Politics » Politics Feature

GADFLY: Support the Troops?



The debate over the Iraq war has devolved into a struggle over whether the political combatants in that fight "support the troops." The Republic party (the equivalent of what the president cynically---or maybe just ignorantly---likes to call the "Democrat" party), which continues to support the President's "stay the course" strategy in Iraq, continues to assert that any attempt to end the war and bring our troops home constitutes a failure to support the troops.

That's a little like saying that any attempt to cure cancer is a failure to support the livelihoods of the medical professionals who diagnose and treat it. And, many of the so-called anti-war politicians in Washington counter that assertion with the equally sophistic phrase that it is possible to oppose the war, but support the troops.

All of this made me want to examine, closely, the whole "support the troops" meme the right wing likes to trot out (and the chickenshit Democrats buy into) as the ultimate justification for the continuation of the war, and the conclusion I came to is that supporting the troops is both a false mantra, and worse, is not justified by the facts.

Let's start with the premise that the purpose of a standing military is to defend the U.S. from attack. Indeed, since funding for the military is part of the "defense" budget, there's no arguing that point. Since we all know, after the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war, that few, if any, countries have the power, much less the ability (or even desire), to attack the U.S. (at least not conventionally, as by launching an amphibious force or parachuting onto our shores), one has to wonder, has that purpose outlived its usefulness.

Even if one were to posit as a given the "threat" represented by the "axis of evil" (i.e., Iran, North Korea, China), the inescapable fact is that the threat from those countries (if one truly exists, rather than being ginned up by an administration that uses the fear of attack as its ultimate political weapon) is that they will launch a nuclear attack on the U.S. Why else are the neocons beating the war drums against the prospect of Iran's development of a nuclear capability, and why else is this president spending billions of dollars on a "missile defense shield" which has, in testing, been a demonstrable failure?

Now, of course, a standing army will not have any ability to defend the U.S from nuclear attack. It's a little like the scene from one of the "Indiana Jones" movies where the colorfully-attired tribesman brandishes a long and lethal-looking scimitar in threatening gestures aimed towards our hero, only to have an amused, but obviously not intimidated, Jones pull his gun and shoot the flamboyant warrior dead on the spot.

In other words, don't bring a sword (even if it's a big one) to a gun fight. Similarly, don't bring a rifle, pistol or even a canon to a fight with someone who has a nuclear weapon. No matter how sophisticated a standing army is, it is no match against ICBM's. But, we also know that there are no countries who currently have a delivery mechanism for any nuclear weapons (the laughable "test" conducted by North Korea several months ago proved that), though the joke that's told about the Chinese lack of a delivery system is that with a population of a billion people, they can just pass the weapon, hand to hand, across the ocean.

We also know, because our president and his sycophants have been telling us this since at least September 11, 2001, that terrorism (and the terrorists who use it) is an unconventional form of warfare. They use the word "asymmetric" to describe the "enemy" in the "war on terror," and tell us that, among other things, this kind of war is different because it isn't state sponsored, the combatants don't wear uniforms, etc. That, of course, is one of the rationales this administration has used for denying "enemy combatants" the essential rights granted under the Geneva Conventions and other international treaties, thereby exposing American troops to similar mistreatment in the event they are captured.

So a conventional military force isn't the right vehicle to fight an unconventional (i.e., "war on terror") war, if we're to credit what we've been told. And, if we've learned one thing from the debacle that Iraq has become (and should have learned from the earlier misadventures of, for example, France in Algeria, Russia in Afghanistan, or even our own experience in Vietnam), it is that conventional troops are almost powerless to fight a war against terrorists and insurgents.

So what other purpose does a standing army serve? The answer is all too simple: to fight conventional wars (and, not incidentally, to line the coffers of what Dwight Eisenhower so presciently called the "military industrial complex"). That means to land troops by air or sea on "enemy" territory, conduct military operations, the purpose of which is to kill as many of the enemy (whoever we declare them to be) as they possibly can.

That's what our military did in the days immediately following our initial invasion of Iraq. It's also what our military has done in wars going back to the War of 1812, including, but not limited to, World Wars I and II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War (the latter of which was also a war against an insurgency, and we know how well that turned out). In other words, a standing army is an excuse to fight conventional wars in an era where conventional wars have become all but useless, with the exception of wars whose purpose isn't to defend our country from attack.

In order to accomplish the purpose of its conventional military operations of late, the U.S. has been relying on the services of a so-called "all-volunteer" corps of fighters. Of course, these fighters aren't volunteers, in the conventional sense, since we all know that the dictionary definition of a volunteer is "a person who performs a service willingly and without pay." Hence the nickname for the state of Tennessee as the "Volunteer State," a term that originates from the outpouring of volunteers (in the truest sense) from that state to fight in the War of 1812.

