American culture has effectively reduced public discourse regarding foreign policy, war and the defense budget to the bumper sticker “Support the Troops.” Certainly, there is nothing wrong with the vague slogan, but as a substitute for informed debate on the growth, maintenance and application of the most destructive fighting force in the history of the world, it is not only inane, but an invitation to bad politics.
The personalization of politics and the elevation of anecdote as political justification is nowhere more visible or harmful than on issues of militarism. To simply state that every man and woman in uniform is a “hero” and move forward, allows the Pentagon to paper over its own criminal failure to protect active-duty women from sexual assault, along with its failure to assist military spouses, who suffer from disproportionately high rates of domestic violence. It also mutes conversation about the most critical and destructive power of the federal government. Nearly 26 cents of every tax dollar went to the military last year, the United States maintains 800 military bases around the world, and it routinely bombs several countries.
Now President Donald Trump, who often brags about being the most “militaristic” person in a demonstration that he does not know the definition of the word, claims that he wants to implement one of the largest increases to the military budget in American history. Like many of Trump’s policies and much of his life, his Rambo rhetoric is an empty, theatrical gesture. The proposed defense budget of the Trump administration calls for $18 billion in new funds, not the $54 billion that the president has consistently referenced. Sen. John McCain, and other Republican bombardiers, have raised objections, demanding that Trump match his original number.
In a country that already has the highest defense budget in the world, which equals that of the next seven countries combined in military spending, the debate is not over the size of monetary reductions to the Pentagon or even whether or not to decrease the budget. It is the madness of arguing how large of an increase is best. If anyone made the obvious observation that the militarism of Trump and the Republican Party exposes their devotion to “fiscal responsibility” as hollow and hypocritical, they have a readymade persuasive strategy of deflection at their disposal.
The most dramatic moment in Trump’s first address to Congress was his tribute to Carryn Owens, the widow of Chief Special Warfare Operator William “Ryan” Owens, who died in combat during the first special forces raid conducted under the Trump presidency. For more than two minutes, officials in the executive and legislative branches of government gave Carryn Owens a standing ovation, while she wept for her deceased husband.
As much as the Owens family is worthy of national sympathy and support, it is important to remember that Trump was not giving a eulogy at a funeral. He was acting as the most powerful person in the country, making a sales pitch to Congress and the American public for the enactment of his draconian agenda. Immediately before he identified Carryn Owens, he barked, “I am sending the Congress a budget that rebuilds the military, eliminates the defense sequester, and calls for one of the largest increases in national defense spending in American history.”
Seconds after the applause for Owens ended, Trump said, “Our foreign policy calls for a direct, robust and meaningful engagement with the world.”
Anyone who is oblivious to how Trump hoped to manipulate solidarity for a war widow to his own advantage has no understanding of propaganda or even storytelling. The sadness and compassion the audience felt for a young woman in tears was the emotional fly for Trump’s deadly, political hook.
The president is likely to succeed in his shell game because American culture has already done most of the sleight of hand work for him. Many major sporting events now open with a “salute to America’s heroes,” including NFL games, with ceremonies funded by the Department of Defense. Major League Baseball games go so far so as to include the triumphantly announcement of an attending veteran’s name, and call for cheers in his or her honor before the crowd sings “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”
Hollywood, television programs and video games coalesce to glorify everything related to the military as the height of American civilization, giving ample preparation for Trump’s sentimental evaluation that no Americans are “greater than those who fight in uniform.”
Veterans certainly deserve respect and gratitude for their voluntary sacrifices, but the military, like any institution, is full of both bad and great people, both the heroic and villainous. No politician with ambition is going to slit his or her throat by questioning the cultural convention surrounding soldiers as unquestioned beacons of virtue, even in the face of hideous exceptions.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has bravely led the campaign to bring more attention to high rates of sexual trauma in the American military but has failed to attract much of an audience, while Stacy Bannerman, the leading advocate for military spouses who have suffered domestic abuse, claims that she cannot find a single senator willing to sponsor a bill she wrote allocating more resources for military wives attempting to escape violent husbands. If America is unanimous in its appraisal of all military members as heroes, how can anyone even consider that a minority of them could be rapists and wife beaters?
It is nearly as difficult to honestly discuss the metamorphosis of America into a garrison state. Over half of federal discretionary spending already goes to the military, but Trump will give a substantial increase, whether it is $18 billion or $54 billion, to the Pentagon without resistance. If everyone in the military is heroic, it becomes politically perilous to criticize the institution that supports the heroes.
The fallout of military genuflection will become even more radioactive if Trump launches a war. As long as most Americans reflexively recite the reduction of history and politics to solely crediting the military with the creation and preservation of freedom, convincing voters that the aggression of U.S. foreign policy does not serve the interest of freedom is a philosophical mountain to climb.
American culture built the mountain, and now Trump stands at the apex with all the weaponry of power aimed below. This is one reason, among many, why it is a bad idea to elect a maniac president.