May 22, 2009

No, I Do Not Support "The Troops"

I. Introduction

I have intended to write this post for the last few years. As Memorial Day approaches, I thought: why not do it right now? Indeed, why the hell not? I have never sought outrage for its own sake; I write what I do because I am convinced it is true, and I am arrogant enough to believe that some of what I write concerns matters of importance. But I am prepared to admit that outrage -- especially when it proceeds from sentimental, superficial, aggressively anti-intellectual cultural pieties that enjoy widespread acceptance -- is a highly enjoyable side effect. Now that I consider the matter, at least insofar as negative reaction to certain of my essays is concerned, outrage is most typically not a side effect at all, but the reaction in toto. This was certainly true of the criticism that greeted, "Yes, I Want the United States to Lose," an article written in early 2007.

In reviewing that essay today, I see that I've been making one foundational argument for some time: that the United States' invasion and occupation of Iraq constituted and constitutes today an incomprehensibly monstrous series of war crimes. I extended this argument in a piece concerning the last two presidential candidates, "A Choice of War Criminals." I have yet to see a convincing argument that these actions by the U.S. do not constitute war crimes. The reason for that is simple and unavoidable: such an argument does not exist -- not, that is, if one actually examines the relevant evidence. Almost all American politicians, and almost all commentators and bloggers, resolutely refuse to consider that evidence, just as they refuse to consider the conclusions it compels. Instead, either by conscious design or (more commonly, at least as far as those not regularly concerned with politics are concerned) by unthinkingly absorbing basic assumptions from the cultural atmosphere, they believe and advance the central tenets of the American myth.

In this respect, they function in a manner identical to that employed by Barack Obama. In analyzing the monumental series of lies offered by Obama in his widely-praised speech about race in America -- and that praise revealed in a notably unforgiving manner just how remarkably stupid our public discourse has become -- I wrote:
The resistance of the ruling class and of most Americans to one aspect of the truth about 9/11 remains astonishing, and it demonstrates how puerile our national conversation is. Of course, the ruling class cannot admit that to state the obvious fact that actions have consequences is not to say that the U.S. "deserved" 9/11 -- for to acknowledge the millions murdered by the U.S. government and our policy of aggressive military intervention across the globe would subject our own actions to the kinds of judgments that only the United States is entitled to make, and only about the actions of others. The United States is uniquely exempt from the standards we apply to everyone else; thus runs the catechism at the church of our inherent national superiority.


Our national catechism tells us that America is Good -- and that America's murders are Good Murders. You may not say otherwise.
In this manner, among many others, liberal critics of the Iraq catastrophe have long demonstrated that they do not disagree with the basic foreign policy methods and goals put forth by conservatives (and by neoconservatives as well). Certainly, they do not: over the last hundred years, liberals have utilized endless global intervention in service of worldwide American hegemony, usually more determinedly and more bloodily than the conservatives themselves (always excepting the criminal reign of George II). In this respect, as in everything else of importance, Obama rigorously and unforgivably continues what went before, just as George W. Bush did. Neither Obama nor the liberals challenge even one of the fundamental premises underlying United States foreign policy; as a result, the devastation and death continue unabated. (As just a few recent examples, see here and here.) In the same way, liberals will almost never challenge the widespread practice of frequently repeated adulation of "the troops," and we will shortly examine one revealing instance of this dynamic.

As indicated, in some respects this current essay may be considered a companion piece to, "Yes, I Want the United States to Lose." This article also amplifies some themes in a piece I wrote for Memorial Day two years ago: "Against Annihilation of the Spirit: Let Us All Become Cowards." The starting point of that essay was an appreciation of an altogether remarkable film, The Americanization of Emily, with its extraordinary screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky. About that film, I said:
Chayefsky's target is the one identified by [Charlie Madison, the film's protagonist]: it is the glorification of war, and the countless ways in which all of us "honor the institution." We build statues of our war heroes and name streets after them; we erect shrines to the dead. We insist on the "ideals" for which we fought, and the "goodness" of our intentions. Many of us do this in the misdirected and destructive search for "meaning" in our lives: our own stunted souls prevent us from finding fulfillment and happiness in our individual lives, so we look for "glory" by climbing over endless piles of corpses.

And what is lost in all of this is the unbearable horror and pain inflicted on individual human beings, and the particularized, specific costs of our quest for glory, or meaning, or "national greatness," or honor.
If you want to begin to appreciate what happens in war -- what actually happens, not what you read in most books or see in almost all films -- I recommend you begin with the Paul Fussell books mentioned and the excerpts I offered in the earlier essay.

