Big Chief, Big Daddy, Big Babysitter to the World
If “winning hearts and minds” is at the top of your global campaign agenda for strategic communication, then you need to insert yourself into some of the most intimate, domestic, and familial places of restive, hungry, and increasingly angry populations. Getting all domestic is what the US military has been doing in its social media and “visual operations” for the past few years, as seen in a wide array of photographs uploaded to the US Department of Defense’s Flickr “photostream,” which I have been studying since early 2014 (see part 1 in this series of photo essays). The trick is to achieve superiority by being at once both engaged and removed. Being engaged shows you actively involved in the uplift and upkeep of other peoples’ lives, thus coming down the mountain to these peoples’ very low station in life. However, you need to stay removed–by never showing yourself being in need of others. Show photographs therefore of us feeding them, but avoid showing any photographs of us eating. Show us giving them water, but show us seemingly persisting in tough, arid climates, without ever so much as stopping to take a sip. Gods do not eat, drink, or bleed. Bleeding, thirsty, and hungry mortals, on the other hand, are expected to call upon the gods. The key message we are being trained to remember, recite, and act on reflex, is a chain of four interlocked components:
1. It is natural for them to rely on, and call on us;
2. They are needy;
3. We must do something: only we can, or only we can do something best; and,
4. Our military is the best means by which we can respond globally.
So what the US military does is to generate a large and growing body of photographic records of such military-humanitarianism in motion. Images abound of soldiers reading from story books to children, of female soldiers cradling babies, or playing “patty cake” with little girls, of male troops playing basketball with teenage boys, of soldiers singing to school children, holding hands, skipping rope. One would be forgiven for thinking that US military training involved extensive immersion in babysitting techniques, game playing, and home economics courses. The US military is not just your friendly neighbour next door, always ready with a peach pie, an invitation to a backyard BBQ party, or a helping hand when you need to whitewash your picket fence; it is much, much more than that.
The US military is your new big chief, in a world of US-backed regime changes that leave many “tribes” without their chiefs. In a world of absentee fathers, lost to wars, the US military is your new stepfather, or at the very least, your generous new foster parent. Given your increased inability to govern yourselves, your need to be saved from yourselves and to be tutored in the arts of civilization, the US military is there to show you how to raise your children, how to hold them, how to read or sing to them, how to play with them. In a world of distressed single mother refugees, the US military is there to heal your sick children, it is the nurse to the world. Given the degree of interest in kinship to Anglo-American anthropologists, it’s striking that they should miss the world’s dominant military inserting itself into, and redefining, kin relations.
You therefore need to produce the “documentary evidence” of the beneficence of US global
dictatorship leadership. You also need to hope that nobody reads how your drone operators, back in the real world, refer to children as “fun-size terrorists” and liken killing them to “cutting the grass before it grows too long”. You need to avoid thinking about how Obama orders drone strikes that have massacred children indiscriminately, and avoid thinking about how he knows that is what he has done. Talk about “Assad” instead.
What is also striking is the incongruous presence of the military uniforms, in scenes of cradling or playing with small children. It appears to be either hasty staging, where babies are picked up as momentary props, and/or an attempt to convey warfare and militarization as normal features of everyday life. What are you doing in gathering little children around your assault rifle? Is it a prospective commercial for the NRA or a weapons manufacturer? Whose baby are you cradling? The uniform is an attempt to pervert images of madonna-like motherhood into a hawkish swooping up of unsuspecting infants.
What also stands out is that US propaganda still seems to be stuck in WWII mode, with credibility-straining glossy images of smiling soldiers and “liberated” locals. In addition, what is presented in these images is that the main US interface with the world is the military. This can both shine a light on the degree of the latent coercion of “globalization,” that manifests itself by way of agents in uniform, but it can also obscure the fact that US imperialism goes far beyond militarism and militarization. Elements of the liberal/Democrat/State Department left, and the libertarian right, would like to narrow analysis of empire to militarization alone, thus ignoring the broader, more mundane, multifaceted economic, political, and cultural levers of US imperial power and the interests it protects, and the degree to which they themselves are complicit in that imperial system.
The US military’s attempt at a global colonization of consciousness involves settling social network sites through specific colonialists (US military media operatives and their public supporters), and by rearranging the narrative landscape. Get people talking about the goodness of the US military, and pretty soon you will have even Western anarchists calling on the military to support their favourite exotic causes, as if the military were an inert tool, a creature comfort, a bombing app ready to download.
I will leave my commentary to the lines above alone. What follows is a sample of a large mass of recurring image types, reproduced with their original captions. Clicking on an image will bring up a larger version of a given photograph.
