Through the fog of jet lag, after a grueling international flight, and through my NRR 32db earplugs, I heard the pilot utter these words in his in-flight, holiday weekend announcement: Freedom isn’t free. I glanced at my fellow passengers, most of whom seemed to be nodding in silent and solemn affirmation, hearts beating red, white and blue with nationalistic fervor.
This trite phrase, which most US Americans consider as American as motherhood and apple pie, even has its very own Wikipedia entry: a popular American idiom used widely in the United States to express gratitude to the military for defending personal freedoms.
After arriving at my destination, I was greeted with this banner announcement, decked out in the obligatory red, white and blue, punctuated by a gigantic US flag undulating in the wind: To all the men and women serving our country in the military, thank you for your commitment, loyalty and courage in defending our country’s freedoms. Welcome Home!
Defending our country’s freedoms. What freedoms, I wondered? Freedom to pursue a policy of missionary nationalism that has resulted in the death, injury and dislocation of millions of people around the globe and the destruction of their societies, e.g., Iraq? Freedom to declare war on other countries based on lies and deceit for no other reason than the US can, i.e., because “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality,” in the words of Karl Rove, President George W. Bush’s deputy chief of staff? It seems as if the compulsion to destabilize, overthrow, invade and occupy (and “re-invade”), to hell with the obscene human and financial cost, has become a part of the nation’s political DNA that transcends conventional labels.
Or, is it the freedom of US defense contractors and ancillary companies to reap billions of dollars of profits by creating better and more high-tech ways to kill people, including through the use of drones, a form of state-sanctioned murder from the sky, don’t mind the collateral damage?
Thinking of the not-so-distant past of the country I now call home, exactly which freedoms were defended in the American War in Viet Nam in which 3.8 million Vietnamese were murdered in a span of 12 or so years, and in which body count, any dead Vietnamese body, was a metric for progress? The end of the war, the liberation of Saigon, in April 1975, marked the implosion of a US client state, freedom from foreign occupation and the restoration of sovereignty to a nation that would have been unified in 1956 had the US not intervened and propped up the southern half of what was supposed to have been a temporarily divided Viet Nam.
When all was said and done, what exactly did the 58,300 US Americans whose names are inscribed on The Wall die for? (Hint: This is a rhetorical question.) It was none other than John Kerry, current US Secretary of State and Vietnam veteran, then Lt. John Kerry, who asked this poignant question in April 1971 testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” (Amazingly, it was Secretary of State John Kerry, who said the war was a “most profound failure of diplomatic insight and political vision” during an August 2015 visit to Viet Nam to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations between the two countries.)
What about the freedom of peoples around the world to live their lives in peace – without outside interference and meddling – and with at least a modicum of prosperity?
Freedom From AKA Why Do They Hate US?
Freedom from what? The legion of enemies that the US has created around the world, including ISIS, which the US itself helped to create? Why is it that the United States of America was singled out as the world’s greatest threat to world peace in a 2014 Win/Gallup poll that surveyed nearly 66,000 people in 68 countries? While 24% chose the USA, Pakistan ranked a distant second with 8%. Contemporary world opinion echoes what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said in his first antiwar speech on April 4, 1967 at the Riverside Church in New York City, a year before he was silenced by an assassin’s bullet, about his country’s government being “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.”
Benjamin Dangl wrote about the true colors of US policy and its human fallout in an article published last year entitled Disassembling the Empire – Why the US is the Biggest Threat to World Peace:
But after considering the trail of blood, coups and bombs that continues to follow the U.S. flag wherever it flies, it’s safe to say that the U.S. is exceptional in many things; liberty and justice are not among them.
Take the following statistics: Roughly 405,000 people have been killed as a result of the violence and infrastructure damage of the U.S.-led War in Iraq….The U.S. leads the world in military spending, with more than $7.6 trillion spent on the military and homeland security since 9/11.
The last war that I can recall in which certain freedoms were at stake and which the US belatedly and reluctantly entered because of a certain seismic event that occurred on December 7, 1941, was that of my parent’s generation.
What about freedom from the prying eye of the state, the gutting of the US Constitution that has occurred with a vengeance since 9/11, which was itself a tragic and costly example of blowback, and the ascendancy of the surveillance state?
America’s Love Affair with Its Military
Very few countries in the world idolize and fawn over their military like the US. I knew one young US American man whose childhood dream was to become a sniper. His dream came true when he enlisted in the Marines, completed his basic training, and was deployed to Afghanistan, where he was given the chance to practice the “profession” to which he aspired. Video games become reality. A Chris Kyle clone killing the bad guys and “defending America’s personal freedoms,” or so he and those of his ilk (most US Americans, I fear) are fond of believing.
