Dear academic friends: Please help! A friend of mine is seeking texts for a student (see his query below):
Can you think of a good text in the modern American context that would help my student (and me) learn about the tension between orthodoxy and dissidence that is not so removed from her own experience and reading? I think TV and other tools of cultural, political, and intellectual homogenization create the impression that “we are one”, that the counter-culture on the left and right are simply insane, whacko. What would represent orthodoxy or the mainstream? Barack Obama’s autobiography? Something by Thomas Friedman? The counter narrative? Cornell West? Glen Beck? Maybe you can think of relevant films?
I thought that this was an interesting, but poorly framed, query. As I wrote in response:
I don’t think most people in this country feel they belong to a consensual center, beset by whackos, left and right. I think that view–which is, roughly, the Tom Friedman view–belongs to a neoliberal, self-understood “center” that represents a tiny minority of the public (though a big chunk of the policy elite). More people, I think, see themselves as representing some version of “real America” with whackos besetting them from only one side (left or right, depending on which real America we’re talking about). I find it difficult to discover any kind of actual consensual “center” in American culture today…except for things that are to us as water is to fish (necessary but invisible), e.g. the English language and capitalism itself, i.e. stuff we take for granted, not things that appear in particular books or movies.
But, in fact, there is at least one thing that does form something like a consensual center to American culture today: an abiding faith in the military. Americans disagree about what our military role should be in Afghanistan. We are deeply divided about the proper level of military spending and even about our state of military readiness. But the military remains far and away the most trusted institution in American life.
Since 1973, Gallup has conducted an annual survey of public confidence in fifteen key institutions. Since the mid-1980s, the most trusted institution has been the military. In the most recent survey, taken about eleven months ago, 78% of those surveyed had “a great deal of” or “quite a lot of” confidence in the military. Sixteeen per cent had “some” confidence in the military. Only 3% had little or none. While confidence in most institutions is well below historical averages, confidence in the military is 11% higher than average.*
As we celebrate Memorial Day, I think this particular cultural orthodoxy bears some further consideration.
Trust in the military as an institution is not at all support for any particular U.S. military action. Indeed, most Americans want to see us out of Afghanistan. Nor is it the same thing, necessarily, as “supporting the troops,” though in fact, Americans today overwhelmingly do this (or at least pay lip service to doing this).
Historically Americans have often expressed solidarity with those in the military while questioning the institution of the military itself. During World War II, Bill Mauldin’s iconic cartoons of frontline soldiers lampooned and criticized army brass as consistently as they celebrated the men-in-arms. And although often falsely remembered as expressing simple hatred toward soldiers, Vietnam-era anti-war activists frequently reached out to men in uniform and encouraged them to revolt against the military.
The most famous example of this kind of activism may be Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland’s F.T.A. Show, a kind of counter-USO show that toured (just outside) U.S. military bases in the Pacific in 1971. F.T.A. (the title stood for a variety of things, including “Free Theater Associates,” “Free the Army” and “Fuck the Army”) was made into a documentary film that was released in ’72 and apparently swiftly suppressed; tellingly, it was recently rereleased and largely ignored:
But of course today’s military is rather unlike the Vietnam-era military. As the former Dartmouth President and Marine Corps veteran James Wright notes in his new book “Those Who Have Borne the Battle” (reviewed by Andrew Bacevich in this week’s New York Times Book Review), having for most of our history fought major wars with militaries composed of male citizens conscripted during wartime, the U.S. departed from this pattern during the last century, first by adopting peacetime conscription as a readiness measure in 1940, and then by going to an All-Volunteer Force in the 1970s. The volunteer military finally put an end to the citizen-soldier tradition already badly strained by the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Though the Vietnam-era draft was far from socially equitable, the post-Vietnam, volunteer military is more socially discrete and disconnected from large parts of U.S. society than any wartime military in America’s past.
As Bacevich notes (quoting Wright):
In places like Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States still fights ambiguous no?win wars in pursuit of elusive objectives. Yet in contrast to the reaction to Vietnam, the public finds these conflicts tolerable. Not required to serve or to sacrifice (or even to cover the costs incurred), Americans have effectively off-loaded responsibility for national security onto a small warrior elite, whose members, according to Wright, “are embraced as heroes, even as we do not really know them.”
Although he readily admits that he does not know how to change this situation, Bacevich has long argued that endless war fought by a small, warrior class is a very dangerous thing, both for the world at large and for the United States.
On this Memorial Day, rather than joining in the celebration of this warrior elite — as Charlie Pierce recently noted in an excellent post criticizing this emergent military aristocracy, “every day these days, apparently, is Memorial Day”– let me suggest a heterodox approach to this holiday: use the various pious invocations of our military that you encounter as occasions to question how we got here and to think about ways in which we might think differently about both the military as an institution and the people who it employs. Like Bacevich and Wright I don’t think there are any easy answers to how we get out of the situation we’re in. But the first step is to realize that we have a problem.
And to return to Andrew Hartman’s friend’s fbleg, let me close by suggesting a film that embodies a countercultural view of these matters: Paul Verhoeven’s brilliant satire of militarism, Starship Troopers (1997), currently available on Netflix instant view. Having missed it when it came out, I finally saw it a couple weeks ago and it far exceeded my expectations. Verhoeven is, to say the least, an uneven filmmaker. At the time of its release, audiences and critics apparently did not entirely understand that the film was satirical, a failure that’s especially surprising given the great success of Verhoeven’s equally satirical Robocop a decade earlier. But while Robocop clearly laughs at its characters, Starship Troopers is much more deadpan. The film’s own (apparent) attitude to its material, which is in many ways pretty typical of militarized space operas, is itself an object of satire.** In a way, audiences’ failure to get Starship Troopers’ satire was a measure of its timeliness.
Have a happy Memorial Day, everyone!
* Small business finished second with 64% in the “great deal” / “quite a lot” category; the police were third at 56%. All other institutions scored under 50%, with organized labor (21%), big business (19%), HMOs (19%), and Congress (12%) at the bottom of the list.
** Sometimes the film is described as a satire of fascism, but I think this, too, misunderstands Starship Troopers. Certainly Verhoeven is playing with the rhetoric of fascism, but the world government and its military depicted in Starship Troopers, and the film itself, mix-and-match the look and feel of classical fascism with very American tropes.