Your National Death Cult

“While life is characterized by growth in a structured, functional manner, the necrophilous person loves all that does not grow, all that is mechanical. The necrophilous person is driven by the desire to transform the organic into the inorganic, to approach life mechanically, as if all living persons were things. . . . Memory, rather than experience; having, rather than being, is what counts. The necrophilous person can relate to an object—a flower or a person—only if he possesses it; hence a threat to his possession is a threat to himself; if he loses possession he loses contact with the world. .. . He loves control, and in the act of controlling he kills life.”

Erich Fromm, quoted in Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Cheryl Harris’ 1993 thorough paper “Whiteness as Property” traces how the United States government at both state and federal levels have exhaustively codified white supremacy since its founding. Imperial white supremacy is operationalized through the US military. Institutional and interpersonal abuse of people within the military who do not possess the characteristics most valued in white supremacist society (broadly speaking, male, white, able-bodied, Christian, heterosexual, cisgender) are not an aberration of military culture; it is the most immediate enactment of necrophilic white supremacy. Environmental annihilation, the mistreatment of its own servicemembers, and the terror and instability the United States sows around the world are all related; they are just destruction and domination at different scales.

Paul Virilio’s 1977 book Speed and Politics provides a useful lens to contextualize the United States as a country perpetually waging war. The book’s approach is dromology (“dromos” means racetrack in Greek), what Virilio coined the study of speed’s role in warfare, and its reverberations into civilian structures, economies, and values. Virilio often refers to 17th and 18 century European imperial wars, frequently quoting Carl von Clausewitz but reaching as far back as Sun Tzu to build his case that, particularly since the 19th century, increasing the speed of transportation, communication, and weapons systems, is inherently viewed as modernizing and thus “improving” life. Nukes, tanks, and telecommunications accelerate the speed at which warfare and everyday life are conducted, warping relationships to ourselves and the natural world, curtailing democratic processes and dehumanizing participants on both sides of a conflict.

The military’s dominance through speed and technology permeate into and control most facets of civilian life, a state Virilio calls “pure war.” Clausewitz described war as an extension of politics; with dromocratic technologies, speed and war subvert and replace politics and democracy, the latter of which simply cannot keep up with the former’s pace (illustrated by an American president’s power to deploy nuclear weapons to annihilate their targets within minutes). With acceleration comes greater risk of calamity: invent the ship, invent the shipwreck. Between 2006-2021, most of the 18,000 active-duty deaths have been caused by accidents in garrison (suicide is a close second).

Virilio considered himself an urbanist and posits cities are organized around war rather than commerce. The automobile’s “modernizing” role is a good example of technologies of military origin permeating into and restructuring civilian society. Like ships before and aircraft later, motor vehicles and their accompanying infrastructure render the earth sans terrain – traveling over artificial surfaces at a velocity to reduce the scale of physical territories and eliminate interaction with surroundings. The state justifies increased surveillance and regulation as a means to limit calamities, but nonetheless drivers and the governments globally tolerate 1.35 million annual fatalities as the price of having vehicles, simultaneously destroying the environment while shrinking its scale, making it easier to control. The destruction of the earth as a way to dominate it and its inhabitants, even at one’s own expense, is a central character of the modern European empires and United States, the military of which alone emits more carbon emissions than hundreds of other countries combined.

In war, dehumanizing and destroying enemies and their environment is a given. Virilio interrogates how military forces dehumanize their own people. The class structure within the military limits the autonomy of its lower ranks. The body is treated as a disposable machine with a shelf life and without autonomy; it is maintained not for its intrinsic value but to fulfill its purpose of sustained movement and assault. If this were not the case, perhaps the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs would provide effective mental health services, and active duty and veterans would not kill themselves at epidemic rates. Virilio parallels the proletarization of the military and industrial society, going back to the Middle Ages, when low-paid footsoldiers and the migrant workers who performed essential labor were excluded by the fortress gentry (well-paid knights and nobility) from enjoying the full protection of the fortress in which they worked. Reading this brought to mind the woman from Kenya who washed my laundry on Camp Leatherneck, lived in a part of base with far worse amenities than I enjoyed, and who was forbidden by the Military Police to have a cell phone. I also considered my paychecks earned as an officer which dwarfed those of enlisted Marines who carried out orders and performed the physical labor to complete missions.

