Whenever I pass through an American airport these days, I feel a frisson of transatlantic culture shock. That is not down to the size of the sodas, the overcrowding of economy class or the intrusive airport security. The issue is the armed forces.
In Europe these days, it is relatively rare even to see anyone in military uniform, far less to venerate them in symbolic terms. US airport crowds, however, are often dotted with fatigues and it is common to hear the airport tannoy declare that “members of the military and their families” can get access to special lounges while travelling. Most striking of all, airlines such as US Airways, American Airlines and Delta routinely allow armed forces personnel to board the aircraft before anyone else, even ahead of first class.
Sometimes this privilege only extends to those in fatigues, but it increasingly covers anyone carrying a military card. (When one airline recently refused to let members of the military in civilian dress board first, this sparked complaints, because defence personnel now often travel without uniforms to deter terrorist attacks.) Either way, the message is clear: even if money, power and platinum points can buy much in America, when it comes to boarding planes, the military goes first.
Is this a good thing? The first time I noticed it – on an American Airlines flight – I thought it definitely was. Nobody can doubt the sacrifices recently made by military families; a Washington Post database calculates that US fatalities from Iraq and Afghanistan now top 6,000. Offering a few airport lounges thus seems the least that anyone can do. Indeed, it puts a country such as Britain to shame. (While British Airways recently donated some club class sofas to an army airport in Cyprus, nobody has implemented a system to let soldiers routinely queue-jump; most of the time the armed forces are ignored by civilians, or viewed with a vague embarrassment.)
However, on reflection, I am also starting to see a potentially darker undercurrent to these boarding announcements. In the first few centuries of American history, it was assumed that armies should be disbanded between wars, since America was a civilian, citizen-run state. During the second world war that idea changed, and since then the military complex has become powerful, pervasive – and permanent.
Defenders of the military insist this is an inevitable consequence of an unstable and dangerous world, where the US in effect acts as a global policeman. However, critics beg to differ. Henry Giroux, one of the founding scholars of critical pedagogy in the US, for example, recently wrote a thought-provoking essay in the online magazine CounterPunch, deploring the creeping “militarization” of American society. “The culture of organized violence is one of the most powerful forces shaping American society, extending deeply into every aspect of American life,” he thundered. “There can be little doubt that America has become a permanent warfare state,” he added, citing peace studies data showing that “the USA’s military spending accounted for 43 per cent of the world total in 2009, followed by China with 6.6 per cent, France with 4.3 per cent, and the UK with 3.8 per cent.” Recent figures from the Concord Coalition, the non-partisan group that advocates fiscal discipline, show defence spending represented 20.6 per cent of the US federal budget in 2010, third only to health and social security.
Most Americans would probably dismiss Giroux’s diatribe: CounterPunch is a radical leftwing publication and US culture and politics are imbued with a sense of respect – if not profound reverence – for the military. But even if some of Giroux’s arguments seem over-egged, his points deserve debate.
One thing that worries him, for example, is the growing military influence in US higher education. (Not only is the army providing scholarships for students, but it is also recruiting on campuses and funding academic programmes as other sources of finance dry up.) Another is the role of the military in diplomacy, where, as Ronald E. Neumann, a former US ambassador recently said, there has been a “progressive militarization of American foreign policy over the past 20 years”. (According to Neumann, the Department of Defense got $750bn in this year’s budget, while the Department of State and the US Agency for International Development received just $50bn. And while the state department and USAid performed over 90 per cent of development work a decade ago, by 2008 the military was doing half of it.)
But the biggest source of Giroux’s concern is the social silence. “In spite of how much military expenditures drain desperately needed funds from social programs, the military budget is rarely debated in Congress or made a serious object of discussion among the public,” he points out, correctly. Perhaps this will now change. America is being forced to cut its debt and opinion polls suggest that public support for the Afghan war has collapsed. But don’t bet on this happening any time soon – or not while most Americans take the status quo so completely for granted that they never even notice those military airport lounges.