The Military Subject or How to Wear Camouflage

To provide an introduction to the ‘world’ as it is right now is an inherently solipsistic and ideologically infested means of ‘manufacturing consent’. Articles of this kind will often begin by providing an expansive panorama of events that constitute the world in which the emergence of this article becomes not only necessary but also inevitable. This is of course a journalistic trick: it provides, ostensibly with the interest of providing a ‘context’, the ideological assumptions of the article as an objective, radically disinterested documentation of pressing, relevant events of which the article is not only culmination but also resolution. The trick lies in the fact that once we have been introduced to the necessary assumptions of the text, and have (whether forcefully or not) accepted them to be true, we have already accepted too much and then the article cannot be challenged from outside its own parameters (‘restrict your argument to the article, please’). Although I cannot promise any drastic disavowal of the journalistic conventions of article writing, I can forgo the strictness of introductions by providing only the key ‘tags’ of my interest and allowing the reader to freely associate the relationships amongst them and the situate them in the ‘context’ of the current ‘world’: war, militarization, patriotism, hierarchy, popular culture, code, honour, structure, ideological constitution, state.

My interest lies strictly in the relationship between the institution of the army and the militarised subject. The militarised subject may not always be someone dressed in camouflage clothing or festooned with medals and badges. On the contrary, the militarised subject does not only exist within the army as institution but exists today even in the corporate sector, which has been highly militarised in the wake of psychological interest in corporate structuration, as the army itself was militarised during the first and second world wars which coincide with key moments in the history of ‘practical psychology’, which was anything but coincidence. The two world wars created the need not only for strong, able men willing to fight for their country during crises, but also the need for being forever ready to do so. Contingency was to be taken out of the equation, however impossible that may be. So, a militarised subject must be constituted and made ready for any eventuality. This of course is not only a response to external threats but internal ones as well. The state, after all, to protect its subjects from outside threats must first protect itself from its subjects.

During and following the wars, the discourse of patriotism was created with the help of practical psychologists who collected extensive data about military activity and human psychology, and formulated a panoply of scales and measures through extensive documentation in a bid to assign particular traits to particular soldier types and deeming particular soldier types as being either fit or unfit for military duty. This was not a simple grouping of soldiers according to their strength and weaknesses but the process of creating categories of militarisation and consequently, the primordial mechanism of the process as well. Thus, while during princely times, any ‘able-bodied man’ was seen by the state as being a viable candidate for military appropriation, now, a military man could only be one who conformed to the image of the ideal soldier, which was created by this extensive strategy of documentation and categorisation. Does this mean that fewer people were now incorporated under the strict restriction of the military ideal? That a few lucky (or unlucky) people would now take on the role of the soldier grudgingly as a social responsibility while the rest of us enjoyed the benefits of that protection simply by being, as it were, unsatisfactory for military roles? Quite the contrary. The restrictions created by the formation of the ideal soldier serve less as restrictions and more as an injunction to conform, what we call patriotism. The soldier no longer needed to be coerced into battle but willingly came forth to stake all. In fact, only now does military activity become truly desirable, even elite and infused with social prestige. Where the state had once despaired to find people willing to give up their lives for their country, now there were people who saw in it inherent respectability and glory. People clamoured to meet the ideal, pass tests to join the military and die in the battlefield, self-critical instead of being criticised. Thus, the ideal soldier does not exist, as movies like Hacksaw Ridge continue to reinforce in their treatment of the military outcast’s transformation into military hero, but that is precisely the point: anyone can be a hero.

The overarching ideology of militarisation as a process is patriotism, although it is in no way prior to the process itself. Patriotism is what makes it possible to ‘die for your country’ or, even more traumatizing, to ‘kill for your country’. Without the ideological power of patriotism, war would be impossible, too harrowing, too real, a theatre of horrors. But with patriotism in your back-pocket, it becomes a perverse pleasure, a little something that organises blood and entrails in an appetising way, and turns it into Christmas dinner. It is my claim that the true test of a soldier is not in taxing physical or mental training but in gauging his/her susceptibility to being completely appropriated by patriotism and being constituted as the military subject. Of course, that does not mean this is exactly how the army as institution functions, this is simply its ostensible objective. It is clearly how we understand military conscription, as adduced from war movies and the cultural representation of the wartime hero. Let us take a ridiculously frivolous example to show how it works in even the most commercial kind of popular cinema. Let us take Captain America: The First Avenger. The most crucial scene in the movie is actually a trope that permeates through nearly every war film: the universally underestimated wimp emerges as the true soldier. This is played out in the movie as an exception to the rule, but also takes on the form of the ‘exceptional’. The scene depicts the scrawny Steve Rogers diving over a dummy grenade to protect his larger, more physically imposing brothers-in-arms, proving through the act that he is willing to die for his fellow soldiers. The act embodies perfectly the guiding principle of patriotism: if you are willing to die, you shall live on. Steve is immediately picked as the prime candidate for the ‘super soldier programme’ by, surprise, surprise, a psychologist. But Steve Rogers does die a symbolic death here, and is then reborn or reconstituted as the ideal militarised subject—Captain America—in order to live on. (physically overcoming even his death at the end of the film) In other words, the moment he accepts the dogma of patriotism, all his physical deficiencies are ignored and corrected and he becomes exactly what the army was looking for, despite having almost none of the physical attributes rigorous combat demands. True to the form of superhero narrative, this transformation is realised as an actual intensification and expansion of his physical abilities, his transformation concretised and made to fit precisely all the criteria of the ideal soldier. Is it really surprising then that the Captain America comic books were part of government care packages sent to the weary, scarred US soldiers during WWII as a means of ‘recreation’?
This brings me to the question of patriotism itself and a shift from global discourse to that specific to the India. My point here is not a political one, although its determinants and effects may be acutely political to the extent that there is a politics of patriotism that seems to overwhelm all other forms of debate on specific issues. Let us start by looking at a contradiction at the very core of the army as institution. We will take two putatively descriptive statements about how the army operates:

