Home > Democracy, Security and Violence > War, part 3: support the troops

War, part 3: support the troops

“A politician is a fellow who will lay down your life for his country.” – Texas Guinan
“In the eyes of empire builders men are not men but instruments.” – Napoleon

Not all sheep are docile. Some become soldiers. Soldiers  are agents of the state and agents of war. As such, they are outside of peaceful society. Soldiers are trained to follow orders unquestioningly and kill people without knowing who they are. They have their most important human qualities, such as compassion, squeezed out of them through indoctrination. They are put into uniforms to strip them of their individuality and thus their ability to act independently of orders. They are forced to conform. They are chosen when they are young: able to kill but less able to think critically about killing. After they kill, they turn into nervous wrecks. Saddest of all, they believe they are keeping us safe. Well, some of them do.

I wonder what the “Support the Troops” people think when they find out some soldiers have been killing civilians for sport. (See here and here.) And though most are isolated incidents, like collateral damage (a euphemism for killing civilians accidentally, such as these nine children killed from a helicopter in Afghanistan), friendly fire (a euphemism for soldiers’ killing their fellows) and rape (See here and here.) (sometimes a deliberate policy of intimidation or ethnic cleansing), they are inevitable in war. Do you know why? Because when people are given the kind of power over others that a big gun or an army grants you, many of them will choose to use that power however they want. We call soldiers brave, but how brave is it to beat, rape and kill unarmed men, women and children? How brave is dropping bombs on or shooting cruise missiles at people? These people are heroes?

Let us briefly examine the killing of innocents. It occurs in every war. The soldiers and civilians in the country prosecuting the war have been told that they are at war with an entire country, and as such, civilian casualties are easier to stomach. Their media report little in the way of dead innocents, and use a variety of euphemisms to soften the blow when they do. In Afghanistan, for instance, thousands of innocent people have died from air strikes (3000 in the first six months alone, though estimates vary).  (It makes one wonder if there is really such a thing as targeted, “smart” weapons; and if not, what it is we are paying billions of dollars to develop.) How many newspapers reported the figures at the time? Perhaps they were afraid of looking unpatriotic. If patriotism means dropping bombs on people, or letting it go unreported, you can have it. However, we could still kill people who are harming innocents—the only enemies we should ever have—and leave innocents alone. We do not need a state to have special ops teams that get into tight spots to cut the head off the snake. We will always have people who want to do this type of work. Large-scale wars are just not necessary. But while they continue, expect hundreds of innocent people to get caught in the crossfire every year from it.

I also wonder what “Support the Troops” really means. Which troops? All of them? What about the racist ones? What about the ones who are just mindless killers? We should support even the ones who deliberately kill innocent civilians and take trophy photos with them? Putting a sticker on your car is cute and all, but the idea “Support the Troops” lacks all nuance. (A politician’s idea of supporting the troops is to use them and get photographed next to them.) On Memorial Day 2012, the Economist wrote

Calling ‘hero’ everyone killed in war, no matter the circumstances of their death, not only helps
sustain the ethos of martial glory that keeps young men and women signing up to kill and die for
the state, no matter the justice of the cause, but also saps the word of meaning, dishonouring the
men and women of exceptional courage and valour actually worthy of the title. The cheapening
of “hero” is a symptom of a culture desperate to evade serious moral self-reflection by covering
itself in indiscriminate glory for undertaking wars of dubious value.

Besides, are these the same troop-supporting people who do not take their governments to task for reducing funding for body armour, pensions, medical and psychiatric treatment for veterans? Did you know that 17.4% of soldiers in Afghanistan report acute stress? Did you know that some 20% of suicides in the US are veterans, even though they make up less than 1% of the population? Between 100,000 and 200,000 Vietnam vets have killed themselves. Plenty of suicides take place among current soldiers as well. Posttraumatic stress disorder is believed to afflict up to 30 percent of close to 2 million active-duty soldiers and veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Unemployment among young male veterans is now more than 22 percent, and hundreds of thousands of US military vets are homeless or at risk of homelessness. I don’t think we should have any troops, but while we have them, how about they get what they were promised and what they need? Is that what it means to support the troops? Because that is not what is happening. Don’t expect government to make it happen, either.

