on Veteran's Day.
Normally, I go on a kind of tangent about militarism and epistemology. This year I'm leaving all poking and sniffing and bloviating around the Veteran-as-signifier, to others. Because the signifier Veteran on Veteran's Day is contrived as a prop to show the sacredness of war. At the very inner core of our national rituals valorizing The Veteran is the love of war.
Wars are carried out by armed organizations, generally understood as the military, though there is a long menu of differing armed organizations engaged in a diversity of forms of war. Those organizations are comprised of humans, mostly male humans, but more and more including a female fraction as well. What does war and the preparation for war do to those people who are in those organizations?
Persons, tools, practices, and formation.
The person, not meaning a cipher or an "individual," is one-at-a-time an actual human being with kinships, history, and certain unique limitations and aspirations. By tools, I mean everything from claw hammers to cars to supercomputers to nuclear weapons. By practices, I mean the complex things we do in order to get by as one of those situated persons. Most of us drive automobiles. Most of us use computers. Most of us depend for our survival on money. These practices are formative. But for each person, and moreso in a social matrix like ours now in which Taylorization is nearing some zenith of hyper-specialization, there are practices too numerous to count that are not as universal as driving and surfing the net. Gymnastics is a practice. Chess is a practice. Subsistence farming is a practice. Cooking is a practice. Carpentry is a practice. Medicine is a practice. Hunting is a practice. Computer hacking is a practice. In the army, being in the infantry is a practice. It's not a great conceptual leap for any of us to understand how our characters and dispositions come to reflect our most common practices.
Then there are practices that have been gendered. Most construction workers are male. Most home health care workers are female. And so on. In practices that are gendered male, and in which males dominate the practice's environment, that same subculture which reflects the practice itself, construction, e.g., is articulated with a more general male culture that is, in many respects, misogynistic. So, the practice of construction is not inherently misogynistic; but the actually existing practice of construction, a practice performed by situated persons, is misogynistic. An all female construction crew, however, could accomplish the same tasks related to construction without fundamentally altering that practice. I have argued elsewhere and at length that this is not the case in the military, that the military is an inherently misogynistic institution, but -- again -- that's not the subject of this post. Without a recognition of the association of violence with masculinity with nationalism and with militarism, we can't fully grasp the implications of what I'm about to say about practice, practical subculture, and formation of the person who will eventually be classified as a Veteran -- which is not a practice, but a status.
What are the tools of the soldier's practice, and what is their unifying purpose? To kill other persons. What the military says, on behalf of -- in most cases nowadays -- the state, is, "If we can't compel you to do as we say using other means, we will kill you." The iconic tool, which is an American icon as well, is the gun, a tool that can deliver death with the twitch of a finger.
War is a highly technocratic enterprise in our epoch, the armed forces vast bureaucracies, so there is a complex division of labor making it possible for those who are uncomfortable with killing and those who are not seeking the opportunity to kill other persons as probative of masculinity, to seek specialties that repair engines, analyze data, or work in a hospital. Which concomitantly allows the guys who want to kill other humans, in order to prove that their penises exist, to concentrate themselves in the combat arms specialties, whose tools are guns, rockets, grenades, cannons, armed aircraft, and tanks.
So there is not only a subculture in terms of tools and practices for combat arms, there is a structural bias in those organizations for men (combat arms, overwhelmingly men) who have enough of a screw loose, from growing up in a culture that celebrates violence, that they want to kill people; and the rationales are something left to higher pay grades. Oh yeah, combat arms? Misogyny Central. Every insult that lies in wait for the combat arms man who fails to live into his designated archetype is an insult that compares him to a woman (or rather, someone's idea of women).
Normally, when we speak of war in ways that take the focus off the causes of war and refocus on the soldier, this is a propaganda device, what Susan Jeffords called "telling the war story," which is the generally the story of a hero, true, partially true, false, or fictional. In this case, though, on this post, we will take the focus from the macro to the micro, the micro being the person, for a different purpose.
