Dear America: You’re in the Army Now

By William J. Astore

I spent four college years in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) and then served 20 years in the U.S. Air Force.  In the military, especially in basic training, you have no privacy.  The government owns you.  You’re “government issue,” just another G.I., a number on a dogtag that has your blood type and religion in case you need a transfusion or last rites.  You get used to it.  That sacrifice of individual privacy and personal autonomy is the price you pay for joining the military.  Heck, I got a good career and a pension out of it, so don’t cry for me, America.

But this country has changed a lot since I joined ROTC in 1981, was fingerprinted, typed for blood, and otherwise poked and prodded. (I needed a medical waiver for myopia.)  Nowadays, in Fortress America, every one of us is, in some sense, government issue in a surveillance state gone mad.

Unlike the recruiting poster of old, Uncle Sam doesn’t want you anymore — he already has you.  You’ve been drafted into the American national security state.  That much is evident from Edward Snowden’s revelations. Your email?  It can be read.  Your phone calls?  Metadata about them is being gathered.  Your smartphone?  It’s a perfect tracking device if the government needs to find you.  Your computer?  Hackable and trackable.  Your server?  It’s at their service, not yours.

Many of the college students I’ve taught recently take such a loss of privacy for granted.  They have no idea what’s gone missing from their lives and so don’t value what they’ve lost or, if they fret about it at all, console themselves with magical thinking — incantations like “I’ve done nothing wrong, so I’ve got nothing to hide.”  They have little sense of how capricious governments can be about the definition of “wrong.”

Consider us all recruits, more or less, in the new version of Fortress America, of an ever more militarized, securitized country.  Renting a movie?  Why not opt for the first Captain America and watch him vanquish the Nazis yet again, a reminder of the last war we truly won?  Did you head for a baseball park on Memorial Day?  What could be more American or more innocent?  So I hope you paid no attention to all those camouflaged caps and uniforms your favorite players were wearing in just another of an endless stream of tributes to our troops and veterans. 

Let’s hear no whining about militarized uniforms on America’s playing fields.  After all, don’t you know that America’s real pastime these last years has been war and lots of it?

Be a Good Trooper

Think of the irony.  The Vietnam War generated an unruly citizen’s army that reflected an unruly and increasingly rebellious citizenry.  That proved more than the U.S. military and our ruling elites could take.  So President Nixon ended the draft in 1973 and made America’s citizen-soldier ideal, an ideal that had persisted for two centuries, a thing of the past.  The “all-volunteer military,” the professionals, were recruited or otherwise enticed to do the job for us.  No muss, no fuss, and it’s been that way ever since.  Plenty of war, but no need to be a “warrior,” unless you sign on the dotted line.  It’s the new American way.

But it turned out that there was a fair amount of fine print in the agreement that freed Americans from those involuntary military obligations.  Part of the bargain was to “support the pros” (or rather “our troops”) unstintingly and the rest involved being pacified, keeping your peace, being a happy warrior in the new national security state that, particularly in the wake of 9/11, grew to enormous proportions on the taxpayer dollar.  Whether you like it or not, you’ve been drafted into that role, so join the line of recruits and take your proper place in the garrison state. 

If you’re bold, gaze out across the increasingly fortified and monitored borders we share with Canada and Mexico.  (Remember when you could cross those borders with no hassle, not even a passport or ID card?  I do.)  Watch for those drones, home from the wars and already hovering in or soon to arrive in your local skies — ostensibly to fight crime.  Pay due respect to your increasingly up-armored police forces with their automatic weapons, their special SWAT teams, and their converted MRAPs (mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles).  These vintage Iraqi Freedom vehicles are now military surplus given away or sold on the cheap to local police departments.  Be careful to observe their draconian orders for prison-like “lockdowns” of your neighborhood or city, essentially temporary declarations of martial law, all for your safety and security. 

Be a good trooper and do what you’re told.  Stay out of public areas when you’re ordered to do so.  Learn to salute smartly.  (It’s one of the first lessons I was taught as a military recruit.)  No, not that middle-finger salute, you aging hippie.  Render a proper one to those in authority.  You had best learn how.

Or perhaps you don’t even have to, since so much that we now do automatically is structured to render that salute for us.  Repeated singings of “God Bless America” at sporting events.  Repeated viewings of movies that glorify the military.  (Special Operations forces are a hot topic in American multiplexes these days from Act of Valor to Lone Survivor.)  Why not answer the call of duty by playing militarized video games like Call of Duty?  Indeed, when you do think of war, be sure to treat it as a sport, a movie, a game.

