The Psychological Impact of War and Militarism in Modern America
November 10, 2005
Remarks for Students and Faculty Members at Lyndon State College
I came here twenty months ago, on March 10, 2004, to talk about "The Costs of War in the Modern World." I concentrated then on the obvious outlays -- loss of life, major financial expenditure, destruction of property and so forth. Today I'm going to shift my focus a bit and speak about the psychological drawbacks both of war itself and the culture of war, which is generally called militarism. And when I refer to "psychology," I mean not only the mental state of individuals but the attitudes of groups and the belief-structures of nations.
A national structure of belief isn't a simple topic because it involves so many strands it's impossible to weave them all together in a short discussion. I'll put forward the ones that strike me as being most pertinent to the American political situation in the world today. But before I get down to existing attitudes I have to say something about the way anything as complicated and amorphous as belief -- plus the objects to which belief is attached -- change over time. War in the 21st Century is not the same thing as the wars described by Herodotus in the 5th Century B.C.. The difference lies not only, and perhaps not mainly, in technological innovation. Acts separated by millennia, even if they're objectively identical, become dissimilar in human terms because people change the way they think about them. I'm not a complete relativist but being a student of history I have to recognize that the meaning of war has evolved over the centuries. What was once honorable has become murder. What was once justice has become inhuman cruelty. What was once patriotism has become a crime against humanity. What was once glorious triumph has become genocide. These are not simply rhetorical shifts. They are genuine transformations.
The theme I want to try to sketch out for you here today has to do with the effect of those transformations. It seems to me there is widening gap between what we say is important in our everyday lives and what we allow our government to do around the world. A people who will no longer allow children to ride in the front seats of cars, who are obsessed with stopping smoking, who are shocked to learn that someone has not had a colonoscopy within the past five years and yet who are spending their treasure on ever more horrendous instruments of war which have no conceivable legitimate use may well be approaching a state of schizophrenic psychosis.
Our expanding sensitivities do not mean that war itself has become less horrendous. It's probably more vicious today than it has ever been. But there is now a growing critical mind that seems to operate only within one compartment of our public brain, which finds war to be not only heartless and cruel but also unacceptable and foolish. And that portion of our collective consciousness may be pushing us towards one of the great watersheds of history.
We've had such turning points before. In the 19th Century, slavery, which up till then had been an established and legally sanctioned institution, lost, over the course of about fifty years, all respectable standing and came to be condemned almost everywhere in the world.
A similar process occurred in the 20th Century with respect to that complex body of prejudice we call racism. In the year 1900, in the United States, most members of the majority population felt perfectly justified in scorning and ridiculing black people, and Jews, and Indians. A hundred years later, expressing such sentiments would destroy anyone's social or political standing.
Does this mean that slavery and racism have been extinguished? Of course not. There is still slavery in many parts of the world and perhaps some forms of it here in the United States. And, as we all know, racism persists everywhere. But neither can any longer be defended in public discourse and that gives us reasonable hope that they both may be on the way to obliteration.
I'd like to be able to say that I think the 21st Century will bring a similar fate to war. But I can't honestly tell you I believe it will. War is more firmly supported now in social mythology than slavery was two hundred years ago or than racism was at the beginning of the 20th Century. It will probably require more than another hundred years to bring it to universal condemnation. Yet, if developments already underway can continue to flourish, the 21st Century should push us significantly closer to a situation in which a majority of people will find the costs of war generally unreasonable. And if that happens it will be because the psychological burdens associated with war will have become too excruciating for most people to bear.
Perhaps a brief historical diversion can illustrate why that change of attitude might occur. One of the most famous and most carefully studied military campaigns of the past took place over the eight years from 58 to 50 B.C., when Julius Caesar conquered for Rome the territory that now makes up France and Belgium. When he began his campaigns that area contained about two hundred political units which ranged in size from forty thousand up to almost a half-million people. They had various forms of government but most of them were led by kings and what today would be called tribal councils. Their borders were not stable and there was a considerable amount of violent struggle among them. But the amount of bloodshed they inflicted on one another was minor compared to what happened when they became the objects of the legions of Rome.
