In one of the greatest PR successes of all time, close to 100 percent of Americans believe the United States has a volunteer military. It does not. What the United States does have is a recruited military.
The distinction matters for many reasons, most importantly because overcoming profound public misunderstandings on this and other realities of the U.S. killing machine is essential to building a vigorous anti-war movement.
Before we zoom in, let’s zoom out.
Just as a fish may not know it’s wet, few Americans have any idea of just how pervasive militarism is in defining who we are as a nation and as a people. From the massacre of indigenous people to the suppression of slave resistance, we are steeped in brutal and relentless slaughter. We are also utterly and completely immersed in language designed to confuse and obscure just how much killing and destroying we do.
At the very core of our identity is the idea that “freedom” requires that we kill, kill, kill. “They died for our freedom,” rings throughout the land, not just on Veterans Day or July 4, but every day. While we say they died, what we also mean is that they killed. As Donald Trump and General Kelly put it, “that’s what they signed up for.”
To be clear, there is a cohort that does join the military voluntarily. Many are the children of active duty and retired military personnel. Many are low-income for the simple reason that the military offers a place of relative stability and opportunity. Some join out of sincere support for the mission of the U.S. military and/or because they are attracted to the military way of life. But however many genuine volunteers there are, there are nowhere near enough of them to meet the Pentagon’s staffing needs. Which is where the recruiting machinery comes into play.
As an exercise, try keeping track of how many times a day you see or hear something that in some way glorifies the use of force, either in personal conversation or more commonly from the media. Yes, any version at all of “thank you for your service,” counts, whether it refers to a “first responder” (isn’t that a clever phrase), or a citizen, or a soldier.
Instead of just letting all that praise and worship wash over you, pay attention. Notice how often you see military references at sporting events. This is not an accident. It is but one component in the Pentagon’s vast recruiting operation.
Consider this little nugget from a Wall Street Journal article on the debate over whether Roger Goodell should continue as Commissioner of the National Football League.
Remember that the NFL was cultivated into prominence by Pete Rozelle, a pro-war conservative. In the 1960s, Rozelle hired a World War II veteran-turned-filmmaker, Ed Sabol, to produce highlights, commercials and documentaries that marketed the sport as patriotic and militaristic. Sabol’s NFL Films made football feel more American than baseball. His work was so critical to the league’s wild growth that in 2011 he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The same honor had been bestowed on Rozelle in 1985, while he was still commissioner.
Back in 2015 Senators Jeff Flake and John McCain rocked this boat a little by questioning the Pentagon’s relationship to sports:
“The Pentagon has paid more than $9 million to professional sports franchises the past four years, including $6.8 million to stage ‘paid patriotism’ events, Sens. Jeff Flake and John McCain disclosed Wednesday.
“The events ranged from full-field displays of the American flag to enlistment and re-enlistment ceremonies and emotional reunions of returning servicemembers and their families.