Propaganda obscures American military's true role

Football abounds in war metaphors. Bo Schembechler was often referred to as “the General.” Players think of themselves as soldiers, risking body and life to move the line forward. So it should not surprise us when the sport becomes increasingly militarized, not intrinsically, but in the ever-increasing presence of the U.S. military at the games themselves, and such presence ought to concern anyone interested in a free society.

When the University of Michigan played at Northwestern, the home team was bedecked in star-spangled, blood-spattered eyesores, turning the players into billboards for the Army. Gone are the times when universities were hotbeds of anti-militarism. Instead, they have been co-opted by research dollars – the Pentagon’s 2014 budget asks for $330 million in university research initiatives, a number which doesn’t include the maintenance of university-based research centers, which would increase the amount by over $100 million – and have turned their public events into propaganda, the players themselves made avatars of military “virtues.”

The greatest divider of families in any culture is the military, a fact obscured by the rash of choreographed reunions, like the one the Detroit Lions staged Nov. 24. The conceit is simple: separate a parent from his/her spouse and children, make the family deal with their pain and isolation in private, schedule a very public “surprise” reunion to highlight their joy, then send the person back to war.

Such rituals are exploitative, manipulative, and propagandistic. They turn personal sorrow, fear and abandonment into commodities for public consumption - a consumer good for which the public seems to have an unlimited appetite. (Views on YouTube of these videos typically number in the millions.) Private moments are subjected to the public gaze, spectacles designed to reconcile the public to the high cost of America’s imperial reach – a reach demonstrated by the unparalleled command structure.

While these reunions are inherently exploitative and manipulative, the propaganda operates on a much broader scale. TV broadcasts can hardly go five minutes without a “salute” to our military veterans and families. Frequently they will show soldiers and sailors sitting in the stands. I attended a Nationals game in Washington last spring, and was struck by the frequent military invocations and the omnipresent rituals of civil religion. My guess is that if many Americans observed other countries engaged in these practices we would be skeptical and concerned. The problem, as Reinhold Niebuhr observed, is that “nations will always find it more difficult than individuals to behold the beam that is in their own eye while they observe the mote that is in their brother’s eye; and individuals find it difficult enough.”

To raise these issues is to invite opprobrium. In a country that insists “freedom isn’t free,” the language has already been debased to a point where careful deliberation melts away. George Orwell noted that when political language vaporizes, it blurs the outlines of reality in such a way that the indefensible becomes defended. The usurpation of language for military ends necessarily leads to a more acquiescent public.

Orwell further observed that brutalizing language makes life and politics more brutal. Such violence operates at its apogee at the level of abstraction – when it makes speech rote, vague or euphemistic. It distracts us from what is genuinely brutal: persons at war, and the costs of such war to American citizens. The militarization of non-military events operates as a gentle snowfall which blurs and obscures the outlines of war and envelops families in its chill.

I am not anti-military or a pacifist, but I am opposed to a public sphere which buries the fullness of truth under an avalanche of sloganeering and exploitation. The massive growth of government over the last century is due primarily to one thing: war. “War is the health of the state,” wrote Randolph Bourne, requiring the transferring of resources to a central point, and corroding the authority of all other social institutions, whose own purposes are now subordinated to war preparation and undone by the social dislocation that is war’s left hand. There is no justification for a centralized administrative state other than war, and its presence is freedom’s central threat.

How strange would it seem to us if a public address announcer at a football game welcomed all the peacemakers, all those who loved a freedom that resisted the centralizing and despotic tendencies of an imperial war state, and saluted those who simply came to enjoy the game.

