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Militarism: Our Civic Religion

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Militarism, U.S.A
by Col. James Donovan; Foreword by Gen. David Shoup (Scribner’s 1970), 265 pages

Today the United States is engaged in seemingly winless wars without end in Iraq and Afghanistan and has been engaging in interventions in places such as Libya, which seem to result in nothing but chaos. Libya has descended into civil war and the rise of ISIS is a fallout of the Iraq war. U.S. foreign policy has created a mess, but there seems to be very little debate over the wisdom of engaging in further interventions and wars in the world when it comes to the leaders of the two main political parties or on the television news and commentary channels, where the need for more interventions seems to be taken for granted. It is as if nothing has been learned from the past thirteen years. But this pattern of intervention goes back for decades and much can be learned from studying the past.

The silence and conformity of today hides the fact that the role of the United States in the world was once a contentious issue in mainstream politics, thanks to the Vietnam War. People were told that the United States needed to send hundreds of thousands of Americans to Vietnam to defend freedom and to prevent communism from spreading throughout the world. It was called the domino theory and asserted that if South Vietnam were to fall to communism, so would Thailand, Indonesia, and even Japan and India. But as the war went sour, more and more people came to doubt the wisdom of the war and the leaders that brought it into being.

On May 14, 1966, one of the most unlikely critics of the war gave a speech at a community college in Los Angeles on Junior World Affairs Day. He told them that much of what they had learned as children wasn’t true. “First, you’re taught there is a Santa Claus. Lovely thing at the right time. But a lot of people want you to keep believing this your whole life. In fact, they want you to be about as vibrant and thoughtful as the inhabitants of a second-hand wax museum,” this man said.

He told them that “everyone talks peace, peace, world peace, while for years our government has sold or approved the sale of hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of war material to other countries.”

He said, “You read, you’re televised to, you’re radioed to, you’re preached to that it is necessary that we have our armed forces fight, get killed and maimed, and kill and maim other human beings, including women and children, because now is the time we must stop some kind of unwanted ideology from creeping up on this nation. The people we chose to do this [to] is 8,000 miles away with water in between. I believe there’s a record of but two men walking on water and one of them failed.”

He argued that the people of Vietnam could sort their own problems out and that “the whole of Southeast Asia, as related to the present and future safety and freedom of the people of this country, is not worth the life or limb or a single American.”

The man who gave that speech was Marine Gen. David Shoup. He won the Medal of Honor in World War II in the Pacific War and, after the war, rose to the highest levels of the military brass after he was appointed by President Dwight Eisenhower to become the Commandant of the Marine Corps. He served on the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1960 to 1963.

Shoup is today a forgotten critic of the Vietnam War, but although his speech in 1966 was his first public pronouncement against the war, he had worked behind the scenes in retirement to oppose it. When the alleged attacks on U.S. naval vessels in the Gulf of Tonkin took place in 1964, he offered himself to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to testify against intervention in Vietnam.

Not an aberration

Within a year of giving his community college speech he became a target of FBI surveillance. The war only escalated and in 1969 he wrote an article in the Atlantic Monthly with retired Marine Col. James Donovan, who had been an assistant of his. They did not see the war as some aberration; their experience in government as insiders at the top taught them that it was part of an even bigger problem.

They did not view the communists in Vietnam, or even communism in general, as any sort of threat to the United States. They did not think that the United States was simply acting in defense of its interests in a rational way by going to war in Vietnam. Instead, they claimed that the United States had become “a militaristic and aggressive nation” and that is what led it into war.

The two worked together on a book titled Militarism, U.S.A., which expounded on their article. Donovan was billed as the main author and Shoup contributed a lengthy foreword to it. This is a work to read today and should be considered a classic when it comes to the topic of the United States and all of its wars since World War II.

The authors provide an explanation for the Vietnam War that has not been given in any of the thousands of history books written about it but that goes a long way to explaining not only that war, but the wars of today. Shoup and Donovan saw U.S. militarism not as being caused by any particular group in society, such as the military-industrial complex, but rather as a pervasive problem that involves many diverse groups who have come to treat militarism as something akin to a spiritual outlook.

Of course Eisenhower famously warned of all of that in his Farewell Address and one could see it as an outgrowth of the creation of the national-security state; but Shoup and Donovan make note of how it “has become a dominant aspect of our culture.” In their view militarism was being pushed not just by the Pentagon, but by think tanks linked to the defense establishment, veterans’ groups, and even churches.

