Militarized Nationalism: Pernicious and Pervasive

I live in Duluth, Minnesota, a medium-sized city in what’s considered to be the most “progressive” congressional district in maybe the only “liberal” state in the Midwest. Yet this scenic, quiet city on the shores of Lake Superior is a case study in how classic feel-good American liberalism can coexist with an undercurrent of militaristic nationalism. Seeing how an intricate web of associations, avoidances and obfuscations combine to propagandize and anesthetize the public can offer insight into how it works around the country.

The main vehicle for local militarized nationalist propaganda is the 148th Fighter Wing, one of 440 such bases in the continental US, each of which invades the politics and economics of its surrounding communities. There are no Air Force barracks in Duluth so full-time personnel or reservists are local residents whom one might occasionally see around town dressed in their fatigues. However, such neutral chance encounters are not the primary vehicle for military influence.

Even as I write, local commercial television is full of advertisements for the 2018 biennial Air Show, which happens at the local airport and home of the 148thFighter Wing. As always, the top attractions on the TV spot are military: The Air Force Thunderbirds, the US Army Black Dagger paratroop team, and the Coast Guard Rescue Squad. Vintage military aircraft from past wars fill out the offerings. Kids zone activities include “an inflatable aircraft carrier obstacle course, a Thunderbird bounce inflatable and the extreme air power jump ride!”

Local 5thgraders can also get hooked up to the 148thvia a STEM program, complements of the Air Force.

The official air show web site also lists sponsors, which include one of the area’s two major “nonprofit” hospitals as a “presenting partner.” Money is tight for health care but apparently available to support the highly militarized air show. Local government funds are scarce for roads and bridges but cash to sponsor the airshow comes from St. Louis county and the cities of Duluth and Hermantown. Among business sponsors is a local aircraft manufacturer–one never knows when a military contract might be in the offing. The local NBC TV affiliate is also a sponsor and its particular enthusiasm is likely explained by the fact that the station’s manager is on the military affairs committee of the Duluth Chamber of Commerce, in which capacity he has traveled to Washington D.C. to lobby to keep the 148th supplied with the Pentagon’s latest hardware.

A few months ago, I happened to encounter the newly retired news announcer/journalist of this same TV station, now running for Congress after a sudden conversion to activism following the election of Donald Trump. Over the course of her long career I heard her present numerous “news” items about wounded heroes, the accomplishments of the 148thAir Wing, support for deployed soldiers, the militarized air show, etc. I told her I was a Vietnam era veteran and asked her why there is no investigative journalism about war and the military mission of the 148th. She gave me a warm hug and said, yes, she really needed to start talking about that. Well, checking her official campaign website one finds…nothing.

In fact, there are old comments on her blog–not accessible on the current version of her campaign website–regarding high levels of military spending and what little Americans know of it. But how would they know given the total absence of reporting on such issues by the very TV station which employed her for nearly 30 years? Likewise, she blogs on a memorial service in Vietnamfor the My Lai massacre. Yet her entry focuses only on American veterans “who gave their youth, courage, health and lives in service to our country during Vietnam…” In short, our soldiers are our families and friends here in Duluth, so the unmentionable horrors that happen to other people in US wars are not to be discussed.

This candidate is by no means the exception. There has been virtually no discussion of the 148thor military intervention by any of the candidates for this open Congressional seat. The current holder like liberal politicians everywhere is always supportive of military spending in his own district. A local Fox news report describes him as “an enthusiastic advocate for the 148th Fighter Wing;” he called funding for a new weapons load training facility “wonderful” news; and his weekly Monday Report of 6/18/18 has typical photo ops with the 148thand thanks for the sacrifice of its members.

The local PBS affiliate is right on the same page.  When the Ken Burns Vietnam series came out, local Vietnam era vets were invited to give testimony, but of the three or four Veterans for Peace members interviewed only one was included in the final program and his comments were totally innocuous. Interviewer questions about close calls and homecoming were supposedly seeking “healing” and avoided hard questions about history though one interviewee inserted a brief negative comment about sending young men off to war and a Native American interviewee got in a sentence comparing Vietnam to the treatment of Natives at home. Ken Burns himself could not have done better.

At every deployment of some element of the 148th, Support the Troops energy levels soar. In February of 2018 over 100 unit members with various noncombat support specialties deployed to “multiple locations throughout the Middle East, European and African regions” in support of Operation Inherent Resolve and Operation Freedom Sentinel. With such inspiring names, how could readers disagree with the 148thspokesperson’s characterization that “they [the deployed] are the true heroes.”

An above-the-fold front page article in the local paper documents preparation of “care packages” by Blue Star Mothers in conjunction with a local women’s clothing store headquartered in Duluth. Who could question mothers who simply want their military children to feel good when far from home?  The article carefully avoids any mention of where the deployed troops are, what they are doing, or who their “service” benefits.

The 148thFighter Wing routinely holds joint exercises with the local Red Cross chapter “to foster and enhance cooperation between National Guard and state interagency partners”.  For its part, the local Red Cross collected messages of support for the deployed 148thFighter Wing Airmen [sic] and their families. Staffers of the local Congressman are pictured on a FB post advertising the effort. Good PR for everyone all around.