Caesar himself, in the most celebrated military memoir of all time, said that during the course of his Gallic wars his soldiers killed 1,192,000 Gauls. That was out of a total population of twelve to fourteen million. He seems to have been proud that the number was so low and asserted that no one could charge him with brutality because the whole world knew what a humane man he was. He called on the same reputation for clemency late in the war when, after a rebellion at Uxellodudum, in southwest France, he ordered all the men who had borne arms against him to have their hands cut off and then to be released, so that, as reported by his lieutenant Hirtius, "everyone might see what punishment was meted out to evildoers." And, I suppose that thousands of men spreading out over the land with stumps at the end of their arms must have made an impression. Six years earlier, in 57, a Belgian tribe named the Atuatuci, were defending themselves in the town that is now called Namur. They negotiated a truce with Caesar but on the evening of the truce, the Roman soldiers having pulled back from their siege lines, some of the tribe decided to try to break through the Roman ranks. They were defeated, but their rebellion so angered Caesar that the next day he smashed down the gates of the city and sold everyone found inside into slavery. A total of fifty-three thousand men, women, and children were handed over to the slave merchants, who always trailed along in the wake of the legions, ready to scoop up any merchandise that might come their way.
Such was the nature of Roman war, and the two incidents I've mentioned here could be multiplied many times over if one wanted to portray comprehensively what happened to the people of Gaul while they were being brought under Roman control. My point is not to emphasize Caesar's cruelty. He was right in saying that he had a strong reputation for being merciful to his enemies, and he often was criticized by his own soldiers for being too soft. Furthermore, historians have generally found him to be one of the great and farsighted statesmen of the past. Yet, just think what would happen today if the general of any conquering army were to order that the hands of all his vanquished captives were to be cut off. Somebody would probably make a movie about it.
Can we, therefore conclude that modern military commanders are less ruthless than Caesar was? I don't think so. What has changed since Roman times is not the mercy of generals but the effectiveness of publicity machines. Caesar had no way to ensure that what he did would be seen as other than what it actually was. Mechanisms of mass mind control were not at his command. Consequently, he tended to speak of his own actions straightforwardly and let his military success justify anything he did. And, there can be no doubt that he ranks among the top two or three generals of history for skill, daring, courage and effectiveness.
Remember, my theme is not the evolution of warfare but, rather, the evolution of how we think about warfare. And what it is that causes us to think as we do.
Last Saturday night I watched George Carlin's comedy special on HBO. Those of you who are familiar with Mr. Carlin know that he engages in what might be called edgy humor. In one of his routines he was talking about the war in Iraq and how much he would like to see decapitations broadcast on TV. But, then, he paused and said there was a question he could never get answered, even though he has asked it over and over again. Why is is worse, and more barbaric, and more disgusting, and more vile to take a knife and cut somebody's head off than it is to drop a bomb on a house where a dozen children are sleeping and blow them all to smithereens?
It is, indeed, an interesting question and one that's worth speculating about for a few minutes here today. The subject of how we are persuaded that the actions of our own military forces are necessary and justified whereas the actions of those who fight against us are nauseating and abominable is vast. One could easily spend a lifetime turning out books on that single subject. But without engaging in comprehensive explanations certain features of the situation are fairly clear.
Probably the most powerful propaganda ploy that we have swallowed pretty thoroughly here in the United States -- one that operates at more psychological levels than more of us have begun to imagine -- is the concept that people who do their killing wearing neat and expensive clothing are far superior, morally, to people who kill clad only in ratty tee shirts and stinky sneakers. I have heard that point emphasized over and over on TV -- particularly on the Bill O'Reilly Show. These people don't even wear uniforms! The point seems to be that it is dishonorable for them not to make themselves easier to kill. They don't drape themselves in symbols which allow American soldiers to distinguish them from the general population. That they are fighting the only kind of war they can fight, a guerilla conflict, and that the principal defensive measure of guerillas is to be able to merge with the surrounding population is seldom mentioned in the major media here in the United States. One can argue, of course, that they shouldn't be fighting at all, that it is immoral for them to want to eject an invading army from their country. And that argument, though a bit hard to defend, is at least straightforward. But, I suspect that it fails to work on the American psyche with anything approaching the power of the subterranean message that people who wear shabby clothes are, somehow, asking for it. At the very least their deaths can't be counted as significant as the deaths of our brave boys who approach the gates of eternity in elaborate uniforms with thousands of dollars worth of gear dangling from their belts.
