Just two days of discussions gave insights into the relationship that many US citizens have with the gun, and their deep cultural conviction that militarism is crucial to national identity.
My partner and I were guests at the national days of Canada and the United States in 2010.
These North American neighbours share an 8,900 km land border, a language and a large slice of British and European history, but the cultural differences are profound. Separated by just four days and 700 kilometres, the national days could not have been more different.
In Ottawa, on that sunny July 1, a guard of honour takes the salute. The guard is formed by men and women of the Canadian Army in the ceremonial dress of some British regiment from the Napoleonic wars. The honour guard is here on the lawns of the Canadian parliament for Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth, on her 22nd visit to Canada. She loves Canada and the affection is returned by the crowd of over 100,000 of her loyal subjects.
The regimental guard of honour is the principal role for the armed forces on that Canada Day, save for the firing of a 21 gun Royal salute, not once but twice, and a brief flypast from the Royal Canadian Air Force.
Four days later, on US Independence Day, July 4, we are on Constitution Avenue near 14th Street, awaiting the Independence Day parade.
I’ve visited the USA three or four times over the years but, apart from brief stays in Chicago and New York, most of my time has been spent in California with family, and California, and my family, is definitely not typical of the USA.
In this Independence Day parade, the prominent and repeated motifs are military ones, largely drawn from the War of Independence of the 1770s, and the Civil War of 90 years later. There are a few references to World War II, and none to the more humbling experiences of Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan.
It is led off by the city police astride Harley Davidson motorbikes, banners aloft, like motorised Roman centurions. They are followed by a phalanx of high ranking serving officers from all five arms of the military, the only identifiable serving members of the armed forces.
A squad from the Daughters of the American Revolution, in town for its annual convention, comes soon after. Then come the school bands: there must have been forty-eight in the parade, one from every state in continental USA, and the uniforms of every band are inspired by the uniforms of 18th and 19th century US armed forces
There was an exception. One cheer squad, lean-legged teens, short skirted, do their calisthenics with the dummy wooden rifles as used in boot camp. Tableau after tableau recruited themes from military achievements: this parade is a celebration of a society deeply committed to military might.
Then, after more than two hours, the parade ends with contingents from the Falun-Gong and the Hari Krishna, neither bearing arms, but both organisations display discipline and regimentation.
But should the prominence and frequency of military motifs in the parade have been a surprise? The military is often recruited to swell patriotic parades, but the comparison with Canada Day made the contrast very sharp.
Far more than Canada, the US is shaped by successful armed conflict. The War of Independence brought this nation into being, the brilliance and durability of General George Washington and his militia outclassing the experienced British forces.
The later Civil War arbitrated between alternate futures, and set the United States on the path of industrial capitalism. In time, the war delivered wealth and prestige that eclipsed the old colonial masters. Subsequently, US armed forces rescued a no-longer great Britain in two World Wars.
Alaska A Bargain
The territory of the continental United States, with the exception of the Louisiana Purchase, was acquired in consequence of armed conflict or the threat of armed conflict, with Canada, Spain and, especially, Mexico. Military ascendency gave it dominion or sovereignty over Puerto Rica, Cuba, the Panama Canal, the Philippines, Guam, and a scatter of islands in the Caribbean and the Pacific. Certainly, Alaska was purchased from an impoverished Russia in 1867, but at a knock-down price of 2 cents per acre.
The exercise of force of arms has been hugely beneficial to the interests of the United States: the nation owes its place in the world to the gun.
Self-definition, through the lens of military service, continues in subtler ways: some lounge facilities at airports are reserved for military personnel; when the flight captain welcomes aboard some of ‘our brave boys back from Iraq travelling with us today’ generous applause is given. The gun features in the narratives of the taming of the west, and in today’s television as a routine means of resolving conflict; and conflict gave birth to the Daughters of the American Revolutions and the American Legion.
Just as Australia rode on the sheep’s back, the US was created by citizens with guns, and has prospered though military muscle. This is why gun control is out of reach, despite the death toll, why US exceptionalism remains a strongly-held attitude, and why George W. Bush could contemplate unilateral action against Saddam Hussein and Iraq. It is why the recent student insurgence against guns will require a life-time commitment to change things.
Watching the parade, sitting on a low parapet in the shadow of a colourful and angular sculpture by that great American artist, Alex Calder, I reflect that our history is different. Our armed conflicts have been mostly in distant places. Indeed, the slaughter of World War I may have framed the bearing of arms, except in national service, as undesirable.
A Future Minus Guns?
The gun amnesty, following the Port Arthur massacre, cleaned the nation’s cupboards of orphaned, unused and unwanted arms. Guns are tools for farmers and recreational implements for a few, and that works well for Australia.
The gun issue is largely resolved in Australia, but the US must face its history of rule by the gun before it can face its future without one.
Dr Vincent O’Donnell, Hon. Associate, School of Media & Communication. RMIT University.