Caveman America; or, On the Militarism That Will Someday Kill Us All

The signs of militarism in modern American society are both omnipresent and to a large degree taken for granted. Not only is it politically suicidal to question the collective worship of war, armies, and veterans, it rarely occurs to us to do so.

In an insightful if meandering essay in the New York Review of Books last May, historian Tony Judt showed how exceptional the American experience of war has been in recent times. I will quote extensively, because he says it far better than I can:

In the US, at least, we have forgotten the meaning of war. There is a reason for this. In much of continental Europe, Asia, and Africa the twentieth century was experienced as a cycle of wars. War in the last century signified invasion, occupation, displacement, deprivation, destruction, and mass murder. Countries that lost wars often lost population, territory, resources, security, and independence. But even those countries that emerged formally victorious had comparable experiences and usually remembered war much as the losers did. Italy after World War I, China after World War II, and France after both wars might be cases in point: all were “winners” and all were devastated.


The United States avoided almost all of that. Americans, perhaps alone in the world, experienced the twentieth century in a far more positive light. The US was not invaded. It did not lose vast numbers of citizens, or huge swathes of territory, as a result of occupation or dismemberment. Although humiliated in distant neocolonial wars (in Vietnam and now in Iraq), the US has never suffered the full consequences of defeat. Despite their ambivalence toward its recent undertakings, most Americans still feel that the wars their country has fought were mostly “good wars.” The US was greatly enriched by its role in the two world wars and by their outcome, in which respect it has nothing in common with Britain, the only other major country to emerge unambiguously victorious from those struggles but at the cost of near bankruptcy and the loss of empire. And compared with other major twentieth-century combatants, the US lost relatively few soldiers in battle and suffered hardly any civilian casualties.

This contrast merits statistical emphasis. In World War I the US suffered slightly fewer than 120,000 combat deaths. For the UK, France, and Germany the figures are respectively 885,000, 1.4 million, and over 2 million. In World War II, when the US lost about 420,000 armed forces in combat, Japan lost 2.1 million, China 3.8 million, Germany 5.5 million, and the Soviet Union an estimated 10.7 million. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., records the deaths of 58,195 Americans over the course of a war lasting fifteen years: but the French army lost double that number in six weeks of fighting in May–June 1940. In the US Army’s costliest engagement of the century—the Ardennes offensive of December 1944–January 1945 (the “Battle of the Bulge”)—19,300 American soldiers were killed. In the first twenty-four hours of the Battle of the Somme (July 1, 1916), the British army lost more than 20,000 dead. At the Battle of Stalingrad, the Red Army lost 750,000 men and the Wehrmacht almost as many.


As a consequence, the United States today is the only advanced democracy where public figures glorify and exalt the military, a sentiment familiar in Europe before 1945 but quite unknown today. Politicians in the US surround themselves with the symbols and trappings of armed prowess; even in 2008 American commentators excoriate allies that hesitate to engage in armed conflict. I believe it is this contrasting recollection of war and its impact, rather than any structural difference between the US and otherwise comparable countries, which accounts for their dissimilar responses to international challenges today. Indeed, the complacent neoconservative claim that war and conflict are things Americans understand—in contrast to naive Europeans with their pacifistic fantasies—seems to me exactly wrong: it is Europeans (along with Asians and Africans) who understand war all too well. Most Americans have been fortunate enough to live in blissful ignorance of its true significance.

I find this argument quite convincing. While the twentieth century’s wars taught Europe the horrors of armed conflict, America’s foreign escapades were met mostly with positive reinforcement. Is it any wonder, then, that the U.S.’s military spending was 48% of the world’s total military expenditures in 2008? No other single country exceeded 8%. It is almost tempting to conclude that we will continue down this destructive path until we are taught our lesson in the same way the rest of the world has been.

So how does American militarism manifest itself internally? Through a culture that reveres the virtues specific to war, that thinks in metaphors appropriate to war, and that demands honor for the veterans of war. The first of these three points could be illustrated countless ways, but let’s take the French, or specifically mockery of the French in America. It is an unfortunate habit that, at the slightest provocation, we slander the French in such a self-consciously stupid way as to resist debunking. No one would confuse “cheese eating surrender monkeys” for a witticism, which makes it difficult to argue that it is stupid. But stupid it is. The “surrender” refers to the loss of the Battle of France during World War II; the implication is that, since we “saved France’s ass,” it is now ours to do with as we please. This kind of prison logic should strike anyone who thinks about it as incongruous. Of first world nations, only militaristic America would believe in a dichotomy between chest-thumping and cowardice; only the United States, in this day and age, would conclude that France has not been invading Middle Eastern countries right and left because it doesn’t have the balls.

