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The Militarization Of Citizenship

March 17, 2012

A week or so ago I was venting, in a vague way, on Facebook about one of my classes. As a former student advisor, I’m sensitive to FERPA and always avoid any information that could be linked to a particular student. But teaching can be a frustrating profession, especially when you’re doing it right—even on good days. So classroom leaders occasionally need to let off some steam. Since the status update generated 47 comments, clearly a number of friends either share my concerns or were engaged by the topics.

I’ll leave the bulk of the post for Facebook (safely restricted, ensconced in privacy controls). I will, however, offer this: as the discussion of my status update evolved, several comments addressed the topic of citizenship and democracy. A number of problematic things were offered by one particular “friend” (of a friend), but one comment in particular caught my attention:

“As for your collective love of of what you consider democracy, I can only shrug and watch it play out. I personally would consider myself more of a ‘citizen’ than a great many people (arrogant, perhaps, but I believe mandated service should be requisite along the path to obtain citizenship); I took it upon myself to make the safety and security of my fellow people my personal responsibility by placing myself in harms way, rather than pontificating about what a citizen should or shouldn’t be from the secure comfort of the ivory tower and a position of privilege as a professor.”

There are four points of concern: (1) the indifference and casualness about the love of democracy; (2) mandated service for citizenship; (3) the prioritization of placing one’s self “in harms way” as the apotheosis of citizenship; (4) the notion that the only thing professors do is “pontificate” about what citizens should or should not do, or be.

I won’t address (4) directly, letting it go to snark. And I don’t necessarily have a major problem with (2), provided there are caveats about age and ability. As for (1), well, I weep for anyone who views democracy as a spectator sport. That sentiment makes me profoundly sad. My primary concern today is (3), which actually has reverberations for (1) and (4).

My USIH colleague Ray Haberski has addressed the sanctification of service and “the troops” many, many, many times. Ray is addressing how the militarization of citizenship has evolved over the second half of the twentieth century.

But the comment from my “friend” was the most explicit, and nearest, encounter I’ve had with the deification of military service as the new ideal for democratic citizenship. If that is the epitome of citizenship, what of civil dialogue? And how will we ever solve the problem of compromise? How has compromise, to quote U2’s Bono, become a “dirty word”?*

I say this knowing that the militarization of citizenship is not a new phenomenon. Most U.S. presidents have had some kind of military experience. And exceptions, recently with Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, have been negatively viewed by a significant portion of the electorate. Thankfully it has not prevented them from obtaining our highest office.

Even so, the military ideal is a dangerous one. It elevates bloodshed and war to the highest circles of admiration. This must be challenged somehow, and education institutions are safe grounds for considering alternative high ideals. With that, there is nothing wrong with teaching and researching citizenship in higher education. Indeed, unless one truly feels that democracy should be relegated to the realm of casual spectator sport, all of our institutions of learning should address the nature and meaning of citizenship. Otherwise it only takes a generation, or less, to lose the institutions we value. – TL


* Bono inserted this into an extended version of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” during a 2001 performance at Slane Castle in County Meath, Ireland.


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  1. Bryn Upton permalink


    I have been thinking about this post since Saturday and even brought up some of the questions it inspired to my advanced history students (including three who are ROTC) last night.

    Let me start by telling you that I had a three week January Term course on Presidential Scandals this year and in the course of one discussion one of my better students mentioned in passing that she did not think anyone who had not served in the military should be president. When I read your post that was the first thing that jumped into my mind.

    Some of the questions that come to mind (in no particular order); since the end of the draft, has military service become more of a class issue than in years past? Can there be degrees of citizenship? Snce women have been limited in their military roles, can they not achieve the highest degree of citizenship? The military allows illegal aliens to serve as a path to citizenship, is this a case of the government actually condoning the notion that military service makes one a greater citizen, or is this mely a way to push people with few options into being fodder for the war machine (and would this policy be enacted in a time of peace)? In times of peace (when the necessity for some to make the ultimate sacrifice is not part of the discussion) are there other forms of national service that are given the same level of respect ( ie; police officers, firefighters, Americorps, etc.)?

    What is the origin of this phenomenon? Does it date back to the 1960s and the tension between working-class families whose sons went to Vietnam and upper-middle class families whose sons go student deferments and protested the war? Does it go back (as Ray Haberski asserts) to third generation neocons in the 1990s lamenting the lack of service in a time when we were a generation removed from the last draft, the last war, and living under the frist president since before WW II not to have served a day in the military?

    I don’t have answers but I am curious as to what you and others might think of some of these questions. Thinking about this is totally getting in the way of the rest of my work now, thanks for that.


  2. Bryn,

    Thanks for the long comment—though I apologize for getting in the way of your work. I also apologize for not responding sooner, meaning yesterday.

    I believe you’re right in bringing up the draft. Since the draft is out, more folks from the “lower classes” have become military workers than volunteer soldiers. That point aside, the issue does complicate my thoughts on the militarization of citizenship. For instance, if more non-elites are serving than ever before, then you’d think that those in power, the elites, who didn’t serve in the military would want citizenship defined in ways less friendly to militarism (i.e. admiration for forms of sacrifice not involving bloodshed). But what we have seen instead is special attention given to soldiers and veterans as a class of voters—a class seen as friendly to the planks of a particular party’s platform (i.e. Republicans). In this case the sacralization of the troops is actually just a form of voter pandering.

    I think we do, in fact, see less respect for firefighters, police, and, last but not least, civil servants, due to the increased respect for military service. Those forms of positive service to the state are not as respected. It goes to Ray’s point, that you mention, of the Neocon prioritization of defense over all other state functions. What gets me the most is loss of respect for civil servants in relation to the constant denigration of the state via “big government” rhetoric.

    Great points about women, especially women in U.S. political life. But that’s changing. As women experience more kinds of active duty, and eventually participate in combat, then that barrier to the presidency—that glass ceiling—will have been shattered.

    I do think you’re right in that the military-service path to citizenship definitely privileges the militarization of citizenship—the sacralization of war and militarism.

    I don’t have answers to the excellent points you make in your final paragraph. Since this blog doesn’t have a large following, I’ll alert Ray to your comment and our discussion and see if he wants to jump in.

    – Tim


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