Here we are, gathered on election night, a key ritual within our national liturgy. In return for your attention you’ll be rewarded with heightened suspense regarding the finalization of that ritual.
Leitourgia, or liturgy, the Greek for ‘work of the people’, stands for practices taken that amalgamate individual persons into a collective – into a people instead of a mere crowd. We typically think of liturgy as associated with worship, particularly Christian worship.
I myself am not speaking to you as Christians, that would be wildly presumptuous of me, but I speak to you as a Christian speaker, and as a part-time writer, a semi-retired activist, and a retired United States Armed Forces veteran. The last bit is important because this talk was scheduled on Election Day, as a Veterans Day speech of some kind – Veterans Day also being a national ritual.
Elections are national rituals in the American liturgy, because – as Theologian William Cavanaugh says – nationalism is the American ‘civil religion.’ Another theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, irascibly points out that we identify what we truly believe-in when we declare our willingness to die, or to kill, for it. And the overwhelming majority of Americans believe that about America – that this nation-state is worthy of blood sacrifice – whereas anyone who would ask someone to die, or to kill, for a communities catalogued as “religious”, would be branded a dangerous crackpot. We are Americans first, and only then Catholics, or Protestants, or Observant Jews, or Muslims, and so forth. So we already know that our first loyalty is to the nation-state, and faith plays second fiddle.
Liturgical rituals are language and gestures that induce the constant re-memorization of those things that are indispensable to our group identity. This ‘ritual remembering’ is designed to construct the way a community perceives reality. In the case of America, this means constructing an American world view.
As a Catholic, when I attend Mass, the central ritual of the liturgy is communion. It is sacred, a sacrament. It involves veneration and reverence and a sense of transcendent awe. A corporal connection with God.
Here is the thing, though. That sense of transcendent awe can be called up in response to many things. Linda Kintz called this promiscuous sense of the transcendent “resonance.” This sense of resonance can be confused with the sacred. If the resonance is felt, then the feeling itself is taken as evidence of contact with the sacred. The “feeling of rightness” can foreclose critical reflection.
Kintz visualized the objects of resonance “as a closed set of concentric circles stacked one on top of the other and ascending heavenward: property, womb, family, church, free market, nation, global mission, God."
We learn this resonance before we learn to think about it. We learn it at our mother’s breast and under our father’s gaze, and for many of us, these early associations only serve to make that resonance more powerful.
I was raised within these concentric circles of affective resonance, and I became a soldier. I swore to protect the Constitution, which I saw as a sacred document. I raised my hand and swore “to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States from all enemies, foreign and domestic,” whereupon I was sent to Basic Training, infantry training, parachute training, and immediately upon completion to Vietnam, where I encountered no enemies of the Constitution. Just poor people.
Poor people who didn’t want to fight but got caught in the middle, poor people who fought us because they saw us as an invader, poor people who fought for and against us because they were impressed into military service as many of my fellow soldiers had been by the draft. And our mission was, by various means, including lethal means, to control these poor people.
You cannot fulfill a mission to control a population by force if you retain the idea that those same people are fully human. So every enemy population gets a dehumanizing name, whether its kraut or gook or hajji, because it makes it easier to treat them like cattle, to herd them, to order them around, to imprison them, to beat them, and to kill them.
So I learned to hate the Vietnamese. We all did, and that is the set-up for soldiers engaged in a male one-upmanship about who can show the greatest contempt and cruelty to the dehumanized population. Veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq have described the same dynamic. It’s the inescapable nature of wars of occupation, and Vietnam was – like Iraq and Afghanistan and soon enough Syria – a war of occupation.
War makes some soldiers do bad things, and we become what we do. You can’t just hit a switch and change someone who is told, “Kill that guy with the shovel because he might or might not be about to place an IED,” or “Drive fast for your unit’s safety even if you run over civilians,” or “Kill the the wounded,” or “Beat the shit out of that one.” You can’t just expect soldiers who do these things to go back home and help their wives clear the dinner table, coach little league, and sip wine while watching reruns of ‘Gray’s Anatomy.’
