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American Resistance To Empire

The Militarization of Everything

The Militarization of Everything

The expanding cultural authority of the armed forces is a problem for U.S. democracy, writes William J. Astore.

By William J. Astore
TomDispatch.com

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 President 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 21st-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?

Recruiter with an attendee of the Military Exploration Workshop at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, March 21, 2017. (DoD/Benjamin Pryer)

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.

U.S. Marines assist in the filming “SEAL Team” on Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., Jan. 14, 2019. Camp Pendleton has been used as a filming site by a number of shows and movies in order to replicate the realism of the  military services. (U.S. Marine Corps/Joseph Prado)

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”:

  1. Roughly two-thirds of the federal government’s discretionary budget for 2020 will, unbelievably enough, be devoted to the Pentagon and related military functions, with each year’s “defense” budget coming ever closer to a trillion dollars. Such colossal sums are rarely debated in Congress; indeed, they enjoy wide bipartisan support.
  2. The U.S. military remains the most trusted institution in our society, so say 74 percent of Americans surveyed in a Gallup poll. No other institution even comes close, certainly not the presidency (37 percent) or Congress (which recently rose to a monumental 25 percent on an impeachment high). Yet that same military has produced disasters or quagmires in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Somalia, and elsewhere. Various “surges” have repeatedly failed. The Pentagon itself can’t even pass an audit. Why so much trust?
  3. A state of permanent war is considered America’s new normal. Wars are now automatically treated as multi-generational with little concern for how permawar might degrade our democracy. Anti-war protesters are rare enough to be lone voices crying in the wilderness.
  4. America’s generals continue to be treated, without the slightest irony, as “the adults in the room.” Sages like former Secretary of Defense James Mattis (cited glowingly in the recent debate among 12 Democratic presidential hopefuls) will save America from unskilled and tempestuous politicians like one Donald J. Trump. In the 2016 presidential race, it seemed that neither candidate could run without being endorsed by a screaming general (Michael Flynn for Trump; John Allen for Clinton).
  5. General James Mattis on MSNBC. (Screen shot)

    The media routinely embraces retired U.S. military officers and uses them as talking heads to explain and promote military action to the American people. Simultaneously, when the military goes to war, civilian journalists are “embedded” within those forces and so are dependent on them in every way. The result tends to be a cheerleading media that supports the military in the name of patriotism — as well as higher ratings and corporate profits.

  6. America’s foreign aid is increasingly military aid. Consider, for instance, the current controversy over the aid to Ukraine that Trump blocked before his infamous phone call, which was, of course, partially about weaponry. This should serve to remind us that the United States has become the world’s foremost merchant of death, selling far more weapons globally than any other country. Again, there is no real debate here about the morality of profiting from such massive sales, whether abroad ($55.4 billion in arms sales for this fiscal year alone, says the Defense Security Cooperation Agency) or at home (a staggering 150 million new guns produced in the USA since 1986, the vast majority remaining in American hands).
  7. In that context, consider the militarization of the weaponry in those very hands, from .50 caliber sniper rifles to various military-style assault rifles. Roughly 15 million AR-15s are currently owned by ordinary Americans. We’re talking about a gun designed for battlefield-style rapid shooting and maximum damage against humans. In the 1970s, when I was a teenager, the hunters in my family had bolt-action rifles for deer hunting, shotguns for birds, and pistols for home defense and plinking. No one had a military-style assault rifle because no one needed one or even wanted one. Now, worried suburbanites buy them, thinking they’re getting their “man card” back by toting such a weapon of mass destruction.
  8. Paradoxically, even as Americans slaughter each other and themselves in large numbers via mass shootings and suicides (nearly 40,000 gun deaths in 2017 alone), they largely ignore Washington’s overseas wars and the continued bombing of numerous countries. But ignorance is not bliss. By tacitly giving the military a blank check, issued in the name of securing the homeland, Americans embrace that military, however loosely, and its misuse of violence across significant parts of the planet. Should it be any surprise that a country that kills so wantonly overseas over such a prolonged period would also experience mass shootings and other forms of violence at home?
  9. Even as Americans “support our troops” and celebrate them as “heroes,” the military itself has taken on a new “warrior ethos” that would once — in the age of a draft army — have been contrary to this country’s citizen-soldier tradition, especially as articulated and exhibited by the “greatest generation” during World War II.
Die-in demonstration in February 2018 organized by Teens For Gun Reform in wake of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. (Lorie Shaull via Flickr)