It ought to be fairly obvious that (a) if specialization leads a larger number of persons who want to kill others into combat arms units, and (b) the practice therein is aimed explicitly at preparing to kill other people or killing them, then (c) the culture of combat arms -- which is the culture celebrated by the larger culture (no movies about supply clerks or band members) -- will be a culture dominated by an admiration for mindless violence and an intense hatred of women. That was my experience of two decades in combat arms.
The stories we tell ourselves about Veteran's Day -- once Armistice Day and a celebration of peace -- are not stories of men who want to kill other people just to compensate for their own sexual terrors, not a story of sadism, criminality, and moral degradation. So there is a lie standing between the reality and the stories that we tell during this national liturgical ritual every November 11th, that we dare not speak, because one can never speak ill of the Veteran. It is a sacred signifier.
So what is it really like in these units? A locker room actually. A profane space for masculine one-up-man-ship, for dominance displays, ritual accolades, ritual denunciations, for speech that mounts like an arms race in manifold declarations of readiness for action.
Every woman who has ever haplessly ventured past a group of rowdy men knows that this is a terrain overshadowed by threat and pregnant with violence. Every woman knows that terror at the sound of men's laughter.
Perhaps that one new solider can do his job and not be drawn into the rest of it, s/he might think; but over the long haul, no one is impermeable to the culture in which they live.
Then there is war itself, which obliges persons, mostly men, but certainly some women now, to do bad things. Not just "hard, necessary" things, as the war stories would have it; war invariably pressures soldiers to do Bad Things, like torture, rape, intimidation, thrill-killing, revenge-killing, reckless endangerment of whole populations; and as we have shown, many of the mostly men who do these things -- specialties of infantry and special operations, the salt of the earth in our war stories -- many of these men actually enjoy doing these things, and many men feel obliged to behave as if they enjoy them. Put that in your war story.
Our stories of war, nowadays, sensitized to the "sacrifices" of soldiers (no theological echoes there) whose mental health is a casualty, are stories of good men who are forced to do unpleasant things in war, but who remain unchanged -- except for their virtuous wounds, physical and mental -- by the practice of war. The reality, of course, is that war obliges soldiers to do bad things, and we become what we do. Practice leaves its imprint, and it is the deepest of imprints, memorized down into one's muscle fibers. It may have been five years since you rode, but I bet you can get on that bicycle and ride it.
Sartre said it, maybe a bit more starkly than I'd put it, but, "You are what you do." Rather than quibble, I'll paraphrase: You become what you do.
If it is the case that war (note, we are not talking about the Veteran signifier now) invariably selects for and aims at practices that inevitably morally degrade the person/soldier (who may one day identify with the signifier), then a real war story that puts its focus on the persons/characters would narrate that degradation.
Likewise, we are all in some way degraded by war, because we live in a militaristic culture with a military economy. This degradation permeates every fissure of society, every cupboard of ideology, every cell of exchange. It's a flesh eating bacteria on the body politic, this love of war, which is rooted in the worship of violence, and reverence for our iconic symbol of that violence, The Gun, war tool and surrogate male genitalia in a culture so misogynistic that we effortlessly associate sex with hostility, aggression, dominance, and revenge for the failures of that culture to deliver that to which we've been indoctrinated as men to believe we are entitled.
When these hateful, pissed-off, psycho white men start gunning down crowds, what tool are they using? Why here, in the US of A? Why are most of them also abusers of women? Look around; and our celebration of violence is everywhere, spreading its rot into America's subcutaneous fascia.
The military is an incubator for violence, and the greater the influence of the military on a society, the greater its capacity to incubate evil . . . the greater its capacity pull the rest of us into the logic of its evil. And what that evil will first be called is patriotism.
These are some thoughts for this annual liturgy of the sacred war state. It's probably pissing into the wind during this annual nationalistic orgy, but there it is.