Military Mystique

I recall seeing a photograph recently of President Obama sitting in a crowded room surrounded by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in all their regalia. There they were fully uniformed, chests ablaze with ribbons representing courage, valor and years of experience defending the country in all parts of the world. And there was the skinny little President in his white shirt and tie looking very much out-of-place — and intimidated. They were considering how to wage war.

The photo made me reflect on an incident from my distant past when I taught at a private school in Katonah, New York and one Saturday we took a group of the boys to West Point for a basketball game. We were all dressed in our best bib and tucker and feeling very good about ourselves — until we started walking around the grounds of the academy. There were the cadets, ramrod straight and neatly pressed (not a wrinkle anywhere to be seen), eyes straight ahead, faces stern and heroic. I started to think myself shabbily dressed, even a bit of a slob — anything but “heroic.” I felt that way walking around Annapolis during my four years of college in that city standing next to a Midshipman as he ordered items from a sales person or walking next to him down the street.

What to make of this? I wonder if part of the reason why the President and the Congress are unwilling to take on the military is reflected in the subtle psychological messages blended into these impressions I recall here? We have a reverence for the military in this country that borders on worship: these are all our “heroes.” These feelings are reinforced every time a sports team hits the field, and our TVs remind us constantly how much we owe these heroes.  If one were to utter a criticism of any one of them it would be regarded as sacrilege. In fact, we have become a nation of military pageants and military presence. Ever since Viet Nam, it seems, the military is held up to us as a model of human achievement. I suspect it is by design. There are parades, fly overs, flags unfurled, uniforms galore, and the air filled with the strains of the National Anthem. It fills us with pride and a sense of awe and privilege. But it is also dangerous, it seems to me.

We need to beware of what I would call the “lure of the military mystique,” the sense that what these people say and do is always right, that they are the paradigm of all human excellence. I dare say that the politicians in this country are intimidated and awed by the presence in the room of a large man in uniform with ribbons agleam on his chest who has a “request” that simply cannot be ignored. It seems a bit of a stretch, but perhaps this is a small part of what Eisenhower was warning us about: some of the power of the military is assuredly wrapped up in the mystique and awe we all experience in the presence of men and women who represent courage, valor, and integrity. Who can say “no” to people like this?

As I say, it is a stretch, but one wonders why an ultra-conservative like Paul Ryan who is intent on slashing every social program in sight and leaving us all without a safety net in our old age would, at the same time (as Chair of the House Budget Committee), recommend increasing the military budget? Indeed, it is one of the oddities of this age that the Republicans generally who want to cut and slash the Federal budget refuse to consider any serious examination of the “defense” budget — much less cuts. And this in face of the fact that we spend 6 to 7 times as much on the military as China and more than the next 20 largest military spenders combined. In fact, this country spends over 40% of the total amount spent on the military in the entire world! Does it ultimately come down to a psychological trick that none of us is aware of: an inability to say “no” to those who are used to giving orders? I wonder.

In the meantime, while we mull this over, the military continues to amass power and spread its influence throughout the world as we continue to spend more on “defense” than any nation in the world and people go to sleep hungry and homeless in a country of vast wealth.

13 thoughts on “Military Mystique

  1. The answer to your question? Lobbyists. There is a defense contractor or facility or office located in every state, so a cut to the military, is a cut to the contractor, is job cuts to Joe Schmo’s home district! There are some programs the military doesn’t want, such as more jet engines for the Raptor, but they come from John Boehmer’s district in Ohio. Guess what, we are buying more engines. Same for the A10 warthog. Comes from upstate new York, I think.

    Congress is just afraid of defense contractors as they are of the NRA.

    • Well said. But this doesn’t rule out the intimidation factor I am pointing to! They may both be at work here. In any event, it is a powerful influence.


  2. An interesting take here. Stockman ran the OMB for four years under Reagan and says as conservative as Paul Ryan may think he sounds, he hardly is. The defense budget, adjusting for inflation, is almost double what it was under Eisenhower. Plus, Stockman has some other things to say about the budget. I love his line about forgetting about banks being “too big to fail. They are too big to exist.”

  3. Good post. I think you validated two truisms. First, the sharper you look, the more seriously you are treated. Second, is the fear factor – if a military person is this concerned about how pristine he looks, then he must really care about important things. Eisenhower was dead on accurate to be wary of the military industrial complex. Any business which has so much money tied up in it, does not want any change to that revenue stream. We see it with the Oil/ Gas Industry and we see it with the military.

    I got a little off subject, but back to kowtowing to the military, here is something bold to chew on. For over forty years the Marine leadership has lied to Congress and its own Marines about the water at Camp LeJeune in NC. The water is so polluted, Marines and their families have suffered over many years and some have died. Senators Richard Burr and Kay Hagan finally pushed through a bill to compensate these families two weeks ago. To me you cannot talk about honor and code as leaders when you have pissed on your own soldiers, their spouses and their children. We need our leaders to be above this no matter how they dress. Our soldiers, at a bare minimum, deserve to be honorably treated. Thanks for publishing this.

    • You’re welcome. I don’t pretend to be taken in by the glitter and pomp. Appearances are only skin deep. I suggest here that it is a bit of a facade. Your comments amplify this point. Many thanks!


    • I think this is more common than we will ever know. A lot of lip service to supporting the troops, wen in fact it is just supporting the military industrial complex! Great comment, OF!

      • Thanks, Jenni. I suddenly realized how difficult it would be in this day and age to even suggest that the “heroes” who parade around in their fatigues might in fact be anything less than admirable!


  4. Great post. Once again, I am with Barney here. I think it is the corporate influence of defense contractors and their lobbyists. War is big business. I am not one to insult the soldiers, but I also don’t buy into that mystique. But maybe standing next to one of them in my ” best bib and tucker” I might be! 😉 Thanks for another thoughtful post!

  5. It is interesting you mention that Jenni. Romney has said anyone could have ordered the attack on the Bin Laden compound, but that is not true. Obama actually decided against the recommendations of the military to do an air strike. He said we need to take the risk to assure the American people we got him. One further point, Bush actually limited the efforts to find Bin Laden late in his Presidency and move supported by one Governor Mitt Romney. With all of that said, Hugh is entirely correct about the intimidation factor based on pomp and circumstance. Hugh, again this is a terrific post which is evidenced by the very good comments from many.

    • Thanks, BTG! I know you are both correct (you both usually are), and I didn’t mean to demean the President who is a man of courage. But that picture struck me and the associations led to what I do think is a subtle psychological ploy that is proving itself quite successful in this country!


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