On the way to an academic conference – “Rethinking Militarism in Our Age of Perpetual War” – my colleague and I were anxiously waiting to board the plane. We were passing the time talking about a recent T-Mobile commercial in which a veteran, along with his young daughter and aging father, attends a baseball game. Before the game begins, the stadium announcer asks the crowd to stand and recognize military personnel, as “Thank you for your service & sacrifice” appears on the digital scoreboard. My colleague was particularly interested in the significance of the young girl squeezing her father’s hand as the diverse, multi-racial crowd stands up to honor him. Was this ad any different from other pro-military ads, or just a continuation of the same old propaganda?
Before I could respond to his question, the pleasant voice of an American Airlines employee announced that first-class passengers as well as military personnel and their family members may now board. My colleague and I looked at each other and, despite our opposition to militarism, felt a sense of camaraderie with the soldiers, veterans and families strolling toward the plane. As educators at a rural, military-friendly public university, we knew that many of these service members were honest, working-class people trying to do right by their country as best they could. And when we walked to our seats, we saw that they were squeezed into the same narrow seats as we were – sardines in the same tin can.
The plane taxied and took off. Once airborne, the pilot announced: “We have some military families on board today. As a way of thanking them for their service, please give them a big round of applause.” Still trying to get settled in my seat, I was a bit late to clap, and did so reluctantly. I noticed that my colleague was staring straight ahead and did not applaud. Earlier, he had recounted his experience at a local baseball game, when a man identifying as a veteran verbally attacked him, after he refused to stand up or remove his cap during the national anthem.
I reflected on why I was slow to clap and realized I wanted to express my opposition to the system of militarism without disrespecting people in the military. Although I am not religious, I appreciated the Biblical wisdom of the saying, “Hate the sin but love the sinner.” Similarly, I did not want to demonize the soldiers and veterans around me, despite loathing the violent ideology and effects of American exceptionalism. As an immigrant who has lived in the U.S. for about 45 years, I have often felt conflicted in the face of this moral dilemma: How do I bring myself to say thank you for your service, while firmly disapproving of the service itself?
Suddenly, I felt like I had committed a great sin for not doing the normalized routine. I pondered whether I should apologize for not just playing along. But to whom should I say sorry, I asked myself? The answer seemed so obvious: the passenger to my immediate left. The stranger who, I could tell, was staring at me. He had become the living embodiment of the social gaze and personification of my internalized social police. I didn’t turn to look at him, but his stare was almost tangible. I imagined him thinking: “This guy must be a foreigner who does not support our troops and therefore does not love our country. He might even be a terrorist.”
I got mad at the pilot. Why did he have to put me in this difficult position? Then I wondered whether the pilot’s announcement was a free expression of his own thinking or an example of blind loyalty to the corporate world’s banality of patriotic militarism. Or was it a combination of both?
As a scholar, I usually enjoy internal dialogue with myself, as well as public dialogue with others. But at that moment, the air felt too heavy for breathing, let alone for having an intellectual conversation with myself, my friend to the right and the incredulous social policeman to my left. Similarly, constructively engaging with the voice of the pilot, the flight attendant, and the corporate airline was clearly impossible. How did we get here, where we hear and obey commands from people and forces we do not know, I asked myself?
Under the weight of these thoughts, I felt burdened by the power of the gaze to my left. Perhaps breaking the silence might help humanize the social space again, I figured. As I turned to my left, I found myself facing a much younger man than I had expected, whose eyes were an open window to his soul. I could tell that he wanted to enact the slogan that appears on posters and in announcements throughout American cities and airports: If you see something, say something. In a flash, I felt like a caged animal. I could not escape my space, nor could I speak my way out of the situation. Yet, I was being surveilled as the kind of suspect and potential enemy that good Americans were supposed to report to authorities.
To relieve his anxiety, as well my own, I meekly said, “Sorry,” even though I was not. I even lied, chuckling uneasily: “I couldn’t really hear what the pilot said.” To restore a sense of camaraderie, I mumbled: “Isn’t it nice to have so many military families with us today? It certainly makes me feel safer!” I said it, knowing that I was lying on three fronts: to myself, to my colleague and to the stranger whom I saw as my social police. Why did I feel the need to do this? After all, nobody was really forcing me to do anything.
