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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.We’re in an age in which the president who miraculously “captured” ISIS in “a month,” or so he recently claimed, and has tweeted his fervent desire to end America’s “endless wars” and “bring the troops home” can only imagine increasing an already astronomical military budget. (Since May, by the way, at least 14,000 more American troops have actually been deployed to the Middle East.) And oh yes, he’s hot to create a whole new service to add to the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, and Coast Guard, a Space Force guaranteed to ensure yet more conflicts in new places in the decades to come. Meanwhile, using his “great and unmatched wisdom,” he’s dealt with the almost 18-year-old Afghan War by cancelling peace talks with the Taliban at the last moment, even as he’s praised the U.S. military for its increasing destructiveness in that country. (The Taliban, he swore, had “never been hit harder.”) He’s also ratcheted up the possibility of war with Iran, while drone strikes across the Middle East have soared far above the Obama-era level. Of course, he did end the U.S. role in Syria in a fount of bloodshed and horror by withdrawing all 1,000 U.S. Special Operations forces from that country and bringing them home. (Oh wait, perhaps 150 of them are actually going to stay at Al-Tanf, a base in southern Syria, and most of the rest will evidently just be moved to Iraq.) Meanwhile, in a thoroughly peaceable manner, he’s ordered almost 3,000 more American troops, two squadrons of jet fighters, and two Patriot missile batteries to Saudi Arabia, another obvious move to end this country’s wars. (And what’s more, the Saudis will pay!)
That’s the antiwar president of the United States. Now, add in the rest of the official Washington crew, all belonging to “the indispensable nation,” and whatever you do, don’t forget various increasingly assertive retired generals and admirals. For instance, consider the general Donald Trump once loved to death for his moniker “Mad Dog,” former Secretary of Defense James Mattis. The president recently called him “the world’s most overrated general.” Mattis responded, “I earned my spurs on the battlefield… Donald Trump earned his spurs in a letter from a doctor this way: bone spurs.”
By the way, in the midst of such chaos, you can check out Democratic presidential debates (or Republican commentaries) until hell freezes over and, as innocents continue to die from Syria to Afghanistan and beyond, here’s a topic you won’t find discussed anywhere: a growing American militarism at home in this era of never-ending wars and soaring national security state budgets. That’s why we’re lucky to have historian and retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel William Astore, a TomDispatch regular, offer a rare assessment of the damage our wars are doing not in distant parts of the Earth, but right here in this country, however unnoticed. Tom
Killing Me Softly with Militarism The Decay of Democracy in America
By William J. Astore
When Americans think of militarism, they may imagine jackbooted soldiers goose-stepping through the streets as flag-waving crowds exult; or, like our president, they may think of enormous parades featuring troops and missiles and tanks, with warplanes soaring overhead. Or nationalist dictators wearing military uniforms encrusted with medals, ribbons, and badges like so many barnacles on a sinking ship of state. (Was Donald Trump only joking recently when he said he’d like to award himself a Medal of Honor?) And what they may also think is: that’s not us. That’s not America. After all, Lady Liberty used to welcome newcomers with a torch, not an AR-15. We don’t wall ourselves in while bombing others in distant parts of the world, right?
But militarism is more than thuggish dictators, predatory weaponry, and steely-eyed troops. There are softer forms of it that are no less significant than the “hard” ones. In fact, in a self-avowed democracy like the United States, such softer forms are often more effective because they seem so much less insidious, so much less dangerous. Even in the heartland of Trump’s famed base, most Americans continue to reject nakedly bellicose displays like phalanxes of tanks rolling down Pennsylvania Avenue.
But who can object to celebrating “hometown heroes” in uniform, as happens regularly at sports events of every sort in twenty-first-century America? Or polite and smiling military recruiters in schools? Or gung-ho war movies like the latest version of Midway, timed for Veterans Day weekend 2019 and marking America’s 1942 naval victory over Japan, when we were not only the good guys but the underdogs?
What do I mean by softer forms of militarism? I’m a football fan, so one recent Sunday afternoon found me watching an NFL game on CBS. People deplore violence in such games, and rightly so, given the number of injuries among the players, notably concussions that debilitate lives. But what about violent commercials during the game? In that one afternoon, I noted repetitive commercials for SEAL Team, SWAT, and FBI, all CBS shows from this quietly militarized American moment of ours. In other words, I was exposed to lots of guns, explosions, fisticuffs, and the like, but more than anything I was given glimpses of hard men (and a woman or two) in uniform who have the very answers we need and, like the Pentagon-supplied police in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, are armed to the teeth. (“Models with guns,” my wife calls them.)
Got a situation in Nowhere-stan? Send in the Navy SEALs. Got a murderer on the loose? Send in the SWAT team. With their superior weaponry and can-do spirit, Special Forces of every sort are sure to win the day (except, of course, when they don’t, as in America’s current series of never-ending wars in distant lands).
And it hardly ends with those three shows. Consider, for example, this century’s update of Magnum P.I., a CBS show featuring a kickass private investigator. In the original Magnum P.I. that I watched as a teenager, Tom Selleck played the character with an easy charm. Magnum’s military background in Vietnam was acknowledged but not hyped. Unsurprisingly, today’s Magnum is proudly billed as an ex-Navy SEAL.
Cop and military shows are nothing new on American TV, but never have I seen so many of them, new and old, and so well-armed. On CBS alone you can add to the mix Hawaii Five-O (yet more models with guns updated and up-armed from my youthful years), the three NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigative Service) shows, and Blue Bloods (ironically starring a more grizzled and less charming Tom Selleck) — and who knows what I haven’t noticed? While today’s cop/military shows feature far more diversity with respect to gender, ethnicity, and race compared to hoary classics like Dragnet, they also feature far more gunplay and other forms of bloody violence.
Look, as a veteran, I have nothing against realistic shows on the military. Coming from a family of first responders — I count four firefighters and two police officers in my immediate family — I loved shows like Adam-12 and Emergency! in my youth. What I’m against is the strange militarization of everything, including, for instance, the idea, distinctly of our moment, that first responders need their very own version of the American flag to mark their service. Perhaps you’ve seen those thin blue line flags, sometimes augmented with a red line for firefighters. As a military veteran, my gut tells me that there should only be one American flag and it should be good enough for all Americans. Think of the proliferation of flags as another soft type of up-armoring (this time of patriotism).
Speaking of which, whatever happened to Dragnet‘s Sergeant Joe Friday, on the beat, serving his fellow citizens, and pursuing law enforcement as a calling? He didn’t need a thin blue line battle flag. And in the rare times when he wielded a gun, it was .38 Special. Today’s version of Joe looks a lot more like G.I. Joe, decked out in body armor and carrying an assault rifle as he exits a tank-like vehicle, maybe even a surplus MRAP from America’s failed imperial wars.
Militarism in the USA
Besides TV shows, movies, and commercials, there are many signs of the increasing embrace of militarized values and attitudes in this country. The result: the acceptance of a military in places where it shouldn’t be, one that’s over-celebrated, over-hyped, and given far too much money and cultural authority, while becoming virtually immune to serious criticism.
Let me offer just nine signs of this that would have been so much less conceivable when I was a young boy watching reruns of Dragnet:
Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s Tomdispatch.com (“a regular antidote to the mainstream media”), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more…)
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