U.S. Intellectual History Blog

An American Orthodoxy

Last week on Facebook, Andrew Hartman posted the following fbleg from a friend:

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.

14 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Ben,

    I really enjoyed this post. Since I have James Livingston on the mind these days, I wonder what your take is on Livingston’s celebratory treatment of the all-volunteer military as a progressive force in the contemporary US. To wit: “by the 1990s the American military was the most egalitarian social program in the United States. It fulfilled the goals of Lyndon Johnson’s ‘Great Society’ by becoming the most active, even strident, adherent of affirmative action, and in doing so it became the nation’s least racist institution. It fulfilled, in this sense, the goals of the civil rights movement, but meanwhile it provided a portal to education for working-class kids of every kind, of every color” (The World Turned Inside Out, 114).

    • The short answer is that I disagree with Livingston about this. But as is usually the case when I disagree with Livingston, I think his point of view is interesting and needs to be grappled with. Of the top of my head, I’d say that while a case can be made that the military is, when seen from a particular perspective, an enormously successful social program, the scope of that social program is very limited and, in times of war (which is these days most times), this program extracts horrible costs from its “beneficiaries.” Moreover looking at the military from this standpoint fails to take into account the larger place of the military in American life. I don’t think it was the intention of any part of the Great Society to create an aristocracy out of those served by its programs.

    • (Apologies for a too-long reply):

      I agree completely. One of the weirdest moves JL makes. There is a sense in which the US Army, as a quasi-corporation, serves as a progressive force vis-a-vis compliance with corporate regulation and anti-discrimination law, but that reflects more the backwardness of corporate America and the limpness of the law than the progressiveness of the military. (And the killing and dying, as well as the unprosecuted sexual abuse, aggressive machismo, and racism* aren’t so good, either).

      It is interesting to note that the legacy of WWII and “Good Germans” hangs over the heads of at least some veterans of the modern US military, serving as one source of dissonance regarding the near-universal consensus that membership in corporate totalities negates the need to cultivate a sense of personal ethical responsibility (see: the regular articles about the need to re-introduce “ethics” to business schools, the shrug and sigh response to the occasionally floated worry that excessive competition favors sociopaths, and the failure to punish torturers or torture-memo drafters).

      I’m thinking of some discussions I encountered on an ex-marine message board regarding Occupy Wall Street. On a livestream, I saw Occupiers discussing a particularly abusive NYPD cop; I looked him up online, and discovered he was an active participant on this message board. He had argued, in several threads, that, as a cop (and marine), his duty was to carry out orders, and that the abstract rights or feelings of Occupiers were not his concern.

      Whether or not the OWS critique was on-target (an especially poignant point since, as OWS never fails to remind its police antagonists, military and police officers are among those potentially hardest hit by financial malfeasance and austerity policies), if he was told to clear parks and knock heads, that was what he was going to do. The other message-board participants expressed a wide variety of views, including some pointed critiques about the “just following orders” language as reminiscent of Nazi rationalizations. I found that interesting. Would any mainstream newspaper publish such sentiments?

      This is especially relevant, because, as in your Verhoeven examples, Robo-Cop and Starship Troopers, blind obedience to armed authority, and obligatory praise of those who police are 2 sides of the same neo-fascist coin (and 2 components of modern political common sense that should cause anyone who likes democracy to shudder).

      *In case this is controversial: I mean mostly the intellectual racism of military discourse, as is evident from the publicly available Army Chief of Staff’s Professional Reading List: replete with neocon Orientalist nonsense (as well as a shocking number of idiotic business lit self-help titles and Thomas Friedman books, which might be more troubling). In contrast– and I suppose here is a surprising point of agreement with JL–my guess is that the everyday culture of the military rank-and-file is more racially egalitarian than most other areas of American life.

  2. I think the “respect our troops no matter what” thing came out of the first Persian Gulf War. What’s amazing to me, thinking about how I was practically raised (speaking of Donald Sutherland) on MASH episodes—a series which, for uninitiated readers, lampooned military life to no end (and which were indirect satires of Vietnam), is how fast that turn occurred. If we can use the TV series as something of a touchstone, or a barometer, for American attitudes about the military, MASH was still going strong as of the early 1980s (last episode in February 1983). The Persian Gulf War ended in February 1991. So in less than eight years America had flip-flopped in terms of public respect for military life. And not only had our attitudes flip-flopped, but now the service of the troops was sacred. [As I type the word sacred, it occurs to me that Ray Haberski should have excellent commentary here.]

