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The Tenacity of American Militarism

What Progressives and Other Critics Don't Get About the US Military

by William J. Astore

Recent polls suggest that Americans trust the military roughly three times as much as the president and five times as much as their elected representatives in Congress. The tenacity of this trust is both striking and disturbing. It's striking because it comes despite widespread media coverage of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, the friendly-fire cover-up in the case of Pat Tillman's death, and alleged retribution killings by Marines at Haditha. It's disturbing because our country is founded on civilian control of the military. It's debatable whether our less-than-resolute civilian leaders can now exercise the necessary level of oversight of the military and the Pentagon when they are distrusted by so many Americans.

What explains the military's enduring appeal in our society? Certainly, some of this appeal is obvious. Americans have generally been a patriotic bunch. "Supporting our troops" seems an obvious place to go. After all, many of them volunteered to put themselves in harm's way to protect our liberties and to avenge the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. For this, they receive pay and benefits that might best be described as modest. Trusting them -- granting them a measure of confidence -- seems the least that could be offered.

Before addressing two other sources of the military's appeal that are little understood, at least by left-leaning audiences, let's consider for a second the traditional liberal/progressive critique. It often begins by citing the insidious influence of Eisenhower's "military-industrial complex," throwing in for good measure terms like "atrocity," "imperialist," "reactionary," and similar pejoratives. But what's interesting here is that this is often where their critique also ends. The military and its influence are considered so tainted, so baneful that within progressive circles there's a collective wringing of hands, even a reflexive turning of backs, as if our military were truly from Mars or perhaps drawn from the nether regions where Moorlocks shamble and grunt in barbarian darkness.

If you want to change anything -- even our increasing propensity for militarism -- you first have to make an effort to engage with it. And to engage with it, you have to know the wellsprings of its appeal, which transcend corporate profits or imperial power.

Our Military, Ourselves

Despite often compelling evidence to the contrary, Americans like to think of their societal institutions as being open, fair-minded, and democratic. If you look without prejudice at our all-volunteer military, you quickly realize that it truly is one of the least elitist, most diverse institutions of power in American society. Most progressive voices fail to recognize this. Yet it's my belief most Americans do and it's a big reason why they say they trust it.

Our military is demonstrably diverse -- racially, by class, and even more politically than most critics imagine. As a retired military officer who now finds himself a liberal arts professor in academia, I'm struck by the relative conformity of the latter, at least when contrasted to the diversity I found in my former life. Racial minorities from the lower classes are well represented in our military. (Some critics have claimed that they are over-represented, at least in frontline infantry units.) I've seen more black or brown faces in positions of authority within our military than in academia. (In my last job in the Air Force, my boss was a black female colonel.) Indeed, until very recently in American society, our military was one of the few places where African Americans and Hispanics routinely bossed around whites. (Louis Gossett Jr.'s drill instructor in the 1982 movie An Officer and A Gentleman was not exceptional; many times I've witnessed real versions of him in action.)

Politically, our military tends, of course, to be conservative, though not necessarily monochromatically Republican. Again, the world of academia provides a stark contrast, especially in liberal arts departments in top-tier colleges and universities, which do tend to be overwhelmingly Democratic and left of center. To cite only one example, of 42 professors in the English, history, sociology, and political science departments at Brown University who registered to vote, all registered as Democrats.

Ordinary Americans trust the military, in part, because the "have-nots" have direct access to it -- far more access than most will ever have to elite universities, elite law firms, mainstream media outlets, Washington lobbying outfits, or other institutions of influence and power. Indeed, our military remains deeply rooted in the broad middle-and working-class elements of society. Our Ivy League schools, our white-shoe law firms, Boston's Beacon Hill, New York's Upper West Side have little presence in it. Yet everywhere you go in small-town and rural America, you bump into ordinary people who know someone in the military: a nephew, a cousin, a close buddy from high school, even, these days, the girl next door.

If you were to place yourself among the rank-and-file of today's military, you'd find yourself among young people (many of color, some of them recent immigrants) who more accurately mirror the composition of our old small towns and new inner city neighborhoods than nearly any other institution of power. In that sense, the military is a grandly successful social mélange, with, of course, a notable exception. Women. The all-volunteer military is predominately male and will remain so, at least for the foreseeable future. Military service remains largely a gendered activity, commonly associated within academia with retrograde notions of aggressive (and disreputable) masculinity and therefore dismissed as outmoded, even pathologically so.

Our Military, Our Young Men

Of course, supporting -- and trusting -- the military is hardly the same thing as joining it. Increasing numbers of Americans, not just academics or the obvious critics, no longer see joining its ranks as part of anyone's citizenly duty. This is now well known in a society where the first urge of a commander-in-chief/president, when it comes to the public, is not to mobilize them for duty in what he's termed "war time," but to urge them to visit Disney World and keep on spending. Nonetheless, surprising numbers of young men do continue to join up, despite increasingly unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This leads me to the second blind spot in the academic/progressive critique of our military -- the failure to recognize the enduring attractiveness of military service to young men seeking to construct their own identities. To many of these potential recruits, American culture today appears feminized -- or, at least demasculinized -- a mommy-state, a risk-averse society with designer drugs and syndrome-of-the-day counselors to ease our pain. In response, what we're seeing is a romantic yearning among young men for the very hardness, the brutality even, epitomized by military service and warfare.

In talking to young men in the rural, conservative area of Pennsylvania where I live, what strikes me is how many of them have seen all 10 episodes of the HBO World War II series, Band of Brothers, and how many admire the bravery, camaraderie, and sacrifice it depicts in portraying paratroopers of the 101st Airborne fighting their way across France and into Germany in 1944-45. Seasoned Marines, a colleague reports, confess that one thing working to sustain recruiting, despite the war in Iraq and regular news reports on an overstrained and exhausted military, is young men who, raised in self-esteem-touting, gender-bending environments (on TV, if nowhere else), sign up to experience "the other side."

It's easy to dismiss such yearnings as Neanderthal. The irony is that that very dismissal creates an inviting taboo for a whole segment of young American males to challenge. For academia and progressives, war is today what sex was to society in the Victorian age, involving as it does emotions nice people don't feel and acts nice people don't opt to commit. Yes, many volunteers join the military with educational or career possibilities in mind, but among young men who enlist, there is also a certain element, conscious or unconscious, of taboo-breaking -- and of self-affirmation.

For women, gender identity is often shaped by biological rites of passage: menstruation, pregnancy, menopause. Male identity is arguably less secure and defined more by the gaze of other men -- you're a man when other men, men you respect, say you are. Men have gender too -- and many seek to construct and assert their maleness within the military, a cultural setting they perceive as patriotic, meritocratic, and sanctioned by the trust and respect of friends, family, and community.

The challenge for progressives is to recognize this and then to work to create viable alternatives to military service in which masculinity and patriotism can be demonstrated in non-lethal settings. An example is my father's service as a forest laborer and firefighter in the Civilian Conservation Corps in Oregon from 1935 to 1937. There could be many opportunities for our young men to assert their masculinity in non-military and nonviolent settings -- fixing our nation's roads and bridges, rebuilding our inner cities, rescuing places torn apart by disaster, natural or otherwise, like New Orleans; and from these, too, funded educational openings and future career possibilities could arise.

To Transform, We Must Engage

The point is this: It's not enough simply to rail against the military or militarism, however enlightened it makes you feel. There are powerful reasons why Americans trust our military and continue to join its ranks. Unless these are grasped, efforts to redirect our nation along less militaristic lines will founder on the shores of incomprehension.

After all, isn't the full media story not only that our all-volunteer military is having trouble meeting its recruiting goals -- hardly surprising, given two major, exceedingly hard wars in which victory, however defined, remains frustratingly out of sight -- but also that the military is nonetheless close to meeting those goals? Admittedly, recruiting standards have been relaxed, signing bonuses increased, and waivers and promotions liberally granted. Even so, our military is not just signing up the rural poor, urban dead-enders, or knuckle-dragging hayseeds (though some critics seem to think otherwise, judging by the unfortunate title of a recent piece in Slate, "Dumb and Dumber"). The comment by John Kerry in 2006, to the effect that students who can't make it in college end up "stuck in Iraq," struck many Americans as grossly unfair precisely because military service still remains a proud first-choice for many young Americans.

If the operating equation is military = bad, are we not effectively excusing ourselves or our children from any obligation to serve -- even any obligation simply to engage with the military? Indeed, are we even patting ourselves on the back for the wisdom of our non-choice and our non-participation? Rarely has a failure to sacrifice or even to engage come at a more self-ennobling price -- or a more self-destructive one for progressive agendas.

William J. Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF). He has taught cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy, officers at the Naval Postgraduate School, and currently teaches at the Pennsylvania College of Technology. He is the author of Hindenburg: Icon of German Militarism, among other books. He may be reached at wastore@pct.edu.

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