And to set the broader context for our consideration of the unquestioning reverence offered by virtually everyone for "the troops," I also provide these passages from, "Let Us All Become Cowards":
I recall that, several months ago, there was some discussion on various blogs about a particularly awful aspect of the obvious propaganda campaign leading up to the invasion of Iraq, and the public's eager willingness to believe all of it, or at least their notable failure to resist it. It was suggested that we had lost our "horror" of war, on the assumption that we had in some other time appreciated the monstrousness of the slaughter of human beings. This is an utterly naive and grossly mistaken rewriting of American history, one that proceeds directly from critical aspects of the mythology we tell ourselves about ourselves: that we are unique in all of history, that our form of government is the greatest and best possible to mankind, toward which all others should and must strive, and that our national character is predisposed toward compassion and peace.

Lies on top of lies, on top of still more lies, all of it.


So the myths prevail. Our wars are always noble, fought for the purest of motives. Our warriors are similarly noble, engaged in a high-minded crusade. They butcher and slaughter, and are butchered and slaughtered themselves, so that "civilization" might be preserved. Never mind that many of the warriors themselves would not agree. Never mind that the front-line soldiers know that war is insanity, and only insanity. Never mind the overwhelming, senseless, futile, endless horror of what actually happens in combat, and the details that never reach the public.

II. "The Troops" as the Crucial, Indispensable Element of Imperial Power

Because a certain kind of defender of American mythology will be eager to misunderstand and distort my argument, I must briefly clarify a few preliminary matters. This piece concerns "the troops" as an institution; that is, it concerns the U.S. military as the indispensable and primary means of implementing and realizing the goals of the U.S. ruling class. The major goal is worldwide dominance, to be achieved by, among other elements, a global empire of bases. As detailed in that essay, not only Republicans but Democrats as well, and also liberal bloggers such as Atrios and Think Progress, support an ever bigger and bigger military, regardless of the fact that the U.S. spends more on defense than the rest of the world combined. This, too, is a goal embraced by Obama, as noted in a typically bloodthirsty appreciation offered by Media Matters and discussed in the middle section of this recent article.

Please note that this goal of worldwide control has nothing whatsoever to do with self-defense in any meaningful way. It is a policy of offensive aggression, unceasing and with an unending list of possible targets. Thus, the primary purpose for which "the troops" are utilized is not defensive in nature, but offensive, against countries that have never threatened the U.S. and that most often could not threaten the U.S. in any serious manner. A person who joins the military is obliged to understand this, on the general principle that an adult ought to know what he is doing. This is especially true when a person seeks to become an instrumentality of death, either firsthand and directly, or indirectly, by offering support in any one of numerous ways for those who commit the murders.

Having said this, I will add that in many instances, I will decline to pass moral judgment in an individual case. To make that kind of judgment, one would need certain information: the understanding of the particular individual him or herself, what information he is aware of and has access to, and similar kinds of matters. In addition, I am painfully aware that, for many people, there appear to be no other avenues for education and advancement (economic and otherwise), a terrible truth that has broader application as the U.S. economy collapses. (Do you think it is a coincidence that government and military service become one of the last remaining secure areas of employment? I encourage you to consider the issue again. I am not suggesting that the ruling class has engineered widespread economic collapse to drive people into government service, military or of other kinds, but I do not suggest that primarily because I don't think any group, no matter how powerful, could control the huge number of variables involved, although they might believe they could. Hubris and narcissism usually go together. But I certainly do suggest that the government and the ruling class is more than willing to take full advantage of this calamitous state of affairs.)

Even though I will not offer moral judgments across the board, I will make judgments in certain categories of cases. Two major categories deserve condemnation in the strongest terms: those who torture other human beings, and those who diligently train to murder individuals who have never threatened them or their country and who, all too often, then do murder them. We correctly condemn those who offer the defense made -- and subsequently rejected -- on behalf of the war criminals of World War II, that they were only "following orders." But those war criminals were not soldiers for the Great and Good United States. For the sake of the latter, most Americans of all political persuasions will enthusiastically accept the Nazi defense. Our national denial is fully comprehensive, and contemptible in the extreme.

