In all the bloated corpus of American videography there is no clip more hilarious, more obscene, or more endlessly fascinating than John Cena announcing the death of Osama Bin Laden at WWE Extreme Rules 2011. Rewatching it for the nth time before I began this polemic I was struck by the mise-en-scène: there Cena stood, glistening with the sweat of a gruelling, twenty-minute bout of illusory combat. His legs bestride the announcing table; his reared arm clenches the microphone. He laboriously tolls out the syllables like a prophecy of doom: ‘Osama… Bin… Laaaden’.
[Cheering from the chorus; cries of “USA!”]
I’m being facetious here, but it really is difficult to capture the sublimity and absurdity of this irreplaceable moment. It is such a uniquely American production: fake wrestling, fake muscles, fake voice, real death, real joy. What sticks with me the most, though, is the curious construction he uses in place of ‘has been killed’. ‘Compromised to a permanent end’ is Cena’s coinage, perhaps designed to slightly smooth the connotations of ‘assassinated’ or some other term, but despite its strangeness the phrase oozes with militaristic precision. It sounds like SEAL team jargon: ‘the target has been compromised’, or something like that, would not be out of place in Call of Duty or on the battlefields of Afghanistan. It is a neologism, but it is not unfriendly to the American ear: one knows exactly what he means by ‘a permanent end’. Military euphemism is common parlance in America. ‘casualty’ means dead or paraplegic, ‘operation’ means war, ‘weapon system’ means gun, ‘effective’ means lethal, and so on. One of the many cultural outcomes of America’s campaigns in the Noughties was the weakening of the rhetorical, and indeed psychological, barrier between civilian and soldier; between war and peace.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, we got him.’
Paul Bremer, United States Administrator in Iraq, after the capture of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
This barrier has always been weak in America, or at least weaker than in England, because of a) the necessary intermingling of civilian and military life in a nation with first a militia and then a volunteer army, and b) her history of near-constant warfare. This dissemination of military culture and military values amongst the population in part accounts for the enormous state expenditure on military equipment, unconscionable in a less war-like society, and also the general pageantry and respect in which soldiers and the army are held. This attitude is entirely alien to the English mind. The brilliant George Orwell wrote that the goose-step was not used in England because ‘the people in the street would laugh’. If a Martian were to arrive in Birmingham tomorrow with no knowledge of our country or its people he would learn everything he needed to know about them from this one observation.
If that same Martian read what I have written here and stopped at my previous sentence, he might be forgiven in believing that the USA was a kind of Kaiserreich of the New World: all spiked helmets and bristling bayonets. This is not the case. American militarism exists in a mysterious middle ground between English bashfulness and Prussian hysteria. No one laughed when the muscle-bound, jort-bedecked Cena saluted like a marine. The atmosphere was one of triumphant rejoicing in the thrill of total victory, yet also tinged with a kind of innocence: like a father’s joy when his son scores the winning homerun for a little league baseball game. Cena still used his “wrestler’s voice”, announcing the death of the hated enemy as he would announce his next contender for World Champion. The chants of ‘USA!’ may seem distasteful to a non-American, but there isn’t the same sense of malice or hateful superiority as existed in Rome or the Kaiser’s Germany. It is a deeply unselfconscious but impotent militarism: no President or administration could ever rise to power through promises of battlefield glory, yet Bush managed to turn his otherwise unremarkable presidency into a seminal two-term ‘Bushism’ through the revanchist war in Mesopotamia. All the military adventures in modern American history have been propagandized as somehow defensive or in the interest of ‘containment’. The more imperialist and aggressive the action the more the propagandists labour to present it as reluctant and necessary. This kind of rearguard, preventative action is more palatable to the American mind than an explicitly offensive one. Rather, the action can be as offensive as Vietnam or Iraq, yet as long as her people believe it to be necessary America’s latent militaristic tendencies can be keyed up to the right pitch. The war must, therefore, be short and relatively bloodless, which Vietnam and Iraq decidedly weren’t. There is something fascinating and thought-provoking in the fact that America’s enormous military was forged in the crucible of two world wars that it did not wish to fight. Woodrow Wilson viewed the Great War as a priceless opportunity to expand America’s influence as an arbiter, not a combatant. To him, the future glory of his nation was as impartial godfather of the world, not its undisputed policeman. History took a different turn.
