Thursday, April 30, 2009

Embracing Heresy

I must confess that it is with some trepidation that I lay bare what flashed through my mind when I saw a clip of the president's news conference the other night. He was responding to this truly inane question from New York Time's reporter Jeff Zeleny. (Sounds like this guy ought to audition for a high school yearbook job to me.) Here's the question:

During these first 100 days, what has surprised you the most about this office? Enchanted you the most from serving in this office? Humbled you the most? And troubled you the most?

Obama was cool about handling this. Wrote down the four words after getting them repeated one by one. What I want to consider is his response to the third part of the question. Here is Obama's response:

Enchanted? Enchanted. I will tell you that when I — when I meet our servicemen and -women, enchanted is probably not the word I would use. But I am so profoundly impressed and grateful to them for what they do. They're really good at their job. They are willing to make extraordinary sacrifices on our behalf. They do so without complaint. They are fiercely loyal to this country.

And, you know, the more I interact with our servicemen and -women, from the top brass down to the lowliest private, I'm just — I'm grateful to them.

At the risk of being pronounced an incorrigible, hateful heretic, and then receiving an immediate patriotic pummeling from the outraged assembly, and then being spirited off to the nearest hillock there to be trussed up to an upright and burned alive for my sin before the outraged masses, the light of my pyre sparkling in their eyes, growls of satisfaction on their lips . . . let me say this: I, for one, am wearied by the constant adulation and puffery accorded the US military. It has become de rigueur for politicians of whatever stripe, like wearing the American flag lapel pin--I'm still disappointed at how quickly Obama folded on this during the campaign--to stroke the military with never-ending encomiums to their excellence, their patriotism, their bravery, their superiority to all the other militaries in the world, etc., etc.

Plain common sense ought to dictate some toning down of the kind of spread-eagle pronouncement Obama made every time the US military is mentioned in a sentence. Why? Because plain common sense tells us that not everybody in the military is good at what they do, or is willing to make extraordinary sacrifices on "our behalf,"* or does so without complaint. Alas, "fiercely loyal" may indeed be near the truth, but the kind of loyalty referred to here almost always means knee-jerk, flag-waving, kick ass, Toby Keith-mindless-my-country-right-or-wrong loyalty. How is it that patriotism has become identified in minds of people in this country with only this kind of (usually) unreflective loyalty? Is there no other kind?

If there's one thing the US military does not need, it's any more smoke being blown up its butt about how great it is. The sense of arrogance and entitlement that adheres to the Pentagon and its minions has already far exceeded the bounds of propriety. After being associated with the military for over 30 years, I can attest that as an institution, it is profoundly convinced that it, and it alone, is the sole remaining repository of virtue and patriotism left in the land. True believers in its own righteousness. True believers, just like the people who burned witches and heretics at the stake. I define this kind of institution as profoundly dangerous to liberty, something that ought to be curbed. Exactly the last kind of organization that needs to be constantly stroked.

Most Americans, the vast majority, are utterly unaware of the extent to which the Pentagon has spread its tentacles throughout the whole of American life. (In this regard, I highly recommend Nick Turse's The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives.) The Pentagon is out of control. It wants to be, and almost is, God. The last thing it needs is every politician and his brother and sister publicly falling down in worship at every opportunity. And that includes the president.

*"Our behalf" is the principal formulation that props up the military in people's minds. But actually, the words are code. Code that translates to "whatever political purpose the rulers of the country have decided it's worth sending people to die for." This definition is universal. It works any time, for any country, for any political philosophy. The military is always on "our behalf," otherwise it could hardly command the support of the population and the obscene amounts of money that population freely bestows on it.

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