Veterans Day (which I’m terribly late in acknowledging, I know) is an interesting holiday. In my youth, it was one of those batch of second-tier holidays that I could never keep straight in my mind (Labor Day? Memorial Day? Veterans Day? Which one is it in November?). No special colors to wear, no significant food to prepare, no candy, no presents. Only as I’ve grown older and become a devotee of history has it developed any meaning. As the holiday approached I couldn’t help but wonder about the significance of the holiday in the face of current events. After all, hardly a day passes without mention of veterans in the broadest sense of the word. Virtually every day we hear an update on fatalities or casualties among the troops, their successes and failures, their noble deeds and their tragic crimes, and the expensive price paid by both the veterans themselves and their families for their service in our nation’s current foreign adventures. Over the past several years, I’d venture to guess that in public discourse, we’ve heard more about the troops than any other single topic. The troops are cause for action and outrage from all sides of the political arena. And everybody everywhere claims to “supports the troops.”
What does that even mean?
What, especially on a day of remembrance for those who have taken up arms in the name of our government, should we think of the troops and the debate raging around them?
To some on the Right, the answer is cut and dried. These claim that you cannot support the warrior but oppose the war. Some make this claim in a cynically calculated bid to stifle opposition. Many others do so out of genuine concern for the well-being and honor of their loved ones in the services. Either way, their position lacks merit. Such warriors (past and present) as national figures Wesley Clark, Anthony Zinni, Ann Wright, John Kerry, John Murtha, Max Cleland, and Karen U. Kwiatkowski; bloggers from Ranger Against War, A Silent Cacophony, the Democratic Veteran, Main and Central, Pen and Sword, and One Pissed Off Veteran; locals such as Ed Partidge of Part of the Plan (whose blog, sadly, appears to be down; I hope you’re still around in the blogosphere, Ed) and Jim Warnick of One Utah; and various and sundry others by their words and examples very forcefully and effectively refute that claim.
I’ve heard some with close family serving in war zones insist that public challenges to the war and its execution undermines our policies, demoralizes our troops, and comforts “the enemy.” They declare that we shouldn’t change course, because these people don’t want the sacrifice of their friends and family in the service to end up vain. I can sympathize with the anguish and suffering of these families. But they cannot allow their pain to blind themselves to reality. The service of their children already is in vain. The war is illegal and immoral, born of deception, arrogance, and ignorance. No amount of perseverance can change this fact. No amount of U.S. blood, sweat, and tears will make this war just.
Unjust wars should be undermined. Does this demoralize our troops or embolden our foes? To the latter, I say no. Muslim extremists could have asked no greater gift than the invasion of Iraq; they now have evidence of the “The Great Satan’s” imperialist intentions around which to rally, and a land in chaos in which to grow. To the former, I cannot say. I’ve heard soldiers take both sides of that question. Many of the former soldiers mentioned above well know the impact of dissent on soldiers, and feel opposition is still crucial. Defending truth is first priority. Harsh as it may sound, better demoralized troops than the unchecked pursuit of a disastrous and unprincipled foreign policy agenda.
The manner in which we take that stand is just as important as the stand itself. Ed Partridge was in his blog rightly concerned that we who oppose the war lose credibility and moral high ground if we target the troops for our outrage. We cannot allow the troops to serve as scapegoats for the misbegotten decisions of this administration. No matter how vehemently or vulgarly some individuals in the armed services may support the war, anti-war advocates must remember that these soldiers had no part in the decision to invade. The soldiers are only pawns. Hold the Decider responsible. As much as I respect those soldiers, such as Ehren Watada, who have refused to participate on principle, I am unwilling to blame those who have felt was their duty to serve when their government called.
In challenging some Democrats and liberals for perceived criticism of the military, one blogger insisted that “I believe that there should be nothing but respect, complete and totally (sic) respect and awe, shown toward the men and women in uniform. Period. Anything else is, I believe, unpatriotic.” The attitude reflected in the post is one common in the U.S. and in Utah. But I struggle to reconcile such effusive praise, even adulation , with my experiences relating to and observation of the military. Of the handful of people I knew growing up who joined the services, most (not all) seemed notivated by a desire to see action, to prove their manhood by taking the lives of others. For several months of my mission, I served an area which included Camp Pendelton. While there, I met a number of very humble, very devoted young men. I was also shocked at the number of soldiers who expressed in terms in very explicit, vulgar, and racist language how eager they were to kill Africans in upcoming deployments in Somalia, or in very profane and misogynistic language described their exploits in taking advantage of, even raping, women. I heard many casual or boastful references to infidelity (and many rather pained but fatalistic references to the same stories from wives).
I remember reports of Tailhook, and evidence that the naval bases in the Pacific have over the past several decades keep thousands upon thousands of women employed in prostitution (see Blowback, by Chalmers Johnson).