I hate writing in cliches, but to get to the root of anything, follow the money. “Support the troops” is another cliche, regurgitated by opponents to military budget cuts, but over half the Pentagon’s spending goes to private corporations whose CEOs make millions annually. Our wars are financed by debt, which exacerbates domestic wealth inequality and permeates into things like house prices. The Department of Defense has squandered over $6.4 trillion since September 11, 2001. One third of this was funneled into Afghanistan, where after 20 years of instability and colossal waste, the United States abruptly abandoned the country in operational, strategic, tactical, and moral failure earlier this year.

Speed and Politics frames the capitalist angles of contemporary pure war. Virilio references the role the United States military plays in achieving economic power abroad, and writes “the voluntary war of attrition was both the first war of disappearance and the first of consumption: disappearance of men, material, cities, landscapes; and unbridled consumption of munitions, material, manpower.” Civilian institutions like factories and media outlets produce bullets and propaganda; Virilio says civilian populations consume the idea of achieving security in “a social illusion subordinated to the strategy of the Cold War.” Governments intentionally create feelings of insecurity, he argues, to justify “a new kind of consumption, the consumption of protection…[that] will progressively come to the fore and become the target of the whole merchandising system.” Daniel Potter notes this structuring of the economy and society to serve pugilistic interests influences culture: “speed is the ground of current first-world culture, and this culture is still and always imperialistic, tending to spread its vectors around the globe, exporting and replicating itself in insidious, digestible bits.”

Media outlets across the political spectrum amplify the government’s propaganda. In 2014, for example, when I was on Camp Leatherneck, journalists from all major outlets descended on the base to report that American and British forces were leaving and turning the base over to the Afghan National Army. This was a lie. Within the last few hours I was there, waiting to fly to Kandahar, Army special forces landed on the base. I am skeptical of President Biden’s claim all American troops are out of Afghanistan. He did not mention how many civilian contractors remain. This year, the liberal media attempted to frame piecemeal attempts by non-governmental organisations to evacuate Afghan allies as an expression of genuine American charity, ignoring the discrimination and housing, medical, and employment insecurity refugees will face in the United States, particularly after the Office of Refugee Resettlement’s meager social services expire. Evacuations were prioritized for Afghans privileged enough to know English and thus be of use in war.

“If you have a bun, you might as well have a target on your back,” a male captain breezily offered when I was a second lieutenant not yet in the fleet, one of a dozen women in a training class of 270. He had a short, bad haircut, rather than the slicked-back bun my long hair was tightly wound into. I am not going to detail every trauma and indignity suffered while in uniform, or to chronicle which friends and colleagues were raped, assaulted, humiliated, stalked, or who overheard junior enlisted Marines discussing “hate-fucking” her. It’s not worth recounting the wild west mentality and terrifying behavior that emerges in long-term training environments and combat zones, or the misogyny women Marines (including this former one) internalise, thinking their male coworkers will accept them if they can do pull-ups, and that women who can’t “make us all look bad.” I almost started cataloguing facets of everyday military existence that make friends neither from nor sympathetic to the US gape and say “that’s insane.”

The Marine Corps is the smallest branch, the most intense, insular, and male. Its leaders have been the most opposed to both racial and gender desegregation. Marines have massacred civilians from Haiti to Sơn Thắng to Haditha, with little to no consequence. While in the service, I heard combat tales in which local rules of engagement, escalation of force, and the Geneva Convention were flouted. An infantry officer excitedly bragged about splitting a person in half with a .50 caliber machine gun. Another infantry officer explained how to justify using white phosphorus on paper in order to illegally use it as a weapon (instead of illumination). A gunnery sergeant was introduced by his number of confirmed kills, including those he got by bulldozing a house.

A #metoomilitary hashtag is as exhaustingly inane and banal as the gendered violence the twitterati thinks the hashtag will combat. It reduces the anecdotes of trauma circulating the internet to a cultural flaw of the military that could be remedied if only more females ran the imperial war machine, or if only uniformed rapists were tried in civilian courts, as if those juries and judges are known for dispensing justice to violated women. This central, existential fact is unchanged by a Black Defense Secretary or “inclusive” recruitment campaigns. There is no “reckoning” to be had, especially not one that considers its internal women’s issues in isolation from the obscene scale of the private defense contracting industry, the country’s illegal and covert operations in over 80 countries, the wars not kept secret but nonetheless farcical in their justification, and the war crimes (rape, torture, pillage, etc) edited out of the mythology used to indoctrinate recruits (instead they are taught about individual heroism in specific battles in wars barely explained). The US isn’t even competent at “spreading democracy” or “killing terrorists.” Members of this white supremacist organisation murder far more ordinary people than enemy combatants in its sloppy policing of the globe, and has displaced at least 37 million people since 2001. For a portion of my deployment to Afghanistan, I attended briefs for which a routine agenda item was the cash pay-outs to Afghan civilians for the killing of their relatives, or their livestock.