Pundits and military historians said Vietnam was a war without lines, which was true in a sense, but we did in fact carry our lines around with us. I was in a light infantry platoon, and we lived inside perimeters.
As a light infantry platoon, our perimeter was a single, continuous, closed borderline with an inside and an outside. It is formed when the members of the platoon aim outward; no one aims inward. This boundary is impermeable to Them – those who are outside. We can send a squad outside the perimeter to conduct a reconnaissance or an ambush, and that squad can come back inside. The transgression of the perimeter is a privilege only for Us – not Them. For them, whoever is Them, this is an impermeable boundary. We’ll kill you if you try to cross it.
A person internalizes these boundaries. Men especially, and we’ll talk about that.
We’d never heard of PTSD when I was in Vietnam; it was invented by psychiatrists later, and when I got back I figured I just really liked booze and drugs and couldn’t get along with sexual partners.
But the flip side of this was that I was given this huge respect, even by total strangers. The stories of spit on veterans not true. They were a fabrication by war boosters to discredit the peace movement. I was more respected than I’d ever been when I got back from Vietnam. I couldn’t buy my own beer if I wore my uniform to a bar.
So even though I hated the army and got out after the first three years, I ended up working in a Wilmar, Arkansas sweatshop, and my first wife and I had a baby, and there was a regular job available, one with all that public esteem for the uniform, so I went back into the Army. It had been four and a half years. Vietnam was over. I was a combat veteran – which counts for something in the Army – and a qualified paratrooper. Within two years, I decided to join a Ranger Battalion, and my career from there forward was in something called Special Operations.
The late Nancy Hartsock, a feminist scholar, once wrote of the Heroic Age that “the highest good for the warrior-hero is not . . . a quiet conscience, but enjoyment of public esteem, and through this esteem, immortality.”
I had had public esteem as a soldier before, and now –first as a Ranger, then later a Delta Force and Special Forces operator – I pursued more than a career. I pursued a reputation. This was a masculine reputation, a violent reputation, and a reputation I was willing to secure and develop, when necessary, by killing other human beings.
The heroic mystique of Special Operations has now become part of our national mythology. If the nation is our God, and war our most venerated practice, and rituals like our self-congratulatory elections and holidays like Veterans Day are parts of our liturgy – our ‘ritual remembering’ designed to construct how we communally perceive reality – then flags become idols and veterans our icons.
The irony of me standing here criticizing imperial nationalism and militarism is that the only reason I have any street cred is that I myself am a veteran – and one who remained on active duty for two decades, one who was part of the mystique-infused community of Special Ops.
The greater irony is that I will still not be heard directly, but only through a screen upon which others can project their own misty conceptions, already largely formed by representations from the entertainment media – films and books and television and games.
When I was working in Latin America, we had to check in with the Theater Command, then in Fort Clayton, Panama, where we’d receive intelligence summaries prior to flying into Peru, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, wherever. An intelligence officer would describe the host-nation officers we’d assist, including their human rights violations. We were given cover stories – most frequently we were to tell friends, family, press, and public that we fighting the drug trade. In fact, a fair number of the people we worked with were deeply involved in the drug trade; but this didn’t really matter, because we actually trained them to make war against their own poor people. We called it counter-insurgency (hellooo, Vietnam!) – and those who were the targets of these actions were declared communists to fit into the Cold War narrative in the US.
Perhaps the most interesting and enlightening experience for me was working directly out of US Embassies. One group was on the Ambassador’s itinerary more than all the others, and that was the host nation’s Chamber of Commerce. Even when those countries were involved in brutal civil wars, the Ambassador spent most of his time (my ambassadors were both men) with the host-nation Chamber of Commerce.
It was years later, I learned about another veteran turned critic, a highly decorated Marine General named Smedley Butler, who rather pithily summed up the whole system for me: “The flag follows the dollar, and the troops follow the flag.”
I was jarred out of my old ways of thinking, and forced to confront some things. Naïve as I still was, the most important lesson I learned, and which I hope everyone will take home with them tonight, is that public pronouncements by state officials are not designed to represent the truth, but to gain public support for or acquiescence to an agenda.
