Make Peace. Photo: Danny Hammontree, flickr
“What if they gave a war and nobody came?” is a popular slogan from the antiwar-movement. But nowadays, when USA with their allies go to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, people do come. Lots of people enlist in the military, even voluntarily, especially in the U.S. Why?
Anthropologist Sarah Salameh answers this question in her master’s thesis Courtesy Of The Red, White And Blue. A Midwest American Perspective on Troops, War and Nation.
She’s been on a six months’ fieldwork in a small town in the upper Midwest, a rather conservative and patriotic area that struggles with deindustrialization, low wages and unemployment. Salameh - an opponent of the U.S wars in Afghanistan and Iraq - describes the six months “as the most interesting and mind blowing time of my life.”
And it is indeed an interesting and well written thesis about “one of the most understudied groups": white middle-class Americans.
She introduces us to a diverse group of military people:
The many settings the reader is introduced to includes an Army recruiting office, a public elementary school, Memorial Day celebrations, the motorcycle group the Patriot Guard Riders‟ missions, and the celebration of a National Guard unit returning home from Iraq. One gets to know people ranging from Army recruiters to the girls they helped enlisting at the age of 17, the concerned mother of a soldier, and a bunch of rather unconcerned 5th graders performing their patriotic duty decorating their town‟s cemetery with Star Spangled Banners.
One of her findings is the critical distance many soldiers have towards the government.
While in uniform, the anthropologist writes, soldiers are not allowed to speak negatively about the President. But in reality, as Robert, one of the soldiers, told her “The troops fight for the people, the American people, not the government. Neither the troops nor the people like the government.”
The official reason for waging a war is not always relevant for the soldiers. Looking at peoples‟ motives for joining the military, Salameh writes, “underlines the irrelevance of government and politics".
Not one person she’s talked to (around 100) claimed to have joined the military because he or she thinks that this or that exact war is especially just or necessary as it is explained by politicians.
Robert is one of them. He did not believe the official explanation of the Iraq war (weapons of mass destructions). At times, Robert claimed the Iraq war is a quest for oil.
But he doesn’t care:
I am going for other reasons than oil. When I was in Iraq, I built schools, and handed out backpacks and paper to school children. I fixed dams so the people could have electricity. I spent two years totally committed to doing stuff like that.
U.S. Army Soldiers in Iraq. Photo: Scott Taylor, U.S.Army, flickr
The research subjects explained and mostly legitimized the US military presence and their own participation, with a reference to themselves as Americans.
Robert places American politicians outside these “American people. He places himself, as a service member, on the side of and fighting for, the American people, not the government.
The anthropologist explains:
People and troops, the government and the people make up two societies that act according to two different value systems; the politicians according to a rather crooked one, initiating wars on unjust premises and ignoring the will of the American people; the American people according to what might perhaps be termed a more American one, expressed in Robert‟s account as focused on a wish to keep his own family and other Americans safe and free, and help Iraqis towards a better life.
Help Iraqis towards a better life? That’s in the eyes of the soldiers their responsibility as Americans. The USA is in their view a positive example for other countries, an example to follow. It seems to me they are on a kind of religious mission.
This religious dimension is interesting. Salameh discusses American nationalism as “civil religion”:
Much of the (…) USA and its military, can be understood within the context of civil religion, wherein the nation is the focus of belief, and its endeavours overseas is the spreading (missionary function) of the values inherent in the „national belief‟.
One of the dogmas of this “civil religion” is the idea that God has a special concern for America, putting Americans in the role of the chosen people, and America in the role of the promised land:
This is connected to the story of the American foundation, taking the form of myth, where today‟s American‟s ancestors came to this promised land and made a covenant with it, still binding today‟s Americans. The covenant has two aspects: to maintain the concept of promised land, basically to keep the USA free, as underlined by for example Robert, as well as to „export by example‟ the American version of freedom.
Indianapolis War Memorial Shrine Room.
Photo: Carl Van Rooy, flickr
She also describes the flag as totem, and blood sacrifice as an American group taboo.
At Memorial Day sacrifice was a central theme. “What soldiers in the Army do is to give up their life for others‟ freedom", an army recruiter explained.
Tony‟s 5th graders stood up, faced the flag on the left side of the blackboard, put their right hand on the left side of their chest and said the Pledge simultaneously with the principal‟s voice. Everybody knew the Pledge by heart and said it out loud: I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands: one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
But do people in Iraq and Afghanistan really want their help? What about the widespread opposition towards the US wars?
This question is not very relevant for the research subjects. Even if the the people the USA tries to help reject the help, the USA‟s efforts are legitimate.
“It is as if the people on the receiving side of, what by the Americans is presented as „help‟, are not in a position to judge whether what the US presence offers is good or bad", Salameh comments.
This remembers of what Edward Said describes as orientalism.
People in the Orient have frequently been portrayed as more passionate, more violent and barbaric, as well as culturally determined. This „savaging‟ of the Orientals has justified European and American imperialism throughout history, often presented as a civilizing project.
And in the very same act as „the West‟ thus diagnoses other countries as less developed, „the West‟ also categorizes them as passive (they are weak, ill), thus allowing for a paternal role.
For the research subjects, there are “good others” and “bad others” in Iraq and Afghanistan:
There is the „good Other‟ who takes the form of some sort of deprived, but possible, allied and member of the „free world‟; in the accounts above termed „innocents‟, „civilians‟, „the people‟ (of Afghanistan and Iraq), or simply „Afghanis‟ and „Iraqis‟. Opposed to this, exists a „bad Other‟ that cannot possibly be helped, thus only fought. This bad Other carries many different names, among them „terrorists‟, „insurgents‟, „extremists‟, „radicals‟, and to a varying degree also the Iraqi and Afghani „leaders‟ and „government‟ are included.
Although nationalism is important, she stresses that she does not claim it is the only, or the most central factor. There are many individual factors (escaping from smalltown life etc). Economic incentives are often central when people decide to join the military in the first place, and “a thesis could have been written on economy as incentive alone"".
Sarah Salameh is currently turning the thesis into a book where she will include on all those other factors as well.
The whole thesis is available online. (LINK UPDATED 4.4.2020)