The Power of Ritual
In which Mark Milley doesn't receive the countersign
Be careful around zealously celibate people, because they might try to have sex with everyone.
No American president in at least fifty years has spoken more forcefully or more consistently than Donald Trump about the dangerous stupidity of strategically senseless foreign wars. Even before becoming a presidential candidate, he spoke often about the social and economic costs of endless and ill-considered military conflict. Foreign journalists even identified a fully formed Trump Doctrine in this not terribly subtle language: “no stupid wars.”
For four years, Trump’s obvious desire to limit American involvement in war slammed into the habit and practice of the American foreign policy apparatus. Trump’s first defense secretary, the former Marine Corps officer James Mattis, resigned in protest as the president tried to reduce troop numbers in the Middle East, while a retiring diplomat went so far as to say that government officials played “shell games” with the president about the number of American troops on the ground to keep him from realizing that the country was still engaged in conflict in Syria.
In short, the military objection to Donald Trump’s presidency was his reluctance to wage war, to start new wars, and to expand or maintain existing wars. The leaders of the national security state lied to the President of the United States as an act of defiance targeting his desire to reduce American military involvement overseas.
So after protesters entered the Capitol on January 6, journalists now tell us, Milley became so alarmed by the event that he worried Trump would attack China and make sudden, irrational use of nuclear weapons against other countries – so much so that the JCS chairman inserted himself into the chain of command for nuclear weapons, telling other military officers to get his approval before carrying out launch orders from the president. And he called his counterpart in China to assure him that the U.S. wasn’t about to attack his country.
The chef suddenly discovered the extreme danger that the vegan restaurant manager might eat up all the beef in the kitchen. After four years of constant conflict between a military that wished to remain at war and expand American wars overseas, on the one hand, and a commander-in-chief who wished to reduce American military involvement overseas, the president’s chief military advisor was suddenly terrified that the president would recklessly and impetuously launch new wars – precisely the opposite of the thing he had just spent the previous years worrying about and trying to prevent. Lock up the guns – there’s a Quaker in the building!
The bizarre non-sequitur of linking some dude in a Viking hat running into the Senate chamber with telling China that we wouldn’t bomb them is the logical equivalent of Bob ate all the Jello, so I worried that the sailboat would catch fire. It connects two things that have no connection. “After protesters tried to stop Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing, I called Peru and assured them we wouldn’t poison the kittens in Lima.”
Milley somehow came to understand that Chinese military leaders were running around their headquarters ordering troops to prepare for battle because…Brian Sicknick died. Why?
“General, look at this picture of a protester sitting at Nancy Pelosi’s desk!”
“My god – fuel the missiles! The Americans will strike soon!”
This is psychosis, absolute batshit madness – from, specifically, a man who was warning people that Donald Trump had become irrational.
But the moment is explicable, even expected. Mark Milley, a man who has testified to Congress that he’s deeply concerned about white rage, the uniformed leader of a military that ranks climate change and social justice among its top strategic priorities, the leader of armed forces that tweeted about diversity while abandoning Americans to the Taliban, has been trained in the culture of ritual performance by an adult lifetime spent climbing the ranks in an institution. He regards the recitation of expected rhetorical formulas as the principal way that people in positions of status reassure other people in positions of status of their reliability and good sense. He’s unnerved to be in the presence of someone who doesn’t respond to ritual form with ritual form. (Attention all personnel: the countersign is “diversity is our strength.”) He’s scared of Donald Trump because he can’t read Donald Trump because Donald Trump isn’t institutionalized; he doesn’t know the lines in the status performance, and wouldn’t care about reciting them if you told him what they are. (If anything, his instinct is for the language of the working class, and one simply shudders to think of it.)
The writer Luca Dellana describes the rules of “mimetic societies,” societies that are structured by the performance of ritual: “In mimetic societies, conversations are rituals where turns are taken to reassure the other that he is performing well.” That’s us. That’s why Burger King advertises its support for BLM. It’s recitation. “The Lord be with you.” “And also with you.” You say the thing because it’s the thing you say. Donald Trump is bad at that – or, rather, he appears to not care about it. He knows he’s using the salad fork to eat his steak.
The sociologist C. Wright Mills famously described the Cold War “power elite” by their grouping around common identities and rituals; CEOs and flag officers were to be Episcopalian or Presbyterian rather than low-church serpent handlers, they were to go to Harvard instead of East Jesus State U, and so on. As Angelo Codevilla has written, our new power elite are no less formally structured: “Today's ruling class, from Boston to San Diego, was formed by an educational system that exposed them to the same ideas and gave them remarkably uniform guidance, as well as tastes and habits. These amount to a social canon of judgments about good and evil, complete with secular sacred history, sins (against minorities and the environment), and saints. Using the right words and avoiding the wrong ones when referring to such matters – speaking the ‘in’ language – serves as a badge of identity.“
It’s that. Milley didn’t think Trump was reckless and dangerous and on the verge of attacking China because Trump was moving air wings and issuing orders about getting ready to attack China; he thought Trump was dangerous because, socially and culturally, Trump frequently did the equivalent of eating soup with a teaspoon, so Milley had no idea how to read his intent. Not our class, dear. He doesn’t even know that diversity is our strength, can you imagine?
We’ve developed a set of social rules that ensure the practical derangement of most of the people who run things. That’s an interesting position to be in.