American culture, military veterans, and the forever-war

01/03/2018 09:12 am ET

A review of Grateful Nation, Student veterans and the rise of the military-friendly campus by Ellen Moore (2017, Duke University Press).

Ask anyone doing social justice work in the US to name the glaring problems of our society and the list will come quickly – income inequality, gentrification, racism, sexism, lack of health care, crumbling schools. . . the list goes on and on. Too often, though, we fail to name the elephant in the room: the colossal military machine that eats up the majority of the federal budget, that carries out wars without end, that has almost 800 bases in over 70 countries, and continues to be, as Martin Luther King charged, the greatest purveyor of violence on the planet.

The truth is that we remain silent about this culture of war and the consequences of war – even while it infects and dominates all other issues. This silence is not simply an oversight. It is the constructed reality, the result of a complicated and many-pronged project by the military establishment.

Grateful Nation: Student Veterans and the Rise of the Military-friendly Campus is a deep dive into just one part of our militarized and weaponized culture. Through extensive work with hundreds of veterans and a detailed investigation into veterans in college, Ellen Moore has powerfully illuminated and analyzed the ways the military has strategically positioned itself in US society. She has done something unique and powerful in the scholarship of war and peace – a work that should be broadly disseminated and debated.

The use of veterans and their suffering to prop up a culture of war has been addressed before. It was the glaring centerpiece of the novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. And, just as in the novel, we see civilian men (mostly men) posturing as tough patriots based on their imaginary tales of military heroism while refusing to listen to the actual experience of veterans. In fact, American military valorization is general and vague, directed at an unspecific “war on terror” – a terror that is somehow at once everywhere and nowhere at all.

When you think about it, Americans’ narrative on military action in the US is curiously obtuse – there is no talk about the actual war or mission, certainly no debate. It is a kind of militarism in a country where we don’t discuss military actions. There is only a hazy invocation of gratefulness for the soldier’s service. Moreover, as Moore points out, the military has managed to conflate the interests of the country and people with the military and therefore with the military actions.

Moore shines a light on this contradiction for Americans, allowing us to see how we are in fact complicit in these terrible wars, and in the maiming and killing of our own troops, by using the pleasant greeting of “thank you for your service.” What if it is not service? What if we could demonstrate (I think we can) that every war action in the Middle East has not only killed and terrorized innocent people but has also produced thousands more people willing to fight against the West? If that is the case, then this is hardly service. It is a disaster. If we want to be respectful, perhaps we could just say, “We’re sorry; we regret sending you into a senseless imperialist war for oil profits and world dominance; we apologize for letting that happen without sufficient anti-war organizing.” But of course apologies don’t flow as easily as empty phrases of gratitude.

Moore does a detailed and insightful analysis of the basic training, boot camp, experience for soldiers. The breaking down of civilian habits, the creation of a dependent and servile follower, the simplifying of choices – all these are part of it. But, most important, basic training turns civilians into people who can kill, not an easy task. Plenty of people joke about killing or do it in video games. But actual killing, and risking one’s life? These are difficult to achieve. David Grossman’s On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society has explored the difficulty the military has had in creating killers – and the steps they have taken to achieve this dubious accomplishment. Some of it is dehumanizing the enemy; some is simple behaviorist training with punishments and rewards; some is brutalizing the sense of self. While I remember the racism of my basic training experience during Vietnam (gooks, dinks, all that), the most regular motivator was sexism – don’t be a pussy! are you a faggot? Jody’s got your girl. We never had political indoctrination – never a discussion about the mission, the need to defeat communism, the war aims. It was all racism and sexism.

Ellen Moore describes the experience of women in the military – a profession where at least 20% of women have experienced sexual assault—from rape to groping, assault to harassment, the beat goes on. Women soldiers walk a fine line. Besides facing sexual assault, they have to succeed in being physically strong while not coming across as too manly, lest they face harassment as lesbians.

Moore reserves most of her work, however, on an investigation of campus life – college options for veterans. The analysis is thorough and revealing. Since Vietnam, the military has framed college campuses as “anti-military” because debates about war policies do sometimes occur there. Colleges desperately want veteran students, it seems, because they come with ready government money, no need for grants or scholarships. Faculty is often warned that it is important to be pro-veteran, to be sure to make the campuses “safe spaces” for vets by not saying anything negative about US war policies. Campuses become, in effect, a safe space for militarism.

Militarism has comfortably ensconced itself in our language and interactions. It is not unusual to hear school administrators announce “welcome aboard,” and to hear teachers described as “in the trenches.” We regularly use phrases that invoke colonialist and violent history such as “circle the wagons” (a phrase from the Indian wars) and “crack the whip” (a phrase invoking slavery). Debate is pallid or non-existent. It is common to hear discussion on the liberal National Public Radio (NPR) that seeks to demonstrate balance by having two experts debating what to do in the latest new front like Syria: the debate between whether “we” should put “boots on the ground” or bomb them. There is no place for a clear anti-war argument.