Surging in America 

I’ve been out of the military for nearly a decade, and yet I feel more militarized today than when I wore a uniform.  That feeling first came over me in 2007, during what was called the “Iraqi surge” — the sending of another 30,000 U.S. troops into the quagmire that was our occupation of that country. It prompted my first article for TomDispatch.  I was appalled by the way our civilian commander-in-chief, George W. Bush, hid behind the beribboned chest of his appointed surge commander, General David Petraeus, to justify his administration’s devolving war of choice in Iraq.  It seemed like the eerie visual equivalent of turning traditional American military-civilian relationships upside down, of a president who had gone over to the military.  And it worked.  A cowed Congress meekly submitted to “King David” Petraeus and rushed to cheer his testimony in support of further American escalation in Iraq.

Since then, it’s become a sartorial necessity for our presidents to don military flight jackets whenever they address our “warfighters” as a sign both of their “support” and of the militarization of the imperial presidency.  (For comparison, try to imagine Matthew Brady taking a photo of “honest Abe” in the Civil War equivalent of a flight jacket!)  It is now de rigueur for presidents to praise American troops as “the finest military in world history” or, as President Obama typically said to NBC’s Brian Williams in an interview from Normandy last week, “the greatest military in the world.”  Even more hyperbolically, these same troops are celebrated across the country in the most vocal way possible as hardened “warriors” and benevolent freedom-bringers, simultaneously the goodest and the baddest of anyone on the planet — and all without including any of the ugly, as in the ugliness of war and killing.  Perhaps that explains why I’ve seen military recruitment vans (sporting video game consoles) at the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.  Given that military service is so beneficent, why not get the country’s 12-year-old prospects hopped up on the prospect of joining the ranks?

Too few Americans see any problems in any of this, which shouldn’t surprise us.  After all, they’re already recruits themselves.  And if the prospect of all this does appall you, you can’t even burn your draft card in protest, so better to salute smartly and obey.  A good conduct medal will undoubtedly be coming your way soon.

It wasn’t always so.  I remember walking the streets of Worcester, Massachusetts, in my freshly pressed ROTC uniform in 1981.  It was just six years after the Vietnam War ended in defeat and antiwar movies like Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, and Apocalypse Now were still fresh in people’s minds.  (First Blood and the Rambo “stab-in-the-back” myth wouldn’t come along for another year.)  I was aware of people looking at me not with hostility, but with a certain indifference mixed occasionally with barely disguised disdain.  It bothered me slightly, but even then I knew that a healthy distrust of large standing militaries was in the American grain.

No longer.  Today, service members, when appearing in uniform, are universally applauded and repetitiously lauded as heroes.

I’m not saying we should treat our troops with disdain, but as our history has shown us, genuflecting before them is not a healthy sign of respect.  Consider it a sign as well that we really are all government issue now.

Shedding a Militarized Mindset

If you think that’s an exaggeration, consider an old military officer’s manual I still have in my possession.  It’s vintage 1950, approved by that great American, General George C. Marshall, Jr., the man most responsible for our country’s victory in World War II.  It began with this reminder to the newly commissioned officer: “[O]n becoming an officer a man does not renounce any part of his fundamental character as an American citizen.  He has simply signed on for the post-graduate course where one learns how to exercise authority in accordance with the spirit of liberty.”  That may not be an easy thing to do, but the manual’s aim was to highlight the salutary tension between military authority and personal liberty that was the essence of the old citizen’s army.

It also reminded new officers that they were trustees of America’s liberty, quoting an unnamed admiral’s words on the subject: “The American philosophy places the individual above the state.  It distrusts personal power and coercion.  It denies the existence of indispensable men.  It asserts the supremacy of principle.”

Those words were a sound antidote to government-issue authoritarianism and militarism — and they still are.  Together we all need to do our bit, not as G.I. Joes and Janes, but as Citizen Joes and Janes, to put personal liberty and constitutional principles first.  In the spirit of Ronald Reagan, who told Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this [Berlin] wall,” isn’t it time to begin to tear down the walls of Fortress America and shed our militarized mindsets?  Future generations of citizens will thank us, if we have the courage to do so.

William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and TomDispatch regular, edits the blog The Contrary Perspective.

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Copyright 2014 William J. Astore

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Related video added by Juan Cole:

RT America: “Militarization turning local police into battle forces”

5 Responses

  1. I see something much more insidious going on here.
    If George C. Marshall and the Generals and Admirals of their day had really believed that military officers were trustees of the nations liberty then we would not have the type of military that we have ruling America today, which is a southern confederacy military. If they had really meant what they said George C. Marshall and the other Generals and Admirals of his day would have chosen officers with the character to place the needs of American society ahead of the phony needs of the US military.
    Instead by 1947 or 1948 we already had the national security state. Since the end of the second world war we have had a military that has not be led by trustees but by parasites at best and mass murderers at worse.
    We had Genralisamo Eisenhower give us a warning about the threat that the military industrial complex posed to our nation in his farewell address. For that he was once a hero of mine.
    But I now see such comments in a different light. He was mocking the American people. He new that the military industrial complex was not a future threat because he new that they were already in control. Had he really believed that the military industrial complex was a potential threat to the American people he would have taken obvious steps to prevent it from posing that threat. Did Gen. Eisenhower or Gen. Marshall take any of the necessary steps to keep the military on a short lease? Is that answer to that question not obvious.
    That answer that is obvious is that in the US military there is and probably always has been one set of standards to show publicly and quite another set of standards to achieve covertly.
    Con men often publicly proclaim to be extremely religious people. They often perform acts of religious devotion. That is exactly what they are acts. The public behavior of con men and of high ranking US military officers is nothing more than an act designed to get people not to question the con.
    Generals might have designed the system but field grade officers maintain it.

    • In fairness, Ike did do things to keep the military on a short budgetary leash which his immunity to normal partisanship in military matters made possible. He knew his successors would not have this immunity; that’s why he made the speech.

      He forced Congress to vote on his budget in one piece, up or down. That prevented his generals from going behind his back to lobby Congress, and Congress from colluding with corporations.

      He also relied on the doctrine of massive nuclear retaliation, which though brutal, meant that he didn’t think he needed anything like the conventional military we have now. The Army was definitely on a short leash.

      Finally, he did eventually begin a detente with the Khrushchev regime, reassured by his spy planes and satellites that he could take the risk. However, the Soviets shot down one of his planes, and he had to keep the satellites secret, allowing JFK to campaign on the fantasy of a Soviet missile threat that Ike (and Nixon) knew was non-existent, but also non-disclosable. When JFK got in, all kinds of new military spending commenced.

  2. I view Eisenhower’s presidential leadership more from the view of what he did not do.

    He could have unilaterally escalated the Korean war well beyond what he inherited from Truman in 1953. Instead, he ended it.

    He could have intervened in Vietnam in 1954 before, during and after Dien Bien Phu. Many in the Congress, State Department, and the Pentagon were eager for us to do so. Eisenhower bravely, and wisely, said no.

    There was considerable pressure on Eisenhower to massively intervene in the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, and thus , to “roll back” Soviet power. Eisenhower again declined.

    When Israel, France, and Britain , invaded and tried to take possession of the Suez Canal and the Sinai, Eisenhower forcefully slapped them down.

    A reasonable case can be made about Eisenhower declining or dampening further US interventions in Laos, Vietnam in 1959-1960, and Cuba.

    How many presidents since Eisenhower would have eagerly acquiesced to pressure from congress and the pentagon. In my opinion, most, if not all.

  3. I see a theme repeated in American history over and over again.
    That of a peace loving president keeping a raging right wing war loving American mob of Generals and Colonels from going to war, or from waging total war in a war that is already in process.
    First there was Truman firing MacArthur, Then there was Eisenhower telling the British and French and Israelis to get out of Egypt. Then there was Kennedy preventing war during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Then Johnson prevented a war against Israel by claiming that the attack on the USS Liberty was an accident, (and built the myth of Israeli independence in the process) Then Nixon went to China. Then Carter did not bomb Iran. Then Reagan did not bomb Iran. Then Bush did not occupy Iraq. Then Clinton made love not war and saved Serbia from destruction which allowed the birth of several new nations. Then Bush did not bomb Iran again. And now we have the peace loving Obama leading our nation to peace in lieu of people like John McCain.
    So we have a 65 year pattern of “reasonable” American presidents acting reasonably despite the wishes of of other powerful extremists in the American government trying to take more aggressive actions.
    But does that not raise a question. Why is it that after 65 years there are still so many lunatics in powerful positions in the US government that the US president can take an extremely right wing position and still look like a moderate when compared with shrieking powerful voices in American society.
    Is this state of affairs the natural state of affairs of a democratic society? Or is this state of affairs a condition that has arisen as a result of the deliberate choices of people who are not interested in educating but of fooling others. Who would these people be that would want to fool others?
    The President of the United States in clearly not one of them is he? The leaders of the military are only servants of the people.
    The leaders of the military certainly can not have more influence than say Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch and the Koch brothers are clearly as bad as they come, correct?

  4. Even the push to get NATO forces to bomb government forces during the Libyan Civil War was a very short sighted position that pays in to the hands of the US MIC. Sure the war in Libya was stalemated and lots of people were dying. Those are the kind of conditions that are needed to lead to a negotiated settlement. In the short run overthrowing Gaddafi no doubt saved some lives. But interventions like the one that happened in Libya make it easier to get launch air strikes now in Iraq because the bar for intervention has been lowered.
    Perhaps legitimate “excuses” can be made for having supported NATO intervention in Libya that are part of some larger game of Go with Chinese rules. But if that were the case the truth needs to eventually be told. Eventually… not today not tomorrow.

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