I Lagardien
I Lagardien

The spectre of militarisation that haunts the US

The presidential elections in the United States have, so far, presented us with several fascinating matters for discussion, not least of all the fact that for the first time in this country’s history there are a female and a black candidate — both of whom stand a very real chance of actually winning the presidency.

Perhaps the most fascinating issue of all has been the idea that politics in the US is “swinging to the left” nationally and in localities around the country. There may well be some truth in these assertions, but it is worth noting that the cabal that currently runs the country is, quite conceivably, the most right-wing faction that has ruled the US in several generations. So, even a Republican like, say, George Bush Snr, would be to the left of his son, the incumbent George Bush. On this basis it is quite difficult to see a turn to the left — in the traditional sense of, say, the German Social Democrats, or even the Labour Party before the rise of Tony Blair.

Such comparisons can be discussed at another time. What can be said, though, is that the US is a deeply conservative country that, in several ways, belies or at least discredits its self-image as a democratic, “freedom-loving” society. The conservative moorings of society are readily acknowledged by political insiders as well as outsiders in the US. Elsewhere in the world, scholars and thinkers may point to the fact that the US has never sustained a socialist movement, or produced a pre-eminent Marxist thinker such as Rosa Luxembourg or Antonio Gramsci. These claims are all valid. At the street level, among ordinary people living their day-to-day lives, intolerance, repression and increased suspension of civil liberties is evident across the country.

There are assertions, for instance, that the US is beginning to resemble a police state, that the country is edging ever closer to martial law and faced with encroaching fascism. The reference to a police state was made by the colourful Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul: “Is America becoming a police state? The question is no longer rhetorical. We are not yet living in a total police state, but it is fast approaching. The seeds of future tyranny have been sown, and many of our basic protections against government have been undermined. The atmosphere since 2001 has permitted Congress to create whole new departments and agencies that purport to make us safer — always at the expense of our liberty.”

While one should not indulge in the hysteria that sometimes passes for sober discourse, it would be foolish to rule out increased authoritarianism in any country — least of all on the spurious basis that good people can’t turn bad. What is, however, becoming increasingly evident is that the US is being haunted by a spectre of militarism, intolerance and insidious forms of repression.

Militarisation of society
The spectre of militarism is apparent most everywhere. It shouts out aloud from billboards, appealing to young people to join the military, and whispers from signs and symbols, in slogans of pride and prejudice, in reminders of conflicts past, conflicts currently under way and in wars that are, for now, at least, undeclared. Thus stated one driver on the bumper of his car: “I am already against the next war.”

This fear of militarisation “of the home front” is not the exclusive concern of liberals in the US; in 2003, the right-wing Cato Foundation made the point most forcefully. The US military, according to the Cato Foundation study, is “the most effective fighting force in human history”. It is not hard to see how being the “the most effective fighting force” has influenced the society from whence it springs.

The militarisation of the US is a spectre that has haunted this society since at least the end of World War II. Dwight Eisenhower, in his much-publicised Farewell Address to the Nation on January 17 1961, warned his country about the dangers of the “political, economic and even spiritual” influence that the “military establishment [and] industrial complex” could exert on society. Four decades later, at almost most every turn, people in the US are exposed to their militarist self in a barrage of commentary and imagery. Television advertisements urge viewers to buy things such as wallets or wristwatches that were reportedly “designed for Navy Seals” — a special warfare unit attached the US Navy. Exercise equipment, viewers are told, were “inspired” by Navy Seals training. Computer games are named after the Navy Seals.

One television commercial shows two teenagers playing a (military) video game in which a soldier comes to life and asks the kids whether they are prepared to face the real thing … and “take this to the next level” — that being actual warfare. The insidious nature of this militarisation was best summed up by Jorge Mariscal of Project Yano, an organisation of veterans and activists in California that works on the demilitarisation of schools in the US.

“In liberal democracies, in particular, the values of militarism do not reside in a single group but are diffused across a wide variety of cultural locations. In 21st-century America, no one is exempt from militaristic values because the processes of militarisation allow those values to permeate the fabric of everyday life,” Mariscal explained.

The insidiousness of militarisation has a long history in the US. The anthropologist Catherine Lutz explained this militarisation as “an intensification of the labour and resources allocated to military purposes, including the shaping of other institutions in synchrony with military goals”.

Militarisation becomes, therefore, a “discursive process” that involves “a shift in general societal beliefs and values in ways necessary to legitimate the use of force, the organisation of large standing armies and their leaders” and is “intimately connected not only to the obvious increase in the size of armies and resurgence of militant nationalisms and militant fundamentalisms, but also to the less visible deformation of human potentials into the hierarchies of race, class, gender and sexuality, and to the shaping of national histories in ways that glorify and legitimate military action”, Lutz explained.

The cultural critic Henry Giroux explained that as the military becomes dominant in the US, its underlying values, social relations, ideology and hyper-masculine aesthetic begin to spread out into other aspects of culture. Citizens are recruited as foot soldiers in the war on terrorism; individuals and private corporations may be encouraged to spy on their neighbours’ behaviours, identify “suspicious-looking people” and supply data to government sources in the war on terrorism.

“As permanent war becomes a staple of everyday life, flags increasingly appear on storefront windows, lapels, cars, houses, SUVs and everywhere else as a show of support for both the expanding interests of empire abroad and the increasing militarisation of the culture and social order at home.

“Major universities more intensively court the military establishment for Defence Department grants and, in doing so, become less open to either academic subjects or programmes that encourage rigorous debate, dialogue and critical thinking. Public schools not only have more military recruiters, they also have more military personnel teaching in the classrooms,” Giroux explained.

