Graven Images at War

Okay, I figure youse boyz (and girlz) know more about military history than I. (Anyone would, of course–and clearly some of you have thought much about this.)

My question: how different is the relation between our modern army and the average American than was that relationship two hundred years ago? The services have changed dramatically in terms of technology, but how has that played out in differences in the attitude of citizens, leaders, the military itself? And does modern capitalism lead us to an idolatry of the marketplace unknown in, say, 1775?

(A rambling anecdotal backstory follows.)

On Sunday, our church class discussed Isaiah’s condemnation of the worship of graven images. Here is an open-ended topic, one offering food for both introspection & cultural critique—perhaps a useful whip with which we can scourge ourselves or beat our opponents. And I suspect it proved a Rorschach test that showed more about each of us than about Isaiah or virtue or the nature of sacrilege. Our teacher, trying to establish order, asked what would someone from two hundred years ago notice that we built our lives around that hadn’t been here, then. Of course, technology in general – televisions, computers – came to mind. And certainly these often seem more ends than means to entertainment, education, or communication.

One classmate segued into complaints about fossil fuel. Someone else noted something I suspect we don’t often consider – how different our days are now, with our relation to night and day changed by easy access to bright light and 24-hour services. Another, a man known in his field of scholarship, moved from worshipping engraved words to burning books; This wasn’t exactly where he wanted to go, but I’m not sure where he thought he was headed. We soon realized we were just wandering around in the wilderness.

Nearing the end of our hour, one classmate said that the two great graven images were capitalism and the military. These, he argued, we worshipped, believing they would keep us secure. I said the pull of wealth & power were hardly new (all we needed was sex for the great triumvirate of motives), but he stated firmly that the rise of nation states made these objects of worship; we believe in their power to protect us, he said. Now, my impression is that most of us, even post 9/11, don’t worship the military nor place false faith in its power. We are not fools – tsunamis and hurricanes attack us whether our fleets are large and our planes powerful. Nor did people not go to the old great men for protection in the fortified cities, the moated fortresses.

Are those yellow ribbons like the omnipresent fish? Or are they a signal of affection, of community, of the ligament of love that binds us with those troops? My impression is that the percentage of our population that are actually in our armed forces and that of our national budget spent on the military seems small from an historical perspective – but I am quite possibly quite wrong. Of course, ours are many times those spent in Western Europe but I’d assumed theirs is a bizarre & unfortunately fleeting moment in history.

I’d like to know if my impressions are hogwash; do we, indeed, take false comfort in the false power of our armed might? Is capitalism our God? We enjoy greater creature comforts, but my suspicion is not that we worship them but rather take for granted luxury beyond imagination – in terms of life expectancy, health, central heat, etc. But others clearly look at this differently.

My classmate is, of course, from the social sciences. So we differ. I would say that the graven images we have worshipped in the last two hundred years arise from the Romantic I, the will. And, so, the greatest of graven images have been generated by man’s pride, his lack of humility. For how else could we believe that our ideas are more important than others’ lives? And isn’t that the root of the great tragedies of the twentieth century – when ideology was given primacy over lives? From these came millions of deaths. And Pinker’s blank slate & noble savage – these, too, are ideas that make false promises. But of course, when large numbers died over the idea of a united country, the evil of slavery, ideas were deadly, too. Or when people died over the form of communion or the idea of the Pope’s power – those, too, were deaths over ideas. And it isn’t that Milton’s Satan and Shakespeare’s Iago weren’t familiar to their audiences – the willful I has been around a long time, too. Man just keeps expressing his old fallibility in the idioms of our times.

I didn’t intelligently posit any of this – and perhaps shouldn’t have. It, too, wanders. Instead as class ended I suggested my own egotism. I have little patience with resignation; while the belief that incidents are part of God’s plan may comfort, I always restlessly feel with Franklin that “God helps them that helps themselves.” Perhaps blithely this assumes we have more control over our fate than we do. Still, if from a theological point of view this may be prideful, it seems sensible from a pragmatic one Resignation isn’t much of a virtue in my quite active, quite pragmatic, and quite American book.

