Hail to the Warmongers
I think [the emperor] knows what Rome is. Rome is the mob. Conjure magic for them, and they’ll be distracted. Take away their freedom and still they’ll roar. The beating heart of Rome is not the marble of the Senate. It’s the sand of the Colosseum. He’ll bring them death … and they will love him for it.
—Senator Gracchus, “Gladiator”
They all want to be “war presidents.” Most American chief executives learned long ago that the express lane to high approval ratings—at least initially—lay in military excursions and martial bombast. Just ask the Bush presidents, father and son.
But bombings, raids, even the death of an American commando or two are always good for a rally-round-the-flag publicity boost. And make no mistake: President Trump, the former reality TV star—and still my commander in chief—always can sniff out good ratings.
When a Navy SEAL died (along with several children) on a botched raid in an undeclared war in Yemen, the president had only to parade the petty officer’s widow before Congress to commence a record round of applause. CNN panelist Van Jones, not a supporter of the president, had seen enough: “[Trump] became president of the United States in that moment, period.”
Sometime later, when Trump expanded America’s undeclared war in Syria, launching 59 cruise missiles at Assad’s forces, CNN host Fareed Zakaria could not contain himself: “Donald Trump became president last night.” Odd, isn’t it, that acts of war—more than any other deed—transmit leadership bona fides?
Perpetual war, of course, is now as American as apple pie. In the span of my own military career, we’ve even been through several names for the campaign. First, we called the actions the “war on terror,” then “Operation Iraqi/Enduring Freedom,” then the “long war,” and now who-knows-what. But despite changing tactics and several rebrandings, we seem no closer to victory. What remains is the culture of conflict, the reality of death and certainty of protracted war.
And, of course, the war culture demands its own discourse. Here, the president and a bevy of politicians stand ready to spew martial rhetoric on demand. A bipartisan array of mainstream Beltway figures agree that warmaking is oh so “presidential.” To unleash the war machine is to appear utterly “serious” as a commander in chief. Can’t blame them. All politicians respond to positive reinforcement, especially Trump. The populace empowers militarism through questions not asked and platitudes unchallenged.
As for me, I’m no longer moved by uniformed pageantry, truculent swagger or bellicose action. While not an outright pacifist, my heart now lies forever with dead children on Baghdad’s streets and all the other helpless, innocent refuse of the chaos America unleashed in a troubled region. Rhetoric is lost on a veteran who knows empathy, both for his foes and innocent victims. As Walt Whitman reminds us, that is the “real war,” and it “will never make it in the books.” Perhaps it must be so; eternal conflict requires our forgetting.
What we—veterans, activists, human beings, take your pick—cannot countenance is bluster from a generation of leaders who have never seen the horror of combat. Not that all soldiers are right, or superior or more ethical. Far from it. But shouldn’t the line be drawn somewhere? I set that line at irresponsible, toxic gusto from policymakers spared by college deferments, bone spurs or the demise of conscription. They never have had to grapple with the honest, visceral stench of warfare.
Trump, let us remember, claimed to “know more about ISIS than the generals,” promised to “bomb the shit out of ’em” and to not need the advice of “non-hero” John McCain (who should have known better than to “get captured”). Trump, a “veteran” of a New York “military” high school, never relents in his oratorical bombast. Many Americans may scoff and write him off, but this rhetoric is dangerous. This president, remember, is the one who threatened North Korea with “fire and fury the likes of which the world has never seen.” Does that mean nuclear war? If so, what is the potential trigger? No one seems to know or say. This is terrifying.
Trump’s proclamations, while farcical and coarse, aren’t all that unique. During the 2016 election campaign, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz gleefully vowed to “carpet-bomb” Islamic State and “see if sand can glow in the dark.” As I listened to Cruz, I felt like crying out: “Those are human beings under those bombs.” The irresponsibility of his harangue, from a sitting senator, is staggering.
Unfortunately, most Americans inhabiting the warfare state are numb to such talk. Think for a moment what Cruz called for: carpet-bombing by the Air Force that would kill many thousands of civilians. This is ethically abhorrent and tactically obtuse—as each of those innocent deaths are known to motivate future adversaries and feed the Islamic State recruiting machine.
