War Fever, War Mongering or War Fetish?

The US has for long been known for its societal glorification of the military, a trait that covers popular culture, public and private institutions, sports and even the arts and literature. Manifestations of this include military flyovers at sporting events, military marches at parades, military honour guards at graduation and retirement ceremonies, Hollywood and interactive game productions about US wars and military prowess, active and retired military discounts for many goods and services, a 3 million-odd military troop size, high school and college military training units and rhetorical veneration of veterans on days of national significance. It is also the home of the military-industrial complex, which even if now just one such apparatus in a global network of arms manufactures, merchants, buyers and dealers, remains a centrepiece of the US economy and, as former President and 5 star general Dwight Eisenhower said at his Presidential farewell address in1961, an inherent threat to democracy because of its pervasive influence on public policy. That is as true today as much if not more than it was back then.

I mention this because recent US media coverage of the Ruso-Ukrainian, Hamas-Israel and Houthi-US/UK conflicts appears to show more than the influence of the military-industrial complex or the ideological glorification of the military as a US institution. It appears to depict a case of war fever or worse yet, war fetishism.

US cable news seem fixated on the weapons and support platforms being used against various adversaries. Tomahawk cruise missiles, Bradley fighting vehicles, Predator and Reaper drones, F-18s, attack submarines, aircraft carriers, frigates, destroyers, air- and surface-to- surface ballistic missiles–these and more are discussed at great length and detail by an assortment of (usually ex military) talking heads. Explosive tonnages are weighed, circular error probables are measured, delivery distances calculated, enemy killed are estimated. it makes for great theatre for those whose idea of entertainment leans that way. It generates eyeballs on screens and clicks on apps. The same is true, albeit in less visceral form, in the so-called “legacy” (print-turned-to digital) media such as newspapers. The logic of US corporate media is consistent: wars showcase US technological product and prowess. They are good for business, employment and US self-esteem.

Two things are notable about this coverage. The first is that much air time and column inches are devoted to the technologies involved in the architecture of death-dealing. Relatively little is devoted to the consequences of what these technologies do because the focus is on the former, not the latter. What attention is paid to human suffering is dwarfed by the focus on complex machines and lethal delivery systems, and even then the attention to human suffering is skewed in sympathetic favour towards what the US considers to be the “good guys” in any armed confrontation. In addition, relatively little attention is paid to second and third-order implications of any given conflict, so that, for example, escalation of the Hamas-Israel and Houthi-US/UK belligerencies is simply mentioned as a possibility rather than mapped out as an increasingly probability given the interests and actors at play. In fact, relatively balanced presentations of why these conflicts have occurred is subordinated to editorialising in favour of one side or another depending on US government positions vis a vis the conflicts in question.

Worse yet, over time the US government and its compliant public just move from one enemy to another. Once it was and now again it is Russian authoritarians. But there have also been Colombian drug cartels, military-nationalist regimes with swarthy-looking leaders in the Middle East (but not repressive Sunni oligarchies), post-revolutionary Iranians, al-Qaeda/ISIS, some but not other Latin American despots, the Taliban, the PRC, various African warlords–there is never a shortage of bad guys to go after. The US public uncritically laps it up because to them the constant re-framing of the enemy does not matter. What matters is the machines, the violent action and that the US kick some a**, somewhere, anywhere.

