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.