Military might, market ideology and moral posturing: A toxic combination that has poisoned America

The domestic war on "entitlements" and our endless wars overseas are connected — and they're destroying America

Published March 13, 2021 12:15PM (EST)

Toy soldier fighting on money (Getty Images)
Toy soldier fighting on money (Getty Images)

Many of us who support government social programs still feel ambivalent about them — largely because we buy into, or are cowed by, the ideologies of free enterprise and militarism. The first holds that we alone determine our lot in life through competition and have no obligation toward others beyond taking care of ourselves and our families and obeying the law. The second exalts the soldier, who risks life itself in combat for God and country, who will sacrifice his own life for the sake of comrades (but who will also kill any member of an enemy population, man, woman or child, who might pose a threat). 

Proponents of these seemingly incompatible but actually closely aligned ideologies — self-interest versus self-sacrifice, mercenary versus military — may pose as defenders of traditional Judeo-Christian morality when it suits their purpose, but will also abandon it without fanfare when it does not. In contests of arms or money, the categorical imperative gives way to its opposite: beggar thy neighbor, do unto others or be done by, the law of the jungle, survival of the fittest, the war of each against all, my country right or wrong, etc. This turning of traditional morality on its head is passed over in silence, leaving the morality intact to serve as bluff and intimidation but also as a sop to conscience.   

Moral posturing, in other words, provides cover for amoral policies. All the professed concern for our moral peril from "entitlements" such as Social Security and Medicare (earned through wage work) — they make us soft, dependent, rob us of initiative — may sound strange coming from people who have no hesitation about flattering us, out of the other side of their mouths, as paragons of virtue and rightful rulers of the world. But they are not in fact being hypocritical. When they fear for our virtue, it is because they long to lay that huge "entitlement" pot of gold at the feet of their Wall Street patrons. Similarly, when they flatter our virtue, it is calculated to rouse us against the country's designated enemies, keeping the skids greased for national security expenditures that dwarf those of other countries — for the benefit of defense contractors and their servants in Congress. 

"Entitlements" are charged with "breeding dependency" or being "demoralizing." Were this really the case, the people who make the charge would be all for them. Nothing suits them better than a passive, fearful and submissive — in other words, demoralized — population. The real trouble with "entitlements" is that they encourage not idleness, but uppityness, as who should know better than the most entitled among us? "Entitlements" are empowerments. And uppityness breeds insubordination, the antithesis of the blind loyalty a warfare state like ours desires. An American should support his or her country unquestioningly — although not, of course, "the government."  

Mammoth national security expenditures serve to justify harmful cuts to "entitlements" and other social spending. The old false pieties never die: Social programs demoralize or emasculate; morality equals hardness or toughness, equals readiness for war.  

To our moral-guardian impersonators the highest embodiments of virtue, apart perhaps from the rare saint, are the entrepreneur and the soldier — "warriors" both — not the ordinary person wrestling with his or her conscience or better angel. D.H. Lawrence championed the latter ideal of moral heroism as almost the antithesis of the former. In an article on "Hymns in a Man's Life," Lawrence says the "battle-cry of a stout soul" he hears and admires in English Nonconformist hymns is "far, far from any militarism or gun-fighting." Lawrence also characterizes the hymns as expressing "the fight for life and the fun of it," whereas to those who denigrate "entitlements," virtue consists precisely in combat with others, military or economic, and conscience is what makes cowards of us all.  

People who start businesses are now referred to, in all seriousness, as "job creators." The term implies that our attitude toward them should be reverential, as if creating jobs were the purpose of having a business instead of a necessary expense and, as such, to be minimized. Venerated as beneficent "job creators," employers are free to revert openly to exploitative labor practices. Shouldn't workers then be called "wealth creators," wealth being founded quite openly and unabashedly on their exploitation?  

After all, the promoters of this "job creator" cant are the very people who oppose a higher minimum wage as a job-killer. That appears to include all Republicans and several Democrats in Congress. To them, negative incentives, like avoiding destitution, will do for workers: There is no need for a popular and overdue minimum wage hike. These are the same people who will, when occasion demands, sneer at the idea that corporations have any responsibility other than to their bottom line and their shareholders. Now noblesse oblige, now "Let them eat cake." (Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat, brought a cake for Senate staffers to the session in which she gave a theatrical thumbs-down to a minimum wage increase, inviting comparisons to both Marie Antoinette and Roman emperors.) 

However, the idea of "job creators" as by turns beneficent or cruel — today's job creators are tomorrow's outsourcers — fits nicely with the conceit that they represent some Supreme Authority that giveth and that taketh away. Blessed be the "job creators"! 