In England Cena’s speech would have been met by at least a few sniggers in the crowd, the cries a little less heartfelt, someone somewhere deeply embarrassed by the whole affair. Yet it does not seem so strange to see military pageant and celebrity sports so intimately married in one American video. Such scenes are almost common on our televisions: a flock of fighter jets screaming through the clouds over a NASCAR rally, or a black B2 Spirit floating like a ghost of vengeance above the Superbowl. These little interpolations of military might are part of the fabric of American life, much like how a laurel-wreathed triumph through the forum was part of Rome’s fabric. There is, or was, effectively an entire genre of Hollywood devoted to near-pornographic displays of American weapons and warships: the seminal film is 1986’s Top Gun, but the trope persisted through the Nineties and Noughties until its inevitable collision with self-consciousness around 2010 (eerily coincidental with Bin Laden’s summary execution). I remember being seized with a strange mixture of déjà vu and melancholy during last year’s Top Gun: Maverick. Somewhere amidst all the awe and the cringe I kept thinking ‘Damn… they really don’t make films like this anymore’. To Bismarck, or Bonaparte, or any other demi-god of ancient Europe and her wars, such a vision of brash, unalloyed martial glory might be comprehensible. Yet to the modern European sensibility they only signal everything that died in the mud and wire of 1914. Perhaps the American cultural consciousness is beginning to approach this point, which it bizarrely failed to fully reach even after the hell of Vietnam.
Some of my earliest memories as a schoolboy were the Remembrance Day services at St. Simon Zelotes on Milner Street: the solemn procession with my peers down the aisle, stupefied without knowledge as all children are by the sombreness of a church. We were dimly aware of some great cataclysm in our past, filled with exotic words like “Somme” and “Ypres” and “Passchendaele”. There was the usual recital of poems and paeans to the glorious dead. So many dead, and so distant, that death itself becomes merely an image to be gawked and frowned at. It is difficult to apply a collective psychology to a whole nation, and I have fallen prey to generalisation already, yet it does not seem absurd to suppose that all England is traumatised by war. The slightest reminder sets us to balling, and if we did not laugh we would weep tears enough to fill up an ocean. If jets at the Superbowl are part of America’s texture, then the Last Post and the poppies are part of ours: as English as rain. So, no Top Gun for us. And after Afghanistan, maybe no more Top Gun ever.
‘And Sauron passed over the sea and looked upon the land of Númenor, and on the city of Armenelos in the days of its glory, and he was astounded.’
I have always had a complicated relationship with the USA. A healthy dose of Americanophobia is fashionable in English society, and the complaints are always the same: the people are too loud; the food is too greasy; the culture is tasteless and violent; the politics are ludicrous. The American worship of wealth, considered the height of vulgarity in England, is perhaps the oldest gripe. All the way back in 1783, Horatio Nelson remarked upon visiting New York that ‘money is the great object here. Nothing else is attended to’. In a uniquely patronising, Little England way the people of my country love to hate the States, sneering as one might do about an annoying younger sibling who’s hit the big time through no virtue of their own. America has thoroughly supplanted Britain as the global cultural hegemon (and this, I think, is what really irks my countrymen), yet the sting is often made less acute by a general mocking agreement that America does not deserve her position. She’s a bully: a musclebound philistine, the decorous and noble British Empire usurped by mouth-breathing Yankees who have relegated our sceptred isle to an American outpost. None of this is true, but it is a persistent belief especially amongst the so-called upper classes of the UK.
As a child, America to me was a land of fantasy. It was my mother’s country, a vast, open continent full of clever cousins. Holidays were spent amongst the glittering towers of Chicago or New York City: I still remember my first visit to Times Square, and the indescribable feeling that I had arrived at the centre of the universe. All the people who had ever lived were milling about around me, on their way (in my mind) to do something or other of great importance. Life moved faster there; it was bright and dangerous and full of purpose. I was convinced that the whole country had a distinct “America” smell, and through some trick of synaesthesia to this day I can’t think of it without catching a ghost-whiff of New England: long grass, pine trees and warm summer air. My experience of the States was, of course, pitifully narrow, and to this day I have hardly seen any of the country besides the coasts, yet some of my earliest childhood memories are full of a fearsome desire to be an American - to be part of it all, part of the story which in the early noughties seemed to be the story of the whole world. Every six-hour flight to Heathrow was like a forceful exit stage right, back to a grey and rainswept island of sullen people and little consequence. I was an American citizen with an American passport, but I never felt American. I was jealous of the cousins on my father’s side - they were as English as I was, and yet they were blessed with the accents and the house in suburbia, the big lawn, the high school drama, all the trappings of American life that television had convinced me was what a childhood was supposed to look like.
