How Militarism Teaches Our Children That Violence Is Normal

Erin Steuter, Ph.D.; and Geoff Martin, Ph.D.
/ Family Focus: Understanding Gun Violence from a Family Perspective

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Steuter (left) and Martin

In Brief
■ Militarism has long been perpetuated through popular culture, and “killology” shows that willingness to kill must be instilled in people.
■ The military entertainment complex is socializing children to warlike values.
■ Parents and family professionals can support peaceful options in families and communities.

Culture of Militarism Perpetuated Through Popular Culture

The rise of violence and the gun culture in the United States and Canada cannot be separated from the rise in militarism, which is the belief that a country must maintain a strong military capability and must use, or threaten to use, force to protect and advance national interests. Militarism may appear to be a response to the external world, but it has significant internal social consequences. Retired Army Lt. Col. and military historian Andrew Bacevich (2005) pointed out that U.S. residents are enthralled with military power, and he warned that this can “endanger our security at home” (p. 225). He defined a “culture of militarism” as a situation in which the political leadership’s first response is to any challenge is to consider military force. The government counts on significant public support and uses popular-culture symbols to cultivate it. After 9/11, it became normal for patriotic fervor to once again be communicated through toys and entertainment.

Socialization is the process of imbuing individuals with social values, so that what is normal and natural for society seems so for each individual (Varney, 2000). Toy soldiers and play weapons are thought to have taught children the art of war over many centuries (Fraser, 1972), as socialization of youth provides both the military recruits and the political supporters for war.

Some authors have reported that the rise of militarism over the past 35 years has led to a renewed effort to promote militaristic toys and activities (Dyer-Witheford & De Peuter, 2009; Lindsay-Poland, 2017; Salter 2014). When so many toys carry the same militaristic theme, it follows that acceptance of violence and fears about security are transferred to youngsters in early development (Higonnet, 2007).

According to the philosopher Roland Barthes (1970), toys are a major way in which children are prepared to become consumers of both meanings and products. Walter Benjamin (as cited in Bignell, 2000) believed that a society with authoritarian and colonialist values would see these impulses seep into children’s play life. As a toy collector, “[Benjamin] regarded play with toys as a site where the intimate exchanges between the child and object produced and communicated culture, since play with toys concerns the child’s negotiations with representations of an adult world” (Bignell, 2000, p. 117).

Killology: Cultivating a Culture of Killing

Why is pretending to kill so concerning? Ret. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman (2009), an expert in “killology,” in essence, the science of killing, has argued that killing must be taught: “Children don’t naturally kill; they learn it from violence in the home and most pervasively, from violence as entertainment in television, movies, and interactive video games” (p. 314). He documented how the techniques used to train soldiers to overcome inhibitions to kill in wartime now permeate society. Grossman noted that unlike the military, there is no command structure among civilians to regulate how and when they commit violence. He asks us to consider, “What makes today’s children bring those guns to school when their parents did not?” (p. 304). He suggests that by creating a militaristic culture that defeats the normal individual’s psychological inhibition against violent activity, we are essentially “taking the safety catch off of a nation, just as surely and easily as we would take the safety catch off of a gun, and with the same results” (p. 302).

Roger Stahl’s (2010) analysis of “militainment” highlights how entertainment presents a “clean war” without victims, bodies, or suffering, thus making war appear sanitized and even aesthetically beautiful. Having seen so much unrealistically simulated death, and having reveled in killing, even if only in video games, young people in particular appear to have become desensitized (Carnagey, Anderson, & Bushman, 2007; Grizzard, Tamborini, Sherry, & Weber, 2016). This can contribute to domestic violence, school shootings, and willingness to join violent gangs.

Professor of education and cultural critic Douglas Kellner (2008) has argued that school shootings and other acts of mass violence embody a crisis of out-of-control gun culture and male rage, heightened by a glorification of hypermasculinity and violence in the media. Kellner’s research shows that the male perpetrators suffered from problems of socialization, alienation, and search for identity. He noted that “producing acts of violence and terror is one way to guarantee maximum media coverage and achieve celebrity” (Kellner, 2008, p. 29).

The Military Entertainment Complex

Hollywood’s role in promoting militarization has increased significantly. As Carl Boggs and Tom Pollard (2007) noted, in the past 20 years the cost of making movies has exploded, and ownership of film studios has become more concentrated in multinational corporations such as General Electric, Paramount, News Corporation, Sony, and Viacom. For high financial returns, they produce films that are consonant with a militaristic culture.