(1) Public pronouncements that were lies, (2) flag follows the dollar, (3) wars on poor people.
Something didn’t compute, so I had to study; and here’s some of the stuff I learned when I started to study.
I learned that imperialism is an interstate politico-economic system in which a dominant core state, using a combination of military and economic power, subjugates the other peripheral states and dependencies in the imperial aggregate, in order to control and exploit those peripheries. The day to day control of those peripheries is accomplished with the help of imperial surrogates whose power in their own countries is backstopped by the core imperial state.
Doesn’t matter which empire, it turns out, they all import the good stuff to the cores and export their problems to the exploited peripheries.
The forms of that exploitation may differ, from environmental load displacement to unequal exchange, but the facts of exploitation, domination either military, financial, or both, dependency, and so-called uneven development are characteristic of all empires, from Hammurabi’s Babylon to Ying Zheng to Rome to the Carolingians to the European extra-territorial empires to today’s United States.
But there was yet another insight that was teasing me still, like a word you can’t quite remember.
These empires, the military bases where I was trained, the embassies where I worked, and even that platoon perimeter we used again and again in the Vietnamese Central Highlands. It had to do with borders, with boundaries, with inside and outside, us and them, and power. This borderline is impermeable by Them – those who are outside, and transgress-able by Us, by those from the inside with the power – whether that was an infantry platoon, a military installation, the American Embassy in El Salvador or Guatemala, a national frontier, or an empire. The transgression of the perimeter is a privilege only for the Us – not for the Them.
And what does the armed boundary do exactly? It reduces vulnerability.
Armed borders to reduce the vulnerability of the Us. And I believe, as a Christian, that it is a great calamity in a person’s life or the life of any community when that person or community forgets that without vulnerability there can be no love. It is a calamity when a life or a community is organized as a risk management project.
By the time I retired from the Army in February 1996, I’d begun to grasp these things, and I began to actively oppose my own nation-state’s dominance in the world, and its dominance over its own internal peripheries. I understood the relation between race and empire, the core-periphery relation, the dynamic of power, and I became vocal about it. I began participating in political projects of resistance.
So when September 11, 2001 happened, and the national masculinity was challenged, and the flags appeared in front of houses, and the nation was united in its thirst for vengeance, I was enlisted into the anti-war movement precisely because I was a career Army veteran, because I and other veterans gave that movement a degree of inoculation against the accusation that we were, oh God forbid! – unpatriotic. Ironic, when you think about it, because the thing that many antiwar veterans reject is the whole idea of patriotism.
I did oppose that war, and imperial war generally, but I can’t honestly say that I opposed war then. I still had this idea that sometimes violence might be the only answer, even revolutionary violence; that violence might be in some cases redemptive. I had grown up in a culture that produced one story after another, from John Wayne movies Zero Dark Thirty, in which violence redeems the world. Violence is redemptive, and the ideal man is the man who employs this redemptive violence. In any case, I found myself talking in public about militarism in my opposition to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and in anticipation that I might be challenged about these things, I was obliged again to study. I needed to study this thing called militarism. We say it, but what is it?
So I turned my attention to this thing called militarism, theoretically, analytically, and through reflection on my own experience in the military – as well as my own experience of very great public esteem for my participation in the military – and there was this elephant in the room that was seldom discussed, even by many of the fiercest critics of militarism, and that was gender. By that, I mean the complex understandings and norms of all things sexual that ramify out of a social division of power between men and women.
It was unavoidable. If I wanted to understand militarism, I would have to gain a greater understanding of sex, of gendered power, and how that power and all those beliefs and norms surrounding sex and gender were inflected in public discourse, in politics, in everyday speech, and in particular, how men, like me, understood, internalized, and acted in the pursuit of masculinity. Because militarism constructs masculinity in a particular way, and militaristic societies construct masculinity in a certain way, and a world shaped by war has generalized this construction of masculinity as domination, conquest, and the willingness to engage in and even celebrate violence.
When I realized that I could never really understand militarism without some account of gendered power, I was obliged again to hit the books – this time studying feminist scholars, activists, and social theorists.