US political leaders compete with each other to see how much praise they can heap upon the military, which should be, after all, a means to an end, a last resort, not the soul of a nation. In his Presidential Proclamation for Armed Forces Day 2015, yet another holiday in honor of the nation’s military, President Obama recites a familiar mantra about celebrating “the women and men who make our military the greatest fighting force the world has ever known.” (my italics)
Incredibly, Obama outdoes himself by drawing a straight historical line from the Revolutionary War to the wars of the post-9/11 period with the obligatory references to liberty, freedom and “our way of life” sprinkled in: From Lexington and Concord to Iraq and Afghanistan, brave women and men have fought to defend the blessings of liberty and freedom and to protect the way of life we cherish. What way of life would that be?
There’s not only Military Appreciation Month in the US, there’s also Military Appreciation Day or, as it often the case, Days. This is described as any event intended to express appreciation for men and women currently (and sometimes formerly) in military service.
In an August 2016 speech at the National Convention of the American Legion, Hillary Clinton played the nationalist card by professing her belief in the USA as the greatest nation on earth with a moral obligation to be the preeminent global leader. According to the gospel of Hillary, one of the reasons America is indispensable is in part because “we have the greatest military in history, with the best troops, training and technology.” At what cost and, more importantly, to what ends?
(Her speech and a subsequent TIME essay entitled Why America Is Exceptional, was also an obvious attempt to score some brownie points against her opponent, who is not seen as red, white, and blue enough because he doesn’t march in lockstep with Clinton and other adherents of US exceptionalism.)
This perverse worship of the military, reminiscent of past empires, borders on fetishism. Words like “hero” and “honor” have been cheapened beyond recognition. Phrases like “Thank you for your service” are doled out like candy to returning “warriors”. Vietnam combat veteran Camillo Mac Bica had this bit of advice for people who spout this phrase like automatons: …please do not thank me for ‘my service’ as a United States Marine. I make this request because my service, as you refer to it, was basically, either to train to become a killer or to actually kill people and blow shit up.
Is there any sane reason why the US government needs to spend 54% of its 2016 federal budget, or $625.2 billion, on the military? (This includes the millions that the Pentagon spent on half-time tributes to the US military at NFL games.) Added to that is the significant and rising cost of veterans’ benefits, which amount to $70.5 billion, or 6% of the total budget. That’s a whopping 60% of the federal budget spent on America’s global military parade and the cost of scooping up the shit at the end of that bloodstained parade.
What does it mean to be a veteran in the US these days? Aside from PTSD, homelessness and suicide (22 per day, a conservative estimate from the Department of Veterans Affairs) that stalk so many, there are ubiquitous signs welcoming you home and thanking you for your service, priority boarding privileges offered by some airlines, bumper stickers that exhort fellow drivers to “support the troops,” restaurant discounts, special mortgages, etc. Of course, none of this can compensate for the fact you were played and used, and that whatever you thought you were defending, it certainly wasn’t a country’s freedoms or its way of life.
Another Political Santa Claus
Freedom isn’t free is just another political Santa Claus that many US Americans happily and naively believe in. It is an empty, meaningless cliché, a choice slice of cultural mythology that serves to justify somehow, on some level, the never-ending string of imperial misadventures that have resulted in a state of permanent war much like the faux “war on terror”.
Freedom isn’t free gives people something to cling to because the reality, the unvarnished truth, would result in a massive case of cognitive dissonance. To question and dissect it would be to dissolve the ideological glue that unites the majority of US Americans. Perhaps this myth would be replaced by something more humane and more real but the reprogramming and reorientation process that leads from point A to point B would not be a pretty sight. Overcoming the past a la Vergangenheitsbewältigung never is. Just ask the Germans who, by the way, succeeded in grand fashion.
US Über Alles?
The world view, embodied by the slogan “Freedom isn’t free”, and the swamp in which it festers, is a symptom. The disease is nationalism, defined as loyalty and devotion to a nation; especially a sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups. In layman’s terms, “We’re Number One!”, notwithstanding a Mount Everest of evidence to the contrary, and the obvious fact that every country has its own good, bad, and ugly.
In a 2006 article entitled Diagnosing the U.S. ‘national character’: Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Robert Jensen, a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, observed that if we treated the US as a person one condition from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association would stand out: Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
The disorder is described by the DSM as “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy” that can be diagnosed when any five of these nine criteria are met:
1/ a grandiose sense of self-importance.
2/ preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
3/ believes he or she is special and unique.
4/ requires excessive admiration.
5/ sense of entitlement.
6/ interpersonally exploitative, taking advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends.
7/ lacks empathy.
8/ often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.
9/ shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.
Which five (5) do you think apply? As Jensen points out, the US doesn’t have a monopoly on narcissistic tendencies “but given the predominance of US power in the world, we should worry most about the consequences of such narcissism…”
America is neither “exceptional” nor is it a city upon a hill but rather “a mortal nation among other nations,” in the words of Anatol Lieven, author of America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism. To ignore this reality, or to embrace the myth of US exceptionalism, is to be complicit in the continued downward spiral of the US and the brutal price that US Americans and non-US Americans alike are being forced to pay.
Mark A. Ashwill is the author of Vietnam Today: a Guide to a Nation at a Crossroads. He lives in Hanoi.