A second rationale which works to salve our conscience is that most of the people we kill, we don't intend to kill. They get killed accidentally, or collaterally as we say, and therefore their deaths can't be blamed on us. This is the official explanation given by the U. S. military for the reason we don't keep count of the number of people slaughtered during American military assaults. It's a funny kind of reasoning. If, in the United States, a police officer were pursing a suspected murderer, and drove a police car into a crowd to try to run him over, bumping off a dozen other people in the process, the explanation that he didn't really intend to kill the other people wouldn't carry much weight. But that is exactly the excuse offered by the military every time they kill civilians, many of whom are obviously innocent because they are less than five years old. "It's just one of the unavoidable aspects of war," a general will say, looking very solemn, and then others will repeat, "It's just one of the unavoidable aspects of war. Too bad. So sorry," as though there were nothing else to say, and having said it, the whole matter is resolved.
We may hear -- off there in the distance somewhere -- an indignant colonel saying that American soldiers go to great lengths to avoid injuring noncombatants, sometimes in the process even endangering themselves. That's doubtless true, to some extent, though probably not as true as the army insists. Yet regardless of how hard the U.S. military has worked in Iraq not to hurt civilians, our military machine has still killed tens of thousands of people. We can hear our fictional colonel again proclaiming that if we hadn't tried we would have killed twice as many. That's commendable, yet it's very much like saying I killed only two people when I might just as well have killed four. It's not quite an exquisite defense of one's own humanity.
Our magnificent military technology, which in some people's eyes defines the American nation, offers a third way to distance ourselves from the consequences of war. For the most part the Americans who do the killing in war never see the people they kill. When an air force pilot sends a missile screaming towards a house, he doesn't see what happens inside when the missile strikes. Instead, he flies, neatly and cleanly, back to his base and climbs, neatly and cleanly, out of his cockpit to go off to his barracks or to the officers' club. A few years ago I worked with a guy who had dropped drums of napalm on villages in Vietnam -- a pleasant man who was always polite and friendly. I asked him once whether he ever thought about what happened to the people in the villages when the napalm hit. "No," he said. "Why not?" I responded. "Because I didn't pick the villages. It wasn't my business to know who was in them. I was told to put napalm on certain coordinates, and that all I did. And that's all I thought about doing." Some kind of conditioning procedure had removed him entirely from the consequences of his own actions. He was, by the way, a devout Christian.
I note these psychological screens thrown up to protect our own sensibility -- and there are, of course, many more than I've mentioned -- not to denounce them as immoral and not to say that they are intellectually ridiculous (though I confess that's what I think about some of them). No, I bring them up to point out how astoundingly thin they are, how fragile, how much like a house of cards. Someday, and probably not too far in the future, they're going to collapse. We can already see cracks in them. And when they do come crashing down, they'll bring with them reams of unpaid bills that will require generations to settle.
When a nation has used its power to do something harsh and cruel which clashes with its own innate sensibility, and when it comes to see that it was led to the action by gigantic falsehood, its own belief of personal worth is diminished. The results are not merely some newspaper rhetoric and public breast-beating. The trust that holds society together is diminished. Everyone is a bit more suspicious of everyone else. Scams abound because people begin to say to themselves that in a world where everybody cheats and lies you had best forget about others and look out for yourself. Everyday life descends towards that brutishness Thomas Hobbes warned about three hundred and fifty years ago. Older people begin to shake their heads and say, "Boy, this country sure isn't what it used to be."
It may seem mistaken to accord the war in Iraq as much significance as I'm doing here. As wars go, it's no great shakes. The number of lives we've lost is no more than we rack up on our highways over a couple of weeks during an active summer traveling season. And despite streams of crocodile tears and smarmy tributes on the evening news programs, the people who die don't have sufficient social standing to cause our current political leaders to worry about them very much. If our foreign policy gurus had to spend 1500 such lives each year over the next half-century to consolidate and expand the American empire, they would consider it a bargain for the price.