    As for the sources of this sacredness, let me begin by saying that I believe Bacevich is right in lamenting the development and existence of a kind of farmed-out warrior class is a bad thing. I’m not saying that we should militarize our citizenry, a la Israel, but rather that the citizens should be obligated to defend their rights directly and not by proxy (i.e. payment). If we believe that the concept of nation has any value whatsoever—that it protects human rights and conditions—then we ought to commit to defending it.

    When a citizen either has served or may possibly serve, her or his political views change—become more pressing and relevant. The political “arena” cannot be something merely observed by passive spectators. When I can be called to war, to sacrifice my blood, sweat, and tears for the nation, that nation’s politics are _real_ to me. I don’t want to die in a far off land fighting “ambiguous no?win wars in pursuit of elusive objectives.” As such, I’m going to work hard to make sure that I either value or completely understand the situation. This seems to me to be what is lacking in our populace on this “Memorial Day”—an understanding of what goes into making real, true, deep, and lasting sacrifices.

    I’ll get off my soapbox now. – TL

    • I half agree with your chronology here, Tim. I think the Gulf War was the first major conflict fought with the military occupying something like its current cultural place. But I don’t think that conflict created this culture. As I mention above, Gallup polling suggests that the military became our most trusted institution in the mid-1980s (surpassing churches, which the public had had most confidence in before). And I think it’s in the decade-and-a-half after the end of the Vietnam War that you’d need to look to find the roots of this culture. I think you see it in the movies of that period (including such apparently politically disparate movies as THE DEER HUNTER, PLATOON, and RAMBO), in the Reagan administration’s own political theater, even, I think, in aspects of the official bicentennial celebration (whose celebration was a project of the Ford administration). And as I suggest above, I think the All-Volunteer Force is perhaps its keystone.

  3. Ben: nice post! You know this is another of our interests that overlap. I think the PEW poll I cited a while back on the views of veterans (http://pewresearch.org/pubs/2111/veterans-post-911-wars-iraq-afghanistan-civilian-military-veterans) remains quite revealing. One question that has nagged me is if the ascendency of the military in such polls suggests both the lack of an alternative (from civic leaders to religious leaders) and the desire among the public to believe that there is a nation worthy of sacrifice.

    I would recommend to readers to take a look at Stanley Hauerwas’s most recent collection of essays, War and the American Difference and the emerging work of Jonathan Ebel who has one book on WWI (Faith in the Fight: Religion and the American Soldier in the Great War–Princeton, 2010) and is working on G.I. Messiahs: Soldiers, War, and American Civil Religion.

    • What a rich comment, Ray! I haven’t read any of Ebel’s stuff. And I’ve read very little Hauerwas. I’ll look forward to doing so.

      I think the lack of an alternative is important. But I also think that the very notion that sacrifice and discipline for the glory of the nation ought to be the model of citizenship is problematic. While we certainly haven’t found William James’s moral equivalent of war, perhaps we shouldn’t be looking for it in the first place.

  4. It seems that the ties to religion are rather important. According to this AHA post (http://blog.historians.org/news/1636/students-of-history-aha-members-among-new-charlotte-w-newcombe-doctoral-dissertation-fellows), there’s a graduate student at Michigan working pretty directly on religion and the military as an institution — Ronit Stahl, “God, War, and Politics: The American Military Chaplaincy and the Making of Modern American Religion” — while another grad student, Theresa Keeley of Northwestern, has a project called “Reagan’s Gun-Toting Nuns” which might also be relevant to this discussion.

    • I wonder what, if any, correlation exists between particular religious beliefs and confidence in the military as an institution. As I note above, fewer than 50% of Americans today express much confidence in churches as institutions. But Pew polling on religion in the U.S. shows that around 90% of Americans believe in God, 60% believe in a personal God, and roughly 78% consider themselves to be Christian.

  5. I think there’s another aspect to all of this, which Ben’s reply only hints at: For most people, “real America” (whether defined in left-wing or right-wing terms) *is* dissident. Most politically conscious Americans, including the most conservative, do not think of themselves as defending orthodoxy at all (unless being “orthodox” is defined as being right rather than being normal). Even people who perceive themselves as members of a majority always portray it as a silent or oppressed majority, struggling against the ideological strictures of (e.g.) PC academic elites, the managerial class, the clergy, Hollywood, and financiers — which are always portrayed as holding sway over the mass consciousness so that only the few can think clearly. And American mass culture idolizes the self-expressive rebel — an attitude epitomized by Apple’s “Here’s to the crazy ones” (http://youtu.be/dX9GTUMh490), and a more recent ad campaign that used the words of Walt Whitman to sell blue jeans (http://youtu.be/FdW1CjbCNxw).

