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Reflections on the Myths and Ethoses That Promote and Sustain War as a “Way of Life” and Acceptable Moral Code for the USA

Anthony J. Marsella, Ph.D.

The United States of America is a culture of war! No claims, arguments, or wishes to the contrary can change this fact! The unassailable truth is that the United States of America is a culture of war! A culture of war is a shared set of meanings and behaviors that are socialized by macrosocial and microsocial institutions via support for certain cultural myths and ethoses that present war and associated acts of violence and aggression as an acceptable action for pursuing domestic and national goals and purposes (Read: D. Adams, 2009, The History of the Culture of War, NY: www.david@cpnn-world.org; Read: Anthony J. Marsella, 2011, The United States: “A Culture of War,” International Jurnal of Intercultural Relations, 35, 714-728).

The United States of America — as a nation, as a group of societies and cultures — has engaged in war since the early Seventeenth Century when Europeans first came to its shores. The political, judicial, economic, societal, cultural, educational, and, in many instances, religious institutions of the United States of America have all contributed to fostering, promoting, and sustaining a culture of war. These socializing institutions have been informed by myths and cultural ethoses.

Unfortunately, far too many USA citizens who are aware of this tragic reality are too often proud of it, benefit from it, and/or sanction it. For them, war with all of its “patriotic” portrayals is seen as something glorious and perhaps even a necessary reality. What is also unfortunate, however, is that far too many USA citizens who do not accept this reality, end up encouraging and facilitating its continuation through ignorance, silence, passivity, and a comfortable pre-occupation with the new “opiates” of our times and place (i.e., competitive sports at all levels, TV and music entertainment, consumerism, and celebrity culture).

Jus Ad Bellum – “Just War”

There are Americans who claim that our wars are “just.” Jus Ad Bellum — the argument for a “just war” — is however, in my opinion, the most dangerous rationalization that can be made since this argument can be used to authorize any nation or group to use war to support its particular interests. Think about it! The presence of a “model” nation justifying war offers a reason for others to use war. They find in our actions the right — legal and moral — to engage in war, violence, force, aggression, or other acts of hostility.

When the USA claims that it was justfied to invade Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya to protect its national political and economic interests, it makes it possible for other nations and groups to use similar arguments for invasion, occupation, and oppression. Dictators can constantly turn to the USA as a model for their actions. The “war on terror” that has assumed primacy in our domestic and international policies and actions is a “foolish” term, policy, and act that fails to acknowledge that terrorism has existed throughout human history whenever a group of people or a nation chooses to respond with violence toward those identified as their enemies. The issue here is why terrorism has been chosen as an act? Is it because one group oppresses another, abuses another, humiliates another, exploits another, seeks to annihilate another? Indeed, a fundamnetal question is whether terrorism under these circumstances can ever be defeated. The entire world watched as the United States attacked Iraq and executed Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s despotic leader.

1. The Iraq Tragedy and Debacle

The United States of America invaded and occuppied Iraq under a blanket of lies regarding the presence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the hands of unstable leader. There were no WMDs in Iraq, but the use of this lie was considered a sufficent justification for a full-scale war leaving tens of thousands dead, hundreds of thousands injured, and millions uprooted. The tragic consequences of the Iraq War will continue to burden the USA, the people of Iraq, and the rest of the world for centuries. It is now well known that the purposes of the invasion and occupation included the most egregious and immoral excuses for killing and destruction that the world has known, including: (1) exploitation and control of oil production; (2) regional political, economic, and cultural USA dominance; (3) support for USA’s extensive military/war industry, (4) promotion of “fear” (enemification) to faciltate national and global surveillance and monitoring; (5) protection of Israel; (6) empowerment of new cooperative Iraqi leaders, (7) development of markets for USA products in exchange for oil; (8) building largest USA foreign embassy resulting in a permanent USA presence in Iraq; (9) destruction of traditional Iraqi culture in favor of popular U.S. culture; (10) satisfaction of grandiose delusions among a group of “New American Century” political neocons motivated by the pursuit of power. While the Pentagon estimates 4487 dead and 32,226 wounded, these figures do not include the hundreds of thousands of soldiers with PTSD, hearing loss, depression, breathing disorders, mild to severe brain injuries, tuberculosis, and exposures to toxic substances (e.g, see Dan Froomkin, How many soldiers were wounded in Iraq, Ask This, December 30, 2011 – froomkin@niemanwatchdog.com).

