Remember when it was okay to criticize the military?


Hey, Kids. Would you like to learn a little known fact about the United States of America in the old days that will absolutely blow your mind.

Once upon a time it was okay to criticize and even to make fun of the American military.

I know! I know! Hard to believe.

In fact, pointing out the imbecilities, contradictions, inefficiencies, and outright stupidity of the military, especially the top echelons, was pretty much a taken for granted element of American culture.

And we’re not even talking about bad ol’ days of the late 60’s and 70’s when Marxists controlled the culture. We’re talking about the Greatest Generation of World War II. We’re talking about the height of the blacklist era of the House Un-American Activities

George C. Scott in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
George C. Scott was the ridiculous General ‘Buck’ Turgidson in the classic film Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Committee and McCarthyism. You know, real America! It was common to hear the term “Military Intelligence” scoffed as a contradiction. Everybody laughed and laughed…and it was okay. America was still free–ish. We held on to our rights. People even continued to enlist in the military. The United States continued to fight wars and create the most obnoxiously powerful military in the history of man.


I know it’s hard to believe, but I grew up watching movies like Buck Privates with Abbott and Costello, Dr. Strangelove featuring Sterling Hayden as General Jack D. Ripper, and Operation Petticoat. M.A.S.H was one

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McHale’s Navy feature the hilarious Tim Conway (left) as the zany Ensign Parker, often the dupe of Ernest Borgnine’s wily title character.

of my favorite contemporary shows, but I also enjoyed the older Gomer Pyle, and McHale’s Navy. As I entered my teen years I enjoyed Bill Murray in Stripes and, of course, Good Morning Vietnam with the irreplaceable Robin Williams.


Of course, making fun of the military carried with it serious undertones. The military is, after all, a deadly instrument of war. The United States military at that time carried a dual burden. On one hand, it was the indispensable force during two world wars and the standard bearer for western democracy during the Cold War. On the other hand, it was also building a reputation as an instrument of violence and repression

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Here’s to you, M.A.S.H., one of the greatest commentaries on American militarism ever.

throughout the world and a flawed one at that. American military satires like M.A.S.H. often shrouded serious anti-war and anti-militarist commentary with biting humor.


So it’s interesting that, just as the existential crisis of the Cold War came to an end, the United States military was ramping up its mission frequency. According to The National Interest, “[t]he United States engaged in forty-six military interventions from 1948–1991, from 1992–2017 that number increased fourfold to 188.” It was also during this time the military was building its status as the one institution in the United States that was above critique, not subject to satire. Over the last three decades, the American military has become immune to cultural critique. Consequently, American militarism is increasingly and dangerously enshrined in our national heritage.

What happened?

I’m speculating, but I think there are two variables, both attributable to a massive propaganda/marketing strategy on the part of the military and the government.

The first developed around the time of the Persian Gulf War. In 1990, the Bush Administration wanted a war with Iraq, but concerns about the peace movement and the social unrest resulting from the Vietnam War were still very fresh in the minds of our leadership. Indeed, a great deal of popular culture was dedicated to an anti-war message and to the difficulties of Vietnam vets.

The Bush Administration mitigated this in three ways. The first, was to make sure that the mission objectives of the war were clear and did not involve American military occupation. The second was to defeat Iraqi forces quickly with awesome, overwhelming force. Finally, and most relevant to this case, the Bush Administration emphasized

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Sylvester Stallone portrayed a troubled Vietnam vet pushed too far in First Blood 

“supporting the troops” even and especially if one did not support the war. We all heard stories of hippy peace protestors spitting on and otherwise abusing Vietnam vets who were guilty of nothing more than doing what their country asked of them. Cultural images of Vietnam vets, like the blockbuster film First Blood helped to manifest sympathy for the plight of the beleaguered soldiers returning to a nation that rejects them.

There was some truth to this message, and certainly something to learn. The “support the troops” marketing campaign from the Bush Administration had nothing to do with what the peace movement could learn from returning soldiers, however. It had to do with silencing dissent as being not in the interests of those bearing the burden of combat. As Noam Chomsky famously pointed out:

The point of public relations slogans like “Support our troops” is that they don’t mean anything… That’s the whole point of good propaganda.You want to create a slogan that nobody’s going to be against, and everybody’s going to be for.Nobody knows what it means, because it doesn’t mean anything.Its crucial value is that it diverts your attention from a question that does mean something: Do you support our policy? That’s the one you’re not allowed to talk about.

The second, perhaps most insidious element of the militaristic turn had to do with a disproportionately pro-military discourse within popular culture as opposed to a more critical approach to war and to militarism. Part of this might have to do with simple marketing and bean counting by which simple stories with explosions get bigger audiences than critical movies. It may also have to do with a shifting currents in American culture. After the 1990’s the United States exulted in a collective sense of triumphalism after the end of the Cold War.  The terrorist attacks on 9/11 turned this triumphalism on its head and burnished a more submissive cultural posture to the military as a source of protection.

Meanwhile, the meme-worthy rhetoric by which the military was identified as the source of our collective security and of the very rights we hold dear spread throughout our collective consciousness at the speed of light upon the click of a “share” button. Any alternative explanation as to how secure we really are or to the real source of our rights as being innate and unalienable was branded as disrespectful to our troops.

If these variables were influential, and I hypothesize that they were, they were so tangentially, indirectly. On the other hand, the Pentagon has not just stood on the sidelines while culture happened around it. Indeed, the Pentagon has been an active player in marketing its image as the one, indispensable institution. The military directly influences the way it is portrayed in movies and television. Movie producers are interested in realistic portrayals of the military. The cheapest, most efficient way to do this is with help from the Pentagon offering access to bases, materiel and people. In return, the Pentagon insists that the military be presented in a positive light. According to Oliver Stone, “Most films about the military are recruiting posters.” This is also increasingly true for stories about intelligence and spying.

We have reached a point where any critical narrative, analysis or evaluation of the military is deemed illegitimate by default. After all, we have to support our troops. If it weren’t for the military, we would have no rights and no freedom at all. So it’s in our best interest to simply not say anything.

In the meantime, the military eats up more and more of our public resources, having become the most monstrous institutional behemoth on the planet. Furthermore, the level of incompetence and corruption is beyond compare. As mentioned in an earlier post, the U.S. military is a black hole for trillions of taxpayer dollars despite the fact that, more often than not, it falls short in its mission. If there were ever a time for stepping up a cultural critique of American militarism and our “forever war” footing, it’s now.

Instead, it appears we will get a great military parade on July 4th, in dictatorial noir fashion.

1 Comment

  1. thank you for your inspiring and informative exegesis, sir sociologist. it is a narrative that should be shared and absorbed by all who fist-pump the troops jackbooting, droning, and bombing their way across our beleaguered planet from the multifarious US military bases/posts that garrison our globe.


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