More on Militarism

In a previous post, I wrote about the largely unquestioned omnipresence of militarism in modern America. Spurred by a New York Times op-ed by Gary Wills from January 2007 (“At Ease, Mr. President”), Salon contributor Glenn Greenwald wrote a long post on his blog, “Public servant v. Military Commander,” that is well worth reading. Wills and Greenwald, like others before them, argue that the use of the phrase “commander in chief” to refer to the President in civilian contexts is a sign of militarism. They are absolutely right.

The President is the commander in chief of the military. If you are not in the military, you do not have a commander in chief. As is documented in the Times op-ed and the blog post, much of the military ceremony that now surrounds the President (the salutes, the “commander in chief”-dropping) stems from the Nixon and Reagan years. Eisenhower, a war hero himself, refused to return salutes while President. Civilians do not salute.

The debate over torture during the Bush years (of which we can now effectively speak in the past tense) provided further examples of militaristic thinking. The case for torture, of course, was always made from the point of view of the military: we must use any means necessary to protect our own, we must not tie the hands of our interrogators. The idea that just anyone can question the decisions of someone other than a subordinate, after all, is found in civic life, not military life. But often the arguments against torture are also phrased in terms of military virtues: we may be endangering our soldiers by obtaining incorrect information from torture, or by provoking more attacks or harsher treatment against ourselves. Of course the argument is also heard that it is inhumane, that we do not do that, and it is that argument that I find most convincing by far. Still, it is significant that the military-oriented argument is heard so often. Perhaps those using it are merely clothing a civic demand in military language, but the fact is that they believe they have to resort to such language.

Human rights are a civic idea. In the military, rights extend only to those on your own side.


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