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The Cult of the Military and the Decline of Democratic Values


Alarm bells should be ringing louder than ever in progressive circles as Congress, not content with forfeiting its powers to the unitary executive, has now decided to let the military plan foreign policy. Bush’s interminable and ubiquitous “war on terror” has achieved in six years what almost half a century of the “communist scare” could not: the military is becoming the “fourth branch” of government in America.

In some ways the Petraeus hearings were just another scene in the pro-war theater of the absurd, recalling Colin Powell’s smash hit at the UN and George Tenet’s “slam-dunk” exuberance, and playing to those herds of Americans who wrap themselves in the flag and plaster yellow ribbons on their SUVs and Hummers.

But the hearings were also something else. They were ritual”ritual as in an act or verbal expression performed in deference to a higher authority, in this case, the authority of the military.

In a world where most western nations attempt to maintain some balance between military and social spending, Americans alone are the “true believers” in the cult of the military. For over half a century we have fed the military god more than his share of their GDP while watching our infrastructure crumble, and have allowed that god to rampage through much of the world, leaving behind more than 700 overseas temples, from Germany to South Korea, dedicated to militarism.

The roots of our deference to military authority are deep, but more important are the ongoing rituals that entrench the cult of the military firmly within the American psyche. Of these, the most potent and insidious is the incantation, “support the troops.” These three words may seem to be a simple statement of support for the men and women in uniform. In reality, they say more about the embedment in the American psyche of the cult of the military than could any presidential war speech or Pentagon defense budget.

In fact, in the absence of a legitimate causis belli, “support the troops” has become the glue that binds the American people to the war, and it is no coincidence that, until recently, the dominant cry from the American public has been “support the troops” rather than “stop the war.”

When exposed, “support the troops” is, of course, more rhetoric than a reality. It clashes with every known incidence in which the administration and Congress have ignored the needs of soldiers in battle and at home. From protective armor to veteran health care to humane home leaves, “support the troops” never lives up to its promise. But, then, it’s not supposed to. Its job is not to actually do any good for the troops, but rather to block serious debate about the troops”and the military establishment they represent.

The “troops” have become the “human face” of the military-industrial complex and the moral camouflage for the administration’s war agenda. For this reason, “support the troops” represents an essential dilemma and denial within American culture. Were we to look beyond these human faces, we would have to confront the reality they stand for: the military as an institution that has grown to monstrous proportions, endangered our security by conducting unjust wars, robbed us of our children, squandered our taxes on obscene war technology, and protected the interests of greed-driven multinational corporations.

As Ira Chernus has recently noted,

“`Supporting our troops’ is not about helping individual soldiers to live better lives or, for that matter, making their lives safer. It’s about supporting a morality play in which the lead actor, “our troops,” represents all the virtues that so many believe”or wish they could believe”America possesses, giving us the privilege (and obligation) of directing all that happens on the world stage.”

In other words, “support the troops” feeds the cult of the military and allows Americans to be self-righteous about our global interventions. It has absolutely nothing to do with, well, supporting the troops.

And it has cost the anti-war movement dearly. Liberals continue to become entangled in the contradictions inherent in “support the troops” because they have, as George Lakoff might say, bought into the right wing frame of the war. Brilliantly manipulated by the right, “support the troops” simultaneously puts war critics on the defensive, ties the hands of Congress to cut war funding, questions the patriotism of decorated anti-war veterans, and gives Bush all the photo ops with “the troops” that he needs to consistently snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. “Support the troops” has given Americans the only “moral” agenda for the continuation of the Iraq war, and will likely be used to rationalize and justify future wars in the region (will we attack Iran to “support our troops”?).

The ad by MoveOn (General Petraeus or General Betray Us?) was not nearly as interesting as the responses to it by Congress and the administration. Both the Senate resolution and Bush’s comments against MoveOn attempted to conflate the ad’s criticism of Petraeus with a lack of support for”nothing less than”the entire United States military.

The Senate resolution was insidious in this respect, and Republicans used this variation of the “support the troops” trope to frighten Democrats into voting against freedom of speech, turning against a large part of their base, and condemning one of the few voices of truth left in the “war on terror.” In fact, MoveOn was doing what the Democrats should have done, but didn’t, at the Petraeus hearings”question authority. The “support Petraeus, support the troops, support the entire US military” was the Republicans’ umpteenth use of the “divide and conquer” tactic, yet the Democrats still fell for it hook, line, and sinker.

Bush’s response to the MoveOn ad followed suit: “I thought the ad was disgusting. I felt like the ad was an attack not only on General Petraeus, but on the U.S. Military. Democrats are afraid of irritating a left-wing group like, or more afraid of irritating them, then they are of irritating the United States military.” One wonders just how afraid Americans should be of “irritating the United States military,” and what might the consequences be?

The Petraeus hearings were just the latest example of how the cult of the military, with its centerpiece slogan, “support the troops,” is trampling our democracy to death. Despite ample warnings that the general would give the same old “stay the course” rhetoric based on conflicted and parsed intelligence reports, and despite the fact that the vast majority of Americans want this war to be over, Democrats deferred. Bush preserved his Republican support, bolstered his pro-war agenda in Congress, and reinforced the authority of the military. Subsequent legislation to end the war”none of which proposed cutting war funding because that would “harm the troops””went in favor of pro-war Republicans.

While it seems that the cult of the military has a grip on the American psyche that even a fully-exposed illegal and unjust war can’t shake loose, we must ask the question, How could liberals have countered “support the troops”? Could, for example, a determined and principled support for the Geneva conventions, which forbid torture, have exposed the military’s human rights violations and punctured the blind mantra of “support the troops”? Could an insistence on adhering to the Nuremberg principles, which hold all military personnel accountable for their actions, have made us realize that there’s no such thing as “just following orders” or “just doing my job”? Could the Congress have put principles before polls and exposed the “support the troops” rhetoric for what it was: a cynical tool that exploits military recruits in order to quiet criticism of an illegal war?

Liberals blew it on Iraq, but may still redeem what few democratic values and moral integrity remain by sending a clear message to the executive and legislative branches: that pre-emptive wars against sovereign nations posing no imminent threat are wrong, and we won’t support either the government that starts them or the military that fights them.

The right-wing framing of this war has dominated debate and damaged the anti-war movement. The ritual repetition of “support the troops” is a destructive rhetorical device that will never do what it proclaims, and will insure that future wars are impervious to criticism. The cult of the military will, ironically, be the death of democracy in the land that purports to export it. That we didn’t see this coming may be understandable; but that we continue to allow it to be used to prolong an unjust war is unconscionable.

DONNA SAGGIA is a freelance writer living in Saint Paul, Minnesota. She can be reached at


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