In the dying light of a setting sun between DFW and CLE last night, I read this excellent forum transcript on the subject of “America’s Endless War.” To those who’ve forgotten that this country has pushed hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers into politicized limbo in the Middle East, well, the invasion launched in 2003 is still well under way. Not much has changed. I don’t doubt that my future children will lament the same war even when they’re gray-haired fathers and mothers themselves.
The main takeaway is something that I’ve been thinking about for years — and especially lately, in this neo-jingoistic atmosphere that we’ve all seemed to enjoy cultivating in the U.S. I’m thinking of the absolute societal prohibition on speaking out against the military, on suggesting even remotely that we reorient our defense priorities as a country. To hint at dissent, to say that perhaps the troops are being led into disaster time and time again, wasting our resources and time and money, is to ostracize yourself from mainstream discourse immediately.
Bacevich: You are saying American exceptionalism has a racial element, right? That even though the instrument of exceptionalism—the military—is integrated pretty successfully, our expectations of who we are and what we can achieve hark back to a white, Christian, male image. But it’s not explicit.
Daddis: I think it is explicit when you take a look at the theories underpinning American exceptionalism—like modernization theory from the Fifties and Sixties. We still believe that there is a formula and there is an end state and we are the end state. General Stanley McChrystal used to say in Afghanistan, “We’ve got a government in a box.” That is military orientalism—the idea that rational, culturally advanced Americans can impose their ways on the savage other in a foreign land. It’s a theoretical assumption based on racism.
Bacevich: That conviction is hardwired into many Americans—that we are the chosen people and that we came into existence in order to fulfill some kind of providential purpose. And it doesn’t seem to be going well in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
Dempsey: Sadly, being played for suckers in other people’s wars might just be the purest expression of American exceptionalism.
Bacevich: To acknowledge that is to commit what, in the context of our civil religion, is a mortal sin.
The “civic religion” phrase is a useful tool, from Harper’s contributing editor Andrew Bacevich. I’ve seen Neal Gabler employ that idea over at billmoyers.com, and I think it’s something we should all bear in mind in the years ahead. It’s nothing new — this notion that American political shouting matches and divisive social “identity” rhetoric are the sermons and opium of our era. It’s a tale as old as time, really. It just used to be called, simply, “religion.” Tax dollars in place of tithes: The idea that we’re all stuck in this cycle of City Hall/White House economic fuckery makes it feel far more inclusive than the church — far more “normalized,” to use your favorite liberal blogger’s phrase du jour.
And so there’s no room to debate the structure and historical arc of the Endless War. There’s no room to scrutinize the Department of Defense and the federal appropriations bills that loft war spending well into the stratosphere. The ethos of this civic religion turns shades of gray into pure black-and-white surface-level arguments. Do you support the troops or not? Whattaya, some libtard scum? Fuck outta here! …and so on.
That’s not helpful, because it advances nothing of intellectual value. There’s no progress. There’s no breathing room for any debate of citizenship. There’s no inherent justification for that power structure, for the unimpeachable might of “the troops!” — who aren’t there to answer an indictment themselves! Rather, we’re told to trust in faceless generals and presidential administration personnel who know good and well that, before long, it’ll be the next guy’s problem. In the meantime, the American public will keep the fires rolling and the war, the Endless War!, will continue without question.
As long as the war goes on, and as long as the American bloodthirst pushes young men and women into the inexorable killing machine, the republic will thrive, if only because there will be no overt resistance. There will be no fundamental justification for any of it; the “Support the Troops” folks won’t allow it! The religion depends on delusional buy-in.
It’s the Allegory of the Cave. Nothing new here. Nothing to see.