This third internal manifestation of militarism, the honoring of veterans, is perhaps the most concrete. In the public (especially, but not only, the political) discourse, veterans are the holy cow of American characters. Why is it that so much honor must be paid to them? Perhaps it is because, as is often said, they gave (or at least risked) their lives to defend our freedom (or lives)? But surely this is not the case: it is by no means self-evident that the Vietnam War, the Korean War, the Gulf War, the War in Afghanistan, or the War in Iraq were necessary to defend the freedom or the lives of Americans, let alone the Barbary Wars, the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, the Philippine-American War, the Banana Wars, Reagan’s invasion of Grenada, and so on. Some of these wars were unjust, some were imperialistic, and most if not all were unnecessary. But—clearly this alone does not mean the veterans of these wars should not be honored. The honor supposedly due them, therefore, is not because their sacrifices bought us our freedom.

So should we honor our veterans, or shouldn’t we? Imagine for a moment a “siphonaristic”(1) society, one that reveres firefighters above all else. There is a cabinet-level Department of Firemens’ Affairs, over half of the country’s annual discretionary budget goes towards fighting fires, and firefighters are lauded as embodiments of American virility and power. Now imagine speaking to one of these siphonaristic citizens, and attempting to explain that, while you have nothing against firemen and you’re totally against fires, this may all be a little bit excessive. “What?” the siphonarist asks. “Don’t you support the firefighters? Don’t you think we should honor their sacrifice?”

Perhaps you think I’m being excessive, that I’m exaggerating the extent to which veterans are fawned over in modern America. In that case let me point you in the direction of Governor Mike Huckabee’s speech at the 2008 Republican National Convention, wherein Huckabee told a true story that was difficult (for me) to sit through:

On the first day of school in 2005, Martha Cothren, a teacher at Joe T. Robinson High School in Little Rock, was determined that her students would not take their education or their privilege as Americans for granted. With the principal’s permission, she removed all the desks from her classroom. The students entered the empty room and asked, “Mrs. Cothren, where are our desks?” “You get a desk when you tell me how you earn it,” she replied.

“Making good grades?” asked one student.

“You ought to make good grades, but that won’t get you a desk,” Martha responded.

“I guess we have to behave,” offered another.

“You WILL behave in my class,” Mrs. Cothren retorted, “but that won’t get you a desk either.”

No one in first period guessed right. Same for second period.

By lunch, the buzz was all over campus. Mrs. Cothren had flipped out, wouldn’t let her students have a desk. Kids had used their cell phones and called their parents.

Now, why does Huckabee feel the need to specify here that the kids had cell phones? Even before the days of cell phones, it was possible to call one’s parents from school. Is he just throwing in details to make the story more interesting? Or is there another reason?

By early afternoon, all 4 of the local network TV affiliates had camera crews at the school to report on the teacher who wouldn’t let her students have a desk unless they could tell her how they earned it. By the final period, no one had guessed correctly.

As the students filed in, Martha Cothren said, “Well, I didn’t think you would figure it out, so I’ll have to tell you.”

Martha opened the door of her classroom. In walked 27 veterans, some wearing uniforms from years gone by, but each one carrying a school desk.

As they carefully and quietly arranged the desks in neat rows, Martha said, “You don’t have to earn your desks…these guys already did.

They went halfway around the world, giving up their education and interrupting their careers and families so you could have the freedom you have.

No one charged you for your desk. But it wasn’t really free. These guys bought it for you. And I hope you never forget it. ”

I wish we all would remember that being American is not just about the freedom we have. It’s about those who gave it to us.

Needless to say, the speech was very well received by the Republican delegates.

The punchline of this little anecdote is that we owe veterans a debt that can never be repaid—now not only did they defend our freedom, they in fact gave us our freedom in the first place, and it is no stretch to infer that they (or their self-righteous representative Martha Cothren) can take it away whenever they want to teach us a lesson about gratitude.

