West Point class, 1882. Image Source: Washington Monthly.
In 2008, James Sheehan, an eminent American professor of history known for his work on Germany, wrote a book entitled, Where Have All the Soldiers Gone? It explains how America and Europe began to follow separate paths, based on divergent foreign and domestic policies in the late 20th century. The New York Times reviewed the book, noting that the two World Wars convinced Europeans once and for all of the perils of militarism:
Continental Cold War European politics and problems in the Balkans were in fact highly militarized. But since 1989-1991, hazy politicized stereotypes have obscured that history to produce a post-WWII story about peaceable Europe and warlike America.as the cold war ran down the clock, it became gradually clearer that liberal democracy and a market economy mitigated by welfare had won a complete political victory over “actually existing socialism.” At the same time Europe was fully “civilianized”: conscription was abandoned, armies themselves assimilated the values of civilian society and, as the great English military historian Michael Howard has put it, “death was no longer seen as being part of the social contract.”
In fact, one main after effect of the World Wars was the splitting of military and civilian realities, between and within countries. This was an enormous historical shift. In Old Europe, the military class was fully integrated into the middling and highest social classes and recognized as such. Europe's earliest dramas revolved around war. They culminated in 19th century European society, with young ladies fainting after military cadets in the background of masterworks such as War and Peace or Eugene Onegin. There were plenty of contemporary novels describing the malaise that afflicted soldiers as they drank, philandered and gambled away the century in their barracks or in unsettled imperial border regions, for example, A Hero of Our Time, or The Radetzky March. But for all the hell they raised, there was no hint here that soldiers were not a fully integrated part of society. The rift with civilian life came only in the period after the Second World War, which saw the entire European military tradition marginalized.
And while America has been painted by her uneasy allies as a warlike nation marching out of step to the drums of European social welfare, internally in the United States, there is a rift between civilian and military worlds too. The 1960s' and early 1970s' Flower Power summed up how things had changed: society's eager young woman and the soldier were now on opposite sides of an unbridgeable divide, especially after 1970's Kent State shootings.
Again, that split between things military and things civilian has been politicized. My point here is not to get into the politics, nor to debate terrorism and counter-aggressions of the past 20 years, nor to discuss the wrongness and - as the Old Prince in War and Peace would say - the inevitability of war.
Rather, I want to recognize that political arguments about war, war-making and militarism cloak complex attitudes about many things that are no longer accepted in globalized society. There is a strange unwillingness in global culture - driven by mass media and worldwide marketing - to face grim aspects of reality. Popular culture is filled with violence. But it is a plastic violence where no one ever really gets hurt. As the NYT reviewer rightly cited, death is no longer seen as being part of the social contract. For that matter, neither is ugliness, nor ageing, nor unhappiness. Also, it seems nuclear war is not really someone talks about in polite company anymore. Anyone who deals seriously with any of these things isn't part of polite company. That's the tone. That's the consensus.
I noticed that we are closer to nuclear war than ever before. But whereas in the 1980s, people were rallying against the bomb, now there is near silence, or a downplaying of the subject by pundits and the MSM. My friend, J., responded. He said what a lot of people might think but are not going to say:
So, we can add nuclear war to the long list of things we don't like to contemplate. The social consensus makes us very uncomfortable around anything related to death and imperfection, which are associated with lack of control, weakness, failure, poverty and loss.In the 80s, people were sure [the Americans] and the Russians were gonna turn the planet into a radioactive cinder. This is more like, Iran and Israel will wipe each other off the map and give the rest of us lots and lots of cancer. Not that this is in any way ok. But since it's probably not [the] End Of The World, they're more chill about it. (Except for the survivalists, of course.) This isn't rational, but of course, people aren't rational. It's like Fukushima--we KNOW we're getting irradiated, but we don't know what to do about it, so we don't like to think about it. It's like not thinking about dying of old age.
Yet it's not even as simple as that, because there is a layer of hypocrisy as well. The people who will pay to go to a disaster movie and watch simulated explosions and artificial violent deaths for two hours are the very same people who don't want to talk about real soldiers, war, ugliness, unhappiness, depression, stress, trauma and death.
It is that unreal code of silence that impoverishes and enervates everybody. And it is that double standard between the virtual and the real that has enabled the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program (about which I previously blogged, here). It was conceived in part by Martin Seligman, who dubbed the program, "one of the largest-scaled psychological interventions ever undertaken." It is more like one of the largest-scaled psychological experiments ever undertaken, and it has been started without any initial test studies. The subjects are an ironically captive audience: current, serving US soldiers and US veterans afflicted with PTSD. The program uses a variety of unspecified techniques to cultivate positive thinking.
The progress of this project is indicated in a March 22 article in the NYT, which delicately applauded it. The article acknowledged that the program had been launched without any real preparation or knowledge of what real outcomes of implemented techniques might be. But it concluded that it was a mainly good thing.
The results of this project may have general civilian application. It turns out that we are all in this together. In that regard, and others, there is no divide between military and civilian conditions. Imagine if a psychological project of this scale had been initiated by the government on any other huge, youthful section of the population, say, wealthy university students at private colleges. The outcry would be heard around the world. But because there is an unspoken consensus that soldiers are not integrated within the mainstream of society, they may function as guinea pigs, and the NYT will lightly editorialize around it.
The traumas that military personnel suffer do not just come from their actions, the injuries they suffer, the things they see. Some of their trauma comes from the fact that when they return to the countries they serve - again, debated as rightly or wrongly - they cannot fit into a sanitized yet hypocritical order that refuses to accept their reality as part of its reality. But that is the hard truth - not for the soldiers and vets and for the people they fight (and fought) - but for everyone else. The military life, war, and other uncomfortable facts are still completely part of the civilian social reality. They cannot be disregarded through denigration, denial - or positive thinking psych programs.
Any discussion on this topic always veers off into heated arguments about politics, war, the economy, imperialism, 9/11, religion and terrorism. But that path misses the larger point, namely, that everyone's world is fraying through a disconnect between hyped, media-driven labels and reality. One way of punching through the political miasma that dominates this subject is to move to a new generational perspective. A sea change has taken place since the days of Boomer Flower Power, once an idealistic rapture that promoted radical thinking, love and peace. In its time, that movement has built consensual power around social and political rifts.
If we want to understand the real experiences of Generations X and Y, beyond the marketing fictions, then one corner of it must be this corner, this 31-million-dollars-per-year mass experiment, flying blind. If there is any mission that members of these younger generations face, it is to reconcile the rifts between accepted and not-accepted social and political realities. There must be a point where we make an effort to break down the monolithic barriers which forbid common understanding. How different is the institutionalized world of the soldier in the psych lab from the Internet user whose entire life is skimmed by algorithms and pumped into analytical databases for marketing purposes? How different is the military's positive thinking psych project from the culture of the Wall Street investment banks? (The subject of tomorrow's post.)
As for the logic underpinning this project, one of the commentators interviewed by the NYT remarked: “Virtually all psychological research relies on memory. If you decide that memory is unreliable, then you have to throw out everything that has ever been published in psychology.”
That's funny. The past is no longer quite how I remember it.
See all my posts on Gen X.