    Counterintuitively, the adoration of the military is actually a part of this. It’s based in the fiction that the American GI is an ordinary person joining with other ordinary people — usually not especially political people — to fight an insurgency against an overwhelming enemy. Radical Muslims are everywhere! All the elites of Old Europe and East-Coast America are against us! And all we have on our side are average Joes and entrepreneurial engineers taking a stand for what they know in their hearts is right. (As an aside, this is one reason so many Americans identify so strongly with Israel; its early history nurtures the miltarist-underdog myth.)

    For a popular text that gets at some of the consumer-culture elements of this, I’d recommend maybe ‘Commodify Your Dissent’ (edited by Thomas Frank and Matt Weiland). For an academic treatment focusing on early American history, Sacvan Bercovitch’s ‘Rites of Assent’ is actually pretty interesting (and, I think, frequently misunderstood).

    — Jonathan

    • There’s a lot to what you write, Jonathan. Another great book on this very subject (relative to the political right) is Kevin Mattson’s Rebels All!, which deserves more attention that it has gotten.

      I do think, however, that there are elements of self-consciously orthodox thinking among at least some Evangelicals, as well as among those who associate political virtue with the preservation of a political tradition fully formed at the time of the Founding. Although both groups frequently present themselves as a beleaguered minority, they see themselves as defending established truths, embodied in plain-meaning readings of the Bible (preferably KJV) and / or the Constitution.

    • That’s an excellent point. It certainly does make the American right meaningfully different from the American left. I think it’s important, though, that both forms of fundamentalism (aimed at defending the Founding and aimed at defending the Bible) are self-consciously anti-authoritarian. They posit an immediate relationship between the contemporary individual and ultimate authority; the idea here is that this immediate access undermines the pretensions of any other power, including those people who claim to speak for tradition or consensus. The Bible or the Constitution is something *I* can (indeed, must) read and interpret for myself; because of its authority, I don’t have to submit to anything else.

      — Jonathan

    • I’m not sure these twin anti-authoritarianisms are especially similar, though. Take, for example, the heavily Baptist-tinged anti-authoritarianism of American evangelicalism, with its emphasis on soul competency and the plain sense of scripture: it’s still the driving force in shaping the theology of much (dare I say most?) of American evangelicalism, and until a few decades ago, didn’t contribute to anything like the intense political anti-authoritarianism we see today. Radicalism, quietism – sure.

      Constitutional fundamentalism, on the other hand, has become something quite different. During the New Deal, especially, it wouldn’t have been uncommon to find fundamentalist preachers articulating something like a fundamentalist Protestant interpretation of the social role of the Constitution: a clear document, given to a people to interpret, but warped and betrayed by a new class of elites who, by (historical study? higher criticism?) abandoned both the document and the god who gave it. Members of the Fundamentalist old guard, like Carl McIntire, kept this up well into the 70s and 80s, and certainly influenced people like Falwell.

      However, there’s a popular read, heavily influenced by Mormon readings of the Constitution and the founding more generally, which is not only about the plain meaning of the text. I’m thinking, of course, of Cleon Skousen, but also of folks like Jon McNaughton. On the evangelical front proper, I’m thinking of things like the late evangelical attraction to Bastiat. I’m more familiar with this appeal to hidden knowledge in areas apart from politics – it’s especially common in popular evangelical takes on science – but it’s definitely there in constitutional interpretation and political thought, as well, even as it’s (for the most part) notably absent from religious thinking proper.

  6. Regarding the idea of a “military aristocracy,” I am linking to an article in Joint Force Quarterly by Lt. Col. Andrew R. Milburn entitled “Breaking Ranks: Dissent and the Military Professional.” Readers who read closely and ponder the implications of the author’s arguments will be rewarded and chilled. http://www.ndu.edu/press/breaking-ranks.html

    As to a possible tipping point, might I recommend Oliver North’s testimony in front of Congress. the contrast between the “can do” gung-ho Marine with the seemingly impotent gridlocked civilian leadership was quite jarring. Perhaps there is an inverse correlation between working class support of the military which one of the few remaining low cost avenues to college tuition that allows social mobility into the professions versus a government which is seen by the vast majority as representing the interests of a narrow economic elite.

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