From a geopolitical standpoint the dollars are more worrisome than the lives. The American military establishment has got in the habit of spending an awful lot of money to kill someone, and given the notions about taxation which hold sway now among the U.S. power structure, all that money has to be borrowed. The Chinese already hold so much of our debt that they could effectively ruin the American economy anytime they wished. We're gambling that they don't -- and won't -- wish because they're making money off of us and they don't want to kill they goose that keeps pumping out golden eggs. But let us really try to back up our rhetoric about Taiwan or do something else seriously offensive to Chinese national aspirations and their wishes about us could change rapidly. We are in economic peril which is intensified by our imperialistic ventures. I don't think there are many knowledgeable economists who would deny that we have moved into a dangerous economic condition.
Even so, there is probably now not enough power in lives lost and dollars threatened to cause a crisis in American self-confidence were these factors not tied to a development in American political life which is far more portentous than both of them together. That is the creeping realization that the very nature of the nation is being transmogrified by certain political ambitions which have captured the minds of powerful political theorists. The fear that's growing and that may be on the verge of reaching wide public consciousness is that the United States of America is being transformed from a democratic constitutional republic into a militaristic empire.
Most Americans have not given much thought to what it would be like to live at the center of a thoroughgoing militaristic empire, and, certainly, they have no sense of how that new order of things would fit together psychologically with concerns about safety straps for baby-strolllers and lowered cholesterol levels. If Americans were readers of books, the fear and the consciousness I've mentioned would have risen to much higher levels than they have. We cannot say that we have not been warned about what's going on or that there is not ample information available about it. But, we must say we've not paid much attention.
I can think of no brief period of America's past when publishers have issued as many thoughtful, well-documented warnings about dangerous directions in foreign policy as we've seen over the last decade. Just a simple list of the titles I've read recently present an ominous prognostication: War In A Time of Peace, War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, In the Shadow of War, Rogue Nation, Chain of Command, The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy and the End of the Republic, The New American Militarism. These are all sober, sensible books which generally try hard to avoid sensationalism. Not a single one of them can be said to have been written by an anti-American ideologue. Yet, they each do tell us that something radical is going on. Perhaps a brief look at several of them can shed light on the way the American psyche is being mutated by recent events.
Of the books I've mentioned, Chris Hedges's War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, published in 2002, before the invasion of Iraq was launched, is the most poignant and, because it serves as an accurate prediction of what was to come in America only a couple years later, the most wrenching. As a war correspondent who for years had covered conflicts all around the world, Hedges was in a strong position to compare not only the conduct of various engagements but the national excuses used for justifying them. He discovered that all wars have striking similarities. Here are a few of the things he tells us:
- That regardless of the nations involved, many of the motives for war arenever publicly acknowledged.
- That war always promotes killers and racists.
- That patriotism is a thinly-veiled form of collective self-worship.
- That war is simply organized murder.
- And, that the worst cost of war is always psychological and spiritual.
These are interesting judgments, but powerful as they are they shrink beside what Hedges says is war's effect on the truth. His thesis is that war slaughters truth more ruthlessly than it slaughters people. And the press of a nation, which is supposed to be the tribune of truth, more often joins in its repression. He dismisses the idea that the press is simply misled by governmental propaganda, saying, "The notion that the press was used in war is incorrect. The press wanted to be used." There are interesting devices by which this using takes place. In the first instance, "the hijacking of language is fundamental to war" and as a consequence during war "clichés coined by the state become the only acceptable vocabulary." The outcome of all this distortion and manipulation is that, "most societies never recover from the self-inflicted wounds made to their own culture during wartime. War leaves behind not memory but amnesia."
It's a damning indictment and I defy anyone to read it and not be struck by its relevance to what we have seen in this country over the past three years.
The most solid and scholarly account of the growth of American militaristic culture that I know is Michael S. Sherry's In the Shadow of War: The United States Since the 1930s. Since it was published ten years ago, it shows us that a development as powerful and as far-reaching as American militarism does not come into being overnight -- that is, that we can't attribute our current situation to George Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld alone. Militarism grows incrementally, over decades, and even when it is out of the news and not high in public regard, as happened in the aftermath of our Vietnam adventure, it is still working away to increase its strength. Right in his preface, Sherry lays out a theory which I have drawn on to some extent in shaping my remarks today. He says that "the forces militarizing America were deeply embedded as are those which will establish a different path." We are in a peculiar -- and fascinating -- condition in this country now in that we Americans are almost equally divided between those who wish to use military hegemony not only to provide for our own physical security but also to dominate the world economically and those who want us to be a peaceful, cooperative nation which makes its own internal decisions in a thoroughly democratic manner. And a disconcerting number of us are too ignorant of history to know that we can't do both, or to recognize that an imperial, militaristic culture cannot, over the long run, be genuinely democratic. As Sherry tells us, war and the preparation for war always carries with it the idea of trusting national elites with extraordinary power.
