“Homeland” And Other Un-American Words and Ideas

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A week ago I saw this piece in The Nation which picked up on a Chris Matthews rant about how defense and security of the “homeland” has become a commonplace phrase in the year’s since 9/11. I was heartened by this because this has been a pet issue of mine going back to the months just after 9/11. As I wrote more than a dozen years ago, the phrase “does have a deep blood and soil tinge to it which is distinctly Germanic, more than a touch un-American, and a little creepy.”

At this point using the phrase almost seems natural and with the Department of Homeland Security it’s part of the official national vocabulary. It’s so pervasive it’s hard not to use it, if for no other reason than that people might otherwise not know quite what you’re referring to.

But here’s what Matthews says

“I am very uncomfortable with the phrase ‘homeland.’ It strikes me as totalitarian. It’s a term used by the neocons, they love it. It suggests something strange to me. Like who else are we defending except America? Why don’t you just say ‘America’? Why doesn’t [Obama] say we defended against attacks against this country? As if we’re facing some existential Armageddon threat from these people. Do you buy the phrase ‘homeland’? I never heard it growing up, never heard it in my adulthood. It’s a new word. Why are we using it? Is there some other place we’re defending? What are we talking about when we say ‘homeland’? What’s it about?

With all the things that’s happened since the 9/11 attacks, it might seem quaint or precious to focus on a mere word. But words have consequences and they shape thought. To me, beyond the simply un-American sound of the phrase, there are two problems with it.

One is that it does have a strong blood and soil element to it – a sense that our connection to this piece of land is about ethnicity or ancestry, something that doesn’t square with our highest national ideals and doesn’t even add up in a purely factual sense.

The second Matthews alludes to or poses as a rhetorical question without quite answering. And this is part of why it resonated so much just after 9/11. When Matthews says “Who else are we defending?”, I think the answer is this: implicit in the ‘homeland’ terminology is an imperial vision of America’s role in the world. There’s defense – which is something safely beyond our borders but operating in areas of our control and dominance and then there’s us proper – the homeland.

Certainly this sort of American military hegemony didn’t start with 9/11 but this way of thinking about our role in the world – largely because of the absence of the Soviet Union, I suspect – did come particularly into fashion in the late Clinton and early Bush years. And let’s say it, Thank God we’ve almost never had wars reach our own soil. But war affects us even when it doesn’t touch us in that way.

Now, where did the phrase come from? Matthews associates it with neocons. That’s partly but not exactly right. As I said, I started getting a funny feeling about this word in the months just after 9/11. And back in June of 2002 I did some digging to see just when people started using this phrase as a way of talking about the security of the American mainland. Like Matthews, this wasn’t something I’d ever heard before the 9/11 attacks. And it sounded weird from the start.

It turns out it didn’t actually originate in the aftermath of 9/11. When George W. Bush came into office his team was already very big on something they called “homeland defense.” By which they mainly meant ballistic missile defense – focused primarily on states like Iraq and North Korea but more realistically on a resurgent Russia.

The obsession with ballistic missile shields obviously goes back to the early 1980s. But the phrase goes back to a December 1997 Pentagon report called “Transforming Defense: National Security in the 21st century.” That was during the Clinton administration. But the mandate for the study was part of the FY 1997 Defense Authorization Act. In other words, it was mandated by the then-Republican Congress and was part of a mood in the Republican party that the Clinton administration was ignoring threats to American security. The upshot of the report was that American defense policy should be putting more emphasis on the defense of the American mainland. From that point onward, ‘homeland defense’ – the phrase they embraced to make this argument became a stock phrase in defense wonk talk, particularly on the right but not only on the right.

The report was equivocal on the issue of national missile defense – perhaps reflecting the basic disagreement on the issue at the time between the administration and Congress. But the ‘homeland defense’ concept was always closely tied to creating a missile shield over the United States. And when I poked around a little further to try to find the earliest uses of the phrase in this context the earliest ones all traced back to Reagan missile defense initiative in the 1980s. (I go into more detail about the lineage of the phrase in the original post here.)

Changing words doesn’t change realities in itself. The US has an undeniably imperial dimension to its military posture – something that is not even questioned in the realm of mainstream politics. After all, no other country has a military command assigned to cover each part of the globe in the way we do. But our addiction to this new word – utterly alien to American English and foreign policy discussion – does tend to lock us down into a fortress America mindset with all the tendencies toward authoritarianism and militarism the posture brings with it. We already have a word – mainland. Or as Matthews says, Why not just America?

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