The US commando fetish: How America learned to stop worrying and embrace permanent, unwinnable wars

Jesse Crane-Seeber

‘New Voices in Global Security’ is a collaborative blog series between the School of Security Studies, King’s College London, and International Affairs. In this post, Jesse Crane-Seeber traces the rise of the fetishized special forces operative in US popular culture and its role in making making continual war palatable to the American public.

My current work, in completing a manuscript entitled ‘Fetishizing the Tactical’, seeks to build on post-structural, queer, and feminist psychoanalytic theories to ask, why is war so sexy in the United States?

I began this research curious about how the US continues to maintain the possibility of a permanent warfare state, in a society that sees itself as peaceful and democratic. Evaluating the literature, I started to probe how and why the US had come to be so comfortable with permanent, unwinnable wars. My conclusions led me to believe that US society has developed and exported a ‘commando fetish’ that shortcuts serious strategic or political thinking about the role of armed violence in our society. We think of elite, well-trained, well-equipped ‘operators’ as invincible, capable of dominating any battle space, and therefore ask too little about who they are fighting.

In collating my analysis and key insights from colleagues, I discovered a trajectory beyond narrow policy decisions or institutional reforms. I therefore am writing an account of how the post-Vietnam era of privatization and militarization expanded the role of the ‘tactical operator’ and cemented the place of ‘Special Forces’ in cultural and discursive structures. My previously published essay, ‘Sexy Warriors: the Politics and Pleasures of Submission to the State’ reveals the surprising number of linkages between militarization and a number of kink communities. My current work goes beyond the erotic fetishization of militarized bodies, offering a theory of cultural fetishization that draws together the anthropological, Marxian, and kinky uses of the term.

I argue that cultures invest particular images or subjects with a kind of metaphysical power that obscures their conditions of production. Like a fetish object, a culturally fetishized symbol is seen as enormously powerful, yet like commodities, they are produced by particular acts of labour embedded in historical processes. In a culturally shared fetish, an object, image or subject is invested with fraudulent but psychologically and politically potent characteristics that most people simply never think about but assume as stable.

The rise of the commando and vigilante heroes

My research argues that the fetishization of the ‘tactical operator’ or commando, in debates about military professionalization, solved a legitimation problem in the 1970s. With the collapse of the bipartisan cold-war consensus, as well as significant new limitations on executive war-making authority, the 1970s represented a key turning point in US culture. The creation of a professional military combined with widespread ‘white flight’ from cities engulfed in protests and riots gave rise to an embrace of vigilante heroes, a new emphasis on police and military personnel who go ‘beyond the law’ to protect the nation. From Nixon’s ‘Law and Order’ to the commercially successful Dirty Harry movies, these (usually, but not always) white heroes were juxtaposed against human rights and civil rights concerns that were feminized and ridiculed.

The election of Ronald Reagan brought an acceleration of the US War on Drugs, a massive expansion of arms spending and transfers, and an accompanying Hollywood embrace of renewed US militarism in foreign policy. The War on Drugs militarized policing and border enforcement across the hemisphere, and created both public and private channels to spread training techniques centred around Special Forces and hostage-rescue scenarios.

In this cultural milieu, commandos and special forces took on an increasingly outlandish fetishized role. Thus the ‘ex-Navy SEAL’ trainer came to be a potent symbolic and material subject who could confer ideas of excellence, professionalism, decorum, and nearly omnipotent capacity for violence. My goal is therefore to demonstrate how the industry of professional tactical training arose, linked to the new sport of paintball, alongside films and television series that solidified this fetishized image of the commando in US culture and institutions.

From special forces to endless war

The combination of new training practices, new cultural imagery, and new circuits of distribution that linked US special forces to police, border forces, and most of the world’s military forces yielded a widespread faith in the ability of well-trained professional operators to overcome any obstacle or foe. From SWAT Teams in small town America to privatized and covert interventions across the global south, the effects were ubiquitous. Tracing the spread of this network of fashion, weapons, training, and subjectivities through the Wars on Drugs and Terror, I argue that the now globally pervasive cargo-pant wearing, black face-masked teams of operators, represent a deeply problematic dispersal of the US commando fetish.

The contribution of my research, in linking domestic, global, and cultural processes that sustain the US permanent warfare state, helps to explain the celebration of particular types of military expertise and equipment despite unending and unwinnable wars both at home and abroad. Many scholars have analysed this process, and activists from Black Lives Matter to the movement to close down the School of the Americas have challenged militarization. My work synthesizes these disparate analyses and situates them within the commando fetish in popular culture.

While the term ‘militarization’ is currently undergoing a timely and important reconsideration, my book invites people around the world to examine how they think about state violence, and to reject the assumption that permanent warfare is simply a fact of life. That assumption is enabled by the ‘commando fetish’ — the belief that well-trained, well-equipped special forces with permission to break the rules can dominate any space they find themselves in, it is time we shone a light on the pervasive cultural and social norms that have led us to this point.

Jesse Crane-Seeber is a Visiting Research Fellow in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. He has previously taught at the University of the District of Columbia, North Carolina State University, and the Bremen International Graduate School for Social Sciences. His work has been published in journals related to Critical Security Studies as well as in Gender Studies, and has centred on the role of masculinity and whiteness in the legitimation of US militarism.

New Voices in Global Security is a collaborative blog series between the School of Security Studies, King’s College London, and International Affairs. Drawing on cutting edge research, the blog series highlights diverse empirical, methodological and theoretical approaches to understanding global security and engages with questions of equality, diversity and inclusion within the discipline. Contributions are based on the New Voices event series — organized and chaired by Dr Amanda Chisholm, School Equality, Diversity and Inclusion lead — which promotes the research of PhD students and Early Career Researchers (ECRs) working both within and beyond the School of Security Studies.

All views expressed are individual not institutional.




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