Die-in demonstration in February 2018 organized by Teens For Gun Reform in wake of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. (Lorie Shaull via Flickr)

What these nine items add up to is a paradigm shift as well as a change in the zeitgeist. The U.S. military is no longer a tool that a democracy funds and uses reluctantly.  It’s become an alleged force for good, a virtuous entity, a band of brothers (and sisters), America’s foremost missionaries overseas and most lovable and admired heroes at home. This embrace of the military is precisely what I would call soft militarism. Jackbooted troops may not be marching in our streets, but they increasingly seem to be marching unopposed through — and occupying — our minds.

The Decay of Democracy

As Americans embrace the military, less violent policy options are downplayed or disregarded. Consider the State Department, America’s diplomatic corps, now a tiny, increasingly defunded branch of the Pentagon led by Mike Pompeo (celebrated by Trump as a tremendous leader because he did well at West Point). Consider Trump as well, who’s been labeled an isolationist, and his stunning inability to truly withdraw troops or end wars. In Syria, U.S. troops were recently redeployed, not withdrawn, not from the region anyway, even as more troops are being sent to Saudi Arabia. In Afghanistan, Trump sent a few thousand more troops in 2017, his own modest version of a mini-surge and they’re still there, even as peace negotiations with the Taliban have been abandoned. That decision, in turn, led to a new surge (a “near record high”) in U.S. bombing in that country in September, naturally in the name of advancing peace. The result: yet higher levels of civilian deaths.

How did the U.S. increasingly come to reject diplomacy and democracy for militarism and proto-autocracy? Partly, I think, because of the absence of a military draft. Precisely because military service is voluntary, it can be valorized. It can be elevated as a calling that’s uniquely heroic and sacrificial. Even though most troops are drawn from the working class and volunteer for diverse reasons, their motivations and their imperfections can be ignored as politicians praise them to the rooftops. Related to this is the Rambo-like cult of the warrior and warrior ethos, now celebrated as something desirable in America. Such an ethos fits seamlessly with America’s generational wars. Unlike conflicted draftees, warriors exist solely to wage war. They are less likely to have the questioning attitude of the citizen-soldier.

Don’t get me wrong: reviving the draft isn’t the solution; reviving democracy is. We need the active involvement of informed citizens, especially resistance to endless wars and budget-busting spending on American weapons of mass destruction. The true cost of our previously soft (now possibly hardening) militarism isn’t seen only in this country’s quickening march toward a militarized authoritarianism. It can also be measured in the dead and wounded from our wars, including the dead, wounded, and displaced in distant lands. It can be seen as well in the rise of increasingly well-armed, self-avowed nationalists domestically who promise solutions via walls and weapons and “good guys” with guns. (“Shoot them in the legs,” Trump is alleged to have said about immigrants crossing America’s southern border illegally.)

Democracy shouldn’t be about celebrating overlords in uniform. A now-widely accepted belief is that America is more divided, more partisan than ever, approaching perhaps a new civil war, as echoed in the rhetoric of our current president. Small wonder that inflammatory rhetoric is thriving and the list of this country’s enemies lengthening when Americans themselves have so softly yet fervently embraced militarism.

With apologies to the great Roberta Flack, America is killing itself softly with war songs.

A retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and professor of history, William J. Astore is a TomDispatch regular. His personal blog is Bracing Views.”

This article is from TomDispatch.com.

Brit Press Reports Iraqi PM Claim That Trump Set-Up Soleimani For the Kill

The reason Qassem Soleimani was in Baghdad shows how complex the Iran crisis is

The commander is said to have been in Iraq to discuss moves to ease tensions between Tehran and Saudi Arabia – something that will have been of interest to Washington

As part of the incendiary and escalating crisis surrounding the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, there has come an explanation of why the Iranian commander was actually in Baghdad when he was targeted by a US missile strike.