U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Ruben Ramirez, left, a warehouseman, and Cpl. David Long, a packing specialist, both with Combat Logistics Regiment 35, 3rd Marine Logistics Group, III Marine Expeditionary Force, carry students at Maruglo Elementary School in Capas, Tarlac province, Philippines, April 12, 2013, during a community relations event as part of Balikatan 2013. Balikatan is an annual bilateral training exercise designed to increase interoperability between the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the U.S. military when responding to future natural disasters. (DoD photo by Tech. Sgt. Jerome S. Tayborn, U.S. Air Force/Released)
U.S. Navy Musician 2nd Class Kori Gillis, assigned to the U.S. Naval Forces Europe Band ensemble Flagship, sings and dances with children at the Integracao Infantil Cristo Vida school in Nacala, Mozambique, June 21, 2012. Sailors and Marines embarked aboard high speed vessel Swift (HSV-2) visited the school during a community service project as part of Africa Partnership Station (APS) 2012. APS is an international security cooperation initiative facilitated by Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa aimed at strengthening global maritime partnerships through training and collaborative activities in order to improve maritime safety and security in Africa. (DoD photo by Ensign Joe Keiley, U.S. Navy/Released)
U.S. Navy Lt. Shayna Rivard, left foreground, a battalion surgeon attached to Combat Logistics Battalion 13, 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, reads to students of the Bal Bhavan School in Panaji, Goa, India, Oct. 1, 2013, during a volunteer outreach as part of exercise Shatrujeet 2013. Shatrujeet is an annual training exercise conducted by U.S. and Indian service members to share knowledge and build interoperability skills. (DoD photo by Sgt. Christopher O’Quin, U.S. Marine Corps/Released)
U.S. Army Sgt. Stephanie Tremmel, right, with the 86th Special Troops Battalion, 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, interacts with an Afghan child while visiting Durani, Afghanistan, Nov. 1, 2010. Soldiers visited the village to dismantle an old Russian tank, which the villagers will sell for scrap metal to buy food to get through the winter. (DoD photo by Spc. Kristina L. Gupton, U.S. Army/Released)
U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Christina Gedney, right, with the 116th Infantry Battalion Female Engagement Team (FET), interacts with children in Qalat, Zabul province, Afghanistan, Dec.8, 2011. The FET issued school supplies and provided support to the children and women and discussed security procedures with Female Afghan Police personnel. (DoD photo by Spc. Crystal Davis, U.S. Army/Released)
U.S. Navy Lt. j.g. Meghan Burns, with Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) Farah, hands a stuffed animal to an Afghan orphan during a key leader engagement at the Farah Orphanage in Farah Province, Afghanistan, Aug. 4, 2013. PRT Farah’s mission is to train, advise and assist Afghan government leaders at the municipal, district and provincial levels in Farah province, Afghanistan. (DoD photo illustration by Lt. Chad A. Dulac, U.S. Navy/Released)
PUERTO CABEZAS, Nicaragua (May 24, 2015) Lt. Cmdr. Carrie Dreyer, a native of Bainbridge, N.Y., and a physical therapist assigned to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Bethesda, Md., laughs with a child at a medical site established at the Colegio Moravo Juan Amos Comenius during Continuing Promise 2015. Continuing Promise is a U.S. Southern Command-sponsored and U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command/U.S. 4th Fleet-conducted deployment to conduct civil-military operations including humanitarian-civil assistance, subject matter expert exchanges, medical, dental, veterinary and engineering support and disaster response to partner nations and to show U.S. support and commitment to Central and South America and the Caribbean. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Andrew Schneider/Released)
U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Jessica Gomez, from Carey, Idaho, cares for an injured child in a triage at the Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu, Nepal, May 12. The child is a victim of a 7.3 magnitude earthquake that hit Nepal May 12 following a 7.8 earthquake that struck Nepal April 25. Gomez is part of Joint Task Force 505 participating in Operation Sahayogi Haat. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Mandaline Hatch/Released)
U.S. Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Claire Ballante holds an Afghan child during a patrol with Marines from 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment in Musa Qa’leh, Afghanistan, Aug. 3, 2010. Ballante is part of a female engagement team that is patrolling local compounds to assess possible home damage caused by aircraft landing at Forward Operating Base Musa Qala. (DoD photo by Cpl. Lindsay L. Sayres, U.S. Marine Corps/Released)
U.S. Navy Capt. Tamara Grigsby, a pediatrician, treats an infant during a medical civic action project in Abaokoro, Kiribati, Aug. 29, 2009. The project is being conducted as part of Pacific Partnership, a humanitarian and civil assistance mission in the U.S. Pacific Fleet area of responsibility. (DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Joshua Valcarcel, U.S. Navy/Released)
U.S. Army Capt. Tori Schmidt, right, a physician assistant with the 297th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade, Alaska Army National Guard, examines a patient during a medical humanitarian civic action outreach project as part of Khaan Quest 2012 Aug. 14, 2012, in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Khaan Quest is an annual multinational operational exercise co-sponsored by the Mongolian armed forces and U.S. Pacific Command that is executed by U.S. Army Pacific with support from the U.S. State Department. It is designed to strengthen the capabilities of U.S., Mongolian and other nations forces in international peace support operations worldwide. (DoD photo by Sgt. Edward Eagerton, U.S. Army/Released)
Jacquelyn Bilbro, a registered nurse, entertains a child during a medical civic action project at Hun Sen Cheungkor Primary Elementary School, in Sihanoukville, Combodia, July 29, 2012, during Pacific Partnership 2012. Pacific Partnership is an annual deployment of forces designed to strengthen maritime and humanitarian partnerships during disaster relief operations, while providing humanitarian, medical, dental and engineering assistance to nations of the Pacific. (DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Roadell Hickman, U.S. Navy/Released)