I hear of the tragic examples of sexual assault within the armed services—over one-fourth of women using Veterans Administration health care report at least one sexual assault during their service. Adding insult to injury, many claim that their superiors pressured them to not report. Bear in mind that the sexual assault is typically far underreported in the best of circumstances; the percentage of women sexually assaulted by their peers in the service is likely much higher.
I see documentary film of soldiers in Iraq ranting about their hatred for and desire to nuke or otherwise eliminate the “ragheads,” (along with other, even less civil terms). I’ve seen members of our armed services involved in torture, gang rape, and the slaughter of civilians.
I would in no way tar everyone serving in the military with the same brush. I’m willing to believe that the majority of those serving in the armed services are indeed trying to serve with honor and dignity. But those engaged in degenerate behavior do not appear to be an insignificant minority. I wonder if they point to a problem with the very culture of the armed services. Military service can both attract those who aspire to a higher service and hone the virtues of sacrifice, dedication, honor, and discipline. Military service can also call to those whose motives are more less noble, and can breed aggression, callousness, brutality. Much like athletics, there appears to be a masculine culture in the military which can lead to incredible ugliness.
Perhaps this sort of desensitization to humanity is the inevitable price of the training necessary to train people to readily take human life. There can be no doubt that the brutality of war can exact a devastating toll on the soul of those who serve in it. I’m not going to try to judge whether these are examples of “bad” people or of good people driven to horrendous crimes by the conditions they are thrust in. In the end, it does not matter. We cannot with integrity claim that an institution which harbors seeds of such iniquity deserves unreserved “respect and “awe.” I am compelled refute any attempt to romanticize those in military service—particularly in pursuit of a particular political agenda.
For that is the peril of idealizing “the troops.” The glorification of the military is a step in the militarization of that society. A nation succumbing to militarism begins to see military solutions as the primary means of dispute resolution between nations, it becomes tempted to use its military might to intrude on the affairs off other nations to promote their own values (or their self-interest), and the leaders of the nation become tempted to use the military power to their own advantage. They will encourage that militarization in pursuit of that advantage. Liberty and democracy becomes increasingly difficult to maintain under those conditions. This is how the Roman Republic fell; the senate and the people of Rome became increasingly enamored with their military power, encouraging ambitious Roman leaders to use the Roman army to expand Roman power-and not coincidentally, their own base of power, until the competing interests of the leaders and their factions led to a series of civil wars and ultimately the replacement of a republic with an autocratic emperor.
(interesting to note that the Roman army evolved during this militarization from a citizen army to a professional army—another fact which does not bode well for our nation and the professional military Friedman favored)
Militarism is not the sign of a principled nation. WP is fond of noting that President Kimball warned that we (the U.S.) are a warlike people. The Prophet saw from his vantage the birth and rise of the Cold War, and saw how eager we were to turn to steel and lead to solve our problems. Andrew Bacevich, Vietnam veteran, points out in his book, The New American Militarism, a renewed rise which he—no dove himself—asserts does not bode well for our future. We cannot allow the U.S. to follow the path of Rome. If we value our nation and our freedom, we must avoid the siren song of militarism. If we exalt “the troops,” we risk the subjugation of more humanitarian and holy values to more harsh, worldly ones. We risk providing the opportunity for ambitious and conniving leaders to pursue their own interests, and those of their factions, at the expense of our republic.
Despite all that, it cannot be denied that there are times when one must indeed take up arms in defense of our homes, families, and liberty. There have been times when they have been morally called to establish our liberty, to protect the union, and defend people in the world from tyranny and genocide—precious few times among the number of times we’ve called up the military, but essential nonetheless.
Given all this, how then do we “support the troops?” If not with paeans of acclamation, how then do we honor the men and women who are put in a position to sacrifice so much in the name of our country?
First and foremost, we honor them by being politically vigilant and doing our utmost to prevent their being called into service except when absolutely necessary to protect the lives and freedoms of the citizens of the U.S. We do everything we can to keep them from being asked to sacrifice so much and to risk delving into the dark side of their souls. We should ensure that those leaders who have abused their power and sacrificed troops for lesser causes are held accountable for their crimes.
Second, we honor them by ensuring that our nation provides just compensation for the costs the troops pay for our nation’s military actions. No veteran, when they return home, should be left alone to pay the toll exacted from them by their service. Even now, far too many of our troops are not getting the long term care they need for their physical and particularly their emotional wounds. Every time one of our troops is left on their own to nurse a broken body, broken family, broken career, broken education, or broken psyche, it is an insult to the honor of our nation. We must, as individuals and as “the people” from which the government is derived, share the burden placed on them by war for more than we are doing now.
I believe such support would prove much more meaningful than facile cliches of appreciation and support, or flags and parades on a handful of national holidays.