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Paul Roese
Sat, 12/07/2013 - 10:24am
very good points. sometimes i can see the merit of bringing back the draft in that way the population as a whole would have "skin in the game" as it were. maybe Robert A. Heinlein's notion that to be a citizen required one serve their country isn't so bad. the Swiss used to require if one wanted the right to vote public service was required. what we have now is the cheap sunshine patriotism that requires nothing. many don't even want to provide much assistance to veterans if it means their taxes might be raised. that we have homeless veterans and those who can not get necessary medical assistance is a scandal to me. where are al the "I Support the Troops" people now? i also think that any who advocate and clamor for military action like in Syria or Iran should be placed with members of their families in the vanguard of ant forces put in harms way. see how enthusiastic they are then for direct action.
robert m. peters
Sat, 12/07/2013 - 10:29am
Mr. Polet hits the proverbial nail squarely on the head and drives it into the heart, if I my mix my metaphors alluding to both the heart of wood and the heart of a vampire. While football, itself a not-so-faint echo of the gladiatorial games and in its increased violence and willingness of players and coaches to maim players on the other side making it a even less a not-so-faint echo, and while among us Southerners football is the War Between the States by another means noting that the mascot names of our teams such as the Fighting Tigers and the Crimson Tide come directly from that conflict, this slick Madison Avenue militarization goes well beyond football. It has like the snake in the Garden slithered right into our churches of Veterans Day and on Memorial Day. In more than one church which I have attended on those "sacred" days, the insidious Jacobin pledge (I note that Christians get really bothered about the phrase "under God" and become right irate if some liberal suggests that it should not be there when, in fact, the entire pledge is the spawn of a defrocked Baptist preacher forcing the Jacobin "indivisible" on us.) is often said, hand over heart, before a prayer is lifted up to our Lord and all of the service men and, now more and more, women (A society which sends its nurturers into harms why and sacrifices them to the goddess of equality is a culture rotten to the core.) are asked to stand while the rest of us "patriotic" rubes are asked to genuflect to them because of what they have sacrificed for our freedoms, forgetting that no enemy has really threatened in terms of endangering home and hearth, kith and kin, women and children and blood and earth for over 150 years and that most of the wars we have fought since then have been enforcing American exceptionalism on someone else. This militarism of "conservatives" goose steps right along with the political correctness imposed by cultural Marxist who are ensconced in the bureaucratic state, in the media and in the academy imposing a new notion of original sin, namely that Western men are to the core racists, homophobic, xenophobic and gender biased and can never do enough penance to the goddess of equality. It is, in fact, cultural Marxism which has melded with the already abstract and bankrupt notion of American exceptionalism, for which "our men and women in uniform" are droning and bombing women and children to death in the third world: kill the women of Afghanistan so they won't have to wear burkas; kill about 600,000 women and children through the no-fly zone in Iraq to emancipate them from an anti-feminist tyrant. At the end of it all, the crowd screams, if it is baseball, "Plan ball," echoing that historical chant "Let the games begin!"
Sun, 12/08/2013 - 8:12am
In the early 1970s there was a documentary (I think it was originally on CBS) called "The selling of the Pentagon". It was quite controversial in its time. It touched on the whole propaganda military theme, I saw it once but it has been a very long time, most likely it is on You Tube. Worth checking out if you have an interest in this subject.
William Harris
Sun, 12/08/2013 - 1:23pm
A very interesting essay, if perhaps over-stated on the line "there is no justification for a centralized state other than war..." There may also exist other common goods that require cooperative effort on a broad scale. (The social democratic state in its many forms does not posit a military, for instance). What is certainly true is that we use the language of the military as a rhetorical rallying cry for a number of other goods, and thereby debase those goods. Like football.
Sun, 12/08/2013 - 3:33pm
War is never a good answer and I don't doubt that stories are often created to romanticize the military life, however in the case mentioned by Prof. Polet the soldier was being discharged early and he contacted the Lions to see if they would let him surprise his family at the game.
Sun, 12/08/2013 - 7:47pm
I can see how Mr. Polet feels the media has turned the reunions of returning veterans and sharing that joy as a form of entertainment or propaganda vignettes, much as the media has used the flag draped coffins to frame editorial views. What is most enlightening is how Mr. Polet seems to see only politics and can’t seem to see the uplifting value in human emotions. I can understand Mr. Polet’s frustration with such positive images for they are probably the antithesis of what he might have seen when he was developing his political perspective. Mr. Polet seems to yearn for that time when the videos were of returning veterans’ public rebuke, vilification, and attacks on their honor.
Jason Peters
Mon, 12/09/2013 - 12:13am
There isn't much that's uplifting about sentimentalism or sentimentality, both of which are cheap short-cuts to true human emotion. (Sentimentalism also supplies the foundation upon which are based the greeting-card industry and the holiday movies it sponsors.) And Professor Polet's essay isn't about returning veterans. It's about (among other things) the fact that war is an essential feature of an overreaching and bellicose centralized state; it's also about the thoughtless ride-thumbing you get when patriotism is measured by loyalty to an abstraction, and about how such thoughtlessness dupes us into willingly tearing apart our families, apparently for the sole purpose of seeing them restored in staged reunions during such sacred national rites as football games--assuming our families can actually be restored, which assumption a hundred years of essentially unbroken warfare should render questionable. Your first duty as a reader isn't to agree or disagree with what you've read. Your first duty is to understand it.
Mon, 12/09/2013 - 7:57pm
Jason, “Your first duty as a reader isn’t to agree or disagree with what you’ve read. Your first duty is to understand it.” I never heard of a reader’s duty. I thought a writer wrote to provoke thought/emotion. You seem to feel that if a response is inconsistent with expectations that it implies a lack of understooding. Could it be that I found something more important and commented on that? Mr. Hill, “I am opposed to a public sphere which buries the fullness of truth under an avalanche of sloganeering and exploitation.” ‘Fullness of truth’ seems import and wanting to stay with Mr. Hill’s example, where Mr. Hill used the veterans to make his point, I simply mentioned how people, maybe aligned with Mr. Hill’s view, have also used veterans for their propaganda. No criticism of Mr. Hill or what he wrote, simply and added piece of information. Sentimentalism of those reunions is uplifting to me. I see people who have suffered through a separation showing the joy of reunion. I can imagine it offers hope to those who are still separated and a bit fearful, and even a bit of solace to those who haven't had that type of reunion.
Jason Peters
Mon, 12/09/2013 - 9:22pm
Duane: Good luck with your "understooding."
Mon, 12/09/2013 - 9:37pm
There is a vicious circle that produces this non-stop extravaganza. Warmongers, whether of the "progressive" Woodrow Wilson stamp or the "conservative" Ronald Reagan/George Bush stamp, whip up patriotism. The less war enamoured "progressive" camp licks its wounds and decides it has to out-do the warmongers at idolization of veterans (Cf. Hillary Clinton). Thus, EVERYONE is competing to be seen as "for the veterans." As Professor Polet highlights, none of this bread-and-circuses trickles down into substantive care for those who did serve and are badly shattered in heart, mind and soul, as well as body. Perhaps the football team should all appear draped in black mourning cloths, while the announcer calls for a collection to be taken up for a fund to exterminate the rats infesting the local VA hospital, and to pay for out patient treatment for several local veterans whose allocated care is about to run out.