Growing up beneath the Cold War’s negative cloud of frigid animosity between East and West — I was 13 years old during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1961 — much of my early life was spent in a militant, competitive, vibrantly democratic American society. As a scion of the self-described Greatest Generation, it only made sense to play middle linebacker at my L.A. public high school, compete and win at Knowledge Bowl on local TV in the mid-60s, and begin college at nearby Los Angeles Pierce Junior College. By late 1966 I was striving for a college degree at UCSB, and in my second year there I joined ROTC hoping to avoid being drafted before earning my B.A.
A middle-class Anglo guy from Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley flourished when “guns and butter” were on the table in America, yet the ideal of the citizen as a private civilian began to erode in the 1980s. In fact, American society has become increasingly less of a civilian democracy since World War II. We can trace this uneven development from the explosion of the nuclear arms race around 1947 (the year Israel and Dan McCaslin were born, Israel in 1947-48).
And yet there was a simultaneous rejection of the military ethos inside our democracy on the part of the very GIs returning from service abroad in Europe or the Pacific. Isn’t this what the ginormous Baby Boom of 1945 – 1960 indicates? The Beats, rock & roll, flower power, anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, and especially the Civil Rights movement were united in radically rejecting the increasing militarization of our society. President Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower’s famous 1961 repudiation of “the military-industrial complex” is simply one official’s declaration against the industrial imperialists and their military lackeys. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final call against “the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism” ended his influence in the black civil rights movement because he dared to challenge our growing military democracy.
Where do we see specific examples of today’s heavily militarized society? Listening to the TV dialogue about highly competitive professional sports games like pro football or basketball evoking endless war metaphors. The obscene popularity of war-themed video games like Call of Duty, Manhunt, Homeland and many others. The war on drugs. The gun-rights-obsessed Second Amendment fanatics abound because they’re filled with fear, misbelieving that war or a socialistic government will come to their street soon. The recent Connecticut shooting of 20 first-graders will cause a flurry of talk but as usual no significant legislation will ensue. We can’t even bring back the assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004, because our gun nuts want to be their own military (they call themselves a militia, I know).
As Robert Perloff has pointed out, military metaphors abounded in the recent, endless presidential campaign; consider the overuse of terms like ground game, early-attack strategy, rapid-fire response, swift-boating, and, of course, mobilization. If you travel the freeways at night in southern California, or watch the train tracks carefully, you will notice plenty of Army convoys, military devices stacked on flatcars, and all the industrial paraphernalia of war trundling along. While I cannot prove the next assertion, after living in modern Germany for years, and visiting over 20 times since, you simply do not witness this level of visible military preparedness there (or in the European Union generally).
What’s behind Germany’s much more “civilian” society compared to our own society? Checking the Internet for the rankings of the “world’s top 15 military spenders,” I knew we’d find the USA way on top at No. 1 [$711 billion], with Germany’s military number at $47 billion. More interestingly, Germany’s military expenditure is just 2.7% of its own GDP, while our percentage is much higher at 4.7% of GDP. (China spends just 2% of its GDP on military costs). While the UK and France are higher than Germany, their citizens don’t pay extra taxes to support the world’s largest military like we Americans do, and we pay these taxes without complaint.
If we look at the democracy in ancient Athens, we realize that those earliest voters were totally aware of the deeply military quality of their society, and they happily welcomed the economic benefits to themselves. They celebrated their militarism as proud citizen-soldiers, while we conceal our military democracy from ourselves. Historian Mark Munn writes “more than any other subject, the business of empire pervaded the assemblies of Athens” [The School of History, UC Press 2000, pg. 46]. The voting male citizens carefully paid special attention to the Athenian navy’s needs, for example, recognizing that their naval technology and marvelous triremes guaranteed their empire’s revenue, and that these monies were fun to spend at home (look at the Parthenon and pay for public officeholders).
Yet in modern mass democracy there is a loss of aesthetic vitality and artistic expression that comes along with this increasing militarization of American society. The two hugely fascinating presidential organizations were formed like military campaigns, with monthly competitions about how much Obama had raised, how much Romney’s “troops” had raised. The focus was on attack ads, of course, because negative combat, er, campaigns, wins. All this hoopla and expensive nastiness stirs the air waves and crowds out media attention to music and the arts and the cultural life of our nation. Moreover, it stifles public debate.
I am teaching history to 68 sixth and seventh graders, most of which have never lived in a nation not at war. They’re “bombarded” by the signs of endless preparations for war or reports of terrorist strikes. It’s no mistake that various book reviewers openly admit the heavy preponderance of dystopias and cynical adventure stories in young adult literature, with the fine Hunger Games trilogy leading the pack. The point isn’t about the quality of this fiction (I like a lot of it), but that every day our kids face military metaphors, negative utopias, war talk, military budget numbers talk, video clips of a war machine at work nearly every day, and daily reports of American aerial assassinations in Pakistan or Yemen.
During the third presidential debate, moderator Bob Schieffer asked Romney, “What is your position on the use of drones?” Romney predictably approved Obama’s wide use of drone assassinations in foreign countries, but Schieffer failed to press the President himself about expanding this illegal method. How does this targeted killing program count and assess civilian casualties? What about our RQ-170 drone that Iran has captured and will seek to replicate and then give to Hamas? The point here is that these questions are simply not widely debated by our famous “concerned citizens”.
There is evidence that between June 2004 – June 2012 our MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones killed between 2,562 – 3,325 human beings in Pakistan, of whom between 474 – 881 were civilians, including 176 children. To my knowledge, not one of these human beings was prosecuted in any court of law, and on Obama’s orders they’re just killed without due process of law. These attacks enrage tens of millions of Moslem Pakistanis creating new volunteers for terrorism.
As always, but especially in this intense information-age of ours, highly intelligent children and young adults scrutinize this national duplicity and cover-up. They will come to their own conclusions about the morality of American drone assassinations. Aaron O’Connell recently wrote in the New York Times about the permanent militarization of American society, and how Eisenhower’s trenchant observations concerning our military-industrial state included the famous general’s fear of the spiritual effects of a state of permanent war.
While the Germans and the EU may view it as coordinated police work, our belligerent society bellows that we’re in a “war on terror” and we quiver, fearing it will never end. Only Ike, a general who always preserved his men when possible (angering Stalin to no end in 1943), could speak openly about the “agony of the battlefield.” We fear open discussion of our expanding drone assassinations because a society permanently at war expects to utilize every weapon in its arsenal. As our partner in empire (theirs in the West Bank, ours spanning the earth), why do we imagine Israel would refrain from using its amazing air force to attack Iran? And use her nukes? We all know such a disastrous and stupid attack is imminent, but in our suffocating military democracy there’s precious little debate about it.
We can start demilitarizing our society by canceling the F-35 Lightning 2 joint-strike aircraft, a potential $396 billion dollar boondoggle rife with errors and poor technology. We can demand a constitutional inquiry into the legality and the morality of Obama’s aerial assassinations policy.
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Dan McCaslin earned a B.A. in history from UCSB in 1969, and has taught at Crane School in Santa Barbara, California, since 1980.