After a few awkward and seemingly interminable moments, the young man to my left finally broke the silence: “You have an accent. Where are you from?” he asked. The question, while seemingly cordial, was loaded with suspicion. “I am from Iran,” I said. “Nice,” he said. “How do you like our country?”
A sense of anger overwhelmed my feelings of guilt and regret. I wanted to yell, “Hey, this is my country, too!” Instead, I silently screamed to myself: Oh God, I am still an outsider here. Who the hell gives you the authority to include or exclude me? I immediately repressed my impulse, for I feared that a productive conversation about what constituted him as an American insider and me as a foreign outsider was impossible. And given the security state under which we live, I also worried that appearing as an angry person with a foreign accent on an American Airlines flight would cause more trouble than it was worth.
Suddenly, it dawned on me that the rationality of my fear of my seat neighbor or his fear of me had its origins in the deliberately normalizing practices of state and social policing, not in our interpersonal or cultural differences. The fact was that he was socially policing me, as much I was socially policing myself. So, instead of saying anything that might sound derogatory to him, I cheerfully said, “I love this country! What is not to like?” “Right,” he said with his own fake smile. He sounded as phony as I’m sure I had.
The brutal sound of silence returned. Resigned to a two-hour cold war in a flying tube, I pulled out the book I’d be reading, Virtuous War: Mapping the Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment-Network by James Der Derian. The neighbor on my left took out his device to play what seemed to be a military shooting game. And my friend began to work on his conference presentation. In effect, the stifling space had silenced all of us.
When I was tired of reading, I closed my eyes and replayed the scenes of what had happened after takeoff in my mind. I recalled an essay by sociologist Michael Schwalbe that introduces the term “Micro Militarism” to discuss pro-military practices that occur in small cultural spaces. I considered the relevance of this concept for making sense of earlier events and realized how millions of such micro militarist encounters in everyday life make nationwide militarist structures and ideologies appear inevitable – just the way it is, always has been and should be. This sense that “there is no alternative” is a powerful force shaping our social relationships with imagined enemies, fellow citizens, ourselves and our country.
As I was daydreaming, I also remembered endless conversations with my colleague about the relevance of French philosopher Michel Foucault’s concepts of power and resistance for thinking about intersections among micro and macro forms of militarism. Foucault’s writings emphasize that regimes of established knowledge and power relations both shape and are shaped by individual subjectivities within a society. I realized that my earlier response to the perceived gaze and social policing of my airplane neighbor represented my own affirmation of the dominant militarist discourses, and desire to avoid hostile relationships with my neighbor, other passengers and American society as a whole. I wondered whether I should have remained passive and silent like my friend had. But although his response seemed less complicit and more courageous on the surface, it also did little to disrupt the situation or to imagine (let alone create) alternatives to pervasive militarism. Exhausted by these heavy thoughts, I soon fell into a deep sleep.
My colleague woke me up when the plane was about to land. After we retrieved our luggage from the overhead bins, thanked the flight attendants and pilot for their service, and disembarked the plane, we walked to the airport exit and hailed a taxi to our hotel. During the ride, I shared my thoughts with my friend and we had an intense discussion about how we could intervene intellectually and politically to open new possibilities beyond militarism. We promised ourselves to address this urgent question at the conference and in our university classrooms.
As we approached our destination, my colleague suggested we use Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s magisterial “Beyond Vietnam” speech as one of our sources of insight. Reading from his smart phone, he read aloud King’s famous words, spoken in New York City’s Riverside Cathedral, a year to the day before he was murdered in Memphis:
A time comes when silence is betrayal. And that time has come for us in relation to Vietnam. The truth of these words is beyond doubt, but the mission to which they call us is a most difficult one. Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought…
And some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.
The taxi pulled up and we got out. As my colleague and I entered our hotel, we agreed that we are once again living in a time when silence in the face of all forms of militarism—from the brutality of bombing campaigns to the civility of “thank you for your service”—is betrayal.