I am thus intrinsically sceptical of the English tut-tutting about the States. Yet hatred of America is one of the most defining cultural phenomena of our time, the core of the occidentalist stereotypes so frequently levelled against the entire West by those in competition with it. The usual grievances are well-known, largely political, and mostly true: America behaves like an interventionist empire yet denies it; America is war-mongering and violent yet denies it; America destroys the environment through inordinate consumption yet denies it. In short, America is a hypocrite. Yet compounding these and perhaps underlying them is a general revulsion towards American society, as petty and narrow-minded as the genteel condescension expressed in England. Bin Laden, in his “Letter to America” in 2002, waxed poetical that ‘America does not understand the language of manners and principles, so we are addressing it using the language it understands’, declaring that ‘you are the worst civilisation witnessed by the history of mankind’. He lists The Great Satan’s terrible crimes: permission of gambling, drinking, usury (the work of pernicious Judea, of course), homosexuality and many other unforgivable sins. He bizarrely marks out the Monica Lewinski scandal as the ‘event for which your name will go down in history and [be] remembered by nations’. This kind of prudishness is to be expected from Osama, yet it ties into the more serious beliefs across the globe that America is materialism manifest: the Whore of Babylon, an impure melting pot, a godless, immoral nation with no tradition and no values. Dislike of the excessive American militarism discussed above is central to this matrix of prejudices and particularly strong in remarkably unwarlike England.
Militarism in the States is undoubtedly excessive, as is the pathological obsession with firearms. For reasons that have escaped anthropologists American society is prone both to higher rates of violent crime than in comparable nations and higher rates of violence in crime. Murders in the US are both more frequent and frequently more brutal. Violence of all kinds seems to be endemic to American civilisation. As Jimmy Carter pointed out in 2019, the United States is the most belligerent nation in the history of the world. If one counts wars, military attacks and occupations, America has had only five years (1976-1980) of genuine peace since 1776. Gargantuan military expenditure, therefore, does not necessarily seem out of place in a nation that fights so often. And yet would we have had the Long Peace without it? An often unnoticed but interesting outcome of Ukraine seems to be a total abandonment of the railing against America’s war budget amongst my peers. It is still distasteful, and it should be. War is hell, after all. Yet the point of the endless billions of dollars is to prevent large conflicts, and in this it has been successful. Aaron Clauset proved in his analysis of wars over the last two centuries that the Long Peace has not actually been that peaceful. A major war still broke out on average every 12.8 years. A great improvement over the early 20th Century, though it would have to last at least another hundred years at the same rate before it became statistically remarkable. And yet it has been an incredibly productive peace, with billions lifted out of poverty and more and more democracy advancing across the world, all under the shield of the American soldier. Peter Hitchens recently quoted George Santayana’s laughably naïve assertion that in the British Empire the world found ‘a sweet, just, boyish master’, comparable only with ‘the days of heroic Greece’. That Britain’s systematised global extortion racket could be described as such is ridiculous, but I might tentatively, delicately, apply the label to my other motherland. She is certainly not sweet, and boyish is a push, but just? The people of Iraq, Vietnam and Central America would certainly disagree. Yet as far as global hegemons go no serious person could doubt that, despite her failures, America tops the list.
A unique addiction to all things army accompanies this huge war machine in the US, and perhaps the machine could not exist without the societal mania for bloodshed. Yet as a dual citizen with a foot on either shore of the pond I have come to view the American military in a different light to the people of both my countries. In the States it is glorious, in England it is crude, yet a line from Tolkien often gives me pause whenever I ponder the subject:
‘I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend: the city of the Men of Númenor’.
This is rhetorically perfect and says everything that needs to be said. Because that is also what I love, and what America means to me - the city of the Men of Númenor. Though deeply flawed and quarrelsome, for this author she will always be the last Revolution, the lodestar for human talent and ingenuity everywhere, the New Colossus, the golden door, the ‘air-bridg’d harbour that twin cities frame’,
‘And I would have her loved for her memory, her ancientry, her beauty, and her present wisdom. Not feared, save as men may fear the dignity of a man, old and wise.’
The Two Towers