There are a few lonely exceptions to this unreflective acceptance of war crimes committed by the United States. Following the dictates of national mythology, those war crimes become "blunders" at worst. To name unflinchingly murder and war crimes for what they are would call into question those necessary articles of national faith that support most Americans' conception of themselves and their country. One notable and heroic exception is Lt. Ehren Watada, whose example I wrote about in, "The Personal Factor: You're Either With the Resistance -- or With the Murderers." When Watada refused to be deployed to Iraq, he understood precisely the nature of his action and what the consequences were likely to be: "My participation would make me party to war crimes." Heroes of this kind are rare in any age. In our time, they are almost unheard of, just as most Americans never knew who Watada was, or know today. As I wrote in "The Personal Factor":
It is the person who says, "No," whom we must seek to understand. It is not melodramatic or engaging in overstatement to say that he or she is our salvation.
On the general subject that concerns us, I strongly recommend to your careful consideration an article by Laurence Vance, "Should Anyone Join the Military?" I made a note of Vance's article when it first appeared in October 2007, and I have been meaning to excerpt it ever since.

You should consult the article in its entirety for Vance's full argument. Here, I will offer only too-brief excerpts. Vance begins his approach to the question in his title from an explicitly Christian perspective, but he immediately broadens that approach to all individuals:
Should anyone join the military?

Here are seven reasons why I think that no one, regardless of his religion or lack of it, should join today’s military.

1. Joining the military may cost you your limbs, your mind, or even your life.


2. Joining the military may have an adverse effect on your family. The breakup of marriages and relationships because of soldiers being deployed to Iraq and elsewhere is epidemic. Multiple duty tours and increased deployment terms are the death knell for stable families.


3. Joining the military does not mean that you will be defending the country. The purpose of the U.S. military should be to defend the United States. Period. Yet, one of the greatest myths ever invented is that the current U.S. military somehow defends our freedoms. First of all, our freedoms are not in danger of being taken away by foreign countries; if they are taken away it will be by our own government. It is not a country making war on us that we need to fear, it is our government making war on the Bill of Rights. And second, how is stationing troops in 150 different regions of the world on hundreds of U.S. military bases defending our freedoms? It is not the purpose of the U.S. military to change regimes, secure the borders of other countries, or spread democracy at gunpoint. The Department of Defense should first and foremost be the Department of Homeland Security.

4. Joining the military means that you will be helping to carry out an evil, reckless, and interventionist U.S. foreign policy. For many, many years now, U.S. foreign policy has resulted in the destabilization and overthrow of governments, the assassination of leaders, the destruction of industry and infrastructure, the backing of military coups, death squads, and drug traffickers, imperialism under the guise of humanitarianism, support for corrupt and tyrannical governments, interference in the elections of other countries, taking sides or intervening in civil wars, engaging in provocative naval actions under the guise of protecting freedom of navigation, thousands of dubious covert actions, the dismissal of civilian casualties as collateral damage, the United States being the arms dealer to the world, and the United States bribing and bullying itself around the world as the world’s policeman, fireman, social worker, and busybody.

5. Joining the military means that you will be expected to unconditionally follow orders.


6. Joining the military means that you will be pressured to make a god out of the military.


7. Joining the military means that you may be put into a position where you will have to kill or be killed. What guarantee do you have that you will always be in a non-combat role? You are responsible for the "enemy" soldiers you kill as they defend their homeland against U.S. aggression. It may soothe your conscience if you attempt to justify your actions by maintaining it is self-defense, but it is hardly self-defense when you travel thousands of miles away to engage in an unnecessary and unjust war. You are responsible for the civilians you kill. Dismissing them as collateral damage doesn’t change the fact that you killed someone who was no threat to you or your country. You are responsible for every soldier and civilian you kill: not Bush, not Cheney, not Rumsfeld, not Gates, not your commanding officers, and not Wolfowitz, Feith, Hadley, Perle, Abrams, Tenet, Powell, Rice, and the other architects of the Iraq War. Bush and company will not be firing a single shot. You will be expected to do their dirty work and live with it the rest of your life. "Thou shalt not kill" is not just a tenet of the Judeo-Christian tradition; it is part of the moral code of every civilization, pagan or religious.

