The Slide into Passivity
October 1, 2002
With Responses From
What civilians do not know about the military.
As people lay dying in Vietnamese villages and rice fields in 1970, town meetings about U.S. national defense were held in Rowan Park and at a GI coffeehouse in Fayetteville, North Carolina, as well as on post at nearby Fort Bragg. Some of the soldiers there had joined with civilians to collect information about the war, publish newspapers like the GI’s Bragg Briefs, and to make a public case that the war was not constitutional, ethical, or strategically sound.1 Animated in some ways by the same sense of emergency as on Flight 93—lives were at stake with each passing minute—these public debates clearly represented highly democratic approaches to the question of war.
The debates occurred at a point in the evolution of U.S. military institutions and U.S. democracy that is important to reexamine in the light of Elaine Scarry’s argument. With historical examples like this in mind, we can begin to answer the most provocative question she raises in her enlightening essay: “why are we sitting quietly in our seats” as our military institutions are hijacked to fundamentally fascist purposes and authoritarian means? Since the democratic renaissance in defense matters evident in 1970, there have been several changes that have encouraged this citizen passivity, including the end of conscription, the privatization of defense, media corporatization, and the redefinition of national defense as “U.S. security interests.”
Many assume the military began its escape from civilian control with the 1973 shift to an all-volunteer force. But while today’s volunteer army is more politically conservative than the civilian population or than past armies, it is not personal politics but the intersection of those politics with particular wars and home front experiences that helps determine how military institutions respond to civilian demands for openness. While the vigorous debate about the Vietnam War resulted from an army drafted into a highly immoral and unsuccessful war, many soldiers emerged from the conflict believing they had been betrayed by both civilian leadership and the media; they responded with more secrecy and a more dismissive attitude toward civilians.
Moreover, sustaining a huge volunteer force requires more compensation than a drafted army, both in terms of income and other benefits. The latter includes a kind of supercitizenship status delivered through recruitment ads and political rhetoric. Many civilians have been more than happy to give tax money, elevated social status, and institutional control to the military in exchange for not having to send their own children to war. Some civil and military leaders have argued for a return to the draft on fairness grounds, but they have underestimated the power of a conscripted army to demand far more of democracy than fairness and far less war as well.
Two other social changes have contributed to citizens’ passivity toward the military, both of which have resulted in the militarization of the “civil frame” itself. The first is the privatization of defense through corporatization. Every day, such companies as Raytheon and Honeywell take in new employees from the Pentagon and in return sell it military goals, plans, and technologies in return. Glossy advertisements for the latest artillery products fill military professional journals, and these same military-industrial marketeers move freely between the highest levels of military corporations and the government. Vice-President Dick Cheney famously went from the position of secretary of defense during the Gulf War to CEO of Halliburton—where he made $30 million in two years, with some of the company’s new riches coming from U.S. Army contracts—to vice–Commander-in-Chief. Out of such a system has come little data for citizens to process and much personal enrichment, corruption, fraud, and waste. It has produced what Mary Kaldor calls the “baroque arsenal”2 and U.S. leadership of the international arms trade and its attendant blowback.
Second, the corporatization of the media has limited the amount of information citizens have about the military. The new media megacompanies have downsized the number of journalists in the workforce, and they and their advertisers avoid biting the government hand that feeds them.3 The dumbing-down process has only accelerated since September 11, as U.S. political leaders have used extensive airtime and a friendly news frame to declare that dissent or even discussion of defense policy options is treasonous.
Finally, since World War II, a more imperial concept of “national security” has replaced that of defense. The former notion can encompass more easily explicit U.S. political and economic goals around the globe. Moreover, security is defined as a singular, national matter, assumed to be equally available to all citizens. In fact, while war and military spending benefit many state and corporate elites, those at the other end of the widening wealth gap face a higher risk of early death due to violence or poor nutrition and health care.4 The collective defense provided by international or transnational law barely enters the discussion in a field defined not only by the erosions of our democratic culture, but by the Constitution’s framing in the language of the nation-state.
Elaine Scarry begins to imagine a radically different response to the violence in our midst. We must take her vision a step further and imagine a future that retrieves our institutions to wider public interest and control. We might then roll back the U.S. empire and focus instead on violence prevention, true intelligence, and strategies for policing rather than civilian-killing aerial bombardment. One hopes that most people would see these as more important and humane methods of protecting each other.
1. Catherine Lutz, Homefront: A Military City and the American Twentieth Century (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001).
2. Mary Kaldor, The Baroque Arsenal (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981).
3. Robert W. McChesney, Corporate Media and the Threat to Democracy (New York: Seven Stories Press, 1997).
4. Ann Markusen, Peter Hall, Scott Campbell, and Sabina Deitrick, The Rise of the Gunbelt: The Military Remapping of Industrial America(New York: Oxford University Press, 1991); Joseph Masco, States of Insecurity: Plutonium and Post–Cold War Anxiety in New Mexico, 1992–1996, in Jutta Weldes, et al., eds., Cultures of Insecurity: States, Communities, and the Production of Danger (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).
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