Monday, May 21, 2007

The Military, New Youth Idol

I read today that the military has emerged as the institution which most youth respect: the church, politicians, and schools lose credibility. “Trust in the Military Heightens among Baby Boomer’s Children,” reads the New York Times headline. What do kids find attractive or admirable in snapping to attention or in operating high-tech killing machines? I find Norman Mailer’s argument – that the military and its conquests provide the promise of a saving discipline to those rightists convinced society is rotten to the core – persuasive. The military is energized by youth. Fresh-faced warriors are masters on the battlefield, immortalized on TV and magazine covers. Youth are the energy. But the patriarchate of officers direct their heroics, provide them with aims, and bestow the honor of legitimacy on their violence: where else can those who celebrate the killings of poor people be feted as heroes? Tough-talking old men with limited imagination, who enjoy using euphemistic words like “assets” and “force protection,” are the real-life Harrison Fords of chiseled jaw, few words, and adherence to an anti-aesthetic of true masculinity. Tommy Frank, depsite his de facto celebrity rank, has not shed the nickname “the grunt’s general,” which shows how the old patriarchate makes its claim to an original youthful violence, purified by patriotism into a self-effacing heroism.

The military is a place where one may be safe from desires. In any case, whorehouses and the pleasure of killing aside, this is how the public imagines it to be: a secular church of the country’s civic religion. The stern gruffness of a Tommy Franks, in his paucity of vocabulary, this disavowal of creativity and individual agency, may serve better than Jesus Christ to stimulate this ascetic dream among the populace. Christ’s eyes in paintings are softened by suffering and the dream of absolute love. His masculinity, too, is too archaic, too feminine and loose-haired. Certainly there is a dream of unity in him, but this too is a longing, and spiritual to boot. Tommy Franks is refreshingly free of longings. Longings distract. And in the age of the internet, where one can drown, it is said, in one’s own fantasies and come to in a stranger’s bed or in prison, distractions lead off on crazy paths. The trivial detail or quirk of personality mushrooms monstrously within cyberspace, unseen to the world. Entire sites grow up devoted to feet, or big butts. Tommy Franks’ face is the icon that can ward off the grotesqueries of such desire.

Says David King of Harvard, children and grandchildren of baby boomers “trust the government, and especially the US military, more deeply than their baby boomer parents ever have.” Buy how is one to square such a statement with the prevailing sentiment which holds that government itself is a negative force, domestically at least, which must be starved of taxes and infiltrated with the love of Jesus? Is it a NIMBY phenomena, by which Americans love the government as long as it is meddling in the affairs of foreigners, but loathe it when it comes too close? Youth are not captive to logic.

When I was in high school I had the ability, without quite knowing it, to hold with different parts of myself what appear now to be contradictory positions: such as an admiration for Reagan and a fear of nuclear war. I know I regarded the motley-garbed crowd of budding activists and misfits at Yale’s “Nuclear Age” conference held in the winter for high school students. I was indignant at the thought that the “conservative” label might disqualify me from being concerned with the devilish thought of nuclear holocaust. I had my own logic, made possible only by ignorance of Reagan’s real policies in pursuit of his Hollywood moment of victory, which came at the Berlin Wall. It gave us a feel-good ending, a fleeting sense of closure which is now threatened by terrorism.

It is probable too that the thoughts of many youthful conservatives undergo a mysterious process when they pass beyond national airspace. The very government reviled for secularism, a creeping socialism of entitlements of the lazy poor, and militant feminism, has its image entirely transformed when it has entered foreign lands. In Islamic countries, the military becomes an evangelical instrument of American goodness, becoming a valiant force that can do no wrong. Our military is a rebuke against anti-secular parties, against dictators who ignore the welfare of the people, and against mullahs who oppress women. In other words, government positions reviled in the United States such as women’s rights, poor relief, and separation of church and state, are hailed proudly as evidence of American modernity abroad. Gun control in Baghdad is liberation of Iraqis from the fear of violent thugs, to be replaced by reliance on the law. In Colorado the same thing is only one more piece of evidence that the state has evil designs on the helpless individual. Poisonous abuses we would never countenance here bloom mysteriously into glorious policies when exported. Good youth are shocked that our “gift” of weaponry or sanctions is resented. Similarly, sensible laws imposed by Washington abroad or general among allies grow paranoid fangs under the hand of the cartoonist Limbaugh, when advocated at home. universal health care, for example, a pillar of every industrial capitalist power in the world save ours, mutates once it crosses the great lakes and the Atlantic into a harbinger of bolshevism. And good youth believe both propositions – our evil at home, our goodness abroad – without a second thought.

