Hardly a week passes in which we don’t hear about what the fallout from two disastrous wars is doing to the overextended, overstrained U.S. military, not to speak of the problems the armed forces are facing in retaining and recruiting members. Recently, there have been reports on a startling rise in war-related suicides, figures that “could push the Army’s overall suicide rate to its highest level since [it] began keeping such records in 1980”; on a possible link between the concussions one in six American combat troops suffer from roadside bombs in Iraq and a heightened risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder or a variety of other ailments; on another lowering of recruitment standards (“th! e percentage of new recruits entering the Army with a high school diploma dropped to a new low in 2007…”); on increasingly over-deployed, ill-equipped, ill-prepared Reserve and National Guard units that may be incapable of coping with future domestic crises (“Guard readiness has continued to slide since last March, when the panel found that 88 percent of Army National Guard units were rated ‘not ready…'”); and on the ever more slippery slope downhill in the “forgotten war” in Afghanistan. This is certainly one aspect of the U.S. military equation — the one readers at Tomdispatch are most likely to hear about.
But there is another aspect to this — and it’s important. Retired U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel William Astore last wrote for this site on military officials and right-wing politicians who were preparing their own exit strategies from Iraq in the form of stab-in-the-back theories. Now, he makes clear how striking it is that, under the most demanding of conditions, volunteers still arrive at military recruitment offices in surprising numbers; and, no less significantly, that Americans still trust their military above all other institutions in this society. Consider his canny analysis of what to make of this below. Tom
The Tenacity of American Militarism
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.