A War Culture

Our country, if you look at its history, has fought an awful lot of wars, and it’s no wonder that militarism is always just beneath the surface of our culture, even in times of peace.

Americans fought in the French and Indian War, the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the War Between the States, the Spanish-American War, the Philippines Insurrection, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the war against the Serbs, the war in Afghanistan and the Iraqi wars.

Interspersed among all of those are about 300 years of Indian wars and minor military incursions into such places as China, Lebanon, Panama, Nicaragua, Haiti, Grenada, Libya, Somalia and perhaps others that I have missed. Our national anthem is a war song based on a poem written during the War of 1812. Many television stations, when they sign off, run a film of military jets flying above the flag.

Even our language is full of references to war. Politicians, pink-fingered and manicured, nevertheless always "fight" for this or that program or policy. The expression "lock, stock and barrel" does not refer to whiskey barrels but to the parts of a rifle. To say that someone has "shot his wad" is a reference to soldiers who forgot to put the bullets into their black-powder rifles. We say winning an election is a "victory." We sometimes talk about a "double-barreled" threat or say that something is "on target." Election efforts are called "campaigns." We often speak of sports teams "battling back." We conduct "wars" on social problems such as poverty and drug abuse. As an aside, I should point out that the Arabic word "jihad" is like our English word "war." It can mean either physical combat or a personal, social or political struggle.

I’m sure you can think of more expressions or words. We often use a World War II acronym, "snafu," which stands for "situation normal, all f— up." We sometimes say "ground zero," which is a reference to the impact point of a nuclear weapon.

Of course, in addition to our real and historical involvement in wars, our entertainment culture is saturated with violence. Our civilian police departments are being militarized. It’s an odd country indeed for anyone to suggest gun control, and, of course, the peace movement in the United States has always been a minority faction. Pacifism has often been equated with treason, and to many Americans patriotism means simply a willingness to go to war (or, more often, a willingness for some of our younger citizens to go to war).

My own life has been molded by the war culture. I was 2 years old when World War II started in Europe and 8 when it ended in the Pacific. Thus, most of my childhood was filled with war. I saw so much newsreel footage of American bombs falling on German cities that I used to carry a hard-rubber ball in my pocket to "bomb" columns of ants on the sidewalk. I assumed as a given that I would take my turn in uniform. I have always assumed that violence itself is a given. Except for a few trips, I’ve never slept in a house without a loaded gun. I’ve always been psychologically prepared to kill if the need arises.

I confess that I was less upset by the Sept. 11 attack than many people. Having become calloused with the massive casualties of World War II, with so many images of destroyed cities and dead bodies stored in my brain, my first reaction was: "Only 3,000 dead? That’s not too bad."

Thank God I realized how warped by the war culture I was and tried hard to rear my own children differently. In the world as it is, we probably cannot avoid war, but we should certainly stop glorifying it and should crack down on the gratuitous violence on television, in movies and in video games. Exposure to violence, even make-believe violence, does produce emotional calluses.

We need for our children and grandchildren a culture of life, not a culture of death.

Author: Charley Reese

Charley Reese is a journalist.