I was confronted with the fact that I not only needed to be a witness, as a veteran, that I not only needed forgiveness for participating in war, but that I could never be excused from my responsibility to be a witness against the masculinity that underwrites war – that reproduces war just as war reproduces this conquest masculinity – and that in addition to adopting an attitude of contrition for my willing, sometimes eager participation in war, I need to live, as a man with a man’s privilege – a white man’s privilege at that, and as a man who was born into power over women whether I chose it or not . . . I need to live as a man with a man’s power in a constant state of contrition, because this power of men over women, and all its ramifications in misogyny and homophobia and racialized sexual terror, is a kind of original sin.
I didn’t construct this structure of sin, but this is my inherited responsibility as part of a community, as it is for all of us. We who inherit power through oppressive social arrangements have a special responsibility to make that power visible and – where possible – to repudiate it.
We are formed by stories. And all my stories growing up were stories about men – but they were also stories that had the same conceptual coordinates as that platoon defensive perimeter in Vietnam – that boundary, that borderline that defines the real man, the nation, and the civilization. Us versus them, and the mortal danger of vulnerability, of men who become men through a flight from vulnerability.
Today, you have your violent masculinity stories served up in sappy fictionalizations of snipers or the dangerous veterans that populate male revenge fantasies.
Back in my day, growing up during the Cold War, we had the Western alongside Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best. These two television genre’s complemented one another in the construction of a national myth, the myth of American progress.
The Cold War Western had a wide “mythic space” in which to tell its stories, but Cold War Westerns all had some defining borderline, whether it was a river, a fort’s palisade, a street, a fence, or the (fragile) boundary between civilization and savagery. And all this mapped onto the construction of a world-historical struggle between the good guys of Democracy and the savages of the World Communist Conspiracy.
A hero or protagonist had to transgress those borderlines to “reveal the meaning of the frontier line,” entering the dark side to protect the light side. Sometimes, the protagonist dealt with the “darkness” across the border, and the darkness within himself, note how we recognize “darkness” as the metaphor for evil. Today, we still simultaneously pathologize the veteran who suffers PTSD and valorize that pathology as a deep moral sacrifice. We learned that from the movies.
The audience was schooled to understand the boundary that separates their past from the viewing present, and therein they apprehended the progress narrative. The Western in Fort Apache or High Noon is the first act, and the second act is the myth of the modern white patriarchal family represented in Father Knows Best or Leave It to Beaver. Together, the Western and the patriarchal white family sitcom were an American progress mythology—a self-congratulating before-and-after photo display. We tamed the wilderness and the Indians, and now we flourish happily in the civilization we built.
In the Western, there was a final redemption accomplished by male violence. This was, by the way, exactly how I imagined Vietnam before I actually went there. Now, forty-six years later, with the help of feminism, I have begun to understand why.
Women in the Cold War Western were portrayed as either markers of civilization and domesticity or threats to manhood—sometimes both at the same time. “While the essential qualities of womanhood that tie women to domesticity are nostalgically honored in Westerns,” writes Edward Buscombe, “femininity as a social force is represented as a threat to masculine independence and as the negative against which individual masculinities are tested.” This “disposable woman” is still in our stories. Female equals vulnerability equals danger to one’s masculinity. In the science fiction film Independence Day, the warrior President is not free to fly his fighter plane to meet the enemy until his good-woman wife dies. In the popular series Dexter, which combines bullshit pop psychology with bullshit police procedural with male vigilantism, the protagonist is freed to kill bad people without female encumbrance when his own wife is killed. We all know the disposable woman convention.
The valorization of conquest masculinity always and inevitably devalues women.
The Western film and Father Knows Best were mirror images of a gender ideology.
Those are the stories I grew up with. But we didn’t turn into John Wayne in Vietnam. We were closer to Theodore Bundy. We burned houses, killed livestock, and shot human beings for sport. War did not ennoble us. It morally degraded us.
