Plane formation
© Department of Defense
We've been taught to accept militarism as normal. As tensions escalated with Iran last week, it seemed bewildering to many that the United States could once again be on the brink of war. We like to think of ourselves as a peaceful people and our country as a benevolent force in the world — so why is military conflict a constant presence in American life?

Despite our self-image, we have been conditioned for war all of our lives. Through a combination of cultural forces, some overt and others subtle, Americans are taught from a young age to accept their country's militarism without question. This conditioning has numerous ingredients. Themes of nationalism and militarism are frequently injected into public life through the media and other institutions, for example, as is a sense of righteousness, a rarely challenged belief that the country is almost always a force for good.

Fear is also a major element in conditioning minds for war. Americans of all ages are often reminded, by their government and the media, that perceived enemies pose a constant danger. The Soviet threat was used to justify military spending and adventurism around the globe for much of the latter twentieth century, validating the warning given by President Eisenhower in his 1961 farewell speech of the growing influence of the "military-industrial complex." More recently, through constant reminders of the "war on terror," Americans are effectively conditioned to see evildoers as always looming.

Few would argue that these perceived threats have been wholly imaginary, but what is noteworthy from a cultural standpoint is that ramped-up militarism is consistently seen as the appropriate response, with virtually no accompanying public debate or serious critical analysis. Militarism is reflexively accepted as the answer, while little is done to encourage a public understanding of the history giving rise to the looming dangers, the grievances of the parties involved, or the complexities of the underlying issues.

Thus, as the nation went to the brink of war with Iran last week, there was virtually no public discourse on the historical background behind the tensions. There was no high-profile discussion, from politicians or in mainstream media, of the unflattering role of the United States in defining events in Iran in the last century, no mention of the CIA-orchestrated coup in 1953 that overthrew Iran's democratically elected government, leading to years of authoritarian rule under a U.S.-backed regime that tortured opponents and suppressed dissent. Almost all modern disputes with Iran, from the 1979 hostage crisis to the latest escalation, have direct roots in this history, and one could argue that an acknowledgement of the history could be an important step toward resolving today's differences. Yet there is no talk of it. Instead, Iran is simply understood by many Americans as an evil incubator for terrorism.

As this suggests, anti-intellectualism seems to be an important ingredient in conditioning the American mindset for war, with the system relying on a population motivated by fear and forgoing critical thinking. We can see this anti-intellectualism taking shape even in the way society molds young minds. The United States is the only developed country that expects schools to regularly conduct a loyalty oath (a "Pledge of Allegiance"). This kind of exercise does nothing to encourage critical thinking or an understanding of the complexities of contemporary geopolitics, but may go far in solidifying a sense of national greatness that can subsequently be used to portray aggression as justified.

The fact that those who question American militarism are seen by many as troublemakers is further evidence of how the national mindset has been conditioned for war. Opposition voices are sometimes heard when new military action is taken, but rarely are such voices taken seriously by policymakers, and never are other constants — such as the nation's enormous military budget (at about $650 billion, U.S. military spending is greater than the next seven top-spending countries combined) or its worldwide military presence (approximately 800 bases in 80 countries, far more than any other country) — seriously questioned. The obedient acceptance of these rather staggering realities demonstrates how effective the conditioning has been.

It also explains how Americans have come to accept the constant state of war that has existed since the attacks of 9/11. Militarism permeates almost every corner of American society, from recruitment ads and nationalist displays during ordinary sporting events (other countries typically do not play a national anthem before games, for example) to endless reminders to "support the troops." War and nationalism are not rarities, but the new normal. Of course the football game will include a fighter-jet flyover and numerous references to the troops. Of course we far outspend the rest of the world militarily. Of course our troops and military bases cover the globe even though no other country's do. Of course we have numerous evil enemies who hate us and our way of life. Of course our kids must pledge allegiance to the nation and its flag every day. This is just the way things are.

Even our economy points in the direction of militarism. While hundreds of billions of dollars are spent each year on war, enriching corporate coffers and comprising a major segment of the economy, enlistment in the military is increasingly becoming the only way for many young people to avoid a minimum-wage job and pay for a college education. Again, this is just accepted.

Former President Jimmy Carter recently opined that the United States has become "the most warlike country in the history of the world." Whether that is an overstatement can be debated, but the fact that we are a militaristic nation cannot. What is most remarkable about all of this is not that it is happening, but that it is happening without much serious scrutiny, public discussion, or objection. The surest sign of successful conditioning is a population that not only complies with a desired outcome, but does so without questioning.
About the Author:
David Niose is an attorney who has served as president of two Washington-based humanist advocacy groups, the American Humanist Association and the Secular Coalition for America. He is author of Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans and Fighting Back the Right: Reclaiming America from the Attack on Reason.