7 thoughts on “Graven Images at War”

  1. Very simple — the modern military farther separated from general society now than in anytime in the past. Much of this can be attributed to the all-volunteer (term used loosely) military, as the prospect of a draft drawing all segments of society together has disappeared and become politically unacceptable. In the past, this was very much the case, and everyone knew someone, first hand, who was in the service. My feeling now is that most people know someone in the military second- or third- hand. (“You know Jimmy? Yeah, Jimmy’s brother’s kid went to Iraq.”) It allows the citizens of America to not support the military and never actually have to look a soldier in the eye. Instead, they can become “car magnet patriots.”

    The political leadership is almost completely without military service. Look up the stats on Congressmen with military service. It is dismal. Take out the World War 2 guys and it is even worse.

    The militarty has become a society unto itself. Moving around the country every 3 years, to bases generally with nothing around it. Cities outside bases exist to service the base.

  2. “My question: how different is the relation between our modern army and the average American than was that relationship two hundred years ago?”

    How about a hundred and thirty years ago? From Frontier Regulars: The United States Army and the Indian 1866-1891 by Robert M. Utley.

    “Chapter 4. The Army, Congress, and the People. Sherman’s frontier regulars endured not only the physical isolation of service at remote border posts; increasingly in the postwar years they found themselves isolated in attitudes, interests, and spirit from other institutions of government and society and, indeed from the American people themselves…Reconstruction plunged the army into tempestuous partisan politics. The frontier service removed it largely from physical proximity to population and, except for an occasional Indian conflict, from public awareness and interest. Besides public and congressional indifference and even hostility, the army found its Indian attitudes and policies condemned and opposed by the civilian officials concerned with Indian affairs and by the nation’s humanitarian community…”

    Sounds familiar, doesn’t it. Besides Utley, I’d recommend Edward M. Coffman’s The Old Army:Portrait of the American Army in Peacetime 1784-1898.

  3. Well, let’s not forget that the draft was not actually a big part of every day lives until the Second World War. Before that, the only occasions for the draft had been the Civil War and the First World War. So it’s not surprising, indeed, that Sherman’s troops felt so differently. Recall, also, that TR’s Rough Riders were all volunteers.

    If I had to choose graven images, though, it would be two: The state, and the individual. Both, to a degree, are embraced by both the left and the right, each taking its turn depending on who’s in power. When the other fellow is in power, one condemns the state and exhalts the individual. Both obsessions are borne of the movements of the early and mid 19th Century: Romanticism and Communism. Romanticism was at core a philosophy of emotionalism, as opposed to the rationalism of, say, the Baroque and Classical eras. Communism was an overcompensation to Romanticism, and is itself founded in Romanticism: Marx’ romanticization of the proletariat.

    Both, as we have seen over the last 150 years, are exceedingly wrong.

  4. I would describe capitalism as a system, rather than an object, which precludes it being an idol. The belief in “perfect outcomes” resulting from capitalism might constitute idolotry – but only if it were based on a faith that capitalism would always produce a perfect outcome rather than a reasoned judgement that capitalism will usually create the best outcome.

    As to whether military spending and enlistment are high – it depends on how far you go back. Compared with the 20th century, it’s low but that was a violent era. The 18th and 19th century saw much smaller mitary spending. The federal government today spends about 6% of GDP on the military against less than 2% in 1900. European countries with land borders and monarchies had to spend more than that. Go back further though (say to the 14th century) and the military was far more powerful.

    I guess it also depends on where you live. Europe is much safer now than it’s ever been before so I doubt military spending will rise as high as it once was. They still have general conscription in Germany but it’s been phased out everywhere else (Switzerland still have a conscript reserve but that’s different).

    As for ideologies being the cause of so much pain and suffering – I would limit that to ideologies that attempt to bring about order (i.e. utopic ideologies).

  5. “”My question: how different is the relation between our modern army and the average American than was that relationship two hundred years ago?”

