Recently, I wrote a writeup called cultural foiling, and even if it is a concept I invented myself, it seems to serve me well. When I read I fell asleep to the lullaby of rat-a-tat-tat, my first thought was "cultural foiling". Ever since the caricature that is George W Bush took office, the cliche has existed: the United States is full of violent cowboys, while Europe is full of cultured, sensitive people. People on both sides of the Atlantic have thrust these stereotypes on each other, to the detriment of any real understanding of history. Since it is 2008, we shouldn't even have to discuss how crude and useless this type of portrayal is.
So, stereotypes aside, what can actually be said about militarism in the United States? Is American culture militarized? That depends on which American culture is being spoken of. As I have discussed, if you take one aspect of American culture and describe it as the template, you might say that American culture is militaristic. The culture of George W Bush and Chuck Norris may be so, but there is no reason to say that is a more central version of American culture than the culture of, say, Mark Twain, Arlo Guthrie and Jeanette Rankin. There are people who did not serve in the military who are in favor of wars, as well as combat veterans who are pacifists. Which one of these is the voice of the culture? The United States produces many books, many movies, and much music. Some of these are bound to be, at least in places, militaristic, but who has ever done a census of the messages contained in every recorded piece of American culture?
Along with the recorded culture, there is also the culture of belief and everyday speech. I just said above that a census of all the viewpoints of recorded culture would be practically impossible to do--Americans, depending on their religious beliefs, education level, ethnic background, gender, age and just personal bent, are going to have many different feelings about war, the military, and militarism. These beliefs might also be, within one individual, subtle and in tension. For example, I myself was raised Quaker and morally lean towards pacificism, at the same time as I politically understand why nations are sometimes driven to war.
So, letting aside all that mushy "cultural" stuff, lets look at numbers. In the write-up mentioned above, Swap says that "It seems like virtually every citizen of the US either has a family member involved with the military or a very close friend "serving", as the euphemism goes, in the US military." This at least might be a checkable fact. "It seems" is a subjective term, and in this case, a false one. According to wikipedia, (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Active_troops_per_thousand_citizens), the United States does have a fairly high amount of military personnel for its population, but not an overwhelming one. The rate is 4.76 per 1000 citizens, or about 1 in 200. Canada, the UK, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Germany, Denmark and France all have rates between 2.95 and 4.27-meaning that the US is slightly ahead of most of the other industrialized nations in military service per capita. It is slightly behind Norway, Finland and Malta, none of which are typically portrayed as being militaristic cultures. Switzerland, at 30 soldiers per 1,000 citizens, is the third most militarized country in the world. It seems that "it seems" is not backed up by numbers in this category.
The one area that numbers do back up the United States' military nature is in the area of money spent, but even this is not as clear cut as it may seem. The United States does spend much more money than any other country on its military, and spends more per capita than most other industrialized democracies-but much of this has to do with the unique nature of the United States economy. Comparing military expenditures for purchasing power parity may give different results. Much of the United States military is based on intensive usage of technology, and this can often drive prices up higher than they would be. Also, labor tends to be much more expensive in the United States-especially among the type of high technology that is important in the military. For this reason, a military helicopter in the United States may cost upwards of 20 million dollars, while a comparable Chinese aircraft may cost much less to make. The simple monetary value is not always the best sign of actual economic resources invested into the military.
The third thing to look at is history. Does the United States have a particularly militaristic history? The United States has fought over a dozen major wars, and a seemingly endless assortment of "interventions", but how does that compare to the history of other countries? Has "The United States always been at war with the world"? I honestly don't know how to address this question. I don't think it is totally cheap of me to invoke Godwin's Law, though. Since the United States has been founded, the world has seen the production of Napoleon, Hitler and Stalin. These are three infamous names, but the world has been wracked by wars less famous. To say that the United States has a particularly militaristic history is to ignore such wars as The War of the Triple Alliance, a war not focused on much historically, but which was perhaps the deadliest war of modern times, where Paraguay lost 90% of its male population. Historically, the United States was overall neutral and isolationist between the end of the Civil War and World War II. Both World War I and World War II were only entered into late by the United States. It has only been since World War II that the United States has stumbled into the role of "world cop". However, all of these statements are still open to historical interpretation by those who know the history of warfare better than I do. I do hold that the United States has not had a history that was obviously more militarily inclined than The United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Turkey, Japan and possibly China. It has had, at times, an ability to reach further than those countries.
So I guess what all of this comes down to is that an issue like this is complicated, and consists of both checkable facts and interpretations. At the very least, careful attention to the first should be made before the second is embarked upon.