Tomgram: Nan Levinson, America’s New Military Mystique

The Big Dick School of American Patriotism
And What We Make of It

Introduction by Tom Engelhardt

And I don’t blame them. In fact, I couldn’t believe that a Times reporter did that while on the clock. At my advanced age, I experience that increasingly all-American habit, like a number of other commonplaces of our post-9/11 world (including the word “homeland”), as distinctly un-American. In my 1950s childhood, such a habit would have been nothing short of nonsensical.

Let me explain by analogy: if you go to the grocery store, buy the makings for your dinner, and cook it yourself, you don’t sit down at the table and say, “Thank you for cooking this.” For that, you have to go to someone else’s house and consume a meal for which you did nothing whatsoever but appear. In “thank you for your service” terms, in 1950s America the military was, in an everyday sort of way, simply a part of American life.  It was a draft citizen’s army and so not only ours, but us. Enormous numbers of Americans had served in World War II, a war that no one doubted was justified and necessary. As a citizen, to thank them or those then in uniform for their service was, in essence, to thank yourself.  It would have made no sense whatsoever.  It would have been like patting yourself on the back.

The present thank-yous reflect a new reality: Americans now feel as if the military isn’t theirs, has nothing to do with them, and is no part of their lives.  It’s someone else’s dinner party (or nightmare, if you prefer).  In other words, it’s a habit that reflects just how far American war, even as it has become ever more permanent in our world, has also become more alien, ever less us.

And of course there’s another obvious question to deal with: What exactly are you thanking those veterans for? By 2013, American support for the war Richtel thanked that vet for fighting had dropped below 20% and so, based on polling figures, had become possibly the “most unpopular” in our history. In other words, Richtel was thanking that vet for fighting a war that Americans in staggering numbers now believe we shouldn’t have fought.  Which makes the eternal gratitude a little strange on the face of it.

Nan Levinson has spent a lot of time with the veterans of America’s recent wars and produced a new book in which they are neither simply heroes to be thanked nor victims to be pitied, but actors in their own complicated story. War Is Not a Game: The New Antiwar Soldiers and the Movement They Built offers a grunt’s eye view of this country’s two recent occupations — in Iraq and Afghanistan — and the complicated, unnerving world American soldiers face (including all those civilians thanking them) on returning home. Today, she considers what in the world we are to make of the new military mystique that envelops our country and the strange war culture that goes with it. —Tom

The Big Dick School of American Patriotism
And What We Make of It
By Nan Levinson

Let’s face it: we live in a state of pervasive national security anxiety. There are various possible responses to this low-grade fever that saps resolve, but first we have to face the basis for that anxiety — what I’ve come to think of as the Big Dick School of Patriotism, or (since anything having to do with our present version of national security, even a critique of it, has to have an acronym) the BDSP.

The BDSP is based on a bedrock belief in how America should work: that the only strength that really matters is military and that a great country is one with the capacity to beat the bejesus out of everyone else. Think of it as a military version of50 Shades of Grey, with the same frisson of control and submission (for the American citizen) and the assumption that a good portion of the world is ripe to be bullied.

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