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Micro Militarism

My ATM receipts now tell me, beneath my checking account balance, that the North Carolina State Employees’ Credit Union SUPPORTS THE TROOPS!  The classical music station I listen to runs a dedication to “the men and women of our armed forces, who work so hard to protect us; without their sacrifices, none of our freedoms would be possible.”

When I browse for information about public universities in North Carolina, an ad pops up showing a young man in camouflage combat fatigues, holding a laptop computer.  The text of the ad reads, “Advance Your Military Career with an MBA.”  The ad is for an online MBA program at the University of North Carolina.

A few months ago the home page of my university, NC State, greeted viewers with an image of a young man in the cockpit of a U.S. air force fighter jet.  The text, as I recall, was to the effect that NC State is training tomorrow’s leaders today.  The fall issue of the university’s alumni magazine ran an adoring profile of army general Ray Odierno, a 1986 graduate.

The local weekly independent newspaper, which fashions itself as alternative and leftish, runs a feature called the “social activist calendar.”  Events are grouped under headings such as Community, Environment, Politics, Government, and LGBTQ.  In a recent issue, four events were listed under Troop Support.

Though the requests have abated lately, for a time earlier this year cashiers in grocery stores and gas stations consistently asked if I wanted to donate a dollar to support the troops.

The above are examples of what can be called micro militarism: pro-military practices squeezed into small cultural spaces.  Any one such practice might seem trivial.  Yet on the whole micro militarism does much to normalize militarism on a large scale.

Militarism on a large scale is what the U.S. is all about.  This is militarism on the scale of foreign invasions and occupations; on the scale of maintaining hundreds of military bases around the world; on the scale of drone fleets used to carry out political assassinations wherever the enemies of empire might roam; on the scale of spending half of our nation’s collective wealth every year to pay for weapons and war; on the scale of an economy in which the profits of nearly every major corporation, and many small ones, derive in part from military contracts.

From the standpoint of political and economic elites, militarism on a large scale is a fine thing.  It is how wealth is transferred from the working class to the capitalist class via taxes to pay for “defense systems.”  It is also how U.S. corporations maintain access to raw materials, cheap labor, and markets around the world.  The problem is that, absent the fever of war, large-scale militarism generates popular resistance.

After a while, people begin to wonder why their sons and daughters are being killed and maimed in countries half a world away, countries that have not attacked us and with which we are not at war.  People begin to wonder about the competence and morality of politicians who engage in imperial adventures that seem to have no clear purpose, no clear endpoint, and no clear benefits for anyone who doesn’t stand to make a profit on weapons, military supplies, mercenary services, or someone else’s natural resources.

People begin to wonder why there is not enough money for schools, public transportation, libraries, parks, and health care.  They begin to wonder where our collective wealth is going, and why there is always enough money for the tools of war but not enough for the things that give regular people security and prosperity at home.

Some people also begin to wonder whether invading and occupying foreign countries, and carrying out drone attacks that kill innocent bystanders, might give rise to legitimate grievances, and whether it would be wiser to mind our own business and stop trying to dominate the rest of the world.

To maintain support for militarism on a large scale, people must be propagandized.  They must be made afraid of alleged enemies abroad; they must be told, as often as possible, that the U.S. is, unlike all other empires in history, concerned only about promoting freedom and democracy when it uses military force; they must be led to see military service—of which the essence is obedience, not courageous independence—as noble and heroic.

Some of the cultural practices through which this management of consciousness occurs are easy to see.  The martial-spirited national anthem is sung en masse before sporting events.  Military jets are flown over crowded stadiums.  College basketball games are held on air force bases and aircraft carriers.  Films and TV shows (e.g., “Stars Earn Stripes”) celebrate the skill and virtue of U.S. soldiers.  G.I. Joes and other military toys fill whole aisles in big box stores.

Micro militarism is harder to see.  An individual instance can look like nothing more than an expression of support for people who have given several years of their lives, and perhaps their entire futures, for national service.  The intentions behind many acts of micro militarism are good.  But intentions do not determine consequences.

When militarism is squeezed into the small cultural spaces of everyday life, we are subtly reminded, again and again, that war and violence and soldiering are normal.  We are thus being taught that war and violence and soldiering are not political matters subject to contention or debate.  The message is that war and violence and soldiering are normal parts of who we are and what we do as a people, and anyone who questions this is beyond the pale—unpatriotic, a traitor.

Many of the examples of micro militarism cited earlier are exhortations to support the troops, or assertions that the troops deserve appreciation.  The pervasiveness of these messages creates the impression that supporting the troops is a consensual expectation.  It is simply what good people do.  If you do it, you can feel good about yourself as a right-thinking member of the community, and if you don’t do it, you should feel guilty.

Micro militarism makes it harder to ask, What are the troops doing, on whose behalf, such that we should support them?  Micro militarism also makes it harder to ask, How is it possible that we spend as much on war-making as the rest of the world combined, and yet our troops do not have adequate support?  We are of course not supposed to ask these questions.  We are supposed to equate “the troops” with all things military, then open our wallets while closing our minds.

Micro militarism has another pernicious effect, especially when it takes the form of touting the notion that the troops make great sacrifices to “protect our freedoms.”  The effect is to encourage indifference to atrocities.  If “our boys” are doing a hard, terrible job to protect us, then we ought to cut them some slack if they occasionally make a mistake and blow up a civilian wedding party.  Regrettable, yes; but it’s just the reality of war—a reality that micro militarism leads us to accept as normal.

Professional marketers say that the most effective marketing messages are those not recognized as such.  These messages slip past our conscious defenses.  We’re not on guard, because we don’t realize we’re hearing a sales pitch.  Micro militarism works the same way, going a step farther by getting non-marketers to pick up the feel-good messages—SUPPORT THE TROOPS!—and propagate them uncritically.

So how do we resist?  Awareness is the first step.  We can’t resist micro militarism without recognizing it.  The next step is to call it into question.  What’s difficult is calling micro militarism into question without impugning the motives of those who participate in it with good intentions.  Any implied moral indictment will elicit defensiveness.

Perhaps what we can suggest to our friends and neighbors is that the best way to ensure domestic security and long, prosperous lives for our sons and daughters is to denormalize war and make it harder for political and economic elites to use mass violence in pursuit of their selfish interests.  Perhaps we can find ways to say this sort of thing in gentle and hearable but uncompromisingly firm ways.

Even gentle objections are likely to evoke strong reactions.  Widespread micro militarism implies that a pro-military consciousness has already taken deep root.  Overcoming it will not be easy, and ultimately can’t be done without also changing the political and economic arrangements that make war profitable and limit democracy.  In the short run, however, challenging micro militarism is a way to carry on the struggle to build a more peaceful, egalitarian world, one small objection at a time.

Michael Schwalbe is a professor of sociology at North Carolina State University.  He can be reached at MLSchwalbe@nc.rr.com

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Michael Schwalbe is a professor of sociology at North Carolina State University. He can be reached at MLSchwalbe@nc.rr.com

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