    I would say that the relationship has moved through several phases each caused by changes in military technology and forms of organization.

    (1) Militia Phase 1776-1865: The standing military is composed of a very small number of technical professionals such as sea captains , artillery officers and military engineers. The bulk of the military forces are self-trained and equipped local militia who are commanded by the professionals in times of war. In much of the country, most adult males will serve in a militia although few will ever see combat or even experience true military discipline. Militia service is a prerequisite for political office, especially along the frontier.

    (2) Professional Phase 1865-1916: The militia begins to rapidly fade away and is replaced by career military from top to bottom. The military is extremely small, insular and professional. People follow military careers because of family tradition or to get an education. Politicians of the era might harken back to civil war service or to membership in a militia but a military career is not politically important. Few people serve or know people who serve in peacetime.

    (3) Mass Participation Phase 1916-1945: Wartime drafts induct millions into service in the national military for periods of years. Most people serve or know first hand someone who serves. Military service in time of war becomes socially and politically important.

    (4) Peacetime Mass service phase 1945-1973: Very much the anomaly in the American experience although very common in the rest of the developed world. Most families have at least one member in service at anyone time. Military service is assumed and lack of service is thought a social and political handicap.

    (5) Second Professional phase 1973-Present: Military is volunteer and professional. Overall service participation is relatively small by historical standards. People either know a lot of people in the military or they don’t know anybody in the military. Military service is a bonus to a political career but in no way necessary.

    America’s relationship with the military has always been substantially different than that within the rest of the developed world. Relatively few American’s ever served in the military, even during the largest wars, in comparison to other nations. Peacetime universal service existed for over a 150 years in Europe but barely 30 in America. Our historical pattern has been to create large militaries virtually from scratch when needed and then to dismantle them when the job is done.

    Our current military is relatively small in comparison to our population. We have a population of 298 million and less than 1.5 million people in the active service and reserves.

    I found this chart of military participation in various conflicts. It doesn’t cover the periods between wars but it does give a rough idea of how many people had military experience in any given era.

    I am not sure that non-career military service has much impact on ones opinions towards the military or the use of force in general. In both the pre-wwII isolationist era and Vietnam, most critics had some service experience.

  6. I think your your classmate is suffering from a serious misunderstanding about what constitutes a false god. Something becomes a false god when one assigns to it properties that belong only to the true God. The Israelites attributed to their graven images the ability to affect the world in a supernatural fashion – make the rains come, the crops grow, grant them victory in battle – and trusted in them to grant these boons if only the proper rituals were performed. They gave to these false gods, the love, affection and obedience that was only due to the true God, and in this way, they broke the first commandment.

    Christianity is first and foremost about the salvation of one’s soul through faith in Christ. Being a devout Christian is no guarantee of material or bodily security in this life, as the fate of Christians in the past and present has demonstrated, so I don’t think your classmate’s comments about how trusting in capitalism and the military to make us secure translates into the worship of false gods hold water. God himself only promises security for our souls; he does not guarantee security for our bodies or our possessions, even though it is in His power to grant these. Just because God provides aid and comfort for many different aspects of our lives doesn’t necessarily mean that seeking that same comfort from other sources becomes idolatry. I frequently pray to God for guidance in my life, but that doesn’t mean that I’m practicing idolatry when I also seek guidance from friends or family members.

    Captialism, the military, the state, the individual and any other thing only become false gods when we attribute the exclusive qualities of the true God to them. The individual becomes a false god when we believe that we can be saved through the works of our own hands rather than faith in Christ. Trusting in captialism to create wealth and improve the material condition of human beings is not idolatrous, but using capitalism as the sole basis for morality is. Trusting in the state to provide law and order is not idolatrous, but assigning to the state the prescience and wisdom to redistribute goods in a perfectly just manner is.

  7. Shannon Love gave a very insightful answer above. I wish I had said it first.

    I would like to comment on the statement that the military is more insular and remote from civilian life than ever before. That’s exactly the oppsite from my own experiences, but I live in the midwest and have always been a member of the working class.


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