Cultural, Economic and Workforce Structures Help Reinforce U.S. Militarism

The following essay of mine was published in on February 27, 2010.

With total US military spending now approaching 3/4 of a trillion dollars per year — about as much as the rest of the world’s countries combined — cutting military spending is becoming an issue of concern for the peace movement and beyond, especially as the president has proposed a three-year freeze on domestic spending. As much as one might want to reduce military and defense-related spending, there are powerful cultural and other influences embedded in our society which make it difficult to shift spending to underfunded domestic needs.

High among these influences is the symbiotic interconnection between sports and the armed forces. Many major sports events start with such military displays as a precision flyover of jet fighters, the unfurling of a huge US flag by members of the military services, the flag presentation by a military service color guard, or the singing of the National Anthem by individual or collective service members.

Besides these heavy overlays of military pageantry, sports announcers lavish praise on “Our brave men and women fighting for our freedom overseas.” Never do we hear in what ways our freedoms as citizens are being enhanced by our involvement in military conflicts, the rationales for which have become increasingly strained.

It is not true that wars never enhance freedom, as, for example, millions were released from the oppressive control of their conquerors and/or occupiers when the Nazi and the Japanese nations were defeated. Yet, due to intimidation preventing criticism of a nation’s war policies and the erosion of civil liberties premised on wartime exigencies, war negatively impacts the freedoms of the warring nation’s citizens.

A second powerful influence is the rally around the commander-in-chief motif, a correlative to “Don’t change horses in the middle of the stream.” This mode of thinking makes it difficult to divest ourselves of leaders who have embroiled the nation in military quagmires through devious, deeply flawed reasoning or even criminal means.

Another variety of groupthink which has become increasingly prevalent in recent history is to label anyone as a hero who serves in a combat zone. I know that when I was in the US Army during the Korean War, such uncritical hero worship was far from the norm. Enlistees were treated with withering scorn by the far more numerous draftees and even the career military questioned the intelligence of those who voluntarily put their lives in  imminent risk.

It has also seemingly become mandatory for anyone interviewing a service member to thank him or her for service to the nation. This cowed deference stems from charges that returning Vietnam War veterans were badly treated by the media and some members of the public. It is a misfortune that military service has become designated as the only way one can serve the nation.

Surprisingly enough, even our National Anthem fosters the martial spirit among US citizens. In the months after 9/11, whenever the National Anthem was played at sporting event, the line which drew the most boisterous response was the one about bombs bursting in air.

The militarist conditioning of our young is being fostered through penetration of military recruitment — often insidiously hidden — into our schools; the interactive video game fairs featuring images of military offensive power; and the displays of military hardware, employing spit-polished military personnel helping youngsters climb into tanks and warplane cockpits.

Shifting the focus from the cultural underpinnings of a militarist society, the structure of the US workforce is skewed toward the protectors versus the producers when the US is measured against the other industrialized nations. In a study published in 1992*, three economists coined the term “garrison economy” — also described as the cost of keeping people down. The garrison economy encompasses “guard labor” and “threat labor.” Guard labor includes the full range of enforcement activities necessary to maintain the peace: workplace supervisors, police, judicial and corrections employees, private security personnel, the armed forces, civilian defense employees, and producers of military and domestic security equipment. Threat labor consists of those who make credible the peril of job dismissal: the unemployed, “discouraged workers” and prisoners.

There were two key findings in the study: 1) the US ratio of one guard or threat laborer for every 2.3 civilian employees not engaged in maintaining order was the highest among the industrialized nations — it also correlated with the slower rate of economic growth in the US; and 2) there was an inverse relationship between management size and productivity. Thus, the US, with 12.1 percent managers, had a productivity rate of 0.7 percent, while Japan, with 3.7 percent managers, had a productivity rate of 3.0 percent. Finland, with only 3.0 percent in  managerial ranks, had a productivity growth rate of 3.6 percent.

A key question is: Is a study done nearly two decades ago still valid today? Given the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the subsequent explosive growth of security companies, the ongoing increase in military personnel and mercenary forces, the increase in the US prison population to the highest level ever, and the extremely high levels of discouraged and unemployed workers in today’s workforce, all suggest that the ratio of guard and threat workers to civilian workers not engaged in maintaining order may be even higher than it was in the early 1990s.

In today’s deeply troubled economy, job creation is perhaps the most urgent priority in the nation. A recent study by University of Massachusetts” economists Robert Pollin and Heidi Garrett-Peltier** found, similar to previous research over the last few decades, that public investment in military spending is about the worst way to create jobs, especially good-paying ones, and to stimulate the economy. Instead, investment in clean energy, health care and education would all create more jobs and stimulate more economic activity.

In conclusion, deeply embedded cultural factors make it difficult to significantly reduce the size of the US military establishment. Also, a workforce structure premised so strongly on security fears results in more and more resources being expended to protect less and less. The time is ripe for a mass movement to challenge these factors and overwhelm militarism with peace and priorities that reflect a new understanding of human security, which would make us safer and strengthen the economy for everyone.


*Samuel Bowles, David M. Gordon and Thomas Weisskopf, “The Boom a Bust,” The Nation, February 10, 1992.

**”The U.S. Employment Effects of Military and Domestic Spending Priorities: An Updated Analysis,” Pollin and Garrett-Peltier, commissioned by the Institute for Policy Studies and Women’s Action for New Directions, 2009.


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