How we think about problems says something penetrating and insightful about us. The way we solve problems is central to who we are as human beings. It’s a creative outlet, a way for us to show off our skills, but perhaps most of all, it says something about what we value and how we think. In America, since the end of the Second World War, we’ve increasingly come to see our foreign policy problems as military problems, or, that ever popular piece of linguistic dishonesty: “security concerns.”
You’ve probably been thinking of “security concerns,” a lot lately, especially if you consume news media. With the rash of anti-U.S. protests in the Middle East, and especially the tragic murders of U.S. ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and his staff, the world once again looks like an exceedingly dangerous place to Americans. “Security,” looms monolitchically over any and all discussion on foreign policy, moreso now, than perhaps ever before. Why is this? Strangely, the word “security,” in a geopolitical sense, brings up images of the exact opposite, when we hear it. In a curious, and frightening display of Orwellian doublespeak, “security” conjures images of war, terrorism, but perhaps most of all, military might. Security necessitates it’s opposite; insecurity, fear, terror, and instability. There is an impression, sometimes correct, of a very hostile world, bent on removing that security from us. Those scary images, do what they are made to do. they scare, us, leave us looking for someone to protect us, to save us, but at the expense of allowing us to think clearly. When we’re scared, we don’t have possession of our full mental faculties. We’re easily convinced. So we have a problem. A scary world, filled with dangers. Now comes the important part; how we deal with that problem. And unfortunately, because we’ve become increasingly entrenched in the military mindset, the answers to those problems have tended to consist of increasing our ability to kill other people.
See, America wasn’t always a militaristic society. Before the first World War, America’s army ranked seventeenth in size globally, right behind Romania’s. The following global conflagrations would fundamentally change the face of the military establishment from a largely ad-hoc, assembled as need army, to a highly professionalized, and economically vital piece of the military industrial complex. Of course, the Union was born out of the Revolution, and forged in the fires of the Civil War, but the idea of a powerful, centralized, military establishment was abhorrent to the founders. Indeed, many of them saw standing armies as one of the main obstacles to freedom from tyranny. Here is James Madison on the subject of war and armies: “Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.” Madison adroitly read history, and indeed realized, that wars and standing armies have ever been the enemies of freedom. The problems typically arise for several reasons. For one, large standing armies enable costly military adventurism abroad, which to Americans, should ring many alarm bells if we look at the past half century. But we can go back further, and look at the history Madison would have had access to, and see the same pattern. Large armies, and entrenched military establishments do two things. First, their upkeep, and the wars they fight, drain money, resources, and human lives from the host country. France’s involvement in the Seven Years War, and the American Revolution helped bring on the financial crisis that would ultimately serve ass one of the sparks for the French Revolution. The Romans had their own problems financing the Legions, after they began to hire mercenaries, once the idea of the citizen soldier, fell by the wayside. We have today, something of a disturbing parallel to this, with the rise of private military companies. And of course, the more direct route for an entrenched military to exert power, is when it resides at home, and is given the power to control the citizenry, in times of emergency, or of course, when “national security,” is threatened.
This isn’t to take anything away from the brave men and women who serve in the military, at home or abroad. Americans have been saddled with a particular sense of guilt after the treatment of veterans following the Vietnam war, and rightly so. But fear for our safety and fear of repeating past mistakes has given the entire military-industrial complex a protective halo. It’s become unquestionable. Our enitre discourse about the military is completely skewed, because beyond even coming up with the right answers, we can’t even ask the right questions. Who in their right mind would say they want to cut defense funding, or make the military smaller? Let’s take a look at some of the campaign positions of both U.S. presidential candidates in the 2012 election. Mitt Romney has repeatedly called into question Obama’s toughness in foreign policy, frequently citing his apologetic tone, and perceived weakness towards geopolitical rivals, China and a re-emerging Russia. Here’s an excerpt from Romney’s campaign website on “National Defense,” notice, the language games at work again here. Just like “national security,” we talk about “national defense,” as if the gargantuan military apparatus the United States has in place could be considered solely protective:
“American military power is vital to the preservation of our own security and peace around the world. Twice in the 20th century, the United States was compelled to come to the rescue of Europe when it was engulfed in war. And it was American military power that enabled the United States after World War II to stand in opposition to brutal and aggressive Communist dictatorship. It was American fortitude and power that turned around the Soviet missiles on their way to Cuba. It was American resolve and power that helped to liberate the captive nations of Eastern Europe and precipitate the collapse of the USSR. It is America today that patrols the global commons and keeps them safe for trade and commerce.”