How many times over the past three years have you heard the argument that because we are at war, our security depends on giving the president power to decide how to deal with threats and that this, of necessity, requires that many of his measures be cloaked in secrecy? Just yesterday, my morning newspaper carried an article reporting that the Central Intelligence Agency is cranking up a criminal investigation to determine who might have provided the Washington Post with information about secret prisons that are operated by the CIA around the world. Bill Frist was quoted as saying "such an egregious disclosure could have long-term and far-reaching damaging and dangerous consequences and will imperil our efforts to protect the American people and our homeland ...." Think of it: the majority leader of the U.S. Senate is outraged because a major American newspaper has revealed that our own government is engaged in essentially criminal activities, and he wants people to be thrown in jail for bringing that information to the attention of the American people. If such attitudes come to dominate the beliefs of the whole country, then democracy is effectively dead.
Sherry says that by the middle part of the twentieth century, Americans felt that they had no control over their own government's actions and that during our Vietnam excursion, most citizens were neither inclined nor able to grasp what was happening in the war. The undemocratic impulse to let the president take care of everything can been seen in what Sherry calls the "loose use" of the term "commander in chief." The right-wing talk show host Sean Hannity regularly speaks of "our" commander in chief, as though the president commands all of us rather than simply the armed forces of the United States. This tendency to merge the presidency with military command is a technique for turning the entire nation into a military unit and each citizen into the equivalent of a soldier, the ultimate militaristic dream.
Chalmers Johnson, in The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic, addresses this autocratic impulse even more directly than Sherry does. At the beginning of his book he says outright that the imperialist presidency is eroding the underpinnings of our constitutional republic, and notes that though most other people view the United States as a military juggernaut intent on world domination the average American citizen is not aware of our international reputation. His book was published in 2004, and I suspect that over the year and a half since it came out a considerable number of Americans have come to understand that we are not the most popular nation on the globe.
Johnson specializes in what some might consider arcane detail to give a sense of just how widespread the military power structure has become. Perhaps some of you didn't know that the U.S. military operates 234 golf courses world wide, or that the International Military and Training Program, run not by the Pentagon but by the State Department, offers instruction to the armies of 133 countries, or that as of the fall of 2001, the United States had 725 overseas military bases and that now, though the military won't divulge the number any longer, most scholars who study these matters believe the number has climbed to more than eight hundred.
Johnson quotes James Madison -- as many other scholars have recently -- to the effect that armies, debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the control of the few and suggests that we have so much of all three that we will shortly be facing the sorrows of perpetual war, loss of constitutional rights, the rule of propaganda, and bankruptcy .
More sober in rhetoric than Johnson's warning, Andrew J. Bacevich's The New American Militarism, published just this year, arrives at similar conclusions. Bacevich, a graduate of West Point, a career army officer, and now a professor at Boston University, says he has written a book about "the misleading and dangerous conceptions of war, soldiers, and military institutions that have come to pervade American consciousness and that have perverted present-day U.S. national security policy." Although Bacevich claims to be less sensationalist than other critics of the militaristic culture, and although he is a self-proclaimed "conservative," it's hard to imagine any scholar being more strongly opposed to recent national policies. He argues that the American arsenal of weapons has come to signify who we are and what we stand for and that the current population has lost the ability to understand what was once firmly established in the American mind, that war is inherently poisonous. Nor does he accept the rhetoric of political leaders that the United States uses its military force reluctantly and only to protect democracy and human rights. The primary purpose of the American military establishment, he says forthrightly, is "global power projection.".