The problem is, of course, that these are policies sought and demanded by military leadership, not by the vets themselves. The veterans often feel silenced, discouraged from actually talking about their experiences and even their questions about the wars and their missions. Veterans have indeed experienced trauma, both from the violence they suffered but also from the violence they perpetrated. But back in civilian life, veterans are objectified, held in a victim-hero binary (you are either a great strong hero, deserving thanks; or a suffering victim, needing pity and regular trips to the VA). Veteran policies discourage colleges from discussing the forever-war or from treating these people as full humans able to interact, eager to connect.

Moore evokes and then brilliantly analyzes the actual challenges that veterans experience in trying to begin a college pathway. There are vast, rarely recognized differences between the experiences veterans bring to college and the expectations they face once they arrive, some of which are:

· Pedagogy – having learned in kinesthetic ways, they are now confronted with abstract learning styles;

· Competence – veterans are used to learning practical applications while college values theoretical competence;

· Culture – the military fosters “battle buddies” while college is based on individual orientation;

· Hierarchies – in the military these are explicit while in college they are based on covert and subtle codes;

· Formality – military culture demands formal interactions while college culture emphasizes the informal;

· Motivation – the military relies on habituation to external command while college suggests internal motivation;

· Class contradictions – many working class and low-income youth come to college from the military and are uncomfortable with the entitled lives of the middle-class kids they encounter;

· Emotional complications – veterans are still dealing with traumatic responses which colleges are not able to respond to.

These are some of the challenges veterans face in college. And certainly some of the practices of the military could be usefully spread to colleges – the idea of group identification instead of individualism, for instance.

I remember my experience being trained as a mortar infantryman. An 81mm. mortar is a pretty gruesome weapon and was used freely in Vietnam. The training to set up and fire a mortar, adjusting direction, angle, and charge, is highly technical. The interesting thing is that at Ft. Polk where I was, they put 100 guys into mortar training and expected 100 to graduate; and 100 did graduate. Whoever fell behind was given extra help, pushed, pulled, the knowledge ground into them. There was no achievement gap among these working-class kids. There were no winners and losers. That is the game of public school. Here they insisted you learn and you did learn. This has always told me something about the construction of the “achievement gap” in schools. The gap is simply a way to sort students in order to make what seems like a meritocratic system in fact reproduce class and racial hierarchies. It is quite possible to design a mastery system that makes everyone achieve at least some competencies.

The military presence on the campus means not just inviting veterans into the schools but, more importantly, suppressing critical consideration of the military and its mission. In this way, the military point of view becomes part of the hidden curriculum of college life.

This is no small accomplishment by the Pentagon. It is part of a long and complicated strategy they have built since their historic defeat in Vietnam – a multi-pronged campaign to reassert dominance. During the US war in Vietnam, generals were held up as warmongers, the Pentagon was roundly condemned as the center that generated US militarism. They have worked since then to repair their image and reassert their impact. The steps they’ve taken have included:

· Ending the draft which hit a broader swath of the population, replacing it with an economic draft, the “volunteer” army;

· Bolstering military recruitment budgets, aggressively entering high schools, colleges, and courthouses;

· Funding colleges and urban public high schools for accepting reserve officer training (ROTC) programs;

· Paying professional sports leagues to open games with the national anthem accompanied by military honor guards, flag bearers, and flyovers by military aircraft;

· Cultivating the image of the military as neutral servants, simply professionals carrying out policy set by the country, instead of advocates for war;

· Pouring millions of dollars into universities for STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) research for military development. In fact, University of Texas recently got $1.1 billion in Department of Defense grants.

· Moving to replace direct combat with mechanized warfare conducted by drone aircraft and soon robot soldiers.

These measures have lulled the public into a sense that the military is either invisible or quietly benevolent. Many who feared Trump even held out hope that the ascendancy of generals to key positions in the cabinet and in running the White House would be a moderating, rational force. But the military has settled into a world where the US empire is engaged in a forever-war, much like the late Roman empire that was involved in constant border wars. Or perhaps it is like the world of Orwell’s 1984, which was constantly in wars with “Eurasia” and “Eastasia.”

Moore points out how the military authorities have infiltrated their way into every aspect of college life, establishing the “common sense” of a war culture and the militarization of our society. As she says, in the “production of militarized common sense. . . a discourse of care conflates support for veterans with support for military actions.” And this common sense has been accepted uncritically by far too many in US society.

Ellen Moore’s crucial study reminds us of the important things, the central issues. The soldiers sent to fight this forever-war are used up and discarded in astounding ways – left to suffer wounds of the body and soul, left homeless and suicidal, and kept out of serious discussion of the rights or wrongs of the war. Ritualized public gratitude and the suppression of debate in fact silences veterans. The powers that be promote military valorization while veterans are instead looking for redemption. It is up to us to rebuild a serious anti-war movement – that is what the people of the world ask from us, it is what US society must have, and indeed it is what the soldiers and veterans desperately need.

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