Tuesday Go Ponder: The Cult of Military Service

“America needs heroes,” it is sometimes said, a phrase that’s often uttered in a wistful tone, almost cooingly, as if we were talking about a lonely child. But do we really “need heroes”? We need leaders, who marshal us to the muddle. We need role models, who show us how to deal with it. But what we really need are citizens, who refuse to infantilize themselves with talk of heroes and put their shoulders to the public wheel instead. The political scientist Jonathan Weiler sees the cult of the uniform as a kind of citizenship-by-proxy.”
~ William Deresiewicz

I’ve been wanting to write about this for a long time.

Recently, after hearing of Leah Remini’s departure from the cult that is Scientology, and how Kirstie Alley – a supposedly great friend of hers – cursed her out on Twitter for leaving.

It reminded me of the cult that is the International Church of Christ, who had a strong presence on the Portland State University campus when I was a student (and included several of my coworkers at the time, inviting me to “Bible study”), and how they weren’t allowed to be in romantic relationships beyond holding hands.

I was thinking about how my philosophy on the military has evolved since I was a kid and recently came upon the blog post by Wise Sloth, The Military is a Cult. It made me think about the rampant sexual assault of women in the military and how these rapists are not going to jail like someone would “on the outside”.  It made me think of the fact that I, as a recruiter, find it hard to suggest jobs to ex-military beyond project managers and analysts for government-related agencies because why?  We know they only have one way of thinking, that innovation and questioning the system isn’t exactly part of the military culture.

“Historically, the most terrible things – war, genocide, and slavery – have resulted not from disobedience, but from obedience.”
~ Howard Zinn

My father was a retired Army captain. My paternal grandparents were both veterans. My brother is a retired Air Force sergeant.  I have friends who served.  People I love. So my thoughts about speaking this in a public forum made me nervous.

But my blog is meant to bring up things for us to ponder, to open minds and to spark thought. And here’s the thing  – it’s got nothing to do with how I feel about them. If they were Scientologists or Mormons or whatever, I’d speak up.  But the society we live in is so insanely fueled by the worship of the military, that I feel like even writing about this will get me a McCarthy-esque blacklisting.  I’ll be told that the twenty year old kid who was lured out of the ‘hood to join the service is there to “protect my freedom of speech” or that my audacity to question the military is “stupid and ungrateful”, that this is the “greatest country in the world” and that without the military, I’d be living under a dictatorship.

“What struck me as I began to study history was how nationalist fervor–inculcated from childhood on by pledges of allegiance, national anthems, flags waving and rhetoric blowing–permeated the educational systems of all countries, including our own. I wonder now how the foreign policies of the United States would look if we wiped out the national boundaries of the world, at least in our minds, and thought of all children everywhere as our own. Then we could never drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, or napalm on Vietnam, or wage war anywhere, because wars, especially in our time, are always wars against children, indeed our children.”
~ Howard Zinn

In the New York Times’ piece, America’s Sentimental Regard for the Military,

“The new cult of the uniform began with the call to “support our troops” during the Iraq war. The slogan played on a justified collective desire to avoid repeating the mistake of the Vietnam era, when hatred of the conflict spilled over into hostility toward the people who were fighting it. Now the logic was inverted: supporting the troops, we were given to understand, meant that you had to support the war. In fact, that’s all it seemed to mean. The ploy was a bait and switch, an act of emotional blackmail. If you opposed the war or questioned the way it was conducted, you undermined our troops.

As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have dragged on, other purposes have come into play. The greater the sacrifice that has fallen on one small group of people, the members of the military and their families, the more we have gone from supporting our troops to putting them on a pedestal.”

The main reason I never joined the military myself is this: by joining, you ultimately agree that you will kill another human being if your country demands it.  Not just die for your country, but kill for it.  Even if you never end up serving in a role that has you pulling the trigger, by joining, your efforts support the death of people you’ve never met.  We all know that if you sell for Monsanto, you know very well that your work supports the poisoning of our soil.  This is no different.

