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.