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Enlisting America

In the musical “My Fair Lady,” Professor Henry Higgins muses wistfully during one scene: why can’t a woman be more like a man? President Obama indulged in similar wishful thinking about American society as a whole in this year’s State of the Union address. Why can’t Washington and the rest of America, he asked, be more like the U.S. military?

Early in his speech, Obama lauded the “courage, selflessness, and teamwork of America’s armed forces.” He added: “At a time when too many of our institutions have let us down, they exceed all expectations. They’re not consumed with personal ambition. They don’t obsess over their differences. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together. Imagine what we could accomplish if we followed their example.”

His concluding passages echoed the same themes. “Those of us who’ve been sent here to serve can learn a thing or two from the service of our troops.” When you’re in the thick of the battle, Obama intoned, “you rise or fall as one unit, serving one nation, leaving no one behind.” Citing the Seal Team 6 raid that killed Osama bin Laden, the president stressed the virtues of unity epitomized by that operation. “So it is with America. Each time I look at that flag, I’m reminded that our destiny is stitched together like those fifty stars and those thirteen stripes. … This nation is great because we worked as a team.” And the national future would remain great “as long as we’re joined in a common purpose…”

Cato Institute senior fellow Benjamin Friedman highlighted the disturbing aspect of Obama’s rationale, noting that the president “has adopted the notion that military culture is better than that of civilian society and ought to guide it.” That view, Friedman warned, is fundamentally “authoritarian.” While Americans have certain things in common and have some mutual obligations, “that doesn’t make the United States anything like a military unit, which is designed for coordinated killing and destruction.” And it’s a good thing that American society is not like a military unit, Friedman argued, since that model is anathema to individual liberty.

But the State of the Union was not the first time that Obama has acted as though the military model is his ideal. In words and actions alike he seems to see himself as the commanding general, and it is everyone else’s job to follow orders. His speeches to Congress on proposed legislation have been replete with curt demands to “pass it now” or “pass it right away.” There is an underlying impatience with dissenting views—indeed, with the entire legislative process that the Constitution requires. The high (or low) point of that mentality came during a speech to Congress last year on the president’s “jobs bill,” when he insisted on immediate passage even though the provisions of his proposal had not even been drafted yet.

Obama’s generalissimo attitude was also on display in the 2010 State of the Union address, when he publicly rebuked the U.S. Supreme Court for its decision in the Citizens United case that struck down restrictions on campaign spending by independent organizations. With the justices in attendance, as was usually the practice, Obama rallied his congressional troops for a standing ovation in support of his attack on the court. That was an ugly, utterly unprecedented display of disdain toward an equal branch of government.

But the president’s crude invocations of a military template and his call for American society to conform to that ideal do more than just underscore his authoritarian personality. They reflect a much deeper problem since his strategy is designed to exploit a growing tendency in American culture to worship the military and martial values—especially the emphasis on unity, order, and decisive action.

The temptation might be to think that this cultural militarization is a post-9/11 phenomenon, but that assumption would be wrong. The reaction to 9/11 has made matters much worse, but as Boston University Professor Andrew Bacevich showed in his important book The New American Militarism, this is a trend that has been building for several decades. Columnist George Will has reminded readers that in his first inaugural address, Franklin D. Roosevelt demanded executive power to deal with the Great Depression “as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe” and that America needed to “move as a trained and loyal army” to combat the nation’s economic woes.

Another manifestation of the military paradigm is the promiscuous use of “defense” or “war” metaphors to generate public support for domestic policies that have nothing to do with national security or military action. A prominent early example was Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” in the 1960s. Will argues that “people marching in serried ranks, fused into a solid mass by the heat of martial ardor, proceeding in lock step, shoulder to shoulder, obedient to orders from a commanding general” is “the recurring dream of progressives.”

But it is not just progressives who are enamored with martial images and the military template. Significantly, the federal government’s first major venture into education policy came in the 1950s under Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower with a law titled the National DefenseEducation Act. Likewise, the Eisenhower administration’s interstate highway program was labeled the National Defense Highway System. Richard Nixon, who would have blanched at being called a progressive, was the president who declared a “War on Drugs” in 1971. And under presidents of various political orientations, we’ve been told to enlist in wars on everything from cancer to illiteracy.

