The forever war on terrorism, to which the country has become well accustomed, permeates US public culture. Militarism—the predominance of military virtues and ideals, the heavy investment in military capabilities, and the aggressive use of the military to advance national interests—is sanctioned routinely in political rituals large and small.
Tune in to a professional football game, for instance, to see opening ceremonies that feature a flag the size of the playing field, a military color guard, and a soloist in uniform singing the national anthem, culminating in a flyover by jet fighters. Along the sidelines, head coaches, their staffs, and players wear military camouflage caps and jackets. And so it goes, on and on.
Or watch the network evening news to see and hear stories about soldiers, all of whom are heroes. Indeed, the word hero extends from the battlefield to every branch of life. First responders are, by definition, heroes. Citizens who help anyone under any circumstance are heroes. People who struggle with life’s daily challenges are heroes. And then there are “the real heroes” as opposed to regular heroes. Everyday language, not just the police, has been militarized.
Militarism is insidious. It insinuates itself anywhere. It is sacrosanct. Color commentators and newscasters speak worshipfully and respectfully. No heresy is ever uttered.
Today’s militarism is a condition of what US economist and sociologist Thorsten Veblen identified 100 years ago as patriotic animus. He was writing in February 1917, just as the US was about to enter World War I, a time in which 10% of the population possessed 90% of the wealth. Commoners fight wars, Veblen noted, to protect or advance the interest of the wealthy. Why would they do that?
They do it out of patriotic animus, which is an attitude, a governing disposition, of prejudice and malevolence toward a designated enemy. The patriotic spirit is concerned with national prestige. It is shot through with a sense of solidarity. Indeed, it is the only remaining community interest that “can hold the sentiment of the group in a bond of solidarity.” Like sportsmanship, its aim is to prevail over a rival, to achieve a “differential advantage by injury of the rival rather than by an increase of home-bred well-being.”[i]
Patriotism reaches its highest pitch “in no other outlet than warlike enterprise; its highest and final appeal is for the death, damage, discomfort and destruction of the party of the second part.” One’s patriotic duty, above all else, is to serve the cause of national prestige, knowing that right is on the side of one’s country, thus giving the partisan patriot moral sanction for his fighting spirit. The spirit of patriotism is worked out “in mutual hindrance and jealousy between nations” and normally ends “in competitive damage to both.”[ii]
Veblen maintains that this deep-seated patriotic animus, which may appear to be an enduring trait beyond mitigation, is actually a product of protracted habituation, a frame of mind that, with difficulty, can be unlearned over time and replaced by habituation to “the absence of provocation,” thus eventually rendering obsolescent the bellicose patriotic temper. Institutional change takes time.[iii]
In the meantime, a government that is intent on war will foment the patriotic animus—“indoctrinating the populace with militant nationalism” so that they are intent on vindicating the national honor—not just to break the peace but also to insure war’s diligent prosecution. Moreover, Veblen observes:
Any politician who succeeds in embroiling his country in a war, however nefarious, becomes a popular hero and is reputed a wise and righteous statesman, at least for the time being. Illustrative instances need perhaps not, and indeed can not gracefully, be named; most popular heroes and reputed statesmen belong in this class.[iv]
[i] Thorstein Veblen, An Inquiry into the Nature of Peace and the Terms of Its Perpetuation (1917; New York, Barnes and Noble, 2011), 28, 41
[ii] Veblen, 28, 31.
[iii] Veblen, 35-36, 63-64, 79-80, 96.
[iv] Veblen, 20-21.