The now-commonplace public flaunting of religious belief is matched by regular pious tributes to the military, although Americans once boasted of not being militaristic. It was the Nazis and Soviets who paraded their military might, and we were supposed to find such displays both crude and menacing. We eschewed regimentation and the worship of force. Now it is our military leaders who flaunt their medals like the buffoonish Cold War cartoon figures of Soviet "People's Heroes." Cars serve as billboards for their owner's connection to veterans and those on active duty, among other in-your-face boasts. 

A complement to "job creators" on the military side is the bumper sticker that equates the American soldier with Christ — no longer an average Joe, an ordinary citizen, but a "warrior," a kind of superhero or Christ-like figure. The entrepreneur or CEO as God the Father, the soldier as God the Son: the humble citizen's saviors. Moral posturing on behalf of militarism does not shy away from outright blasphemy. 

Another bumper sticker spells out the virtual oneness of Christ and the military and our duty to worship both: "The only forces in the world that have sacrificed their lives for you [you unworthy ordinary person!] are Jesus Christ and the American military." Celebrations of war and unbridled economic competition alike reduce average citizens to worshipers.

A certain ambivalence about democracy seems natural: Who wants to be merely equal? This makes us easy marks for people with an anti-democratic agenda, especially when they dress themselves up as champions of individual liberty. Think of the popularity (though with somewhat different audiences) of Friedrich Nietzsche and Ayn Rand, whose conceptions of individual liberty exclude, as deficient in spirit, the great majority of people. In other words, they flatter their readers extravagantly as fellow members of a natural elite. Ambivalence about democracy may help explain the longstanding receptiveness of intellectuals and academics to reactionary writers and thinkers who associate advances in the general welfare with loss of individuality and cultural decline.

Because both political parties have long found common ground in keeping the country on a war footing, war has become part of politics as usual — and not a catastrophe to be avoided, a last rather than first resort. Democrats and Republicans alike manipulate fears over "national security" to boost their party's electoral fortunes. They take turns accusing each other of being soft on defense and exposing us to mortal danger. The practice is so well established it is taken for granted. To question it marks one as politically naïve. War is domestic politics by other means, to say nothing of its place in the economy. 

Consider the fact that one reason the George W. Bush administration was so eager to go to war with Iraq was the prospect of the bonanza that an expected quick victory and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein would offer the Republican Party. Fearful of letting the other party get all the glory, not to mention the money, Democrats in Congress jumped on the bandwagon and gave almost unanimous support to the administration's course. 

The considerable public opposition to going to war was not reflected in Congress at all. Such is the genius of the money-driven system we have perfected. That's quite different from the congressional opposition Franklin D. Roosevelt faced in the years before Pearl Harbor, when anti-interventionist sentiment was strong both in the country at large and in Washington. But who can fault the parties for playing politics, the celebrated Art of the Possible, even if the course chosen was criminal and has metastasized into the most destructive conflict since Vietnam? It's just politics after all, no cause for outrage. 

As we witnessed later, most of the Democrats who claimed to be outraged by Bush's militarized foreign policy and accompanying attacks on civil liberties and international law — including then-Sen. Barack Obama — were just posturing. When Democrats subsequently applauded, defended or minimized similar policies pursued by a president of their own party, they were being honest. They do not actually find such policies abhorrent. How could they? Democrats have been dancing to Republicans' tune on "defense" since World War II.

In fact, a few brave Democratic senators were trenchant critics of the Vietnam War, into which two Democratic presidents had waded. They had a constituency, too, among the troops in Vietnam, college students and faculty, feminists, Black militants and the public at large. Opponents of the war succeeded in getting an antiwar senator, George McGovern, nominated for president in 1972, to the chagrin of party regulars, who proceeded to undermine McGovern's campaign and help Richard Nixon to a landslide reelection. (The party establishment's torpedoing of Bernie Sanders, followed a similar script.) That was pretty much the last gasp for antiwar sentiment in Congress, which has reduced itself to a rubber stamp. 

The truth is, both parties have been war parties since 1945. Any confusion about this fact only stems from the parties' efforts to outdo each other as alarmists and warmongers. Democrats, on the defensive, fought back for decades against Republican attempts to brand them as soft on communism or whatever evil we were supposed to be fighting. Now Democrats have finally ousted Republicans as the more belligerent party, and the occasional peace noises issue from libertarian Republicans like Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky (whose politics are incoherent in other ways). Never fear, the parties come together to overwhelmingly approve bloated military budgets: Everybody wins! Along the way Democrats also began competing with Republicans over who is more friendly to corporate interests and Wall Street financiers, and Republicans have begun competing with Democrats over who is more pro-Israel.