A more recent sign is the tendency to include military trappings in ever more gatherings and events. My first jarring exposure to this reverence for militarism came at a 4th of July celebration in 1999 while visiting relatives in Utah. They had arranged for us all to attend a July 4th “pageant” on the campus of Brigham Young University. I looked forward to the event, not having attended such a gathering for nearly two decades. I assumed that as in the past I would hear patriotic music and speeches with excerpts from the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution (especially the Bill of Rights), and maybe brief mentions of the Federalist Papers, one or two key Supreme Court decisions, and other features of American history that highlight the values of freedom. Corny, but also a little inspiring.

Nothing of the sort characterized the 1999 pageant. Instead, it was a mindless adoration of every one of America’s wars to that date—including such sleazy land grabs as the Mexican War and the Spanish-American War and such pointless slaughters as World War I and the Vietnam War. There were repetitious reminders to be eternally grateful to the brave soldiers who died to protect the country’s security and liberty—without a mention of even one example of that liberty. Initially, I assumed that I had experienced an unrepresentative example of a July 4th celebration, but subsequent conversations with friends and colleagues across the country made it clear that jingoism was increasingly the norm at such events.

Not surprisingly, the trend has become more pronounced since 9/11. We’ve reached the point where it is difficult to attend any significant public event that doesn’t begin with a military color guard to present the flag before the playing of the Star Spangled Banner or the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. At larger gatherings, especially major sports contests, one can safely bet that there also will be a fly-over by jet fighters or a B-2 bomber—and occasionally both. That requirement has reached such absurd levels that some fly-overs have taken place at domed stadiums even when the dome was closed.

What a depressing change from the days of the Founders. Early American leaders understood all too well that militarism was dangerous to the health of the republic and to human liberty generally. Indeed, they displayed more than a little wariness about even having a standing army.

In a 1787 letter to James Madison, Thomas Jefferson expressed his concern that the proposed Constitution did not have a bill of rights, including a provision that provided “protection against standing armies.” As he took the oath of office for the first time in 1801, President Jefferson stated that “the supremacy of the civil over the military authority I deem [one of] the essential principles of our Government.”

Madison was, if anything, even more apprehensive about permanent armies and the values they embodied. “A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive,” Madison told the Constitutional Convention, “will not long be safe companions to liberty. The means of defense against foreign danger have always been the instruments of tyranny at home.” He added that “throughout all Europe, the armies kept up under the pretext of defending, have enslaved the people.”

A similar caution about the military was evident in the second generation of American political leaders. In his inaugural address in 1825, John Quincy Adams stressed that “the military should be kept in strict subordination to the civil power.”

We’ve gone from that healthy wariness of and skepticism about military values to Barack Obama’s admonition that the rest of America needs to emulate the armed forces. The Founders are very likely whirling in their graves.

The military is not and never has been an appropriate model for America. A crucial characteristic of the United States throughout its history has been the existence of an extraordinarily vibrant civil society. The core of the American way of life is that people are free to pursue their own dreams, not that everyone must have the same agenda and march in lockstep. Such a pluralistic system is inherently turbulent and sometimes quarrelsome, as millions of people implement their values and express their views and policy preferences. Obama’s strident insistence on national unity—to advance his own agenda, of course—is the antithesis of a diverse, free society. George Will aptly observed that the ethos of the armed services “is not a template for civilian society, unless the aspiration is to extinguish politics.” He should have added to extinguish different goals and opinions as well.

America’s political structure—with its emphasis on limited government and a strong private sector, a federal system that divides authority between Washington and the states, and a national government with power dispersed among three co-equal branches—is specifically designed to protect societal diversity and individual liberty. By the very nature of that structure, concerted political action was meant to be difficult and based on extended reflection, not a rush to judgment based on the wishes of a temporary majority—and certainly not obedience to the will of a single leader.

It is that system Obama openly scorns, and which some of his ambitious predecessors sought to undermine. His preferred model is a hierarchical one in which Field Marshal Obama gives the orders and the job of Congress, the Supreme Court, and American society as a whole is to salute and serve. Unfortunately, given the growth of militarism in recent decades, a distressingly large portion of the public may have become conditioned to embrace that profoundly un-American ideal.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is the author of eight books, including Smart Power: Toward a Prudent Foreign Policy for America.

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