Iraq’s prime minister revealed that he was due to be meeting the Iranian commander to discuss moves being made to ease the confrontation between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia – the crux of so much of strife in the Middle East and beyond.

Adil Abdul-Mahdi was quite clear: “I was supposed to meet him in the morning the day he was killed, he came to deliver a message from Iran in response to the message we had delivered from the Saudis to Iran.”

The prime minister also disclosed that Donald Trump had called him to ask him to mediate following the attack on the US embassy in Baghdad. According to Iraqi officials contact was made with a number of militias as well as figures in Tehran. The siege of the embassy was lifted and the US president personally thanked Abdul-Mahdi for his help.

There was nothing to suggest to the Iraqis that it was unsafe for Soleimani to travel to Baghdad – quite the contrary. This suggests that Trump helped lure the Iranian commander to a place where he could be killed. It is possible that the president was unaware of the crucial role that Soleimani was playing in the attempted rapprochement with the Saudis. Or that he knew but did not care.

One may even say that it is not in the interest of a president who puts so much emphasis on American arms exports, and whose first official trip after coming to office was a weapons-selling trip to Saudi Arabia – during which he railed against Iran – to have peace break out between the Iranians and the kingdom. But that would be far too cynical a thought.

Abdul-Mahdi spoke of his disappointment that while Trump was expressing his gratitude over the mediation, he was also simultaneously planning an attack on Soleimani. That attack took place not long after the telephone call from the president.

There is also the possibility that the US military planners knew nothing about the conversations between Trump and Abdul-Mahdi, and took out Soleimani when the opportunity presented itself.

There may be credence to this, if one follows the narrative which is emerging from defence and intelligence officials in Washington: that the assassination option presented to Trump was bound to be refused, as it had been by his predecessors in the White House. And that there was a desperate scramble to track down Soleimani when, much to their shock, Trump ordered the hit.

The existence of the talks between the Saudi and the Iranians and, more importantly, the threat of impending violence, has meant reaction in Riyadh at the killing has been markedly muted.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, not a stranger to sabre rattling, has sent his younger brother, deputy defence minister Khalid bin Salman, to Washington to urge restraint.

The very real risk of the region becoming an arena for conflict has led to rare cooperation in the stand-off between the Saudi-led Gulf block and Qatar, whose foreign minister was dispatched to Tehran with a similar appeal for calm.

In Tehran, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani met with Iranian president Hassan Rouhani to discuss “measures to maintain the security and stability of the region,” the state-run Qatar News Agency reported. While in the UAE the foreign minister, Anwar Gargash, called for “rational engagement”, tweeting: “wisdom and balance must prevail.”

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei weeps at Soleimani prayers

As well as being in danger of getting caught in the crossfire of a war between the US and Iran, the Arab states in the region are vulnerable to Tehran’s allied militias – in Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq and Syria. There is concern whether the US, after unleashing a wave of missiles, would do anything when retribution is taken on its partner countries.

The Saudis learned only too clearly last summer that one cannot always depend on American commitment, when drone and missile attacks on oil-processing facilities in the kingdom halved oil production. Trump directly blamed Iran for the attacks but there was no American military response, just as there has not been to the many attacks on the kingdom from the Houthis in Yemen.

In the light of all this Khalid al-Dakhil, a Saudi political sociologist, pointed out: “Saudi Arabia and all the Gulf countries are just quiet. They don’t want to antagonise the Iranians, because the situation in the region is so delicate, so divided, so sensitive, that you don’t want to stir it up further.”

Robert Emerson, a British security analyst, said that it was clear why caution was prevailing. “You don’t know whether Trump will just light the blue touchpaper and then just disappear,” he said. “The Arab states are right to be wary. The talk about Iran and Saudi negotiations is intriguing, further details should be emerging.’’

The Trump administration continues to insist that Soleimani was killed because he was about to launch an imminent terror campaign, without providing any evidence for the assertion. There is increasing scepticism about the claim and the questions are not going to go away. There are too many memories of Saddam Hussein and his non-existent WMD arsenal. The repercussions from the assassination in Baghdad will continue for a very long time.