This is a nice example of selective history reporting, that holds the United States up on a pedastal, because it solved all the worlds problems. But as I mentioned before, what’s most telling about a person, or a nation, is how it solves its problems. Our answers seem to be all military. It’s nice to think of the United States heroically riding to the rescue, of poor old blundering Europe, fighting against the Fascist beast. Hitler, the Nazi’s they’re easy. Moral absolutes, evil in all its forms. But the other situations were far less clear cut. World War One was largely a product of the “entangling alliances,” that George Washington warned against in his farewell address. The Soviets would have collapsed under the wight of their economy of contradictions, although the arms race certainly sped up their demise. Finally, to argue that it is the right, or responsibility of the United States to patrol the global commons is completely unfounded. Of course, we’ve reaped massive economic benefits from our military domination of the sea lanes, but does that really mean that the only way to ensure free trade is for one nation to act as peacekeeper for all the rest? This is the model we know, as the might of the British Navy served the same purpose before the United States, but we should not be hemmed in by such archaic thinking. Implicit in this argument is to think of military measures as the only answer. Worse, when we accept this definition of reality, we aren’t even capable of asking the right questions about the situation. C . Wright Mills put it perfectly in his seminal Power Elite: “Peace is no longer serious, only war is serious… When virtually all negotiation aimed at peaceful agreement is likely to be seen as ‘appeasement,’ if not treason.” War, and military ascendancy have become the model by which to see the world. Especially during the 20th century, and even more so in the early 21st century, war has been more the rule, than the exception. War has been normalized, unquestionable in a very insidious way.
It’s easy to pick on Republicans for big military stances, but the Democrats are little better. While the Obama administration has ended the war in Iraq, and cut defense budgets, he still has not seriously challenged the idea of the U.S. military as a hegemonic tool of power projection. Proof? Well, the numbers don’t lie. At least until China perfects its anti-ship missiles, the principle tool of power projection is still the aircraft carrier. The United States Navy has eleven, while the rest of the world combined has the same number, none of which are on par with American super carriers. The fiscal year 2010 budget was almost 700 billion dollars, which really isn’t even a completely accurate representation of how much gets dumped into the military apparatus, because so much can be added as “emergency,” or “discretionary” funding, and then hidden in the balance sheets so deeply that only a trained accountant can find it. This amount of spending is simply unnecessary and unsustainable. The days of Bush era adventurism abroad may be behind us, but it doesn’t have to be a live-fire war to cost money. It costs billions to man all of the over 700 military bases the U.S. has scattered around the globe, yet we never hear a a word from either majority party about packing it up. The answer always seems to be more spending, more troops, more technological wonders. Unmanned drones simultaneously fascinate and terrify us, as think of their implications in mass use in warfare. And just so you don’t sleep tonight, surveilance drones are already in use in police departments inside the United States, and many jursidictions are in the process of adding “less-lethal” weapons systems to them, like tear gas, rubber bullets, and tazer rounds. We rarely stop to think about the problems these military solutions purport to solve.
Indeed, we’re incapable of asking those questions, because the military metaphysics have prevailed. As Mills notes: “In the absence of contrasting views, the very highest form of propaganda warfare can be fought: the propaganda for a definition of reality within which only certain limited viewpoints are possible. What is being promulgated and reinforced is the military metaphysics- the cast of mind that defines international reality as basically military.” Sadly, it doesn’t seem likely that we’ll be able to ask the big questions of our military establishment anytime soon, either. As the economy struggles, more and more of us are happy just to have a job. We rarely have time for the “big questions,” that sound more and more like the prattling of Ivory Tower intellectuals. Non-military answers to international problems seem like pie in the sky, pieces of idealism. But it shouldn’t and indeed, it mustn’t. History is littered with the remnants of great militaristic societies that collapsed, from Sparta, to Rome, to Prussia, and the USSR. We would do well to heed their lesson.