Loss, Class, Empire and the Vicious Cognitive Consequences of Forced Compliance
Loss, Class, Empire and the Vicious Cognitive Consequences of Forced Compliance
A VICIOUS CHARGE
I have some dark reflections on culpability, class, empire, loss and human psychology.
The historian Andrew Bacjevich recently lost his Army son to the war in
Himself a Vietnam War veteran, Bacevich is a trenchant and highly informed observer and critic of United States militarism (see Bacevich 2005) who has consistently opposed the U.S. occupation of Iraq.
Predictably enough given the vicious politics and the messianic and authoritarian militarism that holds sway on the still powerful
Sure, it was history professor Andrew Bacevich, not Dick Cheney and George W. Bush and the rest of the bipartisan petro-imperial "Washington Mob" (Frank Rich 2007) that sent Bacevich's son to fight an illegal, mass-murderous and colonial war that has predictably elicited deadly resistance.
Right, and love is hate and war is peace and two plus two equals five (Orwell 1948).
A CRUEL IMPULSE
For what it's worth, I often find myself fighting the impulse to blame pro-war military parents for the deaths of their young GIs in
We've all seen the ritual many times by now on the Ten and Eleven O'clock News. Local U.S. Soldier X has been killed by an IED or a sniper in occupied
The killing of Soldier X is commonly portrayed as a dastardly and mysterious act against law and order, as if
Every time I see this repeated local news story, I briefly imagine myself contacting Soldier X's parents to say something along the following lines:
"This is nonsense. Your son died in the execution of a dirty, unjust, colonial and rich man's war for politics, oil and empire and you enabled it. You didn't do your job as parents, which is to protect your child. You didn't inoculate Soldier X against the lies of warmongers like Cheney, Bush, Rumsfeld, Wolfowotiz, Rice and the rest. You bought into all the transparent Iraq War nonsense about 'weapons of mass destruction' (WMD), the equally ridiculous subsequent claims to be exporting 'democracy' and all the rest (Street 2007a). You foolishly trusted the War Masters and you passed this deadly and dangerous habit of obedience on to your children, setting them up to be cannon fodder for abominable war criminals. Shame on you!"
DIFFERENTIAL SUSCEPTIBILITY TO IMPERIAL PROPAGANDA
I don't follow through on this initial cognitive impulse, of course. Doing so would be a cruel and morally indefensible misdirection of my anger away from those who most relevantly deserve criticism (and much more) for the monumental war crime that is "Operation Iraqi Freedom" ( O.I.F.) Like their children in
They've been told again and again by policymakers and by a dutiful, power-worshipping media and "education" system that Uncle Sam is a noble agent of national self-protection and global benevolence. In "mainstream' media as well as in the elite cultures of Washington and the U.S. foreign policy and academic establishments, the "fundamental principle" on the U.S. role in the world holds "that 'we are good' - 'we' being the government, on the totalitarian principle that state and people are one. 'We' are benevolent, seeking peace and justice, though there may be errors in practice. 'We' are foiled by villains who can't rise to our exalted level" (Chomsky 2004b).
Military families are not generally in a good position to "deconstruct" the insidious Orwellian misinformation that disguises imperial barbarism as self-defense and the "spreading" of "freedom" and "democracy." Their schools tend to be under-funded, unimaginative and conservative consent and obedience factories, not incubators of critically engaged citizenship. The dominant pedagogical and ideological forces in their lives disseminate nationalistic, American-exceptionalist and imperial doctrine and prepare youth and young adults for docile, mind-deadening work and for the soulless authoritarian conflation of popular democracy with privatized mass consumption and atomized (neoliberal) market relations (Giroux 2004). They are given slight basis for understanding why millions resist
Their material (economic and working) lives leave little space to hear and grasp anti-imperial and even antiwar critiques and positions. They are often compelled to work absurdly long hours (commonly toiling at more than one job), enjoying little of the leisure time that meaningful democracy requires (Street 2002).
Given the socio-economically fractured imbalance of cultural and political forces inside the U.S. and the awesome weapons of mass deception available to North American war masters and profiteers, it is hard to blame American soldiers and military families for tending to accept - or at least not actively oppose –the rationalizations made for the occupation.
