For more than 150 years, the United States resisted the creation of a large standing army. To a great degree, technology and especially geography made it unnecessary. The United States maintained a significant, though relatively small Navy and a small professional army which served as a nucleus around which a large force could be assembled during national emergencies. This happened during the Civil War, World War I and again in World War II. The World War II army was never fully demobilized and a large standing army (all four services) has been the new normal for three-quarters of a century. Most of us take this as a given. But it is worth remembering why early Americans thought standing armies were at least in tension with democracy if not outright inimical to it.
One reason for the resistance to standing armies was that they made the state too strong. Another reason was that they tended to be used to fight wars which – in addition to the other problems with wars – distorted or endangered the civilian character of democratic government. What we’re seeing today from President Trump is a very specific danger with the militarization of civic culture: an anti-democratic leader can use military sacrifice as a totem to squelch dissent.
Here’s a tweet from someone named “Donna Warren”. Presumably she’s a real person, though she could simply be a twitter concoction, a fake persona. That doesn’t matter. What matters is that President Trump RT’d this tweet yesterday. In context, that means he endorsed it.
— DONNA WARREN ?? (@DonnaWR8) September 24, 2017
Let’s be clear that we don’t know anything about the man in the picture. The photograph almost certainly was created for a different use. But as the image is used here, you can see the whole mindset, use of loss and blood as a cudgel in its most brutal form. The act of protest is enrolled as a specific disrespect of this man who has had his body ripped apart in military violence. Images like this, combined with these words, are meant to inspire rage at the targets of the attack. Guilt, admiration and vicarious horror are transmuted not simply into opposition but rage at dissenters.
This tweet is a particularly graphic example. But the mindset and aim is identical to what President Trump does all the time. Dissent of all sorts, which is supposed to be a central American freedom, is rebranded as an attack on people who have sustained injuries on the country’s behalf or lose their lives.
The word ‘fascism’ gets thrown around casually these days. Better words for this are probably ‘militarism’ and ‘authoritarianism’. But this use of betrayed sacrifice as a weapon against dissent – and more specifically against non-authoritarian political movements – is precisely the imagery and narrative far-right groups in Germany used in the aftermath of World War I and through the Nazi rise to power in the early 1930s. In fact, the weaponization of betrayed military sacrifice is a common, almost universal feature of rightist political movements.