From a young age, U.S. residents are groomed to enlist to become foot soldiers in the U.S. military. Cooperation between the military and Hollywood—including allowing Pentagon officials to line edit scripts—results in directors creating prowar films in exchange for taxpayer-subsidized access to military hardware (Boggs & Pollard, 2007).

Militarism in college and professional sports is increasingly celebrated. And a striking number of video games throughout the world focus on gun violence and warfare, both historical and contemporary. Military analyst Nick Turse (2008) has noted that government sponsorship and development of video games has made the armed forces “cool.” Playing a first-person shooter or pretending to fly a bombing mission immerses youth in “an alluring militarized world of fun, and makes intersection with the military second nature to today’s Americans” (Turse, 2008, p. 101).

Intensifying militarist culture can also be attributed to the intertwining of cultural products, based in part on ownership concentration. Several products, including movies, movie-based books, action figures, and videos and/or board games are released simultaneously, which allows for each product to reinforce the others.

There are indications that what happens at the macro level—decisions by government, corporations, and cultural industries—has an impact at the micro level in the community and family. There are higher rates of violence against women in militarized societies (Adelman, 2003). Militaristic interpretations of “national security” and armed military and police personnel heighten one’s sense of insecurity. As Judith Levine (2018, para. 3, 4) has said:

A violent street culture has its roots in political and economic disenfranchisement, enforced by police surveillance and the state-sanctioned murders of people of color. . . . State violence—including the harm perpetuated by border agents, juvenile detention staff, and prison guards—is underwritten by a political culture in which the United States perceives itself to be perpetually at risk of attack and thus obliged to wage permanent war against a growing cast of enemy combatants: drug dealers, gangs, terrorists, sexual predators, “illegal aliens.”

In Tyranny Comes Home, Coyne and Hall (2018) showed that policies, tactics, and technologies pioneered by the U.S. military overseas are normalized and then implemented at home. Military weapons appear in the domestic gun market, causing increased violence. As scholars such as Henry Giroux (2016) have argued, our contemporary culture is awash in violence. Giroux suggests that this produces an insensitivity to real-life violence and normalizes violence as pleasurable entertainment and a way to address social issues. He cautions that “when young people and others begin to believe that a world of extreme violence, vengeance, lawlessness, and revenge is the only world they inhabit, the culture and practice of real-life violence is more difficult to scrutinize, resist, and transform” (Giroux, 2015, para. 8). Violence becomes a “way of being” for a whole society.

Pursuing Peaceful Options: Implications for Family Professionals

Family professionals can become critics of militarism and signal their opposition through creative expression. Stuart Hall (1981), a pioneer of cultural studies, suggested decades ago that it is important to remember that there are always two sides in popular culture—“the double movement of containment and resistance” (p. 228). As one side of popular culture enlists support for militarism, another side also resists militarism. The book Teaching Peace Through Popular Culture (Finley, Connors, & Wien, 2015) provides detailed descriptions of the many ways popular culture can be used to teach peace. The authors note that “positive and negative behaviors in relationships branch out like a tree, impacting person after person and shaping our families and communities towards or away from violence” (p. 111). Through song, film, television, theater, and the visual arts, people have historically objected to militarism and continue to build movements to rethink violence and war.

In terms of policy options, a ban on toy guns may be worth examining. In Iraq, the national Ministry of Health is working to ban toy guns throughout the country amid concerns that a culture of violence will be transmitted to following generations. The problem of toy guns is magnified by the high rate of smallarms ownership in Iraq following the 2003 U.S. invasion and resulting civil war. The leader of an Iraqi nonviolence group says that toy guns are popular in Iraq as a result of a “culture of gaining respect from having guns at home, because of the circumstances the country has gone through” (Davies, 2011, para. 35). Davies (2011) also noted that “when children are using toy guns . . . they are thinking that they are a hero” (para. 21). Family and health professionals in Iraq, a country that has seen the costs of militarism up close, are now undertaking programs in schools to create awareness among children, parents, and teachers about the dangers of toy guns and the risks associated with violent games.

Family professionals can help parents become aware of the militarization process and then give them strategies for reducing its effects. Thankfully, professionals, parents, and families can create change by focusing on the ways in which peace in the home extends to peace in the world. Parents can practice peaceful options in their own lives and encourage them in their family. They can take care not to raise children as future soldiers by default, but to choose toys, video games, clothing, television shows, and movies that serve the values of peace. From a position of strength, parents, families, and communities can work together and advocate for policy changes at all levels that cultivate a peaceful culture.

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