The word “affluenza” is much in vogue. Lately, it’s been linked to a Texas teenager, Ethan Couch, who in 2013 killed four people in a car accident while driving drunk. During the trial, a defense witness argued that Couch should not be held responsible for his destructive acts. His parents had showered him with so much money and praise that he was completely self-centered; he was, in other words, a victim of affluenza, overwhelmed by a sense of entitlement that rendered him incapable of distinguishing right from wrong. Indeed, the judge at his trial sentenced him only to probation, not jail, despite the deaths of those four innocents.
Experts quickly dismissed “affluenza” as a false diagnosis, a form of quackery, and indeed the condition is not recognized by the American Psychiatric Association. Yet the word caught on big time, perhaps because it speaks to something in the human condition, and it got me to thinking. During Ethan Couch’s destructive lifetime, has there been an American institution similarly showered with money and praise that has been responsible for the deaths of innocents and inadequately called to account? Is there one that suffers from the institutional version of affluenza (however fuzzy or imprecise that word may be) so much that it has had immense difficulty shouldering the blame for its failures and wrongdoing?
The answer is hidden in plain sight: the US military. Unlike Couch, however, that military has never faced trial or probation; it hasn’t felt the need to abscond to Mexico or been forcibly returned to the homeland to face the music.
Spoiling the Pentagon
First, a caveat. When I talk about spoiling the Pentagon, I’m not talking about your brother or daughter or best friend who serves honorably. Anyone who’s braving enemy fire while humping mountains in Afghanistan or choking on sand in Iraq is not spoiled.
I’m talking about the US military as an institution. Think of the Pentagon and the top brass; think of Dwight Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex; think of the national-security state with all its tentacles of power. Focus on those and maybe you’ll come to agree with my affluenza diagnosis.
Let’s begin with one aspect of that affliction: unbridled praise. In last month’s State of the Union address, President Obama repeated a phrase that’s become standard in American political discourse, as common as asking God to bless America. The US military, he said, is the “finest fighting force in the history of the world.”
Such hyperbole is nothing new. Five years ago, in response to similar presidential statements, I argued that many war-like peoples, including the imperial Roman legions and Genghis Khan’s Mongol horsemen, held far better claims to the “best ever” Warrior Bowl trophy. Nonetheless, the over-the-top claims never cease. Upon being introduced by President Obama as his next nominee for secretary of defense in December 2014, for instance, Ash Carter promptly praised the military he was going to oversee as “the greatest fighting force the world has ever known.” His words echoed those of the president, who had claimed the previous August that it was “the best-led, best-trained, best-equipped military in human history.” Similar hosannas (“the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known”) had once been sprinkled liberally through George W. Bush’s speeches and comments, as well as those of other politicians since 9/11.