This presence of military personnel, recruiters and veterans is widespread in the US. For example, in 2005 there were an estimated 19-million people “living in the US” who had fought in the country’s wars against others. According to data provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs there were 26 549 704 veterans in the US in 2000. The “global war on terror” has, since September 2006, provided the country with 588 923 veterans. In total, since the US revolution, almost 44-million people have fought in US wars. And recruiting continues …

In late 2005, the Government Accountability Officereported that between 2003 and 2005, the government spent more than $1,6-billion on 343 contracts with public relations firms, advertising agencies, media organisations and individuals. Six companies received more than $1,2-billion in media contracts. Of course not all that money went to recruitment. Expenditures range from the profound to the absurd. Of course the difference between profundity and absurdity is quite narrow. How else would one explain the hundreds of thousands of dollars the air force spent on “prize giveaways” such as Mediterranean cruises or Coca-Cola-sponsored items like T-shirts? This leap from the air force to corporations is, of course, part of a larger process — conducted by accident or design — of the increased symbiosis between the military and society. This process is aided, sometimes overtly, sometimes subtly, by the media. An important aspect of this campaign is the targeting of youth.

This targeting is a purposeful strategy by the Department of Defence, ostensibly to “measure youths’ perceptions of the military and [their] propensity to enlist”, and is conducted twice a year. There may be some hope for the youth: the department’s 2005 Youth Poll found that 62 % of the country’s youth were less likely to join because of the situation in Iraq. Thirty-three percent of youths in the 2005 poll said they received their impressions of the military from TV. On the country’s campuses and in their living rooms children are encouraged to join the military. The television campaign may be understood in the context of what the Department of Defence describes as “the negative impact” that the current war in Iraq has on the decision by youths to enlist.

It should be said, of course, that the militarisation of society is nothing new, nor is it unique to the US. It is reminiscent of earlier periods; most notably in Europe, during the 19th and early 20th century, when, for example, between 1815 and 1860 there developed in Prussia an increasingly symbiotic relationship between the army and society.

The danger in the US is the way in which opposition, or dissent against increased militarisation and war in general, is (in the current climate) considered to be unpatriotic. This too is reminiscent of an earlier period during anti-war campaigns in Weimar Germany when the “war on war” launched in 1924 by writers and artists was brutally repressed — in many cases at the behest of patriotic veterans’ organisations. In the US, today, the repression is much more insidious …

The insidious by-products of militarisation
Militarisation in the US permeates “the political, economic and even spiritual” realms — exactly what Eisenhower warned against in 1961. It predicates social behaviour, and society becomes captive. Freedom to speak your mind becomes contingent on the personal or ideological machinations of the ruling regime. Much like the way we, in South Africa of the 1980s, were accused of hating our country when we criticised the government of PW Botha, criticism of the regime in the US is considered as support for its political opponents. The elision is made, thus, between opponents of the ruling cabal, and “America’s enemies”. Public protest and dissent becomes constrained and, at the extremes, it places limitations on thought that is inconsistent with prevailing orthodoxy.

These constraints have entered classrooms across the country. In some universities, professors are monitored for possible “unpatriotic” lectures; a list was drawn up of the country’s “100 most dangerous professors“. The audacity of this insidiousness is befuddling. In some instances, notions of patriotism are linked to capitalism, Christianity, the “American way” and, conversely, any critical thought becomes unpatriotic. Scholarly intellectual thought becomes constrained, thus, within narrow passages of discourse; there are some things that can be thought and said about the US — and others that may not.

There is some evidence that this intolerance and perverted patriotic zeal runs all the way through the education system. In May last year, a 10-year-old girl was prevented from singing a pop song at her school talent show, because it was “anti-Bush”. In St Helens, Oregon, a man who flew a US flag upside down after 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry lost the election to Bush was attacked by his neighbours and his teenage son received threats at school. Mark Karol-Chick was told: “If you don’t like your country, leave it.” Perhaps the most absurd of all was the geography teacher in Colorado who displayed the flags of different countries in his class — and was forced to leave his job.

Most frightening, of course, is the reality of a president who has been accused of everything from abject stupidity to having been placed in the White House by God, and of developing a personality cult, a charge historically associated with more odious characters such as Mobutu Sese Seko or Adolf Hitler. More frighteningly, George Bush has said that he was told by God to end tyranny in Iraq. Hitler, too, we should remember, considered himself to be on a mission from god. In Mein Kampf, he wrote: “I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator.”

The comparison between the Bush and Hitler has been made before and, to be fair, Hitler was infinitely more evil than any living soul today can aspire to … What can be said, though, is that an innocent in this country may be forgiven for thinking that she has been transplanted back in time, to the eve of Hitler’s Germany (and Austria), when militancy, intolerance, persecution (of artists, socialists, gays and so forth) and patriotism grew organically with Nazism.

Let us go back to the coming presidential election, and the purported swing to the left. There is every possibility that Hilary Rodham Clinton will be the country’s next president. Clinton is considered to be liberal in the US, which basically places her in the company of conservatives in the rest of the world; indeed the left-right spectrum is very narrow in this country. There is, also, every possibility that Clinton will be either unable to or incapable of rolling back the militarisation of the US.

Such is the power of private corporations, in particular, the military industrial complex that Eisenhower warned of, that the Presidency in the US might well continue to remain beholden to corporate interests. One of the defining features of pure fascism. As the father of 20th-century fascism, Benito Mussolini said: “Fascism should more properly be called corporatism because it is the merger of state and corporate power.”

Surely it can’t happen here …