I could see its seams as the huge warplane slowly lumbered overhead toward its twilight landing at a military complex near Fayetteville, North Carolina. It was mere feet above the flapping laundry and unlandscaped grounds of a trailer park. A few miles further away, people living in the houses of another, greener area of Fayetteville straightened wall hangings set off-kilter by the quiet boom of the post’s artillery guns. Despite the chain-link fence separating these neighborhoods from the installation, together they make up the single, deeply entwined but often invisible world of America and its military. There are many places like this across the United States that the nation’s massive state of war readiness not only coexists with, but has helped form. Through the lens of the experience of the people of Fayetteville, this book traces how war preparation has shaped America through the 20th century and how it is related to the country’s inequalities and cultural contradictions. As home to a giant army post, Fort Bragg, Fayetteville may seem a very unusual place, but it is America’s 20th-century history of militarization writ on a small but human scale.
Bitterly contemplating the American rush to join the slaughterhouse of World War I, the writer Randolph Bourne asserted that war is “the health of the state.” He meant that a government’s power grows in the bloody medium of war: It accumulates legal powers and the people’s treasure to pursue the fight and often keeps an expanded role long after it has ended. The 20th century has proved Bourne right, its wars enlarging the state while shrinking the rule of law and enriching both weapons makers and businesses that captured post-conflict markets. But no irony attaches to the now widely entrenched idea that war is the health of the nation, or of a people. That military spending not only preserves sovereignty but waters the social landscape, growing factory jobs, preparing young people for life, shaping values for the culture at large, and providing technological benefits to the economy and to households. The historical and contemporary experience of a military town such as Fayetteville, however, belies this common view, dramatically illustrating war’s costs, physical and symbolic.
Much of the history and contemporary reality of war and war preparation has been invisible, though, to people both inside and outside the military — because it has been shrouded behind simplified histories or propaganda, cordoned off by secrecy laws, or been difficult to assess because so many of the consequences of running our military institutions are not obviously war-related. And so we have not evaluated the costs of being a country ever ready for battle. The international costs are even more invisible, as Americans have looked away from the face of empire and been taught to think of war with a distancing focus on its ostensible purpose — “freedom assured” or “aggressors deterred” — rather than the melted, exploded, raped, and lacerated bodies and destroyed social worlds at its center. And we have been taught to imagine the costs of war as exacted only on the battlefield and the bodies of soldiers, even as veterans’ injuries and experience get scant attention, and even as civilians are now the vast proportion of war’s clotted red harvest.
Submerged in war
Fayetteville’s history of war is not only a chronicle of short wars remembered and of long mobilizations erased, but highly contested terrain: It is a past recalled in often radically different ways. For some, the violence to remember has been domestic and racist; for others, it is overseas, triumphal, and ethical. The city shares this contention with America more generally, some of whose angriest cultural debates have been the “history wars” and, more specifically, over the history of war, as in the 1990s battle over the Enola Gay exhibit at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum. That is because war is often seen as a natural fact, a feature of a human nature, not historical possibility (as one Special Operations soldier put it to me, “Defense is the first need of any organism”). But in telling histories of war as something other than biology or national destiny revealed, many other issues are at stake: the role of the nation-state and international law in the 21st century; the role of individual will versus social constraint in creating wealth and class distinctions; the fairness of a myriad of government policies, military and civilian; the reality of “tribal sentiments” in a social evolutionary tale about the globe and its supposedly “primitive” and “modern” parts; the proper interpretation of biblical or other religious verse on war, compassion, and justice; and, not least of all, questions of who can or should take or risk a life. An alternative and more hopeful history of America’s militarization can nonetheless be called out from the shadow of the view of war as predestination, as well as from the standard entertainment and triumphal accounts.
There are many places like Fayetteville in America, from its nearly 900 other domestic military bases in such towns as Norfolk, Virginia, New London, Connecticut, and Killeen, Texas, to the thousands of places from Seattle, Washington, to Binghamton, New York, where weapons and equipment are made. In an important sense, though, we all inhabit an army camp, mobilized to lend support to the permanent state of war readiness that has been with us since World War II. No matter where we live, we have raised war taxes at work, and future soldiers at home, lived with the cultural atmosphere of racism and belligerence that war mobilization often uses or creates, and nourished the public opinion that helps send soldiers off to war or prevents their going. All of us consume cultural products and political rhetoric influenced by what sociologist C. Wright Mills called “a military definition of the situation.” All experience the problems bred by war’s glorification of violent masculinity and the inequalities created by its redistribution of wealth to the already privileged. All live with the legacy and rhetoric of national security, an historically recent concept that has distorted the definition and possibilities for democratic citizenship, discrediting dissent, and centralizing power even more in the hands of the federal and the corporate few. And we all have lived with the consequences of the reinvigorated idea that we prove and regenerate ourselves through violence.
With the tools of ethnography, history, and cultural critique, I ask: How did it come to be that we live in a society made by war and preparations for war? How has our social world been shaped by the violence our nation has made and threatened and by the other, more elliptical ways we have learned to name that violence? Are we all military dependents, wearers of civilian camouflage? What would America be like today if, at the least, the elites who opt for war had made other choices? Is it possible now to imagine another way? These are the questions that this book, I hope, will not so much answer as encourage readers to ask in their own way, in their own towns, and in regard to the personal problems that a sociological imagination might help us link together in coherent ways. Some new way will be found when it becomes clearer how few really profit from the old.
This is an excerpt from Homefront: A Military City and the American 20th Century (Beacon Press, 2001) by Catherine A. Lutz, professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Reprinted with permission.
This article originally appeared in the February 2011 edition of Freedom Daily.