One of the uncanny, mirror-world effects about watching American political rhetoric from afar is the militaristic ideas and language that suffuses and distorts every utterance, every policy. It looks like our politics. It sounds like our politics. But it’s not. The strangely compulsive references to the military makes everything weird.
It’s hard to even point this out to the American reader because, like pointing out water to fish, most people in the US, I suspect, quite simply do not notice how strange this is. In Europe, this aspect of public life is present and vocalised, but never so constantly given centre stage as it is in American discourse. The military is there to ensure the security of democracy, not to be in front and centre of the public consciousness.
Let me use Barack Obama’s recent State of the Union as an example. Here’s a moderate conservative politician espousing normal ideas found in Europe (on the centre-right, at least). But constantly there’s the sense of something being off. You hear a normal, invigorating policy speech which keeps slipping into these brief moments of near-obsessive mentions of the military. At first you don’t notice, but after a while, it becomes a part of a wider picture:
Here at home, we’ll keep strengthening our defenses and combat new threats like cyberattacks. And as we reform our defense budget, we have to keep faith with our men and women in uniform and invest in the capabilities they need to succeed in future missions. (Applause.)
We have to remain vigilant.
But I strongly believe our leadership and our security cannot depend on our outstanding military alone. As commander in chief, I have used force when needed to protect the American people, and I will never hesitate to do so as long as I hold this office. But I will not send our troops into harm’s way unless it is truly necessary, nor will I allow our sons and daughters to be mired in open-ended conflicts. We must fight the battles — (applause) — that need to be fought, not those that terrorists prefer from us — large-scale deployments that drain our strength and may ultimately feed extremism.
“Our leadership and our security cannot depend on our outstanding military alone”: isn’t that just an incredibly obvious observation? Isn’t that basically saying “we’re a country, in the world”? Think about what would produce a situation in which this was a thing that needed saying out loud.
The speech goes on, and gets into the why. It turns out, America is on “a permanent war footing”:
So even as we actively and aggressively pursue terrorist networks, through more targeted efforts and by building the capacity of our foreign partners, America must move off a permanent war footing. (Applause.) That’s why I’ve imposed prudent limits on the use of drones, for we will not be safer if people abroad believe we strike within their countries without regard for the consequence.
Which is true. And the reason we know that is that the drone strikes have been killing civilian citizens in other countries mostly without regard for the consequences.
You see, in a world of complex threats, our security, our leadership depends on all elements of our power — including strong and principled diplomacy.
Note again how the presumption is that security depends first and foremost on force, and not on creating a world in which people might be less interested in attacking.
Late in the speech, he moves on to Iran:
For the sake of our national security, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed.
If Iran’s leaders do not seize this opportunity, then I will be the first to call for more sanctions and stand ready to exercise all options to make sure Iran does not build a nuclear weapon.
Again, the presumption that diplomacy is not the first option. That force is very close to the surface.
And finally, let’s remember that our leadership is defined not just by our defense against threats but by the enormous opportunities to do good and promote understanding around the globe, to forge greater cooperation, to expand new markets, to free people from fear and want.
On every issue, the world turns to us, not simply because of the size of our economy or our military might but because of the ideals we stand for and the burdens we bear to advance them.
These topsy-turvy statements keep insisting, as though it was surprising, that it is the normal, everyday relations of states which, strangely, build trust and leadership. Who should have thought? But for some reason, there needs to be constant mentions of the fist in the glove.
Why is it like this? The obvious fact is that, to a greater extent than other countries one would naturally compare it to, the US is a country with strong militaristic impulses. Militarism is the idealised or ideological belief the that military strength is vital to a nation’s identity and security, that the military represents somehow the country’s highest ideals and that unilateral military force is an acceptable and natural thing to use.
And this is what we find in the US. Military action is a policy instrument which is far more easily chosen. Military values, ideals and personalities are honoured with greater veneration than in other societies. Bravery and self-sacrifice in combat is the highest honour.
That’s why these words keep bubbling to the surface of the Obama speech. But more to the point, this is why Eisenhower warned of a military-industrial complex which is even more a part of American life today than it was in his day. This is why the US spends more money on the armed forces than nearly everyone else. Combined.
(As an aside: this is also why action movies aren’t just good, clean fun for us Europeans. We know that those movies – like the horrible Olympus Has Fallen which I watched recently – aren’t entirely for entertainment in the US. They also speak to deeper and more uncomfortable values.)
If you take the militarism glasses off, the ending of Obama’s speech takes on a different, far more tragic note than the triumphant one he finished on. At the end, Obama called out a wounded Sergeant who had suffered traumatic brain injuries after an explosion in Afghanistan. After terrible ordeals, the young man was working and fighting his way back to life. Obama is obviously right in paying tribute to the sacrifice the young man made and to his tremendous and obvious courage and determination. And the sergeant got the biggest applause of the evening, an extended standing ovation that was deeply moving. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard that sustained an applause in any State of the Union speech that I can recall.
The note that was sounded, however, was one of triumph. This is America at it’s finest: fallible, wounded, but able to take whatever you throw at it, and keep on marching. But it wasn’t it was America applauding the hero after the end of a tragedy.
But now read the ending of the speech, but first: think for a moment about the symbolism. This is a young man, needlessly wounded in a war that was botched. A war that has dragged on and achieved very little of substance. A man who has had his life altered in traumatic and almost certainly permanent ways. A man who has served ten tours in foreign wars.
And remember, too, the context: Obama has been winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to his credit. But he has escalated the troop strength in Afghanistan three times since 2009 with apparently very little to show for it.
In short, to personalise it: here is a man who Obama has repeatedly ordered into harm’s way who has finally had to sacrifice enormously. And the point made in Congress is not one of apology or a vow to change the ideas that brought about that trauma and tragedy.
Instead, it is to recommend the wounded young man as an ideal. Which, in a sense, he is. But he is an ideal because of something that should never have happened.
It seems strange, an inversion of meaning that undermines itself. The values of democracy, militarism and personal bravery all superimpose over the same figure who stands there, waving honestly, symbolising everything to everybody while nobody on the Congress floor below him sees him. Not one of them actually understands what they are applauding. Believe it.
Like the Army he loves, like the America he serves, Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg never gives up, and he does not quit. (Cheers, applause.) Cory. (Extended cheers and applause.)
My fellow Americans — my fellow Americans, men and women like Cory remind us that America has never come easy. Our freedom, our democracy, has never been easy. Sometimes we stumble; we make mistakes; we get frustrated or discouraged.
But if we work together; if we summon what is best in us, the way Cory summoned what is best in him, with our feet planted firmly in today but our eyes cast towards tomorrow, I know it’s within our reach.
God bless you, and God bless the United States of America. (Cheers, applause.)