I would ask the members of tonight’s audience to reflect on the stories that form you. How do the soldier and the veteran, as archetypes, fit into our narratives? How does the gender-neutralization of language and the incorporation of a few more women into the armed forces change this narrative from my old Westerns? How do these developments factor in to an election tonight, when two people are competing to become the commander-in-chief of the world’s most expensive, inefficient, pampered, wasteful, far-flung, and lethal military apparatus in history? What of the fact that one presidential candidate is a woman?
In present-day patriarchy, some few women can become honorary males, and these women can serve as gender decoys. There is a strain of feminism that does not critique any system of domination except gender, and in fact counts success as giving some women access to the levers of racial, class, political, and national power that men currently monopolize. This brand of feminism is supported by those in power as an alternative to the more radical feminisms that situate patriarchal, hetronormative domination within other oppressive structures, like class, race, nationality, and the core-periphery relation.
This brand of feminism celebrates when particular women do the same things that only men formerly did, even if what men formerly did was morally questionable – or rather, it celebrates women who accomplish these things without raising moral questions.
This is what I call the GI Jane formula. It’s what underwrites the idea that electing a woman as President of the United States is more important than what that woman actually believes and does as chief executive. This is in no way choosing sides in tonight’s election.
The GI Jane formula is when a few women are accepted into traditionally male positions as long as they uphold the standards, objectives, and values of the males that went before them, because we have ideologically disappeared what was gendered about these positions or professions or actions before women had access. In the godawful film of that name, GI Jane, we actually see how the female protagonist played by Demi Moore fights male exclusion to become a Navy SEAL, with a climax scene where she beats up her brutal instructor. Standing over the beaten man, she roars at him, “Suck my dick!” The demand for sexual tribute as a sign of submission is totally male, even anatomically male, and we know that Demi Moore’s character is now an honorary male displaying conquest masculinity. She has fitted herself to the male model, imaginary penis and all; and she finally proves herself in the first battle scenes as a fully-fledged SEAL by killing Arabs.
The decoy, and this character is a decoy of sorts, but the idea of a sexual decoy is one developed by Zillah Eisenstein. In a plural society like the United States, male social power does not assign women one monolithic “script.” Eisenstein writes that modern society restlessly “renegotiates” masculinity and femininity, often using these “gender decoys”—individual women in power and individual women as spokespersons for enterprises that are still dominated by males and for males.
The irony of this election is that many of us are forced to simultaneously defend and rebuke Secretary Clinton. Because she is facing opposition on account of her sex. There is no doubt about this. Misogyny can be found left, right, and center.
On the other hand, to put an equal sign between opposition to Clinton and misogyny is wrong, and to classify anyone who opposes her as a misogynist is unprincipled. We saw the same thing during Obama’s campaign and administration with regard to race. We may have hated his warlike and neoliberal policies, but had to speak up when attacks against him were ill-concealed racism.
Hillary Clinton may very well be the first female American Commander-in-Chief, following in the footsteps of the ruthless and belligerent Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi, and Margaret Thatcher.
And yet, each of them serves as a kind of gender decoy that diverts us – if war is a male enterprise, what about X? – when wars ARE still run predominantly by men, when power is still vested largely in men, when the overwhelming majority of women are still subject to the same crap from men they were before this one woman became an honorary male, and a decoy. Nothing about the hawkishness of Hillary Clinton or Golda Meir or Indira Gandhi or Margaret Thatcher has subverted male hegemony, or the conquest masculinity that supports militarism, or the misogynistic character of the still overwhelmingly male military itself.
The boundaries remain, between men and women, between men and nature, between imperial men and conquered colonies, between so-called civilization and so-called savages. The window dressing is periodically changed.
The honorary male who is the visible female, like the honorary white person who is not white, does not subvert power but accommodates it. More importantly, this decoy phenomenon effaces the intersections of power – President Clinton, the putative feminist, can now bomb poor brown women in Libya or Sudan or Afghanistan, can still support misogynist Saudi Arabia, etc., as long as she stands up for enough American women in some way, as long as she participates in the American exceptionalism that conceals the sins of America that are mystified far from view. She can remain an honorary male as long as she continues to support war. And our veneration of veterans on the eleventh of this month is nothing more or less than a celebration of war, a celebration of our national masculinity, of our flight from vulnerability, of our manning the national defensive perimeter.