It also demonstrates a trait Cruz has in common with the vast majority of America’s political “chicken hawks”—they don’t know a thing about combat. After all, noted hawks such as Cruz, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Hillary Clinton, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and others haven’t served a day in uniform. If they had, or if they knew a thing about operational matters, they’d surely know Islamic State lives, fights and travels among the civilian populace and within populated cities. Carpet-bombing is highly inappropriate and ill-advised, playing right into the hands of Islamic State’s propaganda playbook.
Recent reports—though the Pentagon disputes them—note that many thousands of Iraqi and Syrian civilians have been killed in America’s somewhat more measured bombing campaign. It doesn’t matter, though. Few Americans call out the chicken hawks or force them to pay a political price. The U.S. is deep into more than 16 years of war, and the populace is immune and apathetic.
Militarism and tough talk are, of course, bipartisan in the hallowed halls of the American garrison state. After 9/11, then-Sen. Clinton admitted being “pretty pugnacious” and said that vaguely defined “terrorists” would “feel America’s wrath.” While she supported Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, she remained hawkish on the Islamic Republic, threatening “massive” (read: nuclear) “retaliation” should Iran ever attack Israel.
The bottom line is this: Today’s mainstream Democrats are no doves—they just couch the hardline rhetoric in cagier language. If anything, Democrats appear to so fear the Republicans labeling them as “soft” on terror that they overcompensate and try harder to prove their warlike spirit.
Being tough with talk and loose with the bombs is the easy part. Crafting a strategy to bring decades of war to a satisfying conclusion while minimizing human suffering demands a bit more. More, one fears, than Washington is capable of offering the American people. The current president vowed to “defeat terrorism” on several occasions. Sounds reassuring. Nonetheless, short of nuclear strikes (which Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee seems worried about) or full national wartime mobilization, it is unclear what would end terrorism—which is a tactic, not a tangible adversary, by the way.
Make no mistake, I recognize the need for a strong, credible, national defense deterrent. But irresponsible rhetorical language is poisoning American culture. The citizenry has been taught to thoughtlessly worship all that is martial and violent. It’s all linked: war abroad and militarized police at home; Harvey Weinstein, Al Franken, Roy Moore and the whole “me too” moment about sexual assault; mass shootings and tens of thousands of other firearms deaths a year. This is America. This is what makes us exceptional on the global stage.
Do not be fooled. Nationalism, patriotism and the whole lot are at their core militaristic and chauvinistic emotions. We Americans are a violent lot and revere savagery in its sundry forms. Many men cling to the combative language of “national defense” because they—and guess who they vote for—sense a crisis of manhood, one that ties directly to the Weinstein scandal, et al. For these countless, terrified men—civilians and veterans alike—war and militarism are the last bastions where vulgar masculinity, in word and deed, remain acceptable.
The hawkish semantics also relate to the uniquely American gun culture. This week, I stopped by the Walmart in my (ostensibly liberal) Kansas college town, and there were a dozen gun and ammo magazines, but not a single thoughtful foreign policy publication. No Foreign Affairs, no Harper’s, no Economist, no anything. That’s how most Americans want it, and it reflects the prevailing culture. Should we really be surprised? Americans’ historical heroes have long been the Wild West gunfighters, themselves often extralegal vigilantes.
We are a violent, weaponized people. When was the last time you saw a person who didn’t carry a gun to work honored before a football game? Where are social workers and elementary school librarians venerated on the 50-yard line? This, of course, is where the specious NFL kneeling controversy connects to our pervasive, aggressive discourse. Even Americans’ cherished “Star-Spangled Banner” is, at root, a war anthem. It’s a national psychosis mixing power, violence and barely stifled guilt.
The culture is inundated with militaristic displays, uniformed honor guards, jets flying overhead, and on and on. This occurs every week in the NFL, and it’s neither necessary nor healthy. Even I’m old enough to remember when we saved most of that pomp for just two times of year: Memorial Day and Veterans Day. Two is enough.
If only America’s officers and policymakers thought before they spoke, provided mature, nuanced analysis and ditched the flashy bluster.
It would also be great if American military professionals had the self-awareness and confidence to be less self-righteous and make do without the martial pageantry and constant adulation.
This veteran, at least, votes for fewer flags and more speculative prose, softer anthems and stronger debate. If only that were still possible.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.