Notes From the Margins…

Let’s all live in one big happy barracks

  • January 27, 2012
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There’s a good piece by Mark Levine on the Al Jazeera website about Barack Obama’s glorification of the U.S military in his State of the Union address, which    began with the fatuous and utterly delusional observation  ‘ We gather tonight knowing that this generation of heroes has made the United States safer and more respected around the world’.

The president who came to office largely as a result of his perceived opposition to the Iraq war went on to cite a list of the military’s achievements over the last decade:

For the first time in nine years, there are no Americans fighting in Iraq.  For the first time in two decades, Osama bin Laden is not a threat to this country.  Most of al Qaeda”s top lieutenants have been defeated. The Taliban”s momentum has been broken, and some troops in Afghanistan have begun to come home.

All of which, according to Obama, constitutes

 a testament to the courage, selflessness and teamwork of America”s Armed Forces. At a time when too many of our institutions have let us down, they exceed all expectations. They”re not consumed with personal ambition. They don”t obsess over their differences. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together.    Imagine what we could accomplish if we followed their example.

Yes, that’s right.  Just follow the examples of Iraq and Afghanistan and reach for the stars,  you patriotic Americans.    Levine rightly takes Obama to task for this drivel, asking

Does the President really believe that the United States is more respected around the world because of its military activities? Did no one point out to him that the morning of his speech, the marine sergeant who led the 2005 assault on Haditha that killed 24 Iraqi civilians received no jail time for his action, same as the seven other American soldiers who were part of the raid?

Levine calls for America to be transformed into a ‘post-military society’ and compares  the U.S military-industrial complex with the domination of Egypt by the Egyptian armed forces, pointing out that

in both countries the military – or rather the conglomeration of forces tying the military to leading economic actors with whom they disproportionately control their country’s political and economic life – is perhaps the single most important factor responsible for the lack of democratic accountability or sustainable and broadly distributed economic growth.

Fair point.  On one level Obama’s love letter to the military is an example of the kind of inane  populism to which US presidents are normally prone on such occasions.  With an election campaign coming up and new wars looming, it isn’t surprising that  the Peace Laureate should want to sing the praises of America’s ‘heroes’ as loudly as possible and seek to bathe in their reflected glory.

But running through his  speech is the assumption that the military itself is a moral paradigm for American society.   As Obama reminds Congress:

Those of us who”ve been sent here to serve can learn a thing or two from the service of our troops. When you put on that uniform, it doesn”t matter if you”re black or white; Asian, Latino, Native American; conservative, liberal; rich, poor; gay, straight. When you”re marching into battle, you look out for the person next to you, or the mission fails. When you”re in the thick of the fight, you rise or fall as one unit, serving one nation, leaving no one behind.

Obama then describes his own experience of being ‘in the thick of the fight’ during last year’s Bin Laden hit.   You might not think that sitting in the situation room watching a Navy Seals team shoot an unarmed man in his pyjamas who they could just as easily have arrested, is the most inspirational model.  But Obama thinks otherwise:

One of the young men involved in the raid later told me that he didn”t deserve credit for the mission. It only succeeded, he said, because every single member of that unit did their job — the pilot who landed the helicopter that spun out of control; the translator who kept others from entering the compound; the troops who separated the women and children from the fight; the SEALs who charged up the stairs. More than that, the mission only succeeded because every member of that unit trusted each other — because you can”t charge up those stairs, into darkness and danger, unless you know that there”s somebody behind you, watching your back.

Therefore, ladies and gentlemen:

So it is with America. Each time I look at that flag, I”m reminded that our destiny is stitched together like those 50 stars and those 13 stripes.  No one built this country on their own. This nation is great because we built it together. This nation is great because we worked as a team. This nation is great because we get each other”s backs.

Please pass the sickbag.   No wait, I think I’m over it.   So now you know the solution to all America’s problems folks.   Abandon your  greed, your irresponsibility and your selfish egoism and behave like a hit squad team and go into that ‘darkness and danger’ together, knowing that someone else has got your back.

Obama’s suggestion that the military is some kind of inherently admirable and superior institution isn’t uniquely American of course.  In Britain Michael Gove’s plan to put ‘soldiers into classrooms’ and introduce compulsory cadet forces into comprehensive schools is based on similar assumptions.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t military values that are worthy of admiration, depending on the circumstances, such as self-sacrifice and self-discipline,  teamwork and cooperation.  But there are other institutions where these values are also essential.   In Accident & Emergency wards, the ambulance service, or the operating theatre.  In the collegiate relationships in the staffroom that are essential to any good school.   In the fire brigade.  In NGOs engaged in famine relief.

Such institutions rarely – if ever – receive the kind of eulogies that politicians like to lavish on the armed forces.   There are also military values that are somewhat less worthy of admiration,  such as the willingness to follow orders blindly regardless of whether they have any moral or legal basis and  go into other countries to kill people you do not know and who have never attacked you just because a politician told you to.

Discipline, aggression, self-sacrifice and the ability to follow orders and behave as members of a team might seem like virtues on the Normandy beaches, but they can look very different  when soldiers are sent to fight neo-colonial wars and military occupations.    In the same week that Obama sang the military’s praises, research commissioned by the U.S Army found that American troops in Afghanistan routinely displayed ‘extreme arrogance, bullying and “crude behaviour”‘, and that this was one of the reasons why Afghan soldiers keep shooting at their NATO allies.

Similar behaviour was noted in Iraq, and was a key trigger of the insurgency in cities like Falluja.   So the military cannot and should not be considered some kind of moral exemplar for the rest of us to model ourselves upon, even if those who send soldiers out to kill and die like to think so.

The exaltation of the military was once an essential characteristic of fascism.  Today, in our new era of permanent crisis, with its protests, rebellions, riots and the constant possibility of ‘civil unrest’, it isn’t surprising that our political elites would also like to imagine society as a  barracks and parade ground,  with all its members unquestioningly obeying the orders of their superiors and behaving as disciplined components  of the national ‘team’.

So atten-shun you slackers.  Put your hand on your heart and salute the flag, and quick march.  Left, right, left, right, and let’s all make our country great again.





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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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