Perhaps Bacevich's most telling analysis is his dissection of so-called neo-conservatism, which he believes is a driving force for transforming American values. First of all, there is nothing conservative about it, a point I was happy to see him make because one of my own personal themes over the past three years has been the corruption of that once-meaningful term by mainstream media figures who are so abominably ignorant of the history of Western thought they don't have an inkling of what "conservatism" actually means. Calling George Bush a conservative is about the same thing as calling Jerry Falwell a Christian. Right from the beginning of their movement, Bacevich tells us, neo-conservatives had little affection for core conservative values. Their principle belief is that freedom consists, primarily, in the promotion of what they like to call democratic capitalism and since that form of capitalism is incessantly turning the world upside down, neo-conservatives think of crisis as a permanent condition. Consequently, a ready use of force has to be seen as an essential feature of free societies. In fact, some of them, such as the columnist and television personality Robert Krauthammer, have said that power is its own reward, that is, that power is not a means to something but rather an end in itself.
Clearly, part of Bacevich's disdain for the neo-conservative movement comes from their eagerness to employ military force without an accompanying eagerness to engage in it themselves. Few of the leading neo-conservative spokesmen have ever pulled on a uniform or picked up a rifle, and in truth says Bacevich, ever since the Vietnam war, a self-identified American elite has excused itself from military service.
Despite coming from a very different intellectual tradition, Bacevich has genuine respect for the left-leaning sociologist C. Wright Mills, who, Bacevich reminds us, coined the term "military metaphysics" which has to a considerable degree taken over thinking within the national government and holds that international problems are military problems, and that we should deal with the world primarily through military means. Down that path Bacevich warns lies not only danger but probably disaster.
The final book I'll bring to your attention today is a collection of essays by Seymour Hersh, the fine reporter for the New Yorker, who calls his book, Chain of Command. His detailed accounts of maneuvers within the government and on the ground in the war zones offer fascinating examples of how abstruse militaristic thinking was translated into actual behavior. And as always, when theories of force become the deployment of force right in front of your eyes, the picture is very nasty. Nobody I know has dug more deeply into the conditions at Abu Ghraib prison or explained more convincingly the reason for what happened there than Hersh has. I don't have time here to go into the details of what Hersh calls "the Iraqi prison mess," but I don't think it's unfair to summarize it as a system of lying, dishonesty, and viciousness which pervaded the chain of command all the way from the pathetic young woman Lynndie England to the very highest ranks of the military pyramid. The treatment of prisoners there, instead of being the action of a few bad apples, as the Bush administration tried to say as soon as photographs became public, was, to use T.S. Eliot's famous literary term, the objective correlative of the Bush administration's foreign policy. Or, to put it in less highfalutin terms, when you looked at the pictures from that prison you were seeing in graphic detail what American foreign policy under the Bush administration really is.
Throughout this talk I have meant to emphasize the gap between who we Americans say we are and who the actions of our government proclaim us to be. And I have wanted at least to hint at how that gap is likely to affect our state of mind as we move more deeply into the Twenty-first Century. War down the ages has been hideous. It's hard to find anyone who would disagree. To bring that hideousness to your imagination was one of reasons I made the digression into the history of Roman military activities under Julius Caesar. But the portrayal of hideousness wasn't my only reason. I wanted to argue also that modern war -- the war we are now waging in Iraq -- is no less hideous than Caesar's activities were. What's different now is that we tell ourselves we are not the kind of people the Romans were. But, in truth, we are. And if we keep on telling ourselves lies we will rip our national mind apart. We have two main possibilities ahead of us, and I don't know which one we are going to take. Either we will succumb to what we tell ourselves is the norm of history and use our undoubted military supremacy to try to rule the world, regardless of what sort of ruthlessness it takes. Or, we will make a real attempt to reassert the ideals at work during the founding of our nation and actually try to insure -- as Mr. Lincoln called on us to do -- that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth. We've got to do one or the other in order to heal our national mind. Or else, we'll go really crazy.
I'll end with a brief explanation of my personal stance on these issues. I'm not sure when I became convinced that killing people is bad. It wasn't till I was well along in life. I can't stand here and tell you that I arrived at my anti-killing stance in the way most liberal humanists do. I have gradually become more of an aestheticist than a moralist, and that means that what really offends me about war is not so much its wrongness as its ugliness and stupidity. My studies of history have convinced me that killing, and war -- which is killing's most efficient technique -- are always repugnant and in the great majority of instances really dumb.
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