Should anyone join the military? Certainly not today’s military. And until a major change in U.S. foreign policy occurs, not tomorrow’s military either. So be all you can be: Just don’t be it in the U.S. military.
For further details, study the full article. With regard to points five and six identified by Vance, you might want to read another of my essays: "The Obedience Culture, and the Death of the Mind." In that article, I quoted Paul Fussell on the broader significance of the dynamic that is crucial to any military's identity and operation:
Now my point is simple: if you are trained to be uncritical of the military, you can easily go a little further and learn to be uncritical of government and authority, and even to be uncritical of all established and received institutions. The ultimate result is the death of the mind, the transformation of the higher learning and independent scholarship into a cheering section for whatever popular notions and superstitions prevail at the moment. ... I wonder if the habit of unthinking obedience is a good one to instill in young Americans. For one thing, what is clear about the culture of war is that it is necessarily an obedience culture. In armies, as one critic has noticed, where there must be unquestioning obedience, there must necessarily be passive injustice. And not just that--the obedience culture is certain over the long-run to shrivel originality and to constrict thought, to encourage witless adaptation and social dishonesty.

III. The Non-Opposition of the Liberal-Progressives

Vance's article is not the only one from several years ago I've held in reserve. Another piece I noted, in January 2006, was a column by Joel Stein. The perspective Stein offered was a singularly unusual one, highly unusual even among liberals and progressives. My primary objection to the column is its jokey, humorous tone; this subject is one to which such a tone is especially unsuited. (I say that about very few topics; torture is another.) But this approach is part of Stein's writerly persona; we might wish it were otherwise, at least on a few topics, but such a wish is extremely unlikely to find fulfillment.

And despite what I consider to be this very regrettable flaw, Stein is entirely correct on the major substantive points:
I don't support our troops. This is a particularly difficult opinion to have, especially if you are the kind of person who likes to put bumper stickers on his car.


I'm not for the war. And being against the war and saying you support the troops is one of the wussiest positions the pacifists have ever taken -- and they're wussy by definition.


Blindly lending support to our soldiers, I fear, will keep them overseas longer by giving soft acquiescence to the hawks who sent them there -- and who might one day want to send them somewhere else. Trust me, a guy who thought 50.7% was a mandate isn't going to pick up on the subtleties of a parade for just service in an unjust war. He's going to be looking for funnel cake.


After we've decided that we made a mistake, we don't want to blame the soldiers who were ordered to fight. Or even our representatives, who were deceived by false intelligence. And certainly not ourselves, who failed to object to a war we barely understood.

But blaming the president is a little too easy. The truth is that people who pull triggers are ultimately responsible, whether they're following orders or not. An army of people making individual moral choices may be inefficient, but an army of people ignoring their morality is horrifying. ...

I do sympathize with people who joined up to protect our country, especially after 9/11, and were tricked into fighting in Iraq. ...

But when you volunteer for the U.S. military, you pretty much know you're not going to be fending off invasions from Mexico and Canada. So you're willingly signing up to be a fighting tool of American imperialism, for better or worse. Sometimes you get lucky and get to fight ethnic genocide in Kosovo, but other times it's Vietnam.


I'm not advocating that we spit on returning veterans like they did after the Vietnam War, but we shouldn't be celebrating people for doing something we don't think was a good idea. All I'm asking is that we give our returning soldiers what they need: hospitals, pensions, mental health and a safe, immediate return. But, please, no parades.
I note that, despite my agreement with Stein on the subject of supporting "the troops," he also provides confirmation of two of the deepest self-delusions still maintained by almost every liberal and progressive you will encounter, including almost all bloggers. The first is that anyone was "deceived by false intelligence." This is a deeply dangerous canard, one I have examined repeatedly and in detail. You can start with, "Played for Fools Yet Again," and follow the numerous links. The second is the lie about "ethnic genocide in Kosovo." I note again and again that liberals and progressives still repair to this awful lie about Clinton's disastrous interventions (as Clinton himself did in the first instance); I mentioned it just the other day (again, follow the links to much, much more; you might start with this one for the truth about the "genocide" claim in particular).

But about "the troops" and the reverence for them demanded by our culture of obedience, Stein is absolutely right. And note that one of his concerns (his reference to "no parades," for example) is the issue targeted by Chayefsky: the glorification of the military, and everything that follows from that glorification. It was tiresomely predictable that numerous conservative voices would be raised in ferocious denunciation of Stein. You can find many nauseating, self-congratulatory examples of that kind easily enough on your own, if the thrillingly outraged, incoherent, nearly unintelligible grunts of those who never learned to think are of interest to you.