"COGNITIVE CONSEQUENCES OF FORCED COMPLIANCE"
Dominant ideology aside, how many parents of fallen occupation troops are going to want to join Cindy Sheehan in saying that their children gave their lives "for nothing" or for the political and imperial ambitions of the Bush administration and its allies and enablers? This judgment carries an emotional burden too heavy for most to want to carry. It is contradicted to a certain extent by the fact that many soldiers did in fact enlist in the military in perceived service to good motives and higher ideals ("protecting" their fellow Americans and "helping" others abroad etc.). When and if confronted by the terrible fact that those motives were exploited by domestic elites - war profiteers, power-mad politicians and sheltered imperialists like Cheney, Bush and the CEOs and leading shareholders of Boeing, Raytheon, Haliburton etc. - most military parents can be expected to respond in accord with the theory of cognitive dissonance. They will often seek to reduce the uncomfortable tension between two incompatible (dissonant) beliefs - (1) their child died for a good cause and in accord with their own noble values and (2) their child died tragically for a bad cause reflecting the vile agenda of rich and powerful rulers - by deepening their commitment to the first belief.
Unpleasant as it is to realize, confrontation with the ugly fact that they lost a child to a dirty, illegal and colonial oil occupation can often be expected to intensify belief in the fraudulent justifications for the invasion of
The first (privileged) family can privately register an external justification for going along with the war-enabling deceptions: they got richer and suffered no personal loss to themselves or anyone else in their immediate circle of friends and family.
The second family's situation is different. It is consigned to the only (and not just coincidentally disadvantaged) section of the highly stratified U.S. populace that is asked to make actual mortal sacrifice for the execution of a colonial "war" that is opposed by most of the civilian population. It received no gain and only loss. Consistent with Festinger and Carlsmith's classic observations on the "cognitive consequences of forced compliance," it consequently feels more pressure to internalize the false premises on which the war was sold (Festinger and Carlsmith 1959).
THE PSYCHOLOGICAL WAGE OF EMPIRE
Military families are also particularly susceptible to another form of forced-compliance cognitive response - what might be called the "psychological wage of empire." As race-class theorists and activists have long observed, racism has long proved perversely attractive for white lower- and working-class struggling with their subordinate status in capitalist
There is certainly something similar at work with regard to Empire - a related "psychological wage of imperialism" that gives working- and lower-class soldiers and military families (including in some cases non-white soldiers and families) the dangerous, pseudo-compensatory "satisfaction of thinking" one is "somebody big" because one and/or one's children are on the right side of the imperial guns of the most powerful military in world history.
Such is the toxic, viciously circular reality of how class and empire intersect with basic psychological processes.
WHY THE MILITARY PREFERS A MERCENARY ARMY
There are, to be sure, countervailing tendencies. According to a recent story in NEWSWEEK, "most
Nobody faces more internal and external pressure than the troops to internalize the
It's hard not to notice the irony that those most incentivized and compelled to absorb the pretexts for the illegal invasion are those most directly exposed to the absurdity of its false justifications.
The irony is far from accidental, however. The
"The military command, and the civilian leadership, learned an important lesson in
Chomsky elaborated on these comments in his 2005 interview book Imperial Ambitions (Chomsky and Barsamian 2005. p. 133-134):
"A citizens' army has ties to the civilian culture. In the late 1960s, for example, during the Vietnam War, a kind of rebellious culture in many respects and civilizing culture in many respects spilled over into the military, and it helped undermine the military, which is a very good thing. That's why no imperial power has used the citizens' army to fight an imperial war. If you take a look at the British in
Ruling class preference for the use of professional, non- citizen soldiers (both public and private) to enforce global empire lay behind the fact that so U.S. citizens are experientially removed from the harsh realities of the Iraq invasion and thus more free to at least privately oppose it. That preference is intimately related to the imperialist nature of the war on
None of this can provide the slightest bit of comfort to professor Bacevich, whose book The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced By War (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005) is a brilliant reflection on the post-Vietnam U.S. military and its position in U.S. society and politics. To have a son or daughter killed or maimed in a dirty colonial war from whose false justifications you are privileged enough to be inoculated must be a painful experience indeed. The road of internalizing the bogus reasons given for the policy is closed and you are confronted with an ugly truth that you can't expect many fellow "parents of the fallen" to acknowledge: your child's noble values and life were sacrificed to the vile imperial and political ambitions of the "Washington mob," still very much the "greatest purveyor of violence in the world today" (Martin Luther King Jr. 1967, p. 233).
