With the festivities, parades, and obligatory social media commentary safely out of the way, it may now be safe to express my growing ambivalence over modern America’s embrace of martial posturing.
From the militarization of our police forces, to “Call of Duty” being played by 100 million gamers, to every guy under sixty in the airport sporting a “tactical” backpack, it’s clear that Americans find a military posture not only increasingly normal but attractive. The subdued American flag patch has replaced the Nike swoosh as the most ubiquitous logo around. Sure, maybe this is all harmless in its way, but I wonder. Are we seeing the symptoms of a Roman-style decadent glideslope toward a disturbing future that venerates force for its own sake rather than as a defensive necessity?
I was reminded of all this at the annual Veterans Day parade, wherein we were treated to lots of pomp and good-natured cheering. But as a pair of Apache helicopters did a slow pass over the heads of squadrons of little kids wearing red berets and chanting marching cadences, I got a chill. How different is this, really, from a May Day parade past the Kremlin? Plenty different, you might argue. There is, after all, a certain innocence about small-town America trumpeting honorifics to its military. And yet, true as that may be, I sense a rumbling warning in the distance.
I’m ambivalent about all this, not in the sense of being uninterested or neutral, but in the original sense. I am genuinely torn between two equally compelling perspectives. On the one hand, it’s comforting and socially cohesive to see a nation pause for a moment to recognize the sacrifices of its military, that sliver of society that has chosen to stand at the gates of the American Way. There is a kind of communal catharsis at play when strangers nod earnestly and say “Thank you for your service.”
On the other hand, there is a tragi-comic strain at play. A meme making the rounds shows two people embracing — the “hugged” staring at the viewer with an awkward, semi-terrified side-eye glance, above the caption, “When someone thanks me for my service.”
It gets at a truth widely understood by most veterans, yet more or less invisible to the rest: The plaudits about “service,” “protecting our liberties,” and the like feel oddly out of joint. It’s awkward. Appreciated, to be sure, but it just doesn’t feel entirely accurate or properly earned.
After all, military service is far from “service” as generally understood. It’s not as if the military volunteers to pick up trash along Main Street. Yes, the military profession can often be difficult, sometimes dangerous, even deadly at times. But so can being a fisherman. Frankly, as these things go, military service is a generally well-paid, safe, and essentially secure lifestyle. There will be the predictable cries that, for the enlisted corps especially, the pay is too low. But of all the folks with a right to complain about low pay for a difficult job, your average school teacher probably has a better case. More damning still, one would be hard-pressed to defend a military action in recent decades that has had a demonstrably immediate connection to protecting our way of life. Most of our adventurism has ended sordidly, and far, far from home.
But all this is something of a sideshow. I’m more concerned with how our current culture of military fetishism fits into projections of our national future. Glorification of the military can go too far if we’re not careful. It may even represent a threat to the very security we expect it to engender.
For the record, that’s probably a long way off. I don’t believe we are at anything near dangerous levels of over-militarism yet. And if the persistent inability of military recruiters to meet their basic quotas is any indication, we’re probably not exactly becoming a Sparta any time soon. And in fairness, there is something to be said for the communal urge to recognize the good and the true and the courageous. But a Caligula always follows a Germanicus, and we could probably stand to tone it down just a little bit, lest we get swept up in our own fervor.
Mark Twain called it the “lie of silent assertion” when cultures get carried away with their own mythologies. He acerbically observed, “… when whole races and peoples conspire to propagate gigantic mute lies in the interest of tyrannies and shams, why should we care anything about the trifling lies told by individuals?”
Indeed. After Veterans Day, we might pause a moment to check ourselves. After the confetti has been swept up and the flags refurled, it may be worth reviewing our national ego. Next year, as we offer our honest salutes to those who have been swept into defensive wars against their wills, let’s pause to remember what, exactly, those were. Next year, as we solemnly memorialize those who volunteered their lives in the face of immediate threats to our liberty, let’s be sure we know exactly what that means. A Republic, “if you can keep it,” as Franklin warned, requires vigilance…from without certainly, but also from within.