The Militarization of U.S. Culture 

In the aftermath of Sept.11, the American cultural identity has become synonymous with the nation’s military interests.

To pay tribute to five decades of reporting, rebelling and truth-telling, From the Vault includes some of our favorite feminist classics from the last 50 years of MsFor more iconic, ground-breaking stories like this, order 50 YEARS OF Ms.: THE BEST OF THE PATHFINDING MAGAZINE THAT IGNITED A REVOLUTION (Alfred A. Knopf)—a stunning collection of the most audacious, norm-breaking coverage Ms. has published.

From The Vault: ‘Sneak Attack: The Militarization of U.S. Culture’ (December 2001/January 2002)

Things start to become militarized when their legitimacy depends on their associations with military goals. When something becomes militarized, it appears to rise in value. 

But it is really a process of loss. Even though something seems to gain value by adopting an association with military goals, it actually surrenders control and gives up the chain to its own worthiness. 

This piece was originally published in the Winter 2001 issue of Ms. and has been edited for clarity

Militarization is a sneaky sort of transformative process. Sometimes it is only in the pursuit of de-militarization that we become aware of just how far down the road of complete militarization we’ve gone.

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) pulled back the curtain in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks when she cast the lone vote against giving George W. Bush carte blanche to wage war. The loneliness of her vote suggested how far the militarization of Congress––and its voters back home––has advanced. In fact, since Sept. 11, publicly criticizing militarization has been widely viewed as an act of disloyalty. 

Rep. Lee’s speech on Sept. 14, 2001.

Whole cultures can be militarized. It is militarized US culture that has made it easier for Bush to wage war without most Americans finding it dangerous to democracy. Our cultural militarization makes waging war seem like a comforting reconfirmation of our collective security, identity and pride. 

Other sectors of U.S. culture have also been militarized: 

  • Education: School board members accept Junior ROTC programs for their teenagers, and social studies teachers play it safe by avoiding discussion of past sexual misconduct by US soldiers overseas. Many university scientists pursue lucrative Defense Department weapons research contracts. 
  • Soldiers’ girlfriends and wives: They’ve been persuaded that they are “good citizens” if they keep silent about problems in their relationships with male soldiers for the sake of their fighting effectiveness. 
  • Beauty: This year, the Miss America pageant organizers selected judges with military credentials, including a former secretary of the Navy and an Air Force captain. 
  • Cars: The Hummer ranks among the more bovine vehicles to clog U.S. highways, yet civilians think they will be feared and admired if they drive them. 

Then there is the conundrum of the flag. People who reject militarization may don a flag pin, unaware that doing so may convince those with a militarized view of the U.S. flag that their bias is universally shared, thus deepening the militarization of culture. 

The events post-Sept. 11 have also shown that many Americans today may be militarizing non-U.S. women’s lives. It was only after Bush declared “war on terrorists and those countries that harbor them” that the violations of Afghan women’s human rights took center stage. Here’s the test of whether Afghan women are being militarized: If their well-being is worthy of our concern only because their lack of well-being justifies the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan, then we are militarizing Afghan women––as well as our own compassion. We are thereby complicit in the notion that something has worth only if it allows militaries to achieve their missions. 

It’s important to remember that militarization has its rewards, such as newfound popular support for measures formerly contested. For example, will many Americans now be persuaded that drilling for oil in the Alaskan wilderness is acceptable because it will be framed in terms of “national security”? Will most U.S. citizens now accept government raids on the Social Security trust fund in the name of paying for the war on terrorism? 

Women’s rights in the United States and Afghanistan are in danger if they become mere by-products of some other cause. Militarization, in all its seductiveness and subtlety, deserves to be bedecked with flags wherever it thrives––fluorescent flags of warning. 

Up next:

U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.


Feminist theorist and writer Cynthia Enloe is internationally renowned for her work on gender and militarism and for her contributions to the field of feminist international relations. She is currently a professor at Clark University.