The U.S. makes war in ways other than the boots-on-the-ground, warplanes-above kind, and those other methods can be just as devastating. Sanctions, which we deploy freely against countries that refuse to take orders from us (often referred to with the term of art "rogue nations"), should be seen as weapons of mass destruction — as they certainly would be if a militarily superior power were to use them against us. They resemble banned chemical and biological weapons in the way their effects spread and wreak havoc throughout a population. They fall short of all-out war only because – and this is the beauty part, from our perspective – only the other side gets hurt.

Let's be fair: The once-accepted claim that the sanctions imposed on Iraq following its 1990 invasion of Kuwait resulted, over the next five years, in the deaths of 567,000 Iraqi children under age five has been undermined. In "Truth and Death in Iraq Under Sanctions," Michael Spagat reports that the household survey figures on which that estimate was based have been discredited and withdrawn. Even the more moderate estimates of a later study covering a longer period, of 400,000 to 500,000 deaths between 1991 and 1998, are "far too high," Spagat writes, in view of post-Saddam UN-sponsored surveys. One of them shows a child mortality rate less than half that of the report for 1991-1998 and less than one-third the rate of the one for 1990-1995.  

Spagat emphasizes the Saddam regime's likely influence in exaggerating child mortality in hopes of getting the sanctions lifted or lightened, adding that survey respondents doubtless shared that interest. Accepting these lower estimates, however, does nothing to lessen the heartlessness of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's notorious response to Lesley Stahl of CBS regarding the deaths of Iraqi children under sanctions. Albright did not in fact dispute the figure at the time, saying, "We [apparently, the Clinton administration] think the price was worth it." She and her colleagues had made a "very hard choice," Albright said, and the fact that they presumably had to overcome pangs of conscience about causing enormous harm — and had not given into them like a bunch of softies — made it the moral choice.  

So the sanctions on Iraq killed far fewer children than previously thought, perhaps fewer 200,000. Sanctions are less harmful than the sanctioned would have the world believe. Is that the lesson? Or is the lesson that we can find ways to justify to ourselves killing large numbers of children, just as any other warlike nation finds ways to justify its crimes? We are no shining exception. We dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, killing about 250,000 civilians, partly to spare ourselves casualties — quite likely of lesser magnitude — from a potential invasion. The comparatively low death toll from the 9/11 attacks — about 3,000 — has inspired us to an orgy of revenge with no end in sight.  

In addition, a fact too easily overlooked in the argument over numbers is that maintaining the sanctions on Iraq, after we drove Saddam's forces out of Kuwait, was entirely gratuitous. Like the later Iraq war of 2003 and after, it was based on the strenuously maintained fiction that Saddam was somehow concealing weapons of mass destruction. Sanctions remained in place, despite Iraqi compliance, until the U.S. invasion a dozen years later. Our sanctions against Iran and Venezuela have likewise been based on bogus charges.

We reconcile ourselves to using sanctions because we see them as a way of doing good, of liberating others. The end is "regime change," ideally without requiring direct military intervention. Yet 13 years of sanctions failed to do that in Iraq, as 60 years of sanctions have failed in Cuba, and as sanctions are failing in Iran, Syria and Venezuela. Why do we continue them? That sanctions don't achieve their stated goals is immaterial. They are a cheap way of reinforcing our self-image as moral arbiter for the world, our assumed role of world leadership — which too many of us, including "liberals," still find flattering — while preserving our freedom to act even more aggressively.  

Finally, arguments over Iraqi casualties, whether from sanctions or war, divert attention from the basic question of justification. Put bluntly, there was no valid justification for either. At least the U.S. use of nuclear weapons occurred in a war that began with a direct attack by a foreign power. entered after being attacked. 

We claim we want to spread democracy but our actions tell a different story. We used the 9/11 attacks as a pretext to implement an existing plan to subdue the Middle East countries outside our control — Iraq, Syria, Libya and, the jackpot, Iran — a change Israel, our Middle East deputy, would surely welcome. (Yemen became a target, too, for us and our Saudi allies, after the Iran-linked Houthis seized control.) Despite costly catastrophe after costly catastrophe, that plan still seems to be in effect, judging by the Biden administration's actions so far. You could not ask for a more telling example of the influence of money over our politics.         

Drone strikes and targeted assassinations, which are also employed by Israel, offer the same one-sided advantage as sanctions. The fact that we consider technological superiority to be a mark of moral superiority — as did the Nazis, who pioneered missiles and military jets — makes the use of these advanced weapons more palatable. Must it take the re-emergence of a rival superpower with equal capabilities to nullify our bully's arsenal?  

Despite how good the chances of instant glory looked in prospect, there has been no victory in Iraq or Afghanistan these many years later. The Bush administration hedged its bets by making both conflicts part of a Global War on Terror, a longterm struggle like the "long twilight struggle" against communism, which ended in "victory" — the self-dissolution of the Soviet Union — despite stalemate in Korea, defeat in Vietnam and millions of deaths at our hands and those of the brutal anti-communist regimes and forces we backed in pursuit of victory.  