Of more interest is denunciation from another corner, from what styles itself as the "opposition," except on any issue that matters. For example, this:
Wanker of the Day

Joel Stein

Bring on the parades. If our military rank and file have been betrayed by their civilian leadership they deserve our respect doubly.
To discourage any misperception, Atrios waded into the swamp of his own comments section. Many of those comments endeavored mightily to determine if Stein was "serious" in his argument -- this despite the fact that, regardless of Stein's persona as a humorist in large part, his seriousness about this argument was entirely obvious. So much for the contention that liberals as a group demonstrate unusual perceptiveness. Atrios had the answer for this maddeningly complex question:
stein's serious and should be dropped into baghdad along with goldberg and malkin
So much for the claim that liberals as a group exhibit great compassion and tolerance, especially where dissenters to the central claims of liberal orthodoxy are concerned. But Atrios's own vicious denunciation is part of the other major concern revealed in the comments: that "people like Stein" give liberals "a bad name," and allow conservatives to make the argument that liberals are "weak on national security." Never mind genocide in Iraq or the argument that condemns it as an unforgivable war crime. Forget all that, and instead contemplate the unspeakable tragedy of liberals being misperceived as weak when it comes to murdering the innocent.

In fact, liberals are unforgivably very far from "weak" in this regard. For many years, most liberals and progressives have revealed a sickening disregard for innocents slaughtered in the pursuit of Empire, an issue I explored just this week. "Exceptionally Awful," indeed.

I discussed some of the reasons for this perspective of most liberals and progressives in "The Obedience Culture, and the Death of the Mind":
The United States is fully militarized in a much deeper sense: it is now militarized psychologically and culturally. The other day, I analyzed how the critical lessons necessary to the achievement of an obedience culture are instilled in teenagers. As I noted there, the most fundamental lesson imparted to the high school students who peacefully protested the Iraq occupation is the necessity of obedience. Obedience, they were instructed, is the absolutely mandatory requirement -- if you wish to have a future, if you wish to pursue your goals, and if you wish to have any life at all.

As Fussell notes, and as I observed in my earlier discussion, you have only to give up a few things: justice, originality, honesty, and an independent mind. ...

Consider the people you know. Take a look at the views offered in our media. Consider the opinions offered on the most prominent and popular blogs, and the courses of action they support -- and the courses of action they reject. And then reflect upon the fact that the great majority of people are more than willing to give up all the values Fussell identifies. And for what? To be popular, to be successful, to wield "influence," to be "respectable."

In terms of its possessing a significant, genuinely vital intellectual and cultural life insofar as our political structures and governing purposes are concerned, the United States is already dead. That we refuse to recognize this does not alter the fact of our demise. Although it may take years or even decades for the rot to set in on a scale that forbids denial, all that remains for those of us who hope for a future of peace and liberty is to perform the autopsy, and to make certain we understand what went so horribly wrong.
Among liberal and progressive bloggers, you can find a very few honorable exceptions to the demanded liberal orthodoxy, which almost always apes the conventional (and conservative) orthodoxy in every significant respect. But those exceptions are very few; that they are, powerfully demonstrates the wide reach of the prevailing view, which inexorably pushes all dissenting views to the most distant margins.

IV. Conclusion

On the occasion of this Memorial Day and on the days to come, all of which promise to be deeply tragic and murderously bloody so long as the goals of the American ruling class remain unchanged, the objects of your reverence must be severely restricted. That reverence must be reserved for innocent lives, and especially for those innocent lives ended, maimed and altered forever by needless, futile, endlessly destructive war, past, present and future.

The historical and contemporary record makes possible only one conclusion: those needless and futile wars are not just "a few" or only "some" of them, and the trail of devastation is not the result of "regrettable misjudgments" for which amends have been made, or are even possible. No, almost every single war ever fought by the United States was entirely unnecessary in terms of any justifiable conception of self-defense; this is unquestionably true of every intervention since World War II. The murders are the result of intended and intentional policy, reached after deliberation and in service to the goals of the ruling class: power, wealth, dominion and control -- and always more power, wealth, dominion and control. To challenge those goals and to begin to alter them, you must challenge every assumption underlying the myths upon which the United States feeds, as it continues to brutalize and kill in vast numbers. One of the key assumptions that you must question and finally reject is the demand for glorification of "the troops."

To conclude, I offer again my words at the end of "Let Us All Become Cowards":
Chayefsky rejects the myths in their totality. He implores us to embrace cowardice. I beg you to follow his advice. You can be certain the cries for war will rise again, if not against Iran, then against North Korea, or in ten years' time against China, or against a country not now in the news, but which will fill the role required by the vast machinery of war. And when those cries overwhelm all facts and make reasonable argument impossible, and when they are amplified once again by an ever-compliant, always docile and obedient media, plead cowardice. If you value the sanctity of a single life, it is the only sane course to take, and the bravest.