1. Every soldier is innately patriotic and desires to serve his/her country until death
2. Rigid forms of hierarchy must be maintained in order to ensure and depend upon an indisputable line of command during war

The Right in India obviously endorses both these claims, as does the army. Without innate patriotism, how can we rely on the soldier? The soldier’s fidelity to his/her state cannot be contingent. And of course, this patriotic, flag-wielding soldier fighting at our borders is the symbol of patriotism, its effects and its origin. This rigid hierarchy too is essential to the elimination of contingency. It ensures, in banal terms, that soldiers never give in to insubordination even in the worst of situations. (The perennially repeating line of dialogue in popular cinema: ‘are you refusing a direct order?’) We cannot entrust the safety of our borders to something that only works ninety percent of the time. The system must be absolute and unyielding. So where is the problem? To me, there seems to be an obvious contradiction here. If every soldier is innately patriotic, there would be no need for a hierarchal structure. Isn’t it the case that what hierarchy claims to maintain, namely, fidelity to the state, is a prerequisite to the notion of patriotism itself? So what is hierarchy trying to maintain and regulate if all its subjects already adhere to its demands? This either means that the first statement is untrue and soldiers are inherently unpatriotic and need to be always kept in check or that the second is redundant. However, I am of the opinion that there is a third possibility: there is only one statement.

The most crucial thing to understand here is that patriotism is not something that exists before the subject’s incorporation into the hierarchy, the order. Patriotism is generated in the very act of following the rules and regulations imposed by the army as institution. It is not that you follow the rules because you are a patriot but that you follow rules and therefore are a patriot. The subject’s real test cannot be failed, since the test is only a mechanism of transforming him/her into a militarised subject at the end of it; the subject’s failure would be a failure of the system. Therefore, the second statement is true and ensures that the first is made true. The subject being militarised can properly ask himself: why would I be following these damned rules if I wasn’t a patriot? There lies the fundamental truth about the militarised subject’s patriotism: once it is established, it feels like it was always there. This, in turn, generates high fidelity for hierarchical structure, which the subject misrecognises as a love for the country, army, whatever.

Of course, aren’t we all patriots? Don’t we all love our country? Don’t we stand in cinema halls in deference to our national anthem? The answer to all this is yes, even if it is coerced, even if mechanical. However, military patriotism must be distinguished from these pre-patriotic markers. Patriotic markers are peppered into our lives only to be later called upon through the process of militarisation. The performance of these ritualised markers of patriotism is what generates the sense of patriotism itself, although retroactively. So why are we all not already military subjects? Only because of the heterogeneity of the performers themselves, who are placed comfortably in relation to the national flag, as an Indian, but not adequately in relation to each other; we are not uniformed in the same colours. This heterogeneity is what may save us from turning into a military state but it does not save us from being at least minimally constituted as pre-patriotic subjects, ready to be militarised through ritual and hierarchy if need be, no matter how much we may disavow any form of patriotism, when there is a call to ‘protect our way of life’. Even in the coercive act of forcing us to stand up for the national anthem, there is an implicit understanding between the state and its subjects—the fact that the state still recognises us as its subjects, just as we recognise it as our state.

So, what remains to be said of opposition, of struggle, of subversion? It is hard to say. There are no easy answers. The state rewards patriotism heavily and safeguards it as sacred. The same is true for America, even if the mode of its negotiation is different. Even the most radical dissenters will invoke ‘American’ values when they question state policy. Maybe the only avenue for resistance if not subversion is, again, to stress on radical difference. Homogenous communities can always be convinced that their interests are being protected by such pervasive militarisation but heterogenous communities, if only by virtue of their inherent differences, are always sites of uncertainty and inequity in their relationship with the state. But this is more a stall tactic than a solution and I’m afraid any kind of binary politics only makes matters worse. For the moment, at least, we must work relentlessly at the demystification of military ideology, however slow and painstaking it might be.


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