As a visitor to our nation’s capital, I cannot tell you how disconcerting it is to step off the DC Metro and find yourself face to face with an F-35 fighter jet. Where you would normally find ads for cell phones or museum exhibits, instead the Washington Metro, the second busiest in the country, displays full-color backlit billboards for some of the most deadly—and expensive—weapons systems ever produced.
The ads for such companies as Lockheed Martin (the world’s largest weapons producer), Goodrich, KBR, AGI, BAE Systems, and Northrop Grumman can be found in many of the metropolitan area’s metro stations. Not surprisingly, the heaviest concentration is at the Pentagon City stop the Federal Center and Capitol South stations. Undoubtedly, the ads aim to influence key decision-makers, but they also serve the purpose of selling to the general public the concept that only the U.S. superior military prowess can protect us from a hostile world.
The billboards range from explicit ads for attack helicopters and combat vehicles to more subtle billboards for companies such as little-known DRS, owned by Italian weapons maker Finmeccanica, 26th among the top 100 Pentagon contractor. Or for "rugged" Dell computers designed to meet Defense Department specifications for military use.
Northrop Grumman’s marketing approach in the Capitol South metro station is far from subtle. In an all-out assault on the visual senses, the station has been lavishly decorated by the country’s third largest military contractor. Apparently considering the usual ad space along the tracks to be insufficient, Northrop Grumman ads can also be found on all four sides of columns near the turnstiles, on banners strung up along the railings upstairs, and next to the escalators. CBS Outdoor, responsible for the ad space in DC stations, claims that "Capitol Hill Station Domination is an impactful way to get your message in front of the Congress and decision-makers in DC."
An estimated 17,000 Capitol South metro passengers are confronted daily with Northrop Grumman Global Hawks and X-47 Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles, which boast a 4,500-pound weapons bay, E-2D Advanced Hawkeyes, Viper Strike-armed Fire Scout unmanned helicopters, and E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar Systems (STARS), all designed "for an unsafe world." According to the conservative Brookings Institute, 90 percent of drone casualties in "targeted" strikes in Pakistan have been innocent civilians. Yet ads for these systems, which carry price tags of hundreds of millions of dollars when factoring in development costs, are on full display.
Perhaps most startling of all the Capitol South billboards is the ominous scene of a bombed-out apartment building above the slogan, "By the time you find the threat, we’ve already taken it out of the picture." Northrop Grumman fails to fill us in on what happened to the people living in those apartments.
Following the trend of major defense companies cozying up to powerbrokers in Congress and the Pentagon, Northrop Grumman recently announced plans to relocate its California headquarters to DC. Officials from Washington, Virginia, and Maryland have been falling over themselves trying to influence the decision of the $34 billion company. The District of Columbia has offered a $25 billion incentive package for what Northrop Grumman estimates to be a measly 300 jobs, to be filled primarily by company executives moving from Los Angeles.
Military personnel dressed in camouflage can be seen everywhere, from the food court at the mall to the line at the bank. Combat fatigues were ordered everyday wear for all service members, including those with desk jobs, after September 11, 2001. I asked several camouflaged service members the reason behind the combat uniforms and all sheepishly replied that it was in support of the "troops in the field." One woman told me, "That’s a good question. You feel kind of funny wearing this." Looking down at her desert boots, she said, "It’s not exactly office wear."
Signs calling for support of the troops can be found on everything from restaurant walls to dump trucks. Directly above the gas pumps at the Liberty gas station on Columbia Pike in Arlington is a red, white, and blue sign that reads "Support Our Troops." This is either the result of disturbingly twisted logic or an astonishingly candid call for protecting U.S. access to Middle East oil reserves.
Walking the halls of Congress, there are memorials at the offices of many representatives and senators for the fallen troops from their district or state. What you will not find are any memorials for the 2,200 veterans who died in 2008 as a result of a lack of health insurance.
At Union Station, Amtrak passengers should not be surprised when a soldier or two cuts in line. Signs in the station invite uniformed military personnel to skip to the head of the ticket line. According to Amtrak, which is the only Department of Defense-approved rail passenger carrier in the U.S., it is a way for the company to "extend their thanks." That’s all and good, but why wouldn’t Amtrak want to do the same for teachers, health-care professionals, firefighters, librarians, and non-profit volunteers?
Much of this is not necessarily new; the militarization of our society has been progressing for decades, permeating our schools, research and development programs, law enforcement, and culture. The phenomenon is not limited to the nation’s capital. The signs of militarism are ever-present, consciously or subconsciously persuading us to accept violence and war as not only a suitable solution to conflict, but the only one.
Stephanie Westbrook is a U.S. citizen who has been living in Rome, Italy since 1991. She is active in the peace and social justice movements there and in Washington, DC. Photos in this article by Westbrook.