We have a culture in this country of violence and militarism. Many of our national myths are based on violence. The six-gun toting cowboy, the tough cop, the military hero, and mafia godfather are typical Hollywood themes. Even our national anthem is all about war and “bombs bursting in air.”
Around patriotic holidays, like Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, this culture is promoted with speeches honoring the “sacrifice” of our troops. They died to “defend freedom” and protect our way of life. Implied in these stories is that our many wars were necessary and justified. In our zeal to honor military service we create a mythology of hero worship and glorification of war that gives legitimacy to violence and militarism.
But the wars have not been for “freedom” or noble causes. For all of human existence wars have been about stealing resources, protecting territory, and fear of the other tribes. Those “others” wanted our horses or slaves. They wanted the better hunting grounds. They wanted the gold or the oil. To us, “they” had strange customs and religions. They were different. Sometimes they had different economic systems like communism. We should not fool ourselves that our modern motivations are any different. We are NOT exceptional. We are human. We are “they.” The details, weapons and technologies have changed but human nature is the same.
Our troops, and their families, are actually victims of war the same as the “enemy” and the many civilian casualties of war. We call them “collateral damage.” Our callousness to the suffering and death of innocent people shows our acceptance of violence as an instrument of national policy. This attitude indicates we are all victims of war.
Endless war does not make us safer, more secure, or free. Each new war adds strength to the culture of violence as more veterans come home with PTSD, drug addiction, and desensitized to violence. Historically each war has weakened our civil liberties and democracy. The executive branch has grown more powerful. World War I brought the Sedition Act of 1918 and the “red scare” paranoia over communism. World War II had the incarceration of Japanese Americans. The Cold War created McCarthyism with loyalty oaths, guilt by association and the outlawing of dissenting political views. Now, with the war on terror, we have the Patriot Act and NSA wiretapping our telephones and emails.
We see the results in the militarization of our police, our borders, and our foreign policy. We see it in the demonizing of Islamic and Middle Eastern peoples. They are the current “others.” We see it in the paranoia of the war on terror. We also see it in the huge share of our national resources dedicated to war. The extreme amount of our budget devoted to “defense” beggars all other social, political and economic needs.
Unfortunately, many people buy into the militaristic propaganda. Most politicians, even liberals, have to repeat the mantra to prevent being branded unpatriotic.
How can we change this? We have to change the way we think and what we honor. Like a recovering alcoholic the first step is to admit we have a problem. We must be honest with ourselves about our history and the real reasons for our many wars. We must reject the culture of violence and militarism.
We can appropriately honor those who died serving our country without honoring war. Then we can begin to build the attitudes and institutions that foster peace, diplomacy, and international cooperation.