Our military-backed exceptionalism


One would be hard-pressed not to see the enormous fetishizing of the U.S. Military since the attacks of 9/11/01. Whether it is at professional sports events, airports, political rallies, or even at local restaurants, it seems almost impossible to avoid signs, speeches, discounts for, symbols, or outright worship of those now labeled “heroes” – the backbone of our national identity – our warriors.

It was bothering me for several days after a recent trip to the local Hardees restaurant chain. The friendly clerk took my order and then asked me if I’d like to “donate a dollar to support our troops”? On the counter was the details of the promotion: “Stars for Heroes” where in exchange for my $1 donation to “support military veterans and their families” I would receive $10 worth of coupons for discounts at the restaurant and they’d place my name on a paper star recognizing my support and gift which would be placed among the hundreds of other stars already on display along the windows facing the parking lot. I declined; but I debated with myself as to whether I should tell the young clerk why. She was enthused about the program because that franchise was in competition with other franchises around the state or region according to the conversation I overheard among the staff. Who was I to rain on their parade?

And still we sit and wonder how someone like the Tsarnaev brothers or others could get “radicalized” and be (allegedly) led to commit such heinous acts as the Boston Marathon bombing?

Several weeks ago I heard a senior high-ranking Pakistani Police Officer (and Humphrey School Fellow scholar), Mubarek Zeb lead a presentation about U.S. drone attacks on the remote tribal areas of his country. He explained the cultural honor codes of the Pashtun tribes and how those traditions going back thousands of years made them honor-bound to seek revenge for the death or injury to tribal members or those granted hospitality and asylum in their homes. He told us that for every person killed or seriously injured by drone attacks, between three and ten tribal members were committed to lifetimes of retaliation and revenge.

Several years ago an Iraq War Veteran, Tyler Boudreau, travelled through Minneapolis while biking across the nation in his attempt to heal from the trauma of war. In his excellent book, Packing Inferno, as well as his talk at Mayday Bookstore, this former military officer decried the use of the term “hero” stating that it hindered the healing of (psychologically) wounded vets who knew the reality of war and knew that the acts of killing and occupation were mostly far from heroic and often bordered on cringe-worthy if not outright criminal. Karl Marlantes, author of the equally-excellent What It Is Like To Go To War, also cautions his audience to understand the cost to the human psyche in sending others to kill in our name or for policies decided by politicians determined to use (and abuse) the power entrusted to their office.

We continue to cheapen the true sacrifice forced on military veterans with gimmicks which cost us little (“it’s only a buck!”) and promise us a return on our investment (you’ll “support or troops!” and get coupons worth a whole lot more!). At the restaurant I had brought along the latest book I’ve been reading, James Cone’s now classic, The Cross and the Lynching Tree. As I thought more about the clerk’s request for the modest “donation”, I flashed on how those on the receiving end of the lynching rope, the Dakota survivors of the genocide of our “Indian Wars”, my Iraqi friends who were traumatized by US military checkpoints just a few years ago, or my Afghan friends who continue to fear drones and helicopters when they go to the mountains to fetch fresh water or firewood would respond to the uniformed protectors of American Empire now labeled “heroes”.

When Jesus encountered Roman occupying soldiers as he was growing up in occupied Galilee, did he see them as “heroes” – those who ending up lynching him for the benefit of those engorging themselves on the spoils of war and domination? How did Spartacus and other slaves view the legions sent to put down their rebellion? I’m sure members of the Roman elite were grateful for their military who allowed them to continue in “the lifestyle to which [they’ve] come to be accustomed to”. We continue to be so blinded by the disease of American exceptionalism that we fail to think about how much of the rest of the world views us.

American exceptionalism rides on the back of American Empire and White Supremacy. James Cone reminds us that until or unless we renounce the latter, our “Christianity” will continue to “re-crucify” the one we claim to follow as millions of young black men waste away in our prisons. The 150thanniversary of the Dakota War reminds Minnesotans that conveniently “forgotten” (if never learned) history continues to create victims and unhealthy dependencies today. Our visitors from Iraq are genuinely perplexed about our wall-to-wall obsession with the latest news about the actions, capture or killing, and the impending trial of the alleged Boston Marathon bombers while ignoring the on-going terror-laden bombings happening weekly, if not daily, in their own country. A country where such “suicide attacks” were unheard of prior to our military invasion ten years ago.

I find myself tired in this post 9-11 soup of fear and chaos of feeling I must always do battle with our “mainstream” culture for its jingoistic “patriotism” and desire to continue on with “the lifestyle to which we have become accustomed to”. That lifestyle which is enforced and protected by young people enticed to put on the uniform and grab a gun. As long as those guns are pointed at others (and on our behalf), we can wallow in the notion that “God has blessed us” and we deserve to be exceptional from the rest of humanity. We don’t look at the crosses, the lynching trees, the dangling nooses, the closed prison doors, and the persistent humming of the drones overhead. I’m getting a better sense of how racial, sexual, and religious minorities must feel here in “the land of the free and the home of the brave”.

Excuse me, but in choosing to follow one executed by the powers of political, religious, and military empire, I must continue to find creative ways to dissent – and then stand side-by-side with those marginalized in the process.