1. Some segments of the mass imperial consent manufactory called the "mainstream" U.S. media may have apologized for their terrible role in disseminating the big weapons of mass destruction (WMD) lie (and related deceptions about Saddam Hussein's alleged connections to al Qaeda and 9/11) that the Bush administration cooked up to justify their invasion of Iraq. But the apology came far too late to matter and dominant U.S. media has subsequently continued to disseminate numerous other administration deceptions, such as the preposterous claim (elevated by the White House public relations machine once the WMD fraud began to be exposed) that the real reason for the occupation of Iraq was the United States' desire to export "democracy" and to create a free and sovereign Iraq. When will the media masters apologize for helping propagate that great and significant Iraq War fairy tale, which was never accepted by more than 1 percent of the technically irrelevant and supposedly "liberated" Iraqis (and other post-WMD
2. For what it's worth (to give just one small part of the overall and long-term public opinion picture), 72 percent of Americans surveyed by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations in the fall of 2004 said that the U.S. should remove its military from Iraq if that's what a clear majority of Iraqis want (Chicago Council on Foreign Relations 2004, p. 17). Interestingly enough, a poll conducted for the British Ministry of Defence in 2005 found that fully 82 percent of Iraqis were "'strongly opposed' to the presence of foreign troops in their country and less than 1 percent believed the troops were responsible for improvement in security" (Taylor 2005). This is some context for understanding why
3. If we must have a military, it would be better for it be based on a citizen's draft, something that would make it much more difficult for warmongers (and Chicken Hawks) like Bush and Cheney to launch criminal adventures like the invasion of
Andrew Bacevich 2005. The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced By War (
Andrew Bacevich 2007. "I Lost my Son to a War I Oppose: We Were Both Doing Our Duty," Washington Post 27 May 2007, available online at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/05/25/AR2007052502032_pf.html.
Noam Chomsky 2004a. "The Draft," ZNet (December 17 2004), available online at http://blog.zmag.org/ee_links/the_draft.
Noam Chomsky 2004b. "'We' are Good" [November 24, 2004], reproduced in Chomsky, Interventions [
Noam Chomsky and David Barsamian 2005. Imperial Ambitions: Conversations on the Post-9/11 World (
Leon Festinger and J.M. Carlsmith 1959. "Cognitive Consequences of Forced Compliance," Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology.
Henry A. Giroux 2004. The Terror of Neoliberalism: Authoritarianism and the Eclipse of Democracy (
David M. Halbfinger and Steven A. Holmes 2003. "Military Mirrors Working-Class
Martin Luther King Jr. 1967. "A Time to Break the Silence," April 4 1967 speech to the Riverside Church, pp. 231-244 in James M. Washington, ed.., A Testament of Hope: the Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King,, Jr. (San Francisco, CA: Harpercollins, 1991), pp. 231-244.
Martin Luther King Jr. 1968. "The Drum Major Instinct," Feb. 4 1968 sermon to the Ebenezer Baptist Churchm reproduced in James M. Washington, ed, A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther king, Jr. (Harpercollins, 1991), pp. 259-267
George Orwell 1948. Nineteen Eighty Four (New York: 1948).
Frank Rich 2007. "Scooter's Sopranos go the Mattresses,"
David Roediger 1991. The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (New York: Verso, 1991).
Paul Street 2002. "Labor Day Reflections: Time as a Democracy Issue," ZNet Daily Commentaries (September 3, 2002) at www.zmag. org/ sustainers/content/ 2002-08/01street.cfm.
Richard Norton Taylor 2005. "British Forces Arrest Nine Iraqis As Poll Shows Hostility to Troops," The Guardian, October 24, 2005, available at www. guardian.co.uk/military/ story/0,,1599184,00.html.
Evan Thomas and Larry Kaplow 2007. "Manhunt in