We hear this idea all the time, but rarely do we note its basic incompatibility with the values of the Enlightenment, modern conservatism, and, yes, our own Constitution. Freedom is not given by one man to another, or by a group to another group; freedom is a—the—basic human right. Entire ethical systems have been constructed around the premise that “wrong” is that which restricts freedom. If we must be grateful to veterans for our freedom, veterans are truly elevated to a spot rarely held by anyone other than God.

This elevation of veterans high above civilians is familiar from one of interwar Europe’s most bellicose movements. Giovanni Gentile, Mussolini’s “philosopher of Fascism,” wrote in “Origins and Doctrine of Fascism” (1929) about Italy soon after World War I:

“[There arose] those who on the fields of battle believed in the sanctity of sacrifice. On those battlefields more than a half million lives were immolated for an idea [Italian nationalism]. It was they who felt how great a crime it would be if all that bloodshed would one day be seen as having been in vain (as their opponents anticipated). It was they who sought to kindle in the hearts of Italians, and in Italian history, the glory of the victory consecrated by the sacrifice. Among them were those magnificent men who had been mutilated, who had seen death up close, and who, more than other survivors, felt possessed of the right conferred on them by those many, many thousands, who had made the supreme sacrifice, to watch and judge the living.”

This, of course, is the natural end of veteran reverence. They who have worshipped in the temple of war, who have returned intact—or better yet, damaged—from the cleansing testosterone fire of victory, they are not of the same caliber as the weak civilians and draft-dodgers who stayed behind. In fighting and dying for our freedom and equality, they have become more equal than us.

Militarism is fundamentally undemocratic. Furthermore, it is dangerous, both to militarists and to those around them. We have only to look at what happened to Gentile’s movement of “magnificent men who had been mutilated” to find the fate of all militaristic societies. More importantly, we have only to look at what happened to Italy’s weak civilians and draft-dodgers, its socialists and its Jews, to find the fate of all those trampled underfoot in militarism’s mad rush towards its own destruction.

Questions for commenters: Is the siphonaristic society I mentioned above a good analogy? How did America’s militarism determine its response to the September 11 attacks, and how might it have reacted differently? Could any number of Vietnams and Iraqs (assuming Iraq turns out to be a disaster) cure us of our enamoration with war, or would it take a more cataclysmic defeat? If we continue on the path to militarism, does that mean Amtrak will start running on schedule?

(1) Classical Latin did not distinguish between policemen and firefighters, calling them both “vigiles.” Late Latin has “siphonarius” to mean firefighter, specifically the one who supervised and operated the water pumps.


3 Responses to “Caveman America; or, On the Militarism That Will Someday Kill Us All”

  1. “It was they who felt how great a crime it would be if all that bloodshed would one day be seen as having been in vain” — sunk cost fallacy

    – Wilfredo

  2. […] on Militarism In a previous post, I wrote about the largely unquestioned omnipresence of militarism in modern America. Spurred by a […]

  3. I basically agree, but I think there are a couple of additional points:

    First, one reason our politics is so enamored of the military has to do with the aftermath of the 60s. The youth movement of the day was profoundly anti-militaristic, and anti-militarism was a culturally significant feature of our society, for a while. But in the culture wars that followed the 60s, that movement both ate itself and was profoundly beaten by the resurgent “conservatives” (quotes because I don’t really think they are conservative in any consistent sense). The Democrats (i.e., Clinton) regained power in part by themselves (at least verbally) disavowing the anti-militarist 60s creed, so that it could not be used to defeat them. When and if we get beyond this dialectic (when the 60s folks are all gone?), our politics would perhaps be able to reassess the whole militarism issue.

    Second, I do think that there is a logic to honoring veterans. Not only here. In Europe, there are monuments to those who died in WW I (and maybe to vets as well?) almost everywhere, and either the same or new monuments to WW II vets. Fighting against an unjust war is a noble effort, and it should be honored. But it rarely involves the risk of life, and it is not always easy to tell what is an unjust war. Fighting for one’s country in a just war (and maybe even in a morally ambiguous war) does have a certain nobility. If you think that our political system produces results that our society collectively really wants, then our society has collectively decided that the war should be fought. Risking one’s life in order to put into effect that collective decision has a certain nobility. Reminds me of Socrates refusing to flee and drinking the hemlock instead.

    As for the Huckabee story, the correct point is that none of us has created all the good (whether you view this as morally good or materially good) things and good society (insofar as it is good) that we have. Instead, those things are there because there were those who came before us who worked and sacrificed in one way or another to leave them for us. Surely not just soldiers. But soldiers were a part of it.

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