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October 2004, Volume 12 Nr. 2, Issue 137

  Unmaking the Connections: A critique of the 
U.S. Military's "Spirit of America"

Natalie Hawley

I expected that The Spirit of America, publicized as a military history show and performed by a special unit of the United States Army last weekend in Albany, would be a dazzling show of military might, which it was. Without doubt, it was an impressive display of colorful dress uniforms, synchronized marches and drills performed with swelled chests by the young and able-bodied, huge screens displaying images of flags and stars and numerous military images. Even before the opening words “Ladies and Gentlemen, Welcome to Spirit of America, the music, almost unbearably loud, brought a nostalgic tear to the eye and a quickened pulse, evoking sentiments of pride, and goodness, and patriotism, and many other American values. The emotionality of it was irresistible. It set the stage for what was to come; the heart was engaged, the brain was not. In this condition, although it feels good, and because it feels good, we become susceptible to suggestions of many kinds. Consciousness is shaped in these circumstances, not by reason, not by presenting factual information, but through emotion, not by reality, but through rhetoric. What followed was not merely a show whose purpose was “to inform, inspire, and entertain” as the Army spokesperson said. It was a conditioning process using symbol, image, association, and ideas to imprint upon the psyches of a willing and receptive, consuming audience unaware that of its own vulnerability.

I expected the flag-waving and the marching. I expected that the audience would go home feeling better about this country and themselves. I did not expect the guns. I did expect imagery and subtle persuasion. I did not expect the manipulation to be as extant and blatant as it was.

The war correspondent/author Chris Hedges, in his book War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, talks about how, in war, a particular form of patriotism occurs. He describes this as “a thinly veiled form of self-worship”. In an interview in,(archives) he further discusses this type of patriotism, as a “national self-glorification [that] affects everything, even culture.” This explains why the American flag is ubiquitous today; it is displayed on homes, cars, public transportation, jewelry, and clothing and all kinds of merchandise. But it is more than flag-waving. Hedges says, “Once you enter a conflict. . . you are given a language by which to speak and you can’t speak outside that language. . .…There is no communication outside of…...’The War on Terror’, ‘Showdown With Iraq,’ ‘The Axis of Evil.’ So that whatever disquiet we feel, we no longer have the words in which to express it. The myth predominates. The myth, which is a lie, of course, built around glory, heroism, heroic self-sacrifice, the nobility of the nation.. . .People lose individual conscience for this huge communal enterprise.”

I found evidence of these concepts, war based on mythologies of glory and self-sacrifice, self-worship, and the language of war that excludes any questioning of these predominant ideas in the midst of a near capacity crowd at the Pepsi Arena last Saturday.

The audience was told that the history of the military and the history of this country are inextricably bonded; the birth of our nation occurred as a shot from a gun (heard round the world), like a new version of the Big Bang theory of the creation of the universe. Weapons then, and war, are imbued into the very soul and spirit of this country, from the very beginning. These wars give this country purpose, identity, definition, character, and legitimacy. It is inherited by each new generation from the preceding one – father to son, mother to daughter. When the US goes to war, it is always just. We go to war to protect our freedom. Our country is good, our country is powerful and will stay that way because we are always willing to go to war –“whatever it takes, anytime, anywhere”.

On the Arena floor and the three enormous screens at the rear of the Arena is enacted a narrow and skewed version of history, one that elaborates on this theme that our history is a series of wars and that war is inherently imbedded in the creation and essence of this country. Interspersed with the war scenes is a story of families and neighbors discussing the need for allegiance to this country and the demonstration of this allegiance, military service. Following images of the destruction of the World Trade Center, with no segue, we are presented with the first battle scene which is in Afghanistan. The battles take place so far from the balcony where I sit that the players look like toy soldiers. To the accompaniment of deafening battle sounds, they fall stiffly, silently, and cleanly, like toy soldiers. The battles follow a circuitous route; from Afghanistan to Iraq, to the Revolutionary War, Viet Nam, World Wars I and II, the Civil War, and back to Iraq. The uniforms and weapons change, the scenes on the screens also change from mountains, to jungle, to Normandy, and elsewhere where war has been waged. Finally we are back to the World Trade Center, now just an aura of smoke on the New York skyline. Although the scene changes, the enactment is virtually the same – there are figures of soldiers, there is a tremendous amount of noise and light, destruction and death. The crowd in the Arena cheers and applauds.

Aside from the visual and auditory excitement, there is no explanation given for who we are fighting or why we are fighting. No issues are presented or resolved. It is assumed that because the US goes to war for pristine reasons and because we are the ultimate moral authority, reasons are inconsequential. The audience accepts these conditions. Why? Feeling eminently protected and safe, we want to continue to feel this way.

But there is more. Between battle scenes we are fed a script based on war rhetoric and mythology guaranteed to elicit these same feelings and responses. Dialogue is exchanged within families and between neighbors which reinforces the legacy of war and the passing down of the ideology of “doing my part…. . . whatever it takes”.

The legacy is maintained by personal sacrifice in military service.

To illustrate: in one scene, Becky, who has enlisted and is leaving soon for Iraq, reads the “last letter” her father wrote to her from the Korean War before he died in battle – he feels an honor-bound obligation to die, if need be, for ”the flag, and you, and your Mom.” After she finishes reading the letter, Becky tell us that this is why she has joined the Army – to carry on this tradition. She looks forward to serving in Iraq, not because she has made an informed choice regarding the war’s legitimacy, but because she has made instead the emotional, traditional choice.

Throughout the dramatization, there is no discussion of the justification of the war in Iraq. One character, male, is opposed to the way the war is progressing “I say nuke ‘em, or get out!” and an early general opposition, weakly stated, is turned around by the end of the skit. I refer to Chris Hedges’ words on words, that a certain language emerges and is used to the exclusion of others during war.

Examples of these choice words are included in the skit dialogue, such as “not for self but for country”, “America values life even in war”, “we do not quit”, “you have our word”, “we are ALL torchbearers”. Indeed, the first half of the show was called The Torchbearers, implying that the military is the country’s guiding light.

Following an intermission during which attendees were invited to visit the gift area where “Afghan rugs” were for sale, the core and culminating event of the day took place.

Between fifty and seventy recruits from the Albany area were sworn-in to military service, although a spokesperson for the Army Military District of Washington, DC, who put on the show, has been quoted as saying that the show was not about recruitment. Why then were these recruits inducted into the military during the show? Why were there piles of recruitment flyers both inside the building and set up on a table in front of what appeared to be an impressive modified humvee, with a handsome, uniformed, black recruiter sitting under a large recruitment sign?

Moreover, wasn’t the focus of the show, and many points made, about commitment to country, i.e, military service?

If Spirit of America did not have recruitment as a goal, it did recruit our loyalties, while it held hostage our thinking minds. It held hostage our right to truth from our government. It shut down our ability to question. I cannot say it any better than James Carroll did in an article titled “Why Americans Back the War”, published Tuesday, September 21, 2004 in the Boston Globe:

“To the mounting horror of the world, the United States of America is relentlessly bringing about the systematic destruction of a small, unthreatening nation for no good reason. Why has this not gripped the conscience of this country?”

I cannot offer no better example of the co-opting of the American conscience than Spirit of America.

© 2004 Natalie Hawlie


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