Jus Ad Bellum? It can be asked, what constitutes a “just” cause for war? The answer is that the a long history of imperialism, colonialism, westernization, global hegemony, and social and psychological exceptionalism are all part of the USA Jus Ad Bellum. Our leaders feign concern so they can have a soporific to sleep at night under the excuse of protecting national security. It is tragic that more we make war in all of its guises (military, economic, cultural), the more the world sees us for what we are, and rejects our pleas for innocence, acceptance, and approval. We must not mistake the supportive words and actions of our political allies in Western Europe to mean all is well and we can proceed on our destructive path. These allies are part of the power system that seeks global hegemony and national political and economic control — the now fabled and labeled 1%.

2. A Terrroism State? Yes!

The The United States of America has garrisoned the world with more than 750 military bases of varying sizes and military might. We support — and have supported — a score of dictators in the Middle East, South and Central America, and Asia, who oppress their people and deny basic human rights and liberties. Consider these facts: (1) We build and sell the most horrible weapons of war across the world with impunity while dismissing the destruction they will bring; (2) we fail to punish our own citizens who have violated national and international laws; (3) we dismiss laws when it serves the narrow purposes of those in power; (4) we engage in massive and widespread illegal surveillance and monitoring of our citizens; (5) we have overthrown legal governments; (6) we export a popular culture that is crass, materialistic, self-indulgent, and committed to greed and ignorance; (7) we seek global hegemony while preaching equality and friendship; (8) we enable a violent popular culture to flourish via a vast entertainment industry that is a shaping national identity; (9) we demonize and vilify groups and nations as evil and dangerous when we are the world’s dangerous nation; (10) we make war reflexively using an arsenal of the most lethal and dangerous weapons. This year — 2012 — it is estimated that the USA defense and security budgets will exceed a trillion dollars — more than all other nations in the world combined. And this is likely an under estimate. Shame!

3. A Culture of War

Who are we? We are most certainly “a culture of war,” sustained by century-old myths that encourage and tolerate war under the most questionable reasons. These myths, and the ethoses they generate and inform, are a tangible and palpable danger. Today, many of the favorable USA myths are falling beneath a global recognition that we are not whom we say we are, that we are not deserving of the faith and trust placed in us as self-appointed “leader of the free world.” Our legacy in this young century is scores a global fiscal collapse, an endless array of civil and international wars, and the exportation of a popular culture rooted within materialism and consumerism that has destroyed lives and natural resources.

Examples of USA Myths That Sustain War

Myths — as traditional stories and images that inform a culture’s view of itself and others — are an essential part of all cultures around the world. Myths serve the powerful function of grounding a culture’s worldview. Myths are beliefs, symbols, and images that construct or frame and an idealized reality about a culture with respect to its leaders, beliefs, and actions. Myths ground a culture’s morality, ethnocentrism, and and basic “raison de etre” or “reasons to be.” The United States of America has been sustained and justified in many of its beliefs and actions for centuries by “myths” about its superiority as a nation, government, economy, and culture. These myths are now being challenged as invalid abuses of privilege.

  1. The USA is a Democracy: The United States of America is not a democracy! The interests of the people are now sacrificed to the interests of special interest groups whose wealth and power permits them to keep their power, especially those within the vast military-industrial-congressional-educational-media complex (Read: Marc Pilisuk & J. Rountree, 2008, Who Benefits from Global Violence and War. Westport, CT: Praeger). Further, the “assumption” that we can choose via elections our preferences in a fair and equitable manner has been sullied by the acknowledged abuses in our election system (e.g., voter ID, rigged voting machines, money for media and influence, corruption, broken promises). What is particularly sad is that the USA goes around the world preaching “democracy,” while failing to value democracy at home. Yes, we can vote, but some votes are more influential than others. Yes, we can vote, but for candidates that a corrupt system empowers. Yes, we can vote, but that is no guarantee the perosn we elect will keep promises.
  2. The USA Exports Democracy (and Imperialism): The United States of America claims it wishes to bring democracy to nations across the world, but in fact, the democracy we bring is often the installation of purchased leaders whose secret bank accounts are filled with tainted US dollars. The guise of exporting democracy permits the United States to establish an imperialistic presence and privilege across the world. (Read: Julia Sweig, 2006, Friendly Fire: Losing Friends and Making Enemies in the Anti-American Century. NY: Public Affairs. Read: Chalmers Johnson, 2006, Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic. NY: Henry Holt).
  3. Capitalism is Good: The United States of America’s capitalistic economic system perpetuates extensive wealth inequities, and it permits the exploitation of people, natural resources, and the sanctity of life. Greed dominates as witnessed by the 2008 financial collapse in which huge profits were made for a limited few using illegal and immoral venues. We promote capitalism as a way of life even as we witness its tragic consequences for our own citizens and for people around the world. It is now known, and the object of the Occupy Wall Street movements that our economy is in under the control of a small group of bankers, financial and corporate leaders, and political figures (see the Davos Faction) (Read David Rothkopf, 2008, Superclass: The Global Power Elite and the World They are Making, NY: Farrar, Strass, Giroux). The simple fact of the matter is that corporate, military, and special interest leaders have a profound impact upon domestic and foreign policy and actions in pursuit of the narrow financial interests.
  4. Racial and Ethnic Diversity is Valued: The United States of America presents itself as a model for others to follow with regard to ethnic and racial diversity, but, in fact, many of its minorities live in poverty, and lack access to medical care, education, jobs, and personal security. Equality is absent because opportunities are denied. Racism is widespread, and is often institutionalized. Prejudice against LGBT populations is widespread. (Read: Any newspaper, watch any news show, drive through any large city). The myth is that the USA encourages diversity, but the truth is that the USA seeks cultural homogeneity using a WASP model as the ideal.
  5. USA is Not Corrupt: The United States of America is among the most corrupt nations in the world. Money buys power and privilege in the USA as it does in other parts of the world, and this is now apparent to everyone. This is an ironic fact given that the USA constantly criticizes other nations for their corruption. USA government, business, and military ties permit widespread abuses of contracts, favoritism, cronyism, and closed networks of obligation and reciprocity. Much of this corruption occurs within the military-industrial-congressional complex (Read: Janet Wedel, 2009, Shadow Elite. NY: Basic Books)The issue is not simply corruption, but rather it is a question of power and influence being confined in a small group of people. This is reminiscent of the “Guilded Age” in the United States that existed at the turn of the 20th Century. Henry Giroux has written about this “Age” and our current situation:

