The Myth of Military Might

A pervasive and widely promoted theory that runs loose throughout the land is that being a military powerhouse makes the US (and people everywhere) safe, protects freedoms, and is a force for peace in a threatening, dangerous, and hostile world. It’s not true, but it has a huge and sticky hold on our imaginations.
When some random politician tells antiwar protestors picketing his town hall meeting that it’s “because of the sacrifices our troops are making in [take your pick: Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, the Middle East, Europe, Panama, or wherever’s next] that you have the freedom to stand there and speak out,” he is tapping into that seemingly bottomless cliché. When a TV talking head or pundit says that it’s a misfortune that US economic strength rides on a resource—oil—that “happens to come from a nasty neighborhood,” but a “blessing” that we have the power to police that part of the world, he’s doing the same thing. And when Americans across the political spectrum express public gratitude and support for “our fighting men and women overseas,” even while refusing to send their own children into war or harboring serious private doubts about the wisdom, purpose, and execution of whatever US invasion and occupation is currently in play, they are similarly situated in that open field of received wisdom, stuttering and unexamined truisms, and diminishing options.
Questioning this sentimental dogma in these instances might mean, for example, insisting that the most honest and straight-forward way to support US military men and women would be to demand their immediate return home, and to insist that they be provided with excellent medical and psychological care, good jobs, affordable housing, and the best available educational opportunities. Speaking up in the face of that wooly politician might mean challenging him to draw a straight line between free speech and the specific invasion he’s implicitly defending, noting that “No one in Iraq ever said I couldn’t speak my mind, and please deal directly with the content of what I’m raising, not some rhetorical sleight-of-hand.”
Imagine dramatically rethinking this manufactured rationale, reframing it and turning it upside-down, and it might be stated this way: the massive US military powerhouse and increasingly privatized war machine makes Americans (and everyone else) unsafe in the world, undermines human security and hard-won rights and freedoms, and is the greatest purveyor of violence on earth. Deploying a “global basing strategy,” maintaining nuclear warheads in the air at all times, hiding CIA agents in every embassy and behind every tree, spying on everyone everywhere all the time, sending hundreds of thousands of “fighting men and women overseas” is the starting point of our problems, and in no way leads toward any lasting solutions. Beyond that, the rise of this domineering nexus creates a culture of deception and dishonesty and militarism, places the economy in the precarious position of adjunct and subsidiary to the Pentagon, degrades language, undermines the moral landscape, and enriches a few while devastating the lives of millions.
Now we’re discussing war and military might on an entirely different terrain. Now we’re coming closer to the truth of our predicament. Now we might step up and echo the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Against War: another drop of blood and another wasted dollar on the “war on terror” or the imperial dreams of the 1% only deepens the catastrophe and suspends or destroys the possibility of reimagining and rebuilding the US as a more peaceful, joyous, just, participatory, and cooperative place; finding our balance would create better conditions for the ordinary people of the world to ignite their own specific dreams and aspirations, summon their own agency to throw off the yokes of empire and dictatorship as they rethink and rebuild their various communities with their own hands.
This kind of reimagining taps into a different bit of plain, good sense: we want to think of ourselves as good people, peaceful people; we always want to be kind and generous and neighborly; we want to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. The warrior is not the only American archetype; there is, as well, the hard worker, the good farmer, the peace-lover, and the free thinker. If we’ve allowed ourselves to become a new Sparta, perhaps with some imagination and effort we can reach for a new Athens. Two histories, two aspects of the American experience, two spirits in the collective psyche: fighter/peacemaker, trooper/bridge-builder, man-at-arms/pacifist. Re-framing the discussion begins when we dive into the contradictions head-first in order to engage that thorny and contested space.

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