I do not think we should have any troops that are answerable to the state, but while we have them, how about they get what they were promised and what they need? Is that what it means to support the troops? Because that is not what is happening. Do not expect government to make it happen, either. In free societies, people take care of their soldiers. In statist societies, we expect the state to do so. We sweep the issue under the rug, and hope others will solve it. And how could we hold them to account if they did not? When was the state of veterans’ care ever an election issue? It will not be until the problem is unbearable (like say, seeing two guys get married). If you support the troops, take away the government’s ability to send them to their deaths in pointless imperial wars.

What is the difference between soldiers and terrorists? Or insurgents or enemy combatants or whatever word the propaganda machines are using this week. Well, let’s see. First, soldiers are employed by a state and terrorists are not. That means soldiers are pursuing the state’s interests and terrorists are pursuing private interests. Most wars are concocted by elites and wrapped in flags and slogans. Flags lend wars and the actions of soldiers legitimacy in the eyes of nationalists. They get it: soldiers=good, terrorists=bad. Terrorism, on the other hand, is usually born of desperation. Therefore, in general, terrorists have real grievances and soldiers take for granted that their commanding officers have the best interests of the country at heart. To argue that terrorists are less moral than soldiers because they target civilians is wrong because soldiers sometimes target civilians, sometimes as an aim of war and sometimes for fun; and those branded as terrorists sometimes target agents of the state (as when al Qaeda attacked the USS Cole, and Bill Clinton declared it “an act of terrorism”).

And when there are such abuses, we rightly call for the guilty soldiers to be prosecuted. What tends to happen, though, is that the military will throw the book at a few soldiers whose abuses have been made public, and it will attempt to cover up any more so the military’s image remains professional and just (much like they try to cover up images of coffins with flags draped over them). (The Iraq War Logs have revealed plenty of examples.) One point of the book The Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo is that individual responsibility, asking who did the crime, should not be the only consideration when apportioning blame. An additional question is, who created the conditions where all this was allowed to happen? Donald Rumsfeld’s deliberate sidestepping of international law and basic human morality trickled down to his army in Iraq, which is how we got Abu Ghraib.

Deep down I cannot bring myself to blame the troops.

They do not start wars. They are picked at a young age, lied to and exalted. They are told that their actions, whether occupying a foreign country, shaking down a village, killing whomever they are told to kill without question, are all in the service of the noblest cause. Indeed, these actions are supposedly the epitome of service to one’s country, and their deaths will not be in vain. But they are pawns in the hands of the powerful. Killing bad guys is meaningless without the context of the longer-term effects. It might make things worse. I believe it is an insult to the dead and damaged of past and future wars not to consider the evidence that they did die in vain.

But not all soldiers want to kill. Most are persuaded, much like the public is, that, in extreme circumstances, it is noble to kill. I am not a big fan of killing anyone, but of course I can understand that killing can be the right thing to do: if you are defending your own life or the life of an innocent, it may be necessary to kill someone. But states do not fight defensive wars very often anymore. The US has not fought a defensive war for 200 years. (Contrast that with the evil Iran, which has not fought an aggressive war in 200 years.) Wars against terrorism are usually results of state, not terrorist, aggression. Every war for humanitarian ideals (if there has ever truly been one) has just set the intervening powers further down the road to the next imperial war by enlarging the state, legitimising aggression and spreading the lie that war is not so bad on the people. Soldiers need to begin to think very critically about their role as agents of the lies, the plunder and the killing.

One problem is that the US, British, Canadian and other public constituencies do not care enough about the turmoil abroad caused by their governments’ policies. Most of them will never fight in a war, nor will they see the war brought home to them (until the next terrorist attack, at any rate; and then they will not realise the war was the cause of it). Many of them do not care what happens abroad, as long as they can keep the car full of gas. Many others support these wars, believing they are self-sacrificial and good for everyone. When the public is not exposed to the bloodshed and the costs of war, it can give its seal of approval willingly.

Fortunately, there are some soldiers who refuse to fight the state’s vile wars. They speak out in protest of aggression, occupation and torture.739 Some soldiers have witnessed or undertaken such cruelty against fellow humans they realise the injustice and irrationality of the war. I ask soldiers to adopt the non-aggression principle and only defend the innocent.

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