An institutional “reckoning” limited to the treatment of its employees is typical American solipsism. I suggest anyone in the military who is neither white nor male nor straight nor Christian consider themselves out of the context of their uniform and simply as a person on a planet (Earth now, Mars next) over which the United States seeks imperial domination. Daily indignities, rapes, and murder within ranks then make sense as a natural functioning of the military, the immediate epitome of its feckless greed, a local manifestation of its juggernaut inhumanity. Its internal malpractice and exploitation cannot be divorced from its raison d’être. Concern for the safety of non-white and female people only if they are American and in uniform is false, myopic feminism. Believing Marines will stop killing themselves and raping each other if only they had better training and leadership fails to realize that such unsavory behaviors are merely the most interpersonal, intensive performance of white supremacist, necrophilic American culture. Marines terrorizing each other in the workplace is a microcosm of destroying the land and resources on which we depend for life.

I’m not a foreign policy expert and I don’t know what an appropriate military would look like, but perhaps its historical ignorance and cultural insularity (especially at remote bases) could be tempered if the armed forces were predominantly composed of reservists with full-time civilian lives. I wonder what alternatives (Americorps comes to mind, if not just universal social welfare) could offer the economic and educational ladders out of poverty that attract so many recruits. That’s not my point, though. We do not need a diversified force subjected to the same brainwashing and dangerous deployments. We need a new conception in popular American consciousness of the military not as “a global force for good” with a pesky sexual harassment problem but as a death cult poisoning civil society. We must abandon the romantic imagining of the military as a noble institution populated and led by noble men. The goodwill and deluded patriotic intentions of individuals are irrelevant in a broken system. Audre Lorde said the master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house. At best, the master’s tools can make temporary, token changes. An investigation asking why boys cannot play nicely with girls, led by politicians who vote to bomb countries they probably couldn’t find on a map, cannot create a new command climate.

A Mexican-American friend resigned her commission as a Marine Corps officer the day after Trump was elected in 2016. She was planning on getting out soon anyway, but didn’t want to serve at the pleasure of a president who denigrated Mexicans (her own father left the Marines because his racist superiors refused to promote him).
A little more than four years later, nearing the end of Trump’s presidency, the first thing I saw when livestreaming footage of domestic terrorists breaching the Capitol was a combat helmet adorned with a shiny Marine Corps sticker. Neither the attempted coup itself nor this first image surprised me. Veterans are overrepresented amongst the arrested rioters, and former Marines are hyper-represented: despite comprising only 14% of the military, half the arrested veterans served in the USMC. The Southern Poverty Law Center says for Nathan Damigo, a founder the white supremacist group Identity Evropa, his stint in the Marines was “important to his first steps down the road toward white nationalism.”

In 2020, in response to Army soldier Aaron David Robinson murdering his fellow soldier Vanessa Guillen (Robinson killed himself before police apprehended him), the League of United Latin American Citizens called for women, particularly non-white ones, to boycott joining the military until their garrison safety could be guaranteed. This is reasonable advice, but a “boycott” implies whatever is being withheld (in this case, enlistments) can resume if certain conditions are satisfied. I do not anticipate their demand can be met.

The military is a death cult that dispatches its young people to die in profligate, pointless wars for fossil fuels, that discards members who fall outside its narrowly-defined fantasy of a warrior, whose own active-duty and veteran members abuse alcohol, each other, and their families, and kill themselves at epidemic incidence. Despite the pageantry of military ceremonies, the coffins solemnly hauled off C-130s and saluted, the gimmicky yellow ribbons and thankyouforyourservice, the death cult cares for no one, and nobody who plays by its rules to ascend its ranks will change that. Rape, racism, and ecocide are not transgressions of military culture; they are symptoms of the toxic ideology of American exceptionalism and entitlement that destroys whatever is in its path, and will ultimately cannibalise itself too.

Further Reading

Brown University, Costs of War

Dean Spade & Sarah Lazare, There’s Nothing Feminist About Imperialism.

Cheryl Harris, Whiteness as Property

Paul Virilio, Speed and Politics.

Congressional Research Service, Trends in Active-Duty Military Deaths Since 2006

Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Daniel Potter, Dromomania: Reading Paul Virilio

Douglas Kellner, Virilio, War, and Technology: Some Critical Reflections