Newsletter #60: Hegemonic Militarism, with Nadia Abu El-Haj

By Mack Penner

Listening from Canada to The Dig’s interview with Nadia Abu El-Haj, I had a sense that even while Abu El-Haj is analyzing American historical developments since the Vietnam War, her arguments hold true north of the border as well. This is not just because Canada has its own version of what Abu El-Haj calls “combat trauma,” but that those very American developments entered the culture of a nearby and subordinate ally in the War on Terror. The effect is that the tenets of American militarism are unquestionable even beyond American national borders.

Both Canada’s actual military history and its culture of war memory are distinctive. The country’s national memory is much more grounded in the world wars, veterans of which are still the paradigmatic national symbol of sacrifice. When Canadians think of war veterans, they think overwhelmingly of World Wars I and II veterans and of battles like Vimy Ridge. Military involvements in the last half-century are much less present in Canadian memory. Canadian troops did not fight in the Vietnam War, Abu El-Haj’s historical starting point, although Canada was involved in the conflict in othewr ways. In the era of the War on Terror, Canada participated directly in the war in Afghanistan, but not the Iraq War. And yet, Abu El-Haj’s account of unquestionable militarism is completely legible here.

Listen to this week’s episode of The Dig here.

Thanks in part to the ubiquity of American culture and to US political news, American veterans of the Vietnam and Iraq wars, for example, are readily available “types” in Canadian minds, and they may be just as likely to stand in as exemplars of sacrifice on behalf of democracy and freedom as are, say, Canadian veterans who fought in Afghanistan. Canadians are broadly resistant to questioning American militarism in part because of Canada’s dependent relationship to the US, which includes military dependence. The injunction to “support the troops” is heard in Canada, too, and underpins a “common sense” that is similar to the one that Abu El-Haj argues is present in the United States.

The second episode with Abu El-Haj will trace the contours of contemporary American militarism. That militarism is transnationally dominant, and within this system, the boundaries of acceptable arguments about military conduct are diligently patrolled not so much by coercive surveillance but by social consent and acceptance. To question the system is to disobey what Abu El-Haj describes, in her book, as the epistemological injunction to “defer to the soldier’s point of view.” Questioning militarism is seen as casting doubt on the meaning of the soldier’s trauma and sacrifice. In this way, cutting against the status quo and popularizing a critique of militarism will have to involve a society-wide reframing of our most basic notions about war and suffering. That’s far from impossible. We can imagine a collective discourse, for example, in which the experience of the soldier is seen as reason to resist war and militarism. Anti-imperialists should be heartened by the fact that there is historical precedent for exactly this.

Further Reading and Listening There is a well-developed literature on Canadian militarism and national self-image. That literature argues that the contemporary culture of militarism developed quite recently, accelerating especially with a “[Warrior Nation]”( rebranding in the years of Stephen Harper’s Conservative government (2006-2015). At least one major comparative study of Canada and the United States suggests that contemporary cultures of militarism are far from historically fixed.

I’d be particularly interested in a transnational intellectual history of neoconservatism as a way to investigate the symbiotic relation of North Atlantic militarisms. There is some French-language political science that begins to show how neoconservative ideology was core to shared militaristic commitments between the US and Canada in the overlapping years of the Harper and George W. Bush governments, for example. I don’t think a systematic study yet exists, the historiography of neoconservatism still being quite (understandably) Americanized.

The prelude to Abu El-Haj’s episode has further listening covered. Check out past episodes with Catherine Lutz, Spencer Ackerman (parts one, two, and three), and Jeanne Morefield.