Thursday, May 1, 2008

Should we support the troops?

I wrote this a while ago and was really unsure whether to post it because I think it is such an inflammatory opinion that in our present state of creeping fascism it could be a dangerous opinion. But I decided to post this because, in the words of Coleridge; "Truth should be spoken at all times, but more especially at those times, when to speak the truth is dangerous." Like many on the left, I opposed the Taliban long before it was a pet project of Western governments. But as a prelude to this post I should make it clear that I don't believe that the military effort in Afghanistan is really motivated by its stated goal of fighting a brand of dangerously 'radical' Islam. Rather, the war in Afghanistan is part of a wider effort of the West to control the Middle East. If the West really wanted to undermine 'radical' Islam they would concentrate all of their efforts creating a viable and prosperous homeland for the Palestinians and pressuring countries like Saudi Arabia to be more democratic thus undermining the fundamental constituency of this particular ideology. To say that the war in Afghanistan is an effort to undermine 'radical' Islam is like a fire department saying that they are going use gasoline to fight fires from now on.

With that said, I offer you the following opinion.

I grew up in the United States during the Vietnam era and I have vivid memories of the public debate surrounding the war. One particular experience stands out in my mind. I recall an eager young teacher once asking my class what it meant to be ‘patriotic.’ After a number of my peers gave her standard answers about loving one’s country and supporting its principles and causes, the teacher asked us a question that really stuck in my head: ‘Don’t you think,’ she said, ‘that being a patriot might sometimes mean disagreeing with something your country was doing?’ Now, while this question doesn’t not seem particularly revolutionary today, at the time it was something of a revelation to me.

But despite my continual hope that what this teacher said was true, I have been consistently suspicious of overt patriotism or nationalistic sentiments. I have usually been more sympathetic with Thomas Paine’s quip that ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.’ But Paine was writing in a time that was, in a number of ways, more radical than our own despite the fact that he lived two hundred years ago. Paine and many of his contemporaries wrote things that today would be shunned from public discourse. For example, just recently I was reading an essay by Mary Wollstonecraft, considered by many as the founder of modern feminism, in which she quite seriously contended that the very existence of a standing army was contrary to the principles of democracy. Very few people would take such an idea seriously today.

Instead, during my lifetime I have watched the standing of the military in public life go from a low ebb during the Vietnam era to the level of blind enthusiasm today. Even ‘left-wing’ politicians fall over each other to assert their ‘support’ for the military as though it is an institution of saints that can do no wrong. During the late 70s and most of the 80s, western populations were so suspicious of military efforts that most of them were conducted covertly or by ‘proxy’ forces such as the Contras in Nicaragua. But today the status of the military and its nationalistic escapades has quite successfully been restored. This resurrection has largely been achieved by ‘personalizing’ our military efforts. One important part of this strategy is the so-called embedding of journalists into military outfits. This is a simple psychological strategy by which journalists are put in a situation in which they would acquire a natural sympathy for the soldiers around them and this would be reflected in the way they reported on the war. It is, after all, easy to demonize an enemy who is shooting at your pals. As for the rest of the population we have been inundated by the phrase, ‘Support the Troops.’ This notion popularizes the idea that regardless of how we might feel about any particular foreign policy, the troops are just a bunch of great guys doing their best and putting their lives on the line for you and me. Of course it is never that easy and the fallout from this slogan is that it becomes increasingly easy to demonize anyone who opposes the actions of our armed forces. Almost our entire population has fallen into this little psychological trap that allows the worst kind of patriotism to worm its way back into society until it has become so overwhelming that no one would publically announce that they don’t support our troops.

But however unpopular it might be let me encourage everyone to retain the right not to support the troops. I contend that regardless of popular sympathies, such a declaration is not only within our rights but it is morally and politically coherent and can be discursively redeemed, at least within a public sphere that has not been blinded by patriotism.

The first reason that such an idea is defensible is that the very notion of supporting a state’s troops regardless of the foreign policy which they are enforcing is itself absurd, morally indefensible, and dangerous. If such a separation of soldiers and their military efforts is taken to its logical conclusion it means that we should support ‘our troops’ regardless of what they are doing. Thus if we were living in Germany in 1942 it would be ok to oppose the existence of death camps as a policy but essential to support the troops who were rounding up Jews, homosexuals, and political opponents of the Nazi Party. I believe that such an example demonstrates that members of the military and political and social implications of their actions are inseparable.
People who insist that we must blindly support the troops forget basic facts as well as the simplest lessons of history. The first thing these people forget is that the armed forces are a fundamentally political force, one of the essential jobs of which has historically been to control their own population. During the important revolutions of the modern era in which the population struggled for justice it has been the military that has been called out to suppress them in the interests of political and economic elites. The most recent example of this happened in Burma where soldiers indiscriminately killed Buddhist monks. Anyone who believes that couldn’t happen here today is irretrievably naive.

This brings us to the sad reasons that the above fact is true and the other important lesson of history that most people forget. The military is and always has been a brutal institution that functions on the essential ingredient of blind obedience. The armed forces create a psychological dependence that generates a kind of familial atmosphere of unquestioned loyalty. Soldiers do what they are told to do regardless of its moral or political content. Thus the entire course of human history is full of terrible acts committed by individuals who were simply following orders. It is the height of arrogance to believe that we are somehow above all of this and that our ‘sons and daughters’ are incapable of doing wrong. Examine this simple fact: there are few, if any, significant examples in history in which soldiers en masse refused the orders given to them by their superiors, whether it is the killing of Buddhist monks in Burma, the establishment of death-camps in Germany, the fire-bombing of Dresden, or the dropping of atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The other day on a CBC radio show I heard a humorous iteration of this simple lesson of military order and obedience. The speaker, the name of whom I don’t recall, said it is absurd for military leaders to constantly claim in the public media that the troops support the present mission in Afghanistan. “They are soldiers,” he pointed out, “they believe whatever they are told to believe. If they are told to unload a truck, they passionately ‘believe’ in unloading the truck.”
In the case of conflict, soldiers are taught to demonize and de-humanize the enemy (even if that ‘enemy’ is part of their own domestic population) and they are thus brutalized and taught to brutalize in turn. This is not to contend that they are therefore incapable of good or morally upstanding acts. But even the most ethically righteous soldiers are constantly caught in a moral double-bind in which they must believe that their side is right and that those that oppose them are somehow morally degenerate. And of course those that oppose them must believe the exact same thing.

In the end, of course this entire argument relies on a complex political position that contends that whatever soldiers might want to be, in the final analysis, they are pawns in the state’s effort to assert its political and economic interests through military escapades which are always given some form of altruistic or even humanitarian spin. This position, which I believe to be rationally coherent and demonstrable, asserts that the vast majority of military efforts throughout history, and this includes those in Iraq and Afghanistan, are essentially politically and economically motivated in the interests of land, power, and money. And if one takes this position, then soldiers are at best the pawns of political and economic elites who are taught to use brutal force in order to fulfill these elite interests. This, I believe, extends to our own troops in Afghanistan who, despite any good they may hope to do, are part of a concerted neo-colonial effort led by the United States to gain effective control over the entire middle-east region and make billions of dollars for companies like Haliburton in the process. And the spin given to this neo-colonial effort is very similar to the one given to the original effort of Western colonialism; to save these people from themselves and bring them democracy.

This is why when someone tells me that they support the troops, I tell them that I don’t support them but I do pity them.

No comments: