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U.S. Marines unfurled an American Flag across the field during a pre-game ceremony before the New York Jets vs New England Patriots game, Nov. 13, 2011. (Photo: Official Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Randall A. Clinton)

The Militarization of Culture: A Short History

Tom Valovic

Are you interested in patterning your dietary and culinary habits after the chefs that serve CIA officers and staff? I’m guessing probably not. But the well-known and well-advertised education purveyor Great Courses seems to think so. You’ve probably seen their ads in major news magazines. The company sells and promotes a self-help smorgasbord of books and DVDs on a wide range of topics ranging from Western philosophy to Tai Chi to neuroscience.

It’s all good. Well not quite: I have to confess I was taken aback by seeing their ad in The Week magazine with a large tagline that read: “Master the Art of Cooking with an Expert CIA Chef”.  Reading down a little further, there’s little explanation of why anyone would actually want to do such a thing except for a vague promise to “tell us the secrets of CIA trained chefs”. (Perhaps one of the secrets is to always have your food tasted before dining?)

While an ad like this seems a bit bizarre, it isn’t completely a fluke. Rather it’s part of a trend towards the militarization of culture that’s been going on for years and is now in full bloom. I’m not just talking about police forces across the nation that now look like full-fledged paramilitary units. This is more about the values of ordinary Americans. A kind of “military chic” is a subtle but unmistakable trend, increasingly woven into the fabric of everyday life.

What’s behind this glorification of military values? As someone living in Massachusetts who has written about social trends, I’ll share some of my observations. In the years that followed 9/11, Hummers began to appear on the roads, 7 ton fashion statements. After the rise of ISIS, pickup trucks and other vehicles flying large American flags military style could often be spotted in any number of urban areas. Flags proliferated on the front porches of homes in many communities.

I have nothing against patriotism and honoring one’s country. But there’s a distinct difference between patriotism and nationalism. Whereas patriotism is associated with civic duty, love of country and honor, nationalism is patriotism’s dark side. We’ve seen some of it rear its ugly head in the current post-election environment. Nationalism and military values are closely linked, even though the confusing these two with true patriotism is a common mistake.

The Hummers lost favor eventually, mostly, I suspect, for environmental reasons. But the militarization of culture never abated. It’s the little things you can spot here and there. The term “boot-camp” has become popular in educational circles. We now see “yoga boot camps” and educational boot camps for elementary school children.

Then there’s the media barrage. Over the last year, PBS has run a number of documentaries about WWII. Special magazine editions about that war could be spotted in the checkout lines of super markets. In some of the little New England towns across the state, Veterans Day became a week long celebratory event instead of a thoughtful and modest remembrance to honor those slain in battle and a sobering reminder of the steep costs of war.

War is one of the greatest causes of human suffering. That the global community has not learned to avoid them after two horrendous world wars is both sad and profoundly disappointing.  The Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing describes this patterning towards violence as a communicable disease that can be passed along from one person to another. The trick is to resist it and break the chain of strong social conditioning. In spite of its many virtues as a nation, America has long glorified its military as well as the violence attached to it. If we are to ever change the tenor of  political discourse, and stop violence against citizens here in our own country, then all of us will have to change our attitudes towards the use of force, military or otherwise, in the hope of breaking this unfortunate cycle.


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Tom Valovic

Tom Valovic

Tom Valovic is a journalist and the author of Digital Mythologies (Rutgers University Press), a series of essays that explored emerging social and political issues raised by the advent of the Internet. He has served as a consultant to the former Congressional Office of Technology Assessment. Tom has written about the effects of technology on society for a variety of publications including Columbia University's Media Studies Journal, the Boston Globe, and the San Francisco Examiner, among others.

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