Of reducing our vulnerability.
And without vulnerability there can be no love, because love depends on intimacy; and the Jesus I try and fail to follow to the cross directs us to love.
Intimacy is a form of danger—the danger that one might be found out, but also the danger of becoming vulnerable. Vulnerability is what war-making and war-making metaphors aim to minimize; and the coincidence of male fear of vulnerability and this imperative of war is one we can ill afford to overlook, because war forms societies and societies form people. War, in particular, forms men. Conquest masculinity reproduces war, and war then reproduces conquest masculinity. It’s a self-perpetuating, recursive feedback loop.
The main psychological manifestation of this preoccupation with boundaries growing out of war-thought among men is male fear of fusion, the fear of a permeable boundary, of emotional surrender even if it is mutual. The presumed weakness and irrationality of women is actually understood as a contaminant to men; and men police the boundary of this fear with control over women and with their devaluation. We call courage having balls, and fear being a pussy.
As Christian, I can never forget that Jesus taught, showed, and demanded nothing less than absolute vulnerability, which is the precondition for absolute love.
I do not worship the God all powerful – the masculine war deity – but the most mysterious God of all, a God who is infinitely vulnerable. To me, to be Christian and pacifist are inseparable. I cannot be a pacifist unless I am a Christian, and I cannot be a Christian and embrace violence.
Now let me shift gears on you again, because my time is running out, and this is supposed to be a talk about Veterans Day, and I ought to talk then about veterans. So that’s what I’ll do, talk about veterans and to veterans.
I draw a pension from the Veterans Administration, one I contracted for when I signed up for the Army – read: federal employment. With the privatization of the military that began at the end of the Vietnam occupation, two of the former entitlements that were promised to soldiers as they re-enlisted were – one – a pension indexed to the base pay of your retiring pay grade, and two – free medical care for me and my immediate family until I die. Both those entitlements – not moral, but legal, contractual entitlements, have been eroded. And I agree with many Americans that veterans should get several entitlements, even ones they don’t get now.
I believe troops and veterans of military service should be legally entitled to a minimum guaranteed income that kicks in to prevent them falling into poverty, free medical for life, and free education as far and in which field they can go. The way I am unlike most other Americans is that I believe everyone who lives in the United States should be entitled by law to those very same things. So I believe we should take care of our armed forces veterans, but not because they are veterans. I support veterans and soldiers and anyone else when it comes to my belief that everyone should be allowed to flourish. But I do not support the troops.
It’s a silly saying, you know. It’s not the face value of the slogan that counts, but how this phrase functions. It is a national loyalty oath.
Here’s where repentant veterans are actually useful. We can say things like this, and give you that dislocative tap on the head. Because of the national addiction to military mystiques, whether you agree with the veneration of veterans or not, that veneration has given veterans the floor whether they want it or not.
My problem is not that people would fight to defend what they love, my own Christian nonviolence limitations notwithstanding, but that in the case of my own country, right now, on this day and in this world we share with humanity and animated nature, we are telling ourselves this story of defending what we love, when the powers and principalities are engaged in the terrible business of war not to defend anything, but to plunder humanity and nature.
All I would ask, then, in thinking about this relation between masculinity and war and the veneration of veterans, as part of our national liturgy, is that we heretofore remain on guard that our attachment to masculinity – personal or national – doesn’t continue to rationalize war. All I would ask on election night, 2016, that when the smoke clears tomorrow and we know who wins, we can reflect again and soberly on the ways in which the nation has become our God, and for those of us who profess a belief in a Creator, whether by our actions and attitudes, we have allowed the God of the Nation to push aside the Creator.
Whether or not you share my own theological preoccupations, I’ll simply reiterate that love requires a dangerous intimacy – into me you see – and that intimacy is not possible without vulnerability. If our lives have a purpose, surely it is not survival. No one survives. That’s why risk management as life’s lodestar is so offensive to me. We are all on borrowed time. As St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians:
If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am become sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.
Thank you for your kind attention.