What if Chinese troops occupied San Francisco, turned the Presidio into a torture chamber, looted the de Young museum (or at least allowed it to happen because they were ordered to guard the financial district instead), and were building a gigantic, armed fortress in Golden Gate Park. Then, after six years of this, sent a comedian over who subsequently made jokes about all the steep hills and the damp fog, engaged in funny banter with the commanding general, and buttered-up the soldiers by calling them the best looking fighting force the world had ever seen?
What if all this was going on as car bombs were blowing up and killing people at the same time?
I’m a big Stephen Colbert fan, and I appreciate that he’s trying to help the morale of American soldiers. They are, apart from the Iraqis themselves, the biggest victims of the moral catastrophe called ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’, which at best was naked theft, and at worst was George W. Bush’s wicked attempt to get his face carved on Mt. Rushmore. But this whole thing feeds into a deep, underlying militarism that pervades our language, outlook, and culture, which in turn enables the U.S. government to persist in vicious and costly imperial follies that will, eventually, bring this country down (if they haven’t already).
Here’s James Madison, writing in 1795:
Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes... known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few... [There is an] inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and... degeneracy of manners and of morals... No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.
Now look at the effusive praise we’re required to heap on our soldiers. Notice that saying, “Thank you for your service” has become standard etiquette when speaking to veterans (and which is uttered with the mechanical hollowness of a Safeway clerk telling you to have a nice day). And consider the continual reiteration that our soldiers are “defending our freedoms” when, at least in the case of Iraq, they most certainly are not. All of these seemingly benign displays of patriotism effectively place the army above criticism, which also, conveniently, places the Pentagon above criticism, allowing it to indulge in its bottomless need for more war, more money, more political power. Our patriotism and good manners are cynically turned against us so the Warfare State can rumble along, unimpeded by any significant opposition. We become damned by our virtues. It’s Madison’s “degeneracy of manners and of morals” in action.
This also serves to relieve us of the guilt we all share for acquiescing in the abuse and maltreatment our soldiers. Despite all the jingoistic noise to the contrary, this country has a long and shameful history of mistreating its veterans, from Shay’s Rebellion to the suppression of the Bonus Army, right on down to the epidemic rates of alcoholism and suicide among Iraq veterans and which the Pentagon is only belatedly recognizing as a problem. We know, down inside, that our soldiers our being used as de facto mercenaries for venal contractors or pawns in the service of grubby political aims that have nothing to do with our freedom or security. So we ostentatiously brag about how we support the troops, stick a magnet on the back of our car, and convince ourselves that we really are good patriots. It’s like a man who constantly tells his wife he loves her to conceal the fact the he’s having an affair.
Meanwhile, have you heard about the $100 billion dollar military appropriations bill to fight the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq currently going through Congress? Maybe you have, maybe you haven’t, but I bet you’ve heard about Stephen Colbert getting his head shaved.[Cross-posted at Bad Attitudes.]