The Culture of War Unleashed

War culture is everywhere: at athletic events where everyone is expected to sing ritualistic patriotic songs at the start and once again at half time or the seventh inning stretch, and where uniformed and armed people march with flags onto the field of play; at airports and train stations where uniformed military people are given a designated waiting area and priority boarding; in our schools where military recruiters have free reign; in our language, where war metaphors hang heavy over all aspects of life from sports and commerce to local politics and social policy, and where the word “service” has morphed quietly into a seemingly acceptable short-hand for time in the uniformed military.
War culture combined with an ascendant and triumphant individualism has led to the passage across the land of legislation that contains a bizarre contradiction: on the one hand “stand your ground” laws that allow anyone to shoot a person who seems threatening, and on the other hand “open-carry” laws that allow folks to carry their guns openly wherever and whenever they please. It’s a matter of time before a posse of open-carriers walks into a mall or a restaurant and meets a stand-your-ground crew—let the fireworks begin!
Domestic debates about private gun ownership and gun control are dominated by Second Amendment myth-makers who insist that there’s no common or collective possibility of public safety, and that it’s each person’s individual right and responsibility to defend life and property and personal well-being with lethal force. The National Rifle Association urges everyone to arm up, noting that the best defense against “a bad guy with a gun” is “a good guy with a gun.” I propose that the NRA introduce legislation offering a $1000 stipend in order to purchase guns for any American citizen or resident living below the poverty line—there are many good guys among the poor, and I’ve always gotten a kick out of the words scrawled across the Night Watchman’s guitar: Arm the Homeless! Hell yes!
For those who prefer gun control, we might offer this alternative to arming everyone: Disarm everyone, starting with the dangerous and out of control US military, move on the deadly domestic police forces, and then the rest of us. Guns for everyone, or no guns for anyone.
I cringe with the constant and insistent reference to (and self-referencing of) the president as the Commander-in-Chief. The continual mention of that single aspect is a contemporary thing, and fully in keeping with the militarization of the public space.
It wasn’t until 1986 that the operational line of command was set as running from the President to the Secretary of Defense and from the Secretary of Defense to the combatant commander. Before 2002 combatant commanders were referred as “commanders-in-chief;” Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld decided that the use of “commander-in-chief” should be especially reserved to refer to the president alone. Now we are reminded at all times and at every turn in keeping with our warrior status that our president is primarily our Supreme Commander, like the imperatores of Rome, sitting on the throne of empire and commanding its violent legions.
The military detail handled personally by presidents in wartime has, of course, varied dramatically. Abraham Lincoln was deeply involved in overall strategy and day-to-day operations, while Woodrow Wilson and George W. Bush paid practically no attention whatsoever. Harry Truman made the decision to use nuclear weapons on Japan, to commit American forces in Korea, and to fire Douglas MacArthur. And Barack Obama personally picks out targets for drone strikes every week.
As a little blue-sky exercise, what if any bit of the war culture were transformed into a peace and love culture: the Super Bowl opening with thousands of local school kids rushing through the stands distributing their poetry, and then everyone singing “This Land is Your Land” or “We Shall Overcome;” an airlines or bus terminal clerk saying, “We want to invite any teachers or nurses in the gate area to board first, and we thank you for your service.”
Like every culture or subculture, the war culture hangs together with a complex set of shared meanings, webs of significance and common assumptions woven together in such a way that members of the culture can communicate and recognize one another. The war culture promotes a pervasive and growing common-sense of American violence unleashed.
The US spends more than a trillion dollars a year on war and preparation for war, more than the rest of the world combined. The war culture accepts that as a desire for peace. The US has military bases stretching across the globe, including a base in the Italian Alps, and yet there are no Italian air bases in the Catskills, for example. The war culture sees that as sensible and necessary. The war culture is everywhere, simply taken-for-granted, occasionally visible and on full display, and always lurking in the shadows.
I remember a trailer for a film I saw in a theater several years ago—it looked dreadful and so I never saw the film nor can I remember the title—in which the repeating trope was an alien confronting a group of startled earthlings, and saying in an eerily mechanical voice, “We come in peace” just before blasting them to smithereens. It takes a minute for reality to catch up to these hapless earthlings, but after a while the classic challenge of the wandering spouse caught in the arms of another come into play: Who are you going to believe, me or your own lying eyes?
This is precisely the situation the US finds itself in all over the world: We come in peace…we always come in peace. But for the youth in the streets of Cairo or Tunis facing US arms in the hands of American-financed dictators, or the women servicing the US military bases stretching across their landscapes, or the farmers and workers all over Latin America, Africa, and Asia whose repressive police forces and militias are trained and supplied by US aid, or people anywhere who find themselves in the sights of an American-made rocket or a US drone, what are you going to believe? Your own lying eyes?
In our stuttering mechanical recorded message we announce to ourselves and to everyone else that we are a peaceful people, our intentions always righteous and just. It’s comforting, and it’s a deeply held self-description, so compelling that it rises quickly to the status of common sense, requiring no investigation, no fact-checking, no external validation whatsoever. All right-thinking people believe it; everyone simply knows that it’s true.

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