There are a number of distinctly American symbols that evoke feelings of pride, nationalism, and patriotism. There is the Constitution. There are monuments like Mount Rushmore, the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, and the Jefferson Memorial. There are structures like the Statue of Liberty and the Liberty Bell. There are buildings like the White House and the Capitol. There are also things that there are many of: American flags, bald eagles, dollar bills, and images of Uncle Sam and the Great Seal of the United States.
In the last ten or so years, these symbols have all been superceded by one image that is so powerful and so overwhelming that it drives some Americans to tears and causes others to act in the most nonsensical and irrational of ways.
I am referring to a military uniform.
Not just any military uniform, of course, but one of the United States Army, Navy, Air Force, or Marines. And especially a uniform adorned with lots of badges, awards, medals, ribbons, and insignias. Naturally, a uniform that indicates that a member of the military has been in combat is far superior to a uniform not so ornamented.
Things have only gotten worse since William Deresiewicz wrote in the New York Times a few years ago:
NO symbol is more sacred in American life right now than the military uniform. The cross is divisive; the flag has been put to partisan struggle. But the uniform commands nearly automatic and universal reverence. In Congress as on television, generals are treated with awed respect, service members spoken of as if they were saints. Liberals are especially careful to make the right noises: obeisance to the uniform having become the shibboleth of patriotism, as anti-Communism used to be. Across the political spectrum, throughout the media, in private and public life, the pieties and ritual declarations are second nature now: “warriors,” “heroes,” “mission”; “our young men and women in uniform,” “our brave young men and women,” “our finest young people.” So common has this kind of language become, we scarcely notice it anymore.
The cult of the uniform originated about ten years after the end of the Vietnam War—a war in which over 58,000 Americans died to get their names on a wall. To overcome the “Vietnam Syndrome,” the United States needed some swift, decisive, and favorable military actions. President Reagan launched an invasion of the small island nation of Grenada in October of 1983. Naturally, U.S. forces overwhelmed the opposition. Although universally condemned around the world, the military action was popular in the United States, especially since “only” 19 U.S. soldiers were killed for no good reason. Of course, it helped that just two days before the invasion of Grenada, 241 American servicemen were blown to bits by a suicide bomber who drove a truck into the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon.
The cult of the uniform was increased when President George H. W. Bush made two attempts to overcome the Vietnam Syndrome. First he invaded Panama in December of 1989 to oust dictator and former CIA asset Manuel Noriega. The “war” only lasted about a month. This time “only” 23 U.S. soldiers were killed to make the world safe for the U.S. military. Then Bush invaded Iraq (the first invasion) in January of 1991 after one autocratic Muslim state (Iraq) invaded another autocratic Muslim state (Kuwait). It was all over in about a month. The immensely popular Persian Gulf War resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqis, but “just” 293 American servicemen. But as Pat Buchanan said at the time: “Why should a single American die for the Emir of Kuwait?” President Bush stated at the war’s end: “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all!”
The cult of the uniform was expanded into what it is today by the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11. All military personnel are now heroes. Sporting events have turned into military worship services. Discounts galore are now offered to military personnel. Show up in a military uniform (but not a bus driver, plumber, or auto mechanic uniform) at many restaurants on Veterans Day and you can get a free meal. At many airlines, military personnel board the planes first along with the first class passengers. There are announcements in airports welcoming home military personnel and thanking them for all they do to keep us safe. Parents put bumper stickers on their cars that mention that their son (or daughter) is serving in the military. Businesses proclaim their support for the troops on their signs and in their advertisements. Military personnel who wear their uniforms out in public are stopped and thanked for their service. Patriotism is now equated with admiration for the military. And, of course, the big lie that the troops are defending our freedoms is repeated morning, noon, and night.
The cult of the uniform has spread to churches as well. Many churches encourage members of the military to wear their uniforms to church on the Sunday before the three nationalmilitary appreciation days (Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Veterans Day). Woe be to the unsuspecting Christian if one of these days falls on a Sunday! Sometimes military guest speakers are invited for one of these services. Special military appreciation days are also held throughout the year. Prayers are offered for those serving in “harm’s way” (but never for their victims). Military chaplains are held in high esteem. Some churches put slogans on their signs or in their bulletins about U.S. troops dying for our freedoms like Christ died for our sins. Young men (and women) who announce that they are joining the military are applauded in church more than those who announce their surrender to some foreign mission field.
The cult of the uniform is retroactive; that is, all veterans are still accorded the glory, laud, and honor given to active duty military personnel. Just the sight of someone in a store wearing a hat that says “World War II Veteran” or “Vietnam Veteran” gives some Americans goose bumps. Every veteran is a hero, no matter where he fought or what he did or didn’t do there. Veterans get preferential treatment in employment. They are recognized in schools during Veterans Day programs. They are recognized in churches on the Sunday closest to Veterans Day.
The cult of the uniform is at its worst when it comes to U.S. servicemen fighting senseless, unjust, immoral, and unconstitutional wars. The presence or absence of a uniform is all that it takes to not hold or hold someone responsible for destruction of person and property. It is okay for someone to put on a military uniform and kill someone half way around the world who was no threat to America, but it is murder if the same person killed someone here in the United States. A terrorist is anyone who detonates a bomb—unless he is wearing a U.S. military uniform. Americans are outraged when an American kills his mother, but put yellow ribbons on their cars saying “support the troops” when the government tells an American to put on a uniform and go kill some foreigner’s mother. The putting on of a uniform allows morality to be put off.
The cult of the uniform is the national religion. It turns atheists into religionists, Jews into warvangelicals, and Christians into idolaters. It must be opposed, root and branch.
Laurence M. Vance [send him mail] writes from central Florida. He is the author of King James, His Bible, and Its Translators, The Revolution that Wasn’t, The War on Drugs Is a War on Freedom, and Social Insecurity. His latest books are War, Christianity, and the State: Essays on the Follies of Christian Militarism and War, Empire, and the Military: Essays on the Follies of War and U.S. Foreign Policy. Visit his website.