“The basis of America’s modern militarism has been a hallowed trinity of ideals or creeds; patriot-ism, national defense, and anti-Communism. These terms mean different things to different people and each can be employed to motivate and justify actions, to attack opposing ideas, and to serve as a refuge for the chauvinist. Their pure and simple meanings are not in themselves a basis for militarism but they are frequently used and distorted by militarists for many purposes,” they write.

They note that like “hot dogs” and the “Fourth of July” those notions are “usually held above criticism.” “American militarism,” they write, “is founded upon this trinity of ideological beliefs which are the source of the national military policy — but American militarism is motivated by much less well recognized factors; defense-establishment careerism, defense-industry profits, fascination with military technology and weapons of destruction — and a national pride and competitive spirit.”

Shoup and Donovan blame much of the American drive for war in Vietnam on careerism inside the military itself and dismiss the idea that the United States simply responded to communist aggression in Southeast Asia. They claim that the way the American defense establishment is structured causes each branch of the armed forces to compete with the others for resources and importance. The planning staff of the Joint Chiefs of Staff makes plans to fight the next war, while officers seek to prove their mettle and win promotions by serving in combat and pushing for new programs, units to command, and bases to oversee. The result “is a constant urge to exercise and test the military solution to America’s many foreign problems,” they write.

They claim that “our armed intervention in Vietnam was not a continuation of Eisenhower-Kennedy policies so much as it was the result of new aggressive and militaristic policies evolved by President Johnson’s civilian advisors who desired to be generals and military strategists, and to the urge among Pentagon careerists who were tempted to test their theories of counterinsurgency, and to try out new organizations and equipment in a ‘limited’ war against ‘Communist aggression.’” When it comes to Vietnam they title one of their chapters “A War for Everybody.”

In their view anti-communism was a “sacred shibboleth used by doctrinaires and demagogues to support special interests.” They believed that “if there were no Communist block and no such enemy threat, the defense establishment would have to invent one.”

No safer, less free

Today no one thinks of communism as a threat to the United States. A war on terror has merely replaced the Cold War and terrorist cells have replaced communist agents in the minds of the most fearful of people. It seems that many of the American wars of today do not make the people of the United States any safer from terrorist attacks. In fact, often they engender the anger and hatred that lead to terrorist attacks against the United States.

In time, the societies of the Middle East will grow so sick of the chaos of civil war and terror inside their borders that they will change their societies for the better. People want to be free and the way the Cold War came to end is proof of that. The U.S. government simply needs to stop pouring fuel on the fire.

Moreover, there is no evidence that mass surveillance programs have made Americans any safer. With their massive assaults on privacy, they have certainly made them less free. There is zero evidence that they have been worth the costs of eroding civil liberties and the Constitution. Details of the recently released Senate torture report even show a program created more to the benefit of careerism than to the discovering of valuable information.

Shoup and Donavan quote George Washington as saying, “Overgrown military establishments are under any form of government inauspicious to liberty, and are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty.” They desire a more rational national defense policy that would recognize the reality that “there are limits to the power of the United States” and that would steer “clear of the forces of militarism which have so powerfully influenced the nation’s course in recent years.”

The two men want to see the defense industry and the forces of militarism in American both shrink. “It will be the duty of the Congress, the media, and the people, however, to recognize that the disciples of national defense are not completely selfless and altruistic when they foster national defense programs — they too have vested interests. Their ideas must be judged — not sanctified,” they write. That sounds like a tall order today.

By speaking and writing books on the topic they sought to influence the public, but they understood what they were going up against. The third pillar of the “sacred trinity” of American militarism they saw as public adoration of military affairs in a “culture of war” that creates a “blind enthusiasm for military actions” and “identifies numerous enemies who can only be dealt with through military power and which equates national honor with military victory.”

Instead of a nation of citizens who cast votes after a careful analysis of issues and demand to make their judgment heard after a careful weighing of facts, a nation awash in militarism creates a form of citizenship based on pure worship and obedience. It is foolish to expect much change to take place in Washington in such an environment until the public is better shown the folly of what Shoup and Donovan call the “sacred trinity.” They did not call for an end of “patriotism,” which they define as “simply devotion to one’s country,” but for an “attack in a different direction” against those who misuse such devotion. Today it is through the work of individuals and institutions that take up the banner to educate the public that the future of the nation and of the world can be redirected in a better direction. That is what freedom and liberty are really about. The book Militarism, U.S.A. is one worth reading today.

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    Michael Swanson resides in rural Virginia. He received a Masters Degree in history from the University of Virginia and then dropped out of the college’s Ph.D. program to enter the business world. He ran a hedge fund from 2003 until 2006 and runs the website Wallstreetwindow.com.