No, the current "all volunteer" military is anything but volunteers (except, and only, to the extent they are to be distinguished from the "involunteers" in prior wars, who were drafted, usually against their will, to serve). They are, in fact, job applicants who have a variety of motivations for wanting the job.

For some, it's the signing bonuses (as much as $20,000, depending on the speed of deployment and the duration of the commitment) the military is dangling to entice applicants, especially given the difficulty it's been having meeting its recruitment quotas. For others, it's the benefits that come from military service, including educational benefits and medical benefits (illusory as it appears those benefits have become) following their service. For some, it's the fact that the military is the employer of last resort for a variety of slackers and dead-enders, including felons, high school dropouts and even skinheads, neo-Nazis and gang members. It is no accident that the vast majority of volunteers for the military come from the lower economic rungs of our society.

For many, however, it's a combination of jingoistic patriotism and a desire to engage in legitimized, permissible, sanctioned violence. How else can we explain the fact that the military has now begun accepting volunteers who have a history of committing violent crimes?

The members of the military, whether they be ground or air forces, are trained, to put it simply, to kill. If they did stateside what they're paid to do "in theater," they would be considered criminals, but put a gun in the hand of a 20-something, wet-behind-the-ears soldier, tell him he's fighting for a great and glorious cause, and let him loose on the enemy du jour, and just about anything he does with that weapon is OK, even if includes killing innocent civilians.

And if he can't find enough enemies to shoot at through normal tactics, he can always (as we found out in the last few days) bait the field of battle with enticements to potential insurgents and terrorists to up his kill rate. In other words, our military thinks it can do something to facilitate the killing of human beings that the laws in most states prohibit a hunter from doing to kill wildlife. Is this a great military, or what?

A good friend of mine, who was a fighter pilot in Vietnam (and, among other things, dropped napalm and agent orange on civilians in that country), told me that among the patches some pilots had sewn onto their flight suits was the motto "We Control Violence." When you have the ability to fire canons or drop bombs (the kind that kill people instantly by blowing them up, or that take longer to kill them by giving them cancer or other fatal diseases) from the air, or fire 50 millimeter bullets from a sniper rifle on the ground, there's no doubt that, as far as the victims of your firepower (especially when those victims are what the military calls "collateral damage") are concerned, you certainly do control violence.

It might have been more accurate if that patch had said "We Control Life." Let's not forget, though, that the military is the spearhead for the effectuation of our foreign policy. If that policy includes "regime change," or the imposition of our form of government, and if that policy dictates that tens of thousands of innocent civilians be killed in that effort, then the military is the vehicle by which that policy is accomplished.

So the question is, is the military (especially in its activities in support of Bush's policy in Iraq) worthy of our support. Are the men and women who "volunteer" to accomplish Bush's objectives praiseworthy? Remember, Bush never served in combat (thanks to his daddy's connections with the Texas Air National Guard), nor did most of the chickenhawk neocons who engineered the war in Iraq. None of them, nor any of their family members, was ever going to fight the war either. Without obedient, compliant, and credulous men and women to fight Bush's war, there would/could be no war.

So is the military entitled to a pass for wittingly doing the president's bidding because they're "just following orders?" You may remember this as part of the infamous "Nuremberg defense," a rationalization that was debunked at the war crimes trial following World War II, and has been made obsolete in, among other places, the Uniform Code of Military Justice which empowers soldiers to disobey unlawful orders. Is the military entitled to a pass, much less our admiration, because they dutifully (some might say blindly) follow the orders given by their commander-in-chief, or are they complicit in the atrocities that accompany the combat in which they engage?

Why, one might ask, aren't more members of the military speaking out against the policy in Iraq, and why aren't more members of the military taking other action (e.g., deserting) as they see the effects of that policy on the ground? Could it be because they agree with the policy, and if so, aren't the policy and their service in its support inseparable?

Let's admit something: anyone who has volunteered for military service since the war in Iraq started knew they might be sent to fight that war, and many, suffused with an overwhelming sense of "duty, honor, country" volunteered precisely for that reason. Pat Tillman, the NFL quarterback who was killed by his own troops, only to have that fact covered up by the military and the Bush administration, was the poster child for that motivation.

So we have to assume that they not only agreed with the policy effectuated by that war, but that they were eager to serve as the tools (or, if you like it better, vehicles) of the apparatus that has given us that war for the last five years. They are not unwitting victims, innocent bystanders or accidental tourists in this war; they are the means for its accomplishment.