One can choose to be silent about the148th, but it’s beyond the pale to question the heartfelt loyalty it inspires.

Grandma’s Marathon is a Duluth institution and thus it’s no surprise that the 148th has found a connection by supplying a flyover at the start of the race. With part of the unit deployed during this year’s race, several dozen 148th members ran a 5K race remotely, which was reported on by at least 10 media outlets. The Marathon organizer says it’s “the least we can do for their service” and “they support us, we support them.”

The annual Memorial Day Parade, with obvious military themes, takes place in West Duluth, the most blue-collar neighborhood in the city. It’s organized by the non-governmental Northland Veteran Services Committee (NVSC), which in 2014 “banned forever” participation by the local chapter of VFP for a supposed “breach of etiquette”; in the words of a NVSC spokesperson “we don’t want politics.” In 2018 the parade almost didn’t happen and NVSC had to organize a media blitz to drum up participants.  In the end 63 groups participated with 75 viewers, making it “the largest in history.”

Needless to say, there was no thought of inviting the VFP back, which has held its own alternative event since being banned. However, the local VFP event smacks of self-censorship or at least a certain timidity perhaps due to fears of being criticized by groups like NVSC or of alienating people who don’t want to deal with Empire America. Thus—ironically in line with the NVSC–the event has become largely apolitical, opting instead for a quasi-religious litany about the need for healing and beating swords into plowshares.

Space does not permit a deconstruction of the claims by the 148th Fighter Wing of a positive economic impact, but suffice it to say these claims, offered without detail or documentation, turn out to be greatly exaggerated if not simply untrue but are never questioned by mainstream media. (See my article for an alternative analysis.) Rather, they are taken at face value and repeated verbatim in local government reports and the media. Even if the rosiest of these economic impact reports is accepted, there is still a net loss to Duluth according to the National Priorities Project, due to the city’s perennially unmentioned $108.36 million gift to the Pentagon.

Militaristic nationalism needs promoters and there are plenty right here in liberal Duluth, MN. Some crank up original propaganda and others merely pass it on. They wear many different hats, all in various shades of olive drab green or desert camouflage.

When Donald Trump visited Duluth for a campaign rally on June 21st Air Force One notably landed first at the 148th. When The Donald moved on to his economic roundtable, the paper saw it fit to mention that one of the attendees is currently the President of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority and a retired commander of the 148thAir Wing.

One key 148thcheerleader is a 20-year career military, Army Reserve, Air National Guard, former 148th Fighter Wing Public Affairs Officer, former staff member for Democratic Congressman James Oberstar, Veterans Memorial Hall Program Manager, community college veteran representative, Public Relations Director for the Duluth Air Show, writer for the Chamber of Commerce’s Business North, and “regular contributor” to the News Tribune opinion page.  His 9/27/15 article, “A Legacy of Excellence,” on the Opinion Page complete with a picture of an F16 is sheer propaganda, not just for the unit but also its bombing missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the superpatriot category is the local “Commander of the Military Order of the Purple Heart,” a twice-wounded Marine Corps sergeant, Viet Nam veteran and host of a weekday right wing talk radio show. He is instrumental in giving the Veterans Memorial Hall of the county Heritage and Arts Center its unequivocally militarist orientation via a focus on individuals from every US war and no questions asked about the wars themselves.

A visitor would not come away with the same feeling that one gets from the exhibit of the 17thcentury warship, the Vasa, in Stockholm, Sweden, which—top heavy with armament—symbolically sank in the harbor right after it was launched. Both exhibits underscore the terror of war, but only the latter questions the enterprise itself.

Roughly 60% of the personnel of the 148thare reservists with various civilian jobs in all walks of life in the community. Going on their various deployment “missions” around the world functions as a means to politicize and propagandize them, their families, their co-workers and the whole community that what they do is all about “service” and “protecting” us back home from terrorists or whomever. Back in the early 70s when the mostly draftee members of my unit would go to the motor pool to drive vehicles in a circle to put on mileage and burn up gas, it was clear that the military was all about waste, fraud and abuse, not to mention the obviously immoral imperialist war in Viet Nam. Of course, there were hawks too and these are the kinds of people that are driving militaristic nationalism now. Replacing them as they leave the scene is one of the principle unstated missions of the 148thFighter Wing here in Duluth, Minnesota, just as it is for the hundreds of military bases all over the US. For the rest of us, identifying and extirpating militaristic nationalism from every corner of society is a daunting but necessary challenge.

Robert  Kosuth, a retired instructor and administrator from the University of Wisconsin-Superior,  spent 30 years teaching English to international students from all over the world as well as over four years in China and Hong Kong teaching English, Western culture, translation, and applied linguistics to both graduate and undergraduate students.  

Robert  Kosuth, a retired instructor and administrator from the University of Wisconsin-Superior,  spent 30 years teaching English to international students from all over the world as well as over four years in China and Hong Kong teaching English, Western culture, translation, and applied linguistics to both graduate and undergraduate students.