Rationalizing mass killing by claiming that it serves a greater good is exactly what we accused the communists of doing? The only difference between us and them seems to be that they killed more of their own people whereas we kill more of other peoples. We insist on quantifying the death tolls from Nazism and communism, but decline to tally those for which we bear responsibility. Like former President Trump, we accept no responsibility. To dwell on those deaths would undermine support for military action and military spending, not to mention recruitment. In pursuing victory over Soviet Communism, we also helped nurture what would become our next great enemy, "terrorism." 

When President George H.W. Bush said he would never apologize for America, he was just voicing a position that had remained unspoken, making it acceptable to say aloud. Bush decorated the commanding officer of the USS Vincennes for shooting down an Iranian jumbo jet with a full load of passengers during the 1980s Iran-Iraq war — as far from an apology as one can get. The U.S. also supplied Iraq, the aggressor in that war, with chemical weapons. Shouldn't Iran be sanctioning us?

In addition to its political uses, war is a money machine, and the ideal war, given a professional rather than citizen military, is indeed a self-perpetuating one. The model is the war on drugs, which has had a far longer run than Prohibition did. Weren't we supposed to have learned from that moral experiment that you can't make people give up dangerous addictive habits by outlawing them? As with our other wars, this one is not about combating the drug trade and drug addiction — we have failed as badly in that as in our military crusades — but about cashing in on them to funnel money to the right people and lock bothersome ones away. The cost in lives ruined or lost, which are disproportionately foreign, Black or Latino — is "collateral damage."

Despite, or because of, the slaughter we loosed on Vietnam and neighboring countries, we cast ourselves as the victims there. Vietnam is our Holocaust, as the siting of the Vietnam Memorial and the U.S. Memorial Holocaust Museum in the nation's capital testifies. We made a great sacrifice for the Vietnamese and Laotians and Cambodians, as we have for the Iraqis and Afghanis and Pakistanis. And what thanks do we get? What a world! 

Our government encourages us to think only of our own suffering — which is never to be forgotten — and not of the suffering we inflict on others, which is never to be remembered. We Americans must never forget 9/11 or the POW/MIAs of Vietnam. If too many of us relaxed our grip on innocence, virtue and victimhood, we might begin to question war. To be ready for the next round, we must keep our collective conscience clean, no matter what. The U.S. has come to excel at creating fear of enemies who are much weaker than we are, all the way down to militarily powerless nations such as Nicaragua, Panama and tiny Grenada. Fear is the conscience-killer supreme.

Americans take credit; we never admit wrongdoing. Taking responsibility for oneself is what we preach to other people and other countries. The Navy's recruiting slogan says it all: "A Global Force for Good." That's only true in a comic book right-wing world, or one in which other countries are as forgiving of our "mistakes" as we ourselves are. In fact, that is the unspoken demand we make of them.  

When Gore Vidal told an audience in 1991, the year it happened, that the Soviet Union had dissolved itself "in spite," I doubt that even he, as unsparing a critic of American arrogance as he was, could have imagined how prophetic those words would prove to be. What a mess we have made with our punitive, self-righteous and grasping foreign and domestic policies! We were never as good as we thought ourselves to be, and now our worst impulses have been freed from secrecy and can frolic in the open — as they were in the storming of the Capitol.

What a cruel joke the idea of a "Vietnam syndrome" — supposedly cured by the First Gulf War — seems today Like the "Munich syndrome" of appeasement that preceded the Vietnam war, it was a travesty of morality and a way of discrediting any public resistance to making war. When I hear these "experts" discuss in matter-of-fact, supposedly hardheaded terms the possibility of attacking this country or that, in order to save its defenseless people, I tell myself that either I'm crazy or these people are as deranged as any Trump supporter, and even more dangerous. I'd like to believe that millions of my fellow Americans — a silent majority? — share that thought. 

People talk about the curse of oil or the resource curse, but military supremacy can also be a curse. We should have drawn a different lesson from the example of Israel. We have yet to learn the costly lesson that Britain, Spain, France, Germany and Japan — other countries that nursed outsize ambitions — have had to learn, that we are just one nation in a world of nations.  

The attempt to impose our idea of order on the world has promoted instability and violence in many places, including here at home. While the U.S. continues to play savior to the world, it preys on the majority of its own population. Our nation continues to serve as an example — and also a teacher, patron and supplier — to militaries, paramilitaries, militias, police, and freelance warriors everywhere. A global force? Yes, unquestionably. But not in the way we like to pretend. 

By Doug Neiss

Doug Neiss is a retired business writer and editor.

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