Jan 24, 2013 - Issue 501

Camaraderie Does NOT Build Real Community

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At the military inaugural ball, the Commander in Chief’s Ball, President Obama invited the audience to clap for their “comrades” who were on a viewing screen televised from Afghanistan. There was a small twitch that flashed across his face and that was recognizable in his voice as he used the term. “Comrades” is a term associated with both Communism and with the camaraderie that soldiers experience in battle. I am sure that this President, who has been falsely called a socialist and a communist, was struck with the thought that the video of his use of that term might “come back to haunt him” in a future round of partisan false mislabeling. It was, though, only a flash of a thought that caused the twitch, since he was clearly surrounded and embedded in a context at a military ball where the word “comrades could only logically be considered in its military sense - in the sense of comrades in arms.”

Obama received a rousing welcome and his presentation was frequently punctuated with exuberant vocal hurrahs, the loudest voices being decidedly female. It is my guess that most of what we were seeing and hearing was the result of the work that Michelle Obama has been doing with military families and wives. This was confirmed for me when Barack introduced Michelle and she got a louder welcome than he did as they took the spotlight for the first dance to Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” performed by Jennifer Hudson, before switching dance partners with members of the military, before other couples joined them on the dance floor. I was roiling with mixed emotions.

My antipathy to that which smacks of militarism was mixed with the joy that most folks feel when they see Barack and Michelle together, unable to hide their obvious love for each other. Add to that my understanding and sympathy for the tremendous stress this country unfairly places on military families, particularly children and wives, and, therefore, the importance of the work the First Lady is doing advocating for and supporting them. Next, mix in my complete revulsion of the President’s continued use of assassinations, drones that kill the innocent including children, the failure to prosecute torturers, the failure to curtail the security state apparatus and the failure of these policies to give the President any surcease from attacks from the political right for being “soft” or “weak” on national security.

Obama has gained very little politically from his pro-military stances and I know that these imperialist approaches are not at all making this country safer. Instead these approaches are bankrupting the government, continuing a tragic, long history of U.S. brutality and discriminatory aggression, and are sowing the “blowback” hate which these military families’ members face in foreign lands. The militarism represented at the ball, in such a genteel fashion - on M. L. King’s birthday - is the exact same militarism Rev, King spoke of in his GREATEST speech when he said, “Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.” (Beyond Vietnam - Time to Break the Silence) That Obama claims to respect Dr. King’s memory, but besmirches those beliefs with imperialism, is galling.

The loudest hurrah of the evening, with the loudest participation of male voices, was in response to Obama’s call to appreciate the overseas comrades. Males that are teamed in a battle - even if it is only an intense political battle - develop powerful allegiances in the midst of the struggle. There is a depth of commitment to one another’s well being that is palpable. This feeling, akin to intense brotherly love - sacred fellowship -, is what attracts men to and holds them in sports teams, youth groups, criminal gangs, and police forces. Often these allegiances are so strong that they override societal superego controls against immoral and vicious behavior. For some, who find little emotional sustenance outside of conflict, this intense bonding becomes addictive. They seek it out. And they rise exuberantly to recognize and praise those in similar situations even though they might not have any direct experience of those specific people or agreement with what they are doing. Warriors recognize warriors even across racial and cultural differences because memories of “band of brothers” struggles and accomplishments are triggered.

Obama functions from a more individualized social psychological space. This isolated stance is often the stance that black males take when they mature within white Western circumstances and institutions where they will very rarely be accepted into groups in the same way or as fully as are the white males around them. Some black males will even stand apart from the very few other black males that they will run into in those same circumstances; close association with another black male would lessen the individual acceptance that they were able to garner. Black and brown men learn to be comfortable with a type of acceptance and inclusion that is different, filtered through a constant need to either prove oneself in the academic, athletic, or juvenile activity the group is engaged in or having to be otherwise entertaining. It is obvious that Obama has been shaped by such a phenomenon. As the Commander in Chief who released the elite of the military teams, the Seal teams, on Osama Bin Laden, he achieved some degree of acceptance and inclusion in the military crowd; this is enhanced by his charismatic speaking, presidential posturing, and particularly through the work of Michelle. However, I doubt he could achieve the level of top-to-bottom military acceptance as would have a President John McCain. McCain, a wounded prisoner of war, is an elite member of this militaristic gang. 

Being a former Ivy League college football player, I know something directly of this phenomenon. I know that it essentially comes to an end when you leave “the field.” As one of the few blacks on my team, I did not hangout with my white football comrades off the field. Neither did most of the other nonwhite players. People-of-color soldiers return to a very different civilian life in the USA homeland. When the mutual enemy/opposition is no longer present, most of what forged the “band of brothers” relationship disappears accept for the rare long term friendship coupling. Camaraderie dissipates into a nostalgia that guides some to glorify and justify militarism and others to seek new enemies to fight to rekindle those unique moments in their lives. Senator John McCain does just that.

The question is why this born-in-war, close, intense relationship doesn’t lead to the forging of an inclusive, integrated society? I think I know. First of all, those experiences tend to be male and demanding of much less than a whole human response; there is little demand for thinking or tenderness. Second, camaraderie, almost by definition, requires something to be against. In these situations that breed camaraderie, participants are generally “fighting for” the team, for country, for democracy, for socialism even, with very shallow understanding of what that means. What holds them together is what they are against - the enemy. 

Community is an expression of what you stand for. No matter how many times blacks have fought in US wars - from the Revolutionary War to Afghanistan today - it has meant little to full inclusion of blacks into the US community. The military institutions have been and continue to become the most nondiscriminatory institutions in US society for the sake of the fight, yet little of that will influence the discriminatory stances of nonmilitary institutions. Often, even in those militaristic institutions, such as police departments, having to depend on those of a different race and ethnicity for life and limb does not even influence the internal discrimination or the external prejudice that that institution visits on the community in which it operates. Camaraderie does NOT build real community.

Activists on the left are no different in regards to this phenomenon. Folks of different races, genders, and ethnicities build strong relationships in the midst of struggle against a mutually agreed on opposition whether violent or not. Afterward, no matter the outcome, most relationships dissipate.

In our struggles for justice it is most important that we build a consensus detailing what we are for not just what we are against. It is often crystal clear about what we are against but when that changes or disappears, there is little to hold us together unless we reach out again and define another bogyman. That is how we end up in endless wars and broken communities. When we work together for the beloved community as articulated by Martin and that we are mutually defining and shaping as we step forward, relationships are built and maintained; community is strengthened.

Michelle Obama, the First Lady, is defining a community that includes military families; that is the meaning of the term comrade that includes long-term fellowship. As Al Green said, Let’s Stay Togetherbeyond this brief coupling. Let’s stay together “…Whether times are good or bad, happy or sad” denotes a un-conditionality that does not necessitate opposition to anything else. This is when a person’s definition of self in all circumstances - not just the fighting ones - includes the other human being in all that they are. It is a condition where we celebrate those who sacrifice and risk building up as much, if not more, than we celebrate those who violently tear down. Barack is trying to prove himself to the fighting force; he will be left with the same old lack of community that all such approaches leave in their wake.

BlackCommentator.com Columnist, Wilson Riles, is a former Oakland, CA City Council Member. Click here to contact Mr. Riles.