The video below is funny but true, about how cults begin.  Watch, listen, and see how similar it is to the expectation that the military gives its recruits and treats them during their service.  Remember, nothing is black and white. The world is a million shades of gray and this is meant to awaken, to encourage healthy discussion, to challenge convention.


7 thoughts on “Tuesday Go Ponder: The Cult of Military Service

  1. i agree with everything you said. the bait and switch was so obvious when it was happening, and unfortunately simple and scared people can’t distinguish between the troops and policy. but it was all a huge concerted effort to make war our national community activity, the poor kids fighting because the military is the best option in neighborhoods with substandard schools and main streets, and the privileged society of people who don’t have to go into the military because of where we were born — we get to enjoy the war on tv.
    the fact is, we have a mercenary army. corporations all have special deals for active duty military. and that’s because, just like superpowers before us throughout history, our wars are no longer defensive when a draft would have public support. the poor kids forced into the military are historical victims. those with privilege who remain silent are co-conspirators with the global planners. thanks for speaking up.


    1. Thanks, Ed. I know my post had a lot of thoughts but not necessarily finished ones, and no real suggestions for alternatives, as it was to share what’s been floating around in my head related to military and our culture of “America take it or leave it” instead of a more humble “we know we’re not perfect, so let’s make it better”. Countries who ask all of their youth to either do military or social service after high school – I like that. Serving your country can be a beautiful thing, but serving doesn’t have to equate to holding a gun. I just saw a special on 60 minutes about how a veteran is using tactics that were unsuccessful in the Middle East to address gang activity in the inner cities here in America – and they had nothing to do with guns – they were, ironically, about building relationships. Proof positive that building relationships is what heals us, and understanding that while we all want to feel safe, fighting fire with fire isn’t the answer.

      Reading a lot of Howard Zinn these days and also recently finished the Pulitzer Prize winning book “A Problem From Hell” that addresses genocide throughout the centuries, and how Ronald Reagan would only sign the genocide convention in the 1980’s if it was so watered down that America could never be held accountable for its own atrocities (the slaughter of the Native Americans is of course the first that comes to mind, not to mention slavery…). Hell, even Australia apologized to the aboriginal tribes (it’s a start) but god forbid our country be big enough to be accountable for its own violent past…

      Thanks for your comments, as always.


  2. Of course you know that I would disagree with your assertion that military people all think the same. And calling military service a cult I think is unfair. However, I have long hated all this “support the troops” BS. This is often done with people saying that the troops need all this support, that they don’t need dissension. This is infantalizing to military members, their beliefs, and their intellect- in effect, saying they are only able to think one way and have unquestioned/unquestionable/naive beliefs (yes, like a cult) that are so shallow and fragile that they risk fracture. I tell those people that if they want to be patriotic, the best thing to do is be a thinking, educated citizen. And no, I don’t think being patriotic or a good citizen is the end goal for everyone, nor should it be. I simply illustrate those points when I’m frustrated with all the bumper sticker “easy button” patriotism.


    1. I appreciate your comments! Ti clarify about the recruiting portion, it’s not to say that it’s true that military all thinks the same, it’s the *perception* by many recruiters because the reputation of the military is not one of creativity or innovation. It can be a hindrance to ex military trying to get into the public sector because of this – not by fault of the individual but by fault of the institution. Not all that different than coming from a lot of government entities, including the one I used to work for 🙂


  3. Amen! For some time I’ve been contemplating writing about this issue. The military is especially worshiped in the Bible belt – with churches that are supposed to be followers of Jesus who said love one another, love your enemies, etc., being the most supportive of the military. While these people spend time fighting against reproductive rights, something that is none of their business, they fully support the military and say that killing in wartime isn’t really murder. And it goes beyond the military. I have heard people praise those who go to work for government contractors for “protecting our freedom.” These are people who go into war zones for the sole selfish purpose of making lots of money – but they’re hailed as heroes. I have also seen people in our area go into the military because, with unemployment so high, they have no other career option. Once in, it seems like they drink the koolaid and start believing they enlisted for patriotic reasons. I wish people would stop mindlessly repeating phrases they hear and really study history and current events. Thanks for a good post.


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