The unfolding of the war in Iraq as experienced visually on TV was unsettling, POW’s appeared, scared eyes darting about, where smiling Iraqis had been promised. Outgunned men charged our tanks in Toyotas, and died. The victory, a week or so of savored conclusion before chaos in the streets undermined it, thankfully wiped away the memory of that momentary insecurity. There was never any insecurity as to our physical safety – the authoritative fear-engineering of Rumsfeld and Cheney scared noone who had heard the testimony of independent experts – but there was a moral insecurity. The insecurity was precisely that of the male high-school student: are all the accoutrements and symbols of power I have carefully cultivated – the confident swagger, the thuggish tone of voice, the laugh-proof wardrobe – not convincing? Is the performance vulnerable to failure? Are my “six-packs” and my reversed baseball cap not enough? Why are the Iraqis fighting when we are so obviously superior?

The conservative establishment can claim that such wobbliness is the province of a weak-kneed, secretly liberal media. But with flags waving on ever newscast and Lou Dobbs fawning on Richard Perle, such a claim is hardly supportable by facts. “The Ultimate Sacrifice” is the title above photos of the dead, an odd echo of the martyr posters so criticized among Arabs. The media, like most of the populace, hungered for proof of our superiority: military through victory, moral through the open arms and smiles of the Iraqi people. The moral aspect was actually the crux of the drama unfolding, the subtext to the military/media jitters.

Militarily there was never any doubt of the outcome, and the troubling incidents – an ambush, some POWs – were militarily insignificant. But the press ate them up. The jitters, though usually expressed in concern over military incidents, were really moral. The jitters stemmed from shock that our superiority was not accompanied by admiration and acceptance. The sullen reaction of Iraqis presented us with the thought that we really were just a bully without any claim to moral superiority. Military maps and maneuvers acquired the status of metaphors for the moral drama of our do-gooder army. When discussing the battle for Baghdad with an old ex-general, anchors were also fortifying the nervous hearts of the people for a struggle which would be successful militarily but which might nonetheless bruise the fragile ego of the nation. Crusty old Rumsfeld was too far from the fragility of youthful bravado to realize that this, and not military strategy, was the nervous chill that emanated from TV images of sullen Iraqis and scared Americans and ran down the national spine.

Never before has a nation possessed of such destructive powers let these powers be secretly directed by the nagging doubts termed so mundanely in Seventeen magazine “Low Self-Esteem,” and attributed mainly to adolescent girls. With such a provenance, no wonder it can never be admitted. No wonder youth today embrace the military: for only it, with its absence of desires, shows an absence of weakness. Only it, in their eyes, can force the world to recognize and acknowledge that the USA is, indeed, Number One. Free trade is the gospel of ideologues, but it cannot stamp out the corruption that forever nags at the certainty of good youth that the system really is good. Free trade is too abstract. It has no spectacles as the military does. It is too undefined; too lacking in definite outcomes. There is no closure in trade. Desires are never vanquished, never satisfied, never still. There is no closure like the roar of an M-1 tank bringing down a building.

“Millions are watching. Wondering what to do about their own hair.” – Jennifer Aniston, smiling from an ad for TBS superstation.

A few days ago I rode the train to New Haven with a group of sailors-to-be, 18 or 19 years old. A young man and a young woman sat together with the unannounced intimacy of friends who would rather not admit that they are “opposite sex.” But the chemistry of constant dissing and elbow jabs were a subterranean admission. When I asked them what their motivations were for joining the navy, the boy said, “Well, I can get full professional training, college paid for, and retire in 20 years.”
“Where else can you get that?” said the girl, “Plus, you get 30 days leave a year.” The boy said offhandedly that he would also like to join the SEALS, in addition to doing medical work.

“So,” I said, “You wanna shoot em up on the one hand and fix em up on the other?”

“I guess that is kind of contradictory,” he smiled.

“Everyone goes in equal,” said the girl, “You get what you work for, and no one can get ahead with connections.”

In a word, these two youths joined to gain access to an extensive social welfare, educational, and health care system unavailable in general society, which blows in the wind of the free market. Were a senator to suggest the extension of such benefits to the general population, he would be branded a “socialist.” I don’t blame these kids for joining up to escape the “deregulated” world of class warfare and privilege in which we live. It simply strikes me as ironic that they join a military dedicated to the defence of a society whose very principle is cold profit – the very harshness which drives them into the military. They seek security from a society for which they provide security. What they defend is really their own social welfare. But in doing so they unwittingly also defend the system whose founding principle is the slow negation of any collective responsibility for each other’s welfare. This process is somehow termed “freedom.”

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