Living in a war state, even more than an ongoing state of war, is a numbing experience for the American citizenry. Today’s collective insensibility to military colossus is akin to the “psychic numbing” of Cold War nuclearism and the prospect of mutual assured destruction (Robert J. Lifton and Greg Mitchell, Hiroshima in America: A Half Century of Denial).
Warnings are abundant. Historian Michael Sherry (In the Shadow of War) observed that, by the end of the bloody 20th century, war defined the whole of American culture. Indeed, war delineates the arc of American history, according to Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton (The Dominion of War). Militarism fused with utopian vision, argues Andrew Bacevich (The New American Militarism) has turned the U.S. into a crusader state. War’s ritual of sacrifice permeates the national culture (Kelly Denton-Barhaug, U.S. War Culture, Sacrifice, and Salvation)—so much that war is culturally imbued in sports, Hollywood film, visual art, and literature as well as political discourse (David Holloway, Cultures of War on Terror)
Facts are manifest. No one knows exactly how many, but good estimates of the number of U.S. military bases, which are spread around the globe in about 130 countries, range from 700 to 900 and may well exceed 1,000. There are 200 military bases in the U.S. Just counting Army bases alone, only two states in the union (New Hampshire and Rhode Island) are without at least one. Militarism is sufficiently ubiquitous and armed conflict so commonplace that the war state does not collect a separate war tax, even though the direct cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as of 2013, amounted to an estimated $1.5 trillion, in addition to indirect costs of $2.5 – $4.5 trillion. The annual U.S. military budget of about $700 billion amounts to about the same as the rest of the world combined.
The warnings and the facts are perhaps too abstract to see, too overwhelming to grasp or believe. Militarism is as unexceptional and unremarkable as the air we breathe. It is an everyday occurrence and a totalizing worldview fully integrated with our forms of entertainment (Roger Stahl, Militainment, Inc.) and completely dissociated from our immediate experience. Wars are fought in foreign lands, not on American soil, by a professional army, not by conscripted citizens. The public ritual of honoring the troops suffices a patriotic citizenry otherwise absorbed in civilian lives.
If myths are public dreams that shape our beliefs and values, as Joseph Campbell taught, they mirror human nature. Images and narratives through which societies project “fears, doubts, feelings, and desires” are mythic vehicles for raising collective awareness (Sarah Bartlett, The Mythology Bible). Heroic quests express our moral ideals and self regard; tricksters reveal our corruption.
If scholars can confront us with the facts of empire without awakening us to the error of our ways, then we must turn to tricksters—or at least trickster-like figures—to learn the hard lessons of armed arrogance and democratic deficits. Heroes like Odysseus can be tricksters, too. JFK’s Camelot was a mixture of idyll and folly. MLK’s mountaintop was a fusion of dream and distress. Obama’s hope was a call for change. Shape-shifting tricksters appear in various guises and unsuspecting places to awaken us to the dead metaphors of the war state so that we might better appreciate the irony of the external devil.