    This was a period in which robber barons, railroad magnates and the super-rich spread their corrupting influence throughout the political, economic and cultural landscapes – without having to deal with irritating social reforms such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, child labor laws, environmental protections, affirmative action, civil rights, union rights, antitrust laws, a progressive income tax and a host of other reforms. This was a period when money flowed and privilege shaped practically all aspects of American life, making a mockery out of democracy and imposing massive amounts of suffering on the vast majority of Americans. Women could not vote and were seen as second-class citizens, blacks were treated harshly by Jim Crow policies, young people were exploited through harsh labor, education was limited to the elite, inequality in wealth and income reached extreme disparities, slums festered, and politics was corrupted by the moneyed classes (Read: Henry A. Giroux, Truthout [December 13, 2011] Surviving the Second New Age, messenger@truthout.org).

  6. Peace (Imperialism and Empire): The United States of America constantly tries to project itself as a nation that seeks peace. The use of spin and double- talk by speakers whose faces fail to reveal their deceit can almost lead people to believe that we do seek peace. But, history reveals that the United States has willfully engaged in scores of wars across the centuries that prevent peace, and actually promote chaos, destruction, and death. Indeed, the historical trajectory of the USA reveals its clear intent to become an imperialistic global power. It reflexively turns to militarism to get what it wishes, and what is wishes is typically the economic dominance of USA corporate interests. We have pursued invasion, occuppation, and control of others are national policy. We are an empire. (Read: William Blum, 2004, Killing Hope. Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press. Read: Andrew Bacevich, 2005, The New American Militarism: How Americans are Seduced by War. NY: Oxford Press; Read:Tom Englehardt, 2010, The American Way of War, Chicago: Haymarket Books).
  7. Citizen Rights, Secrecy, and National Security: The United States of America supports the largest and most widespread national security system in the world. It has more than a score of national security agencies, each with dozens of subgroups. This system uses both public and private organizations. The national security system targets other nations, foreign nationals, and, unfortunately, its own citizens under a blanket of mass communication surveillance, illegal acts, and assassinations. A widespread private surveillance system of personal data adds to the pool of abuses. (Read: Tim Weiner, 2007, Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA. NY: Doubleday. Read: Robert O’Harrow, Jr., 2005, No Place to Hide. NY: Simon & Schuster; Read: Dana Priest & Willaim Arkin, 2011, Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State, NY: Little Brown; Read: Shane Harris, 2011, The Watchers: The Rise of America’s Surveiilance State, NY: Penguin).Here I must call attention to the most recent news release regarding the new Whitehouse Counter-Terrrorism policy to be implemented this year. I am compelled to call attention to this because policy because of the dangers it imposes on American citizens. The plan is entitled: “Strategic Implementation Plan for Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States”. In its own words, “The plan outlines enhanced coordination between ‘local partners’ including schools and community groups, and federal law enforcement, and seeks to empower communities by teaching local officials to recognize violent extremism.”Wait! Does this mean that domestic, civil, and citizen groups will be trained to identify and report people whom they consider to be risks? This is training citizen spies! This is similar to what occurred in East Germany with the STASI. Is this what we have become? Is this what we are? Does this mean that civil protest – an American Constitutional and legal right, can now be considered terrorism in the eyes of these neophyte watchers? Be sure to leave a tip for al services, and never anger a teacher, clerk, or friend.

