Friday, July 25, 2008

This War's for You

Josh Marshall says:

We need to re-familiarize ourselves with the fact that the point of the constitution's explicitly giving the president the title of commander-in-chief was not to make him into a quasi-military figure. It was precisely the opposite -- to create no doubt that the armed forces answered not to a chief of staff or senior general or even a Secretary of Defense (originally, Secretaries of War and Navy) but to a civilian elected officeholder who operates with the constrained and limited power of that world rather than the unbound authority of military command.

We've gotten the relationship seriously out of whack.
It's not just the Presidency: it's the creeping militarization of American society.

The past, as Faulkner is supposed to have said, isn't over; it isn't even past. We're still living in the aftermath of World War II, which gave us "The Greatest Generation" as well as the concept of a 'Good War' (a concept that astounded my uncle, a WWII veteran). From watching Ken Burns' documentary on that war, I think most of the veterans of it would agree with my uncle. From watching a few of the films made about the war (not the John Wayne-wins-the-war-single-handedly war films, but "From Here to Eternity" and "The Best Years of Our Lives"), I see that veterans didn't come home from that war to ticker tape parades and cheering hometown crowds and employers anxious to return the soldiers to jobs of prominence and importance (the best part about "The Best Years of Our Lives" is watching the characters try to reintegrate into society, the way soldiers have done since time immemorial).

The CW about Vietnam, of course, is that all Vietnam veterans came home in 1975, were spat upon as "baby killers," and ended up as drug addled psycopaths because of the horrors of that "illegal war" and because nobody stood up in an airport and applauded them as they deplaned. Which is what this ad goes for: a little balancing of the scales that were never that unbalanced in the first place.

This is dangerous and stupid revisionist history of the worst kind. Prior to WWII, we had a very small standing army. As I've mentioned before, FDR built the Pentagon as an archive building, not a permanent military headquarters. He didn't figure the country would need a military HQ after the war. Slowly but surely, we've accepted the militarization of American society, and the idea that without the military, our society would collapse. Nobody stares slack jawed with incredulity when Jack Nicholson tells Tom Cruise that he stands on a wall with a gun to protect people like Cruise from bad guys with guns. That part we accept; it's the "You can't handle the truth!" that we find amazing. To a prior generation of Americans, Nicholson's assertion about the wall and the bad guys would be considered as paranoid as the ravings of Gen. Jack D. Ripper's comments about "precious bodily fluids" and our "purity of essence." Funny to reflect those two films are only 28 years apart.

But it's the myth that compels us. We all know the famous picture from VJ day, and there were celebrations in New York and Chicago and Los Angeles on VE day. But many soldiers and sailors were still overseas at that time, and when they came home, they came home quietly, anonymously. They disembarked from troop ships and took trains and buses and went from being citizen-soldiers back to being citizens. Their sacrifice was appreciated, but they weren't lauded, one and all, as the saviors of our nation, as the reason for our freedom.

The other myth, of course, is that Vietnam soldiers came home to curses and spit and revulsion. Well, there were certainly no victory parades for them, but then, there was no "Victory in Vietnam" day, either. No more than there was for the Korean War, which has never officially ended. But as for the spitting stories, the best evidence is that the stories are merely urban legend. In fact, see if this doesn't sound like the scenario behind that Budweiser commercial:

The story told by the man who spat on Jane Fonda at a book signing in Kansas City recently is typical. Michael Smith said he came back through Los Angeles airport where ''people were lined up to spit on us."

Like many stories of the spat-upon veteran genre, Smith's lacks credulity. GIs landed at military airbases, not civilian airports, and protesters could not have gotten onto the bases and anywhere near deplaning troops. There may have been exceptions, of course, but in those cases how would protesters have known in advance that a plane was being diverted to a civilian site? And even then, returnees would have been immediately bused to nearby military installations and processed for reassignment or discharge.
I added the emphasis there to underline the point: at what civilian airport have you ever seen a large number of troops deplaning, complete with uniforms and gear? This isn't a realistic scenario at all: it's a post-Vietnam urban legend scenario, a "Rambo" film in which we win because we are the better people.

Which is what really bugs me about this ad: it's a lie, based on a series of lies, and its real purpose is not only to sell beer, but to sell militarism, to make us accept the military in our everyday lives, and as a necessary component of our national existence. The citizen-soldiers of World War II were ordinary people defending their homes and their communities and their country. The soldier we are being asked to lionize now is a mercenary who fights so we don't have to: so we can sit around airports chatting amiably and maybe buy a beer and be glad somebody is off fighting foreigners so we don't have to think of them as anything but the enemy we can get somebody to keep at bay.

Which brings us back to Josh's observation: the President is being seen, more and more, as a quasi-military figure, which means he is our "protector". In order to establish his bona fides, Barack Obama is promising at least 2 more brigades will be sent into Afghanistan (about 10,000 soldiers, for anyone as non-military as I am). Weren't we told, for awhile at least, that all of our soldiers were exhausted? Where are these 10,000 coming from? Beer commercials?

Feh. This Bud may be for you, but I don't want anything to do with it. Give Caesar what is Caesar's, and I'll give God what is God's.

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