The people who are fighting the current war may be cannon fodder to the cynical politicians who want to keep them there, but they are the personification of those politicians' policies. Therefore, it is impossible to oppose the war, but support the people who, by volunteering to fight it, implicitly (if not explicitly) support it and make it possible.

Of course, this rationale may not be as applicable to the members of the National Guard and Reserve, who have been, essentially, conscripted to fight, and who may or may not support the policy they are being forced to fight for, but even they realize, when they sign up for duty stateside, that they can be drawn into a foreign war, and we're not seeing any mass rebellion or revolt by these troops either against the administration's war policy.

In terms of admirability, I suggest there are many categories of people (and the jobs they perform) that are far more worthy of support than the members of the American military who are being used, with their knowledge and accession, as a means of foisting an unjustified, and unjustifiable, war on the American (not to mention the Iraqi) public. Police officers, firefighters, teachers, nurses, and even garbage collectors are, in my opinion, worthy of far more admiration, respect, and yes, support, than the people who kill in pursuit of George Bush's insane policies.

The U.S. military in Iraq isn't defending this country. Even General Petraeus (speaking of tools) couldn't make that argument in his recent "show and tell" before the Congress. It isn't making this country any safer; it isn't lessening the threat of worldwide terrorism (in fact, just the opposite) and it isn't defending the American way of life (unless you think the American way of life is unbridled violence, either of the domestic variety---as the recent upswing in national crime statistics suggests---or of the kind we export).

Of course, the same political machinations which cause Democrats to drink the "support the troops" Kool Aid being served up by our president and his party's members are what prevent those same political calculators from coming anywhere near saying that the military is far less than the admirable, self-sacrificing, infallible institution it is portrayed as being. That's why the well-deserved (if less-than-delicately worded) criticism of Petraeus contained in the recent MoveOn.org ad in the New York Times mustered the indignant outrage it did, even from enough Democrats in the Senate to pass an embarrassingly irrelevant resolution condemning the ad.

Apparently, criticizing a general who manipulates the facts to fit the policy is akin to treason, or at least to blasphemy, to our elected officials, including many chickenshit Democrats. Never mind that when Bush has been critical of what generals have told him, he flat out fired them. Now that's what I call supporting the troops.

I realize my analysis and conclusions about the "support the military" cliche make it seem like I probably don't believe in the sanctity of such American institutions as baseball, hot dogs, apple pie or Chevrolet either, and truth be told, I don't. Baseball has become a money-grubbing, sleazy, corrupt industry; hot dogs are laced with harmful chemicals, apple pie contributes to an epidemic of obesity (besides, I prefer peach) and Chevrolet builds more gas guzzling vehicles than any other manufacturer, thus contributing to our dependence on foreign oil and, indirectly, to the terrorism that has been spawned by our petro-centric foreign policy.

However, nothing I've said should be interpreted as a desire to see American soldiers harmed in any way. Quite the contrary. Just because American soldiers volunteer for service knowing they may be grievously injured, or even killed, doesn't mean they deserve either of those fates And just because they have volunteered to serve a corrupt, indefensible policy also doesn't mean they deserve to be punished by being injured or losing their lives.

They are entitled to every safeguard and protection from harm this country can give them (rather than the lip service they are frequently paid), and to the fulfillment of promises that get made to induce them to serve, whether that is effective body armor (rather than the garbage they've been getting as a result of a corrupt procurement process), vehicles that will protect them from explosions or adequate medical care following their service. Which is why what they deserve is to be removed, immediately (if not sooner) from a situation that exposes them to such risks for all the wrong reasons. If there is to be any punishment meted out as a result of what has turned into a criminal war, that will be for an appropriate tribunal to decide.

Nor would it be valid to draw the inference that I'm some kind of pacifist. I would be the first to call for military action were any foreign power to attempt to come ashore in amphibious vehicles on Long Island, Boca Raton or San Diego, or invade the U.S. by any other conventional means (and that includes fighting Al Qaeda in Afghanistan). And far be it from me to suggest any kind of reallocation of resources, either financial or human, away from defending our country against a bogus "war on terror" to defending our country against real risks, like dread diseases, and a pathetic health care system that cause (or do little to prevent) the deaths of more people in this country every single day than were killed on September 11, 2001.

My point about the military is only that it is manipulative at best, and dishonest at worst to justify a continuation of the war based on the need to “support the troops,” and the rush to glorify the military or act like that institution is somehow sacrosanct ignores reality, especially when that reality dictates that institution deserves no more honor, or support, than the dishonorable mission it is fighting.

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