of the American empire, a militarized society ensures that there will always be those willing to defend to the death their right to own a bazooka and watch movies like “Lone Survivor” without criticism. So strap on your concealed carry holsters folks, ’cause its gonna be a bumpy ride.

* See Richard Slotkin, Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1973), 3-4.

* See Richard Hofstadter and Michael Wallace, eds., American Violence: A Documentary History (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1970), 4.

* See Susan A. Brewer, Why America Fights: Patriotism and War Propaganda from the Philipines to Iraq (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 4.

* See Andrew Bacevich, The New American Militarism: How Americans are Seduced by War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), xi.