Many other myths about the United States are collapsing, and the legacies of this collapse for American society are widespread feelings of uncertainty, unpredictability, fear, confusion, and anger. The United States of America is now caught in a social upheaval of massive proportion in which many institutions, long regarded as acceptable and just, are now being contested and challenged because of their failures, limitations, and recognition of their “real” nature. The OWS protests and occupations are only one manifestation of the changes.

For many years, Americans accepted myths about America’s moral stature and authority, about its superiority economic system, about its fair justice system, and about its “democratic” representational governance system. These myths empowered Americans, offering them through perceived “virtue” of their myths, a sense of exceptionalism because of their decency. Americans and America were different from others — not just different — but better. Ah, the power of myths! Hans Vailhinger, an early Twentieth Century German philosopher, wrote about the importance of myths for human behavior. In his 1911volume, Philosphies des Als Ob (Philosophy of As If), he noted that people act as if their myths or fictions are true, and this gives them certainty and predictability. Americans accepted the myths of their special status in the world, and these myths informed and shaped their identity, purpose, and meaning. Now the myths are falling. Now the myths are no longer accepted. Turmoil! Yet, these times of social upheaval and confusion can become an opportunity for building a new America that is more consistent and responsive to the realties of our times, especially our global era of interdependency with other nations, societies, and cultures.

The Socialization of a “Culture of War”

The United States of America is a culture of war which has thrived by nurturing a series of myths about its government, economic, and social system, it can now be asked how does the United States do this? In Figure 1, I propose that the United States socializes its citizens by supporting an array of ethoses that shape macrosocial institutions, which, in turn, shape microsocial institutions which, in turn, shape individual and group psyches in a complex reciprocal ecology.
Both the number and the pervasive nature of the cultural ethoses serve to inform and to shape the different levels of institutions (i.e., macro, micro), and the collective and individual psyches. An ethos is a very basic — and often unconscious – value or axiom. It can be explicit and/or implicit. Its fundamental and essential nature for constructing reality means it readily penetrates a broad spectrum of attitudes, assumptions, behaviors, and institutions that govern individual and collective actions. An ethos can guide behavior and experience to such an extent — at unconscious or subconscious levels — that the ethoses can often escape awareness and analysis.

Without addressing the individual ethoses in Figure 1, I wish to point out that the ethoses I have listed are dynamic, interactive, and reciprocal. They constitute a complex ecology that is often difficult to understand and certainly difficult to change. Indeed, addressing one ethos in isolation decontextualizes it and thus distorts its origins, nature, and dynamics. But all of this, in the end, is simply to say that in my opinion, the United States of America is a culture of war that is sustained by a history, government and political system, economy, education system, and even a moral institution system that seeks to hide its nature behind a propaganda system and a social relations system that permit it to exist, thrive, and engage in that most tragic of human acts, war.

In a future essay, I will be addressing the more hopeful topic of the United States as a Culture of Peace. I guess this essay, with some degree of hope, could be called The USA: Jus Ad Pacem.


From: Marsella, A.J. (2011). The United States of America: “A Culture of War.”
International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 35, 714-728


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Anthony J. Marsella

Anthony J. Marsella, Ph.D.

is a past president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii, and past director of the World Health Organization Psychiatric Research Center in Honolulu.

He is known nationally and internationally as a pioneer figure in the study of culture and psychopathology who challenged the ethnocentrism and racial biases of many assumptions, theories, and practices in psychology and psychiatry.

In more recent years, he has been writing and lecturing on peace and social justice. He has published 15 edited books, and more than 250 articles, chapters, book reviews, and popular pieces.

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Credits:TMS: Reflections on the Myths and Ethoses That Promote and Sustain War as a “Way of Life” and Acceptable Moral Code for the USA 

About the author

Anthony J. Marsella PhD

is a past president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii, and past director of the World Health Organization Psychiatric Research Center in Honolulu. He is known nationally and internationally as a pioneer figure in the study of culture and psychopathology who challenged the ethnocentrism and racial biases of many assumptions, theories, and practices in psychology and psychiatry. In more recent years, he has been writing and lecturing on peace and social justice. He has published 15 edited books, and more than 250 articles, chapters, book reviews, and popular pieces.  

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