The human cost of militarism

May 20, 2014, 2:00 a.m.

Militarism, as listed in the dictionary, is (1) the tendency to hold military efficiency as the supreme ideal of the state, and (2) the use of military power to achieve non-military goals. Most of us, however, don’t think in dictionary definitions. Stark and imposing, ‘militarism’ conjures images of machine guns and mushroom clouds, Desert Storm and stormtroopers, goosestep marches and dynamic dictators.

My cultural understanding of militarism was shaped by many of the great films that depict it – films by Kubrick and Coppola – where it dons the mask of a brutal and capricious drill sergeant, and spawns horrifying solitude and vicious madness. Militarism is, to me, most recognizable in that twentieth century regalia – though sometimes I find it evokes a queasy nostalgia for the ‘simpler times’ of George W. Bush’s first term, when the battle lines seemed to be drawn more clearly and drones and the NSA had not made their way into the national consciousness.

For many, however, ‘militarism’ is another scrap of esoterica churned out by political scientists and philosophers in the ‘ivory tower’ next door. It is difficult to develop a personal connection to an issue that spans oceans. To us, the consequences of militarism are not tangible. Louis C.K. sums it up: “In America, we have the luxury of telling our kids what war is.” Those living in Syria or Afghanistan don’t. And it is precisely on this “us-them” dichotomy that militarism thrives.

Addressing the systemic problem of militarism requires a multi-pronged approach. Students for Alternatives to Militarism (formerly Stanford Says No to War) is hosting an event this Wednesday at 6 p,m. at the Women’s Community Center titled “The Human Cost of Militarism” where we will explore the diverse and systemic oppression that militarism perpetuates. Likewise, we hope to instill a consciousness of militarism within other vital fights for social justice; the military-industrial complex, hawkish politicians and their broad base of trigger-happy constituents are an enemy too powerful for any single protest or direct action to thwart.

Militarism is a problem so intractable it can only be unraveled. As militaristic practices become more insidious abroad – clandestine drone warfare and “enhanced interrogation techniques” – they become normalized and reproduced at home. The drone technology used to kill thousands of individuals abroad is being replicated for surveillance of US citizens; the technique of collecting “metadata” – used by the NSA to catch and kill “enemy combatants” – has been levied on the American public as well; sexual assault in the military is pervasive and institutionally mishandled; and at the U.S.-Mexico border, immigrants are treated as foreign invaders. In 2012 alone, Americans opened fire on 22 individuals armed with…rocks.

Over the past decade, militaristic machinations have become more artfully deceptive, demanding dynamic and multi-nodal forms of resistance. It’s relatively easy to build coalitions to protest an expensive and unjust war with large numbers of American casualties; it is much more difficult to build resistance when drone deaths are displayed next to sports scores on the scrolling cable news marquee. By normalizing things like civilian drone casualties and domestic surveillance, the military-industrial complex erodes the leverage of concerned activists. Leverage that felt tangible and real when Stanford students burned their draft notices in 1965, or when Cindy Sheehan camped outside Bush’s ranch in 2005, has since dissipated.

With our event, “The Human Cost of Militarism,” SAM intends to begin conversations with other social justice-minded students and carve out space where mere lament can turn into concrete action. Unlike the U.S. military, we know our efforts are most effective when we act multilaterally. We understand that genuine alternatives to militarism will only be realized by maintaining solidarity with fellow students and activists fighting for queer, economic, racial and environmental justice.

The contemporary effects of militarism may appear less cataclysmic and less spectacular than the popular images of war that dwell in our collective imagination. This suggests, however, that the evils of militarism are becoming increasingly banal. We may not have draft notices to burn, but refusing to “smile for the camera” is one good place to start.


Tim Borgerson ‘14

Contact Tim Borgerson at [email protected].

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