What is even more interesting is that all this coverage ignores the fact that the US, for all of its technological prowess, has a decidedly mixed record when it comes to war. However glossed over by semi-orderly retreats (“withdrawals” in the US parlance), the US lost in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan over the last 50 years of nearly non-stop fighting. It won in Gulf War One (“Shock and Awe”), Grenada and Panama, but lost over 200 Marines, sailors and army soldiers in an ill-fated intervention in Lebanon in 1983, thereby paving the way for the rise of Hezbollah as a significant actor in Lebanese and regional politics. It clashes with Iran regularly and has little to show for it other than rallying Shiites around the world to the Iranian cause. It invaded Iraq on a pretext after 9/11, succeeded in ousting Saddam Hussein, but also created the intellectual and operational core of ISIS (which was organised by former Baathist officers in the Sunni Triangle as a resistance force and morphed into a broader ethno-religious movement with the objective of establishing a Caliphate in Mesopotamia and the Levant). Hundreds of US troops have fought and died in all sorts of undeclared “small wars,” from Somalia to Niger, Colombia to the Philippines and very rarely did the outcomes advance US interests or its reputation (both as a international power as well as a war-fighting culture). In the end, technological advantages were not decisive in all instances and did not lead to better diplomatic outcomes or more peace even where they did succeed. Yet the obsession with the machinery of death continues.

Perhaps it is because US society has a technological obsession, one that translates into finding ways for machines to replace humans in every walk of life, including the kinetic kill chain in war. If that is true (that US society prioritizes technological solutions to human as well as natural problems), then the larger question is whether what we see in US media coverage of conflict is evidence of war fever, evidence of war fetishism or just another instance of good ole’ fashioned war-mongering.

War fever can be characterised as a temporary state of individual and collective bloodlust caused by a desire for vengeance, righteous anger, opportunistic greed, genuine or perceived grievance or sociopathic or psychopathic arousal. It can work for good or work for evil depending on its causes, because the motivation is immediate and the objective is to vanquish by force a perceived enemy that is the immediate problem. When the enemy is vanquished, the fever breaks and people return to normal (non-bellicose) lives because, to use another medical analogy, the war boil has been lanced.

War fetishism, on the other hand, is a form of idolatry. It is obsessively fixated on war as an object of adoration. It idolizes soldiers as heroes and weapons as technological marvels. It worships the modalities of combat and the death delivery infrastructure used in them. It reifies the machines and canonizes the “good guys” who use them, even if the good guys are killing civilians in foreign lands where they are unwelcome. It wraps engagement in war in patriotic, ethnic, religious or historical symbolism, often stringing them together in a narrative of heroism and sacrifice, good versus evil, light versus darkness. The narrative in support of war is fluid and endless. Enemies come and go. They are a war-mongering cloak because the obsession is with the machinery of death and its application wherever it can be, not the (often morally, ethically and practically thin) justifications for its use.

Think of it this way. Does the US public, especially in Red States and in the MAGA crowd, really care about or even know what freedom of navigation is? Do they have a notion of what the Houthis are and why they are considered “rebels?” Or is the US public interest more about dealing violence to brown-skinned, non-Christian challengers (“terrorists!”) who defy and resist US directives in their part of the world? Again, the popular focus is on the ways in which organised violence is meted out to designated bad guys, not understanding why they are fighting, much less why the US has chosen them to be the latest in a long procession of bad guys.

(Brief historical aside by way of context: the Houthis are Shiites indigenous to Yemen but long-ruled by Sunni Saudi Arabian-backed clients. Once they rebelled they became pawns in a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia and were subjected to numerous Saudi Arabian war crimes using US weapons).

In that light, war-mongering is just a sub-set of war fetishism. It is nothing more than (often opportunistic) ideological or practical peddling of justifications for going to war. When the two types of justification combine, say in the advertising of so-called “defense” manufacturers in the US (“defending freedom!”), the result is an effective propaganda blanket for purveyors of death of either stripe. It is a means to an end, but not a cause or effect.

By this criteria, the US is a war fetishist society. Not everyone in the US of course, but certainly the majority, who may not even know that they are because the fact of constant (even if passive) war-worship is an all-encompassing (yet seldom admitted) part of everyday life. This does not excuse the murderous behaviour of any number of armed actors around the world, but it does bring into light how the US has cultivated an authoritarian ethos regarding the use of violence abroad that is antithetical to the very notion of peace and prosperity for all that it was supposedly founded on. Add to that the militarisation of US domestic security forces and the unconstrained gun culture that pervades significant parts of US society, and the dangers to the US as a democratic polity are laid bare.

Houston, we got a problem.