“Support the Troops” Reconsidered

Another archive item. To some extent the phenomenon about which I wrote the following, four years ago, seems quieter. In comparison with the intense volume of this century’s first decade, it probably is. I’ve wavered on reposting this in fact, but reading this persuaded me that it’s still worthwhile.

It’s that time again. Yesterday, the MMQB column of vacationing Peter King was turned over to First Sergeant Mike McGuire for some July 4th, rah-rah boosterism about America’s activities in Afghanistan.

Criticism of this, particularly on our most exuberantly patriotic, flag-waving All-American holiday, would no doubt be very poorly received by many, were they to read any such remarks. Despite the fact that the very document which makes this day a holiday, as the anniversary of its adoption, objects repeatedly to the government of the day’s expansion and elevation of the army within American society. America’s founders were indeed, like much of the nation throughout its early decades, suspicious of and opposed to standing armies in general, British or American. Hardly much precedent for an obligatory “support the troops” sentiment, then.

All the same I’m sure that King, who has sort of “adopted” McGuire as a patron hero during the past several years, would probably at least question my timing in making critical comments, if nothing else. Which is fine, since I’ve long questioned the active and energetic embrace by King, and many others, of “the troops” as a sort of all-purpose, all-weather, nonpartisan, unifying cause for unequivocal celebration.

King has made little secret, over the years, of his liberal political outlook and has, moreover, often declared himself a through and through “dove.” And yet he has obviously sensed no conflict with praising not only McGuire but his work and, by extension, America’s military involvement in Afghanistan, to the skies. I don’t think King is alone in this, either; I think that quite a lot of people of progressive leanings are eager to declare their devotion to “our brave men and women in uniform.” Which is fairly easy to understand; most of “the troops” are, like McGuire, decent people, and are bravely placing themselves in harm’s way, in service to entirely-good causes at least officially. It’s awkward and uncomfortable to risk the appearance that one is hostile to these people. Moreover I suspect, at least, that actively and vocally expressing support for the armed forces appeals to good liberal instincts of compromise and outreach; “at least we can all agree on this,” basically.

But do we all agree on this? More to the point, should we?

Obviously I’m unconvinced. I believe that far too little thought has been given, over the past decade, to America’s establishment of ongoing and regular honoring of “the troops” as a basic feature of our culture. Another basic characteristic of modern American mainstream culture, of course, is an affinity for the simplistic and a blindness to nuance, and this feeds directly into the popularity of “support the troops” culture and the problem with same. The idea that “these brave men and women doing dangerous and difficult jobs are fighting to protect deserving people and important values, and it is right to display pride in this” is relatively simple and attractive, even for those who in other spheres disapprove of wars of choice. It’s patriotic, it’s popular with most people, it feels good.

An alternative position might, however, suggest that “the armed forces include many brave people, who mostly mean well and moreover do some good things, but acknowledging this is no more and perhaps less important than the fact that the mission in which these forces are engaged is often unrealistic, illegal and even harmful on balance, and the resources invested in these forces as a whole are indefensibly excessive in the face of other pressing needs.” This would be more realistic, and more responsible, but would definitely be unpopular with many people, would fit awkwardly with prevailing notions of patriotism, and thus would frequently feel quite uncomfortable.

But then, severing ourselves from hereditary monarchy and founding a republic was supposed to involve our readiness, as citizens, to take personal responsibility for difficult and uncomfortable realities in exchange for the opportunity to make real advances in things like liberty and common prosperity, rather than sticking with autocratically-imposed “unity” dressed up with a flag-waving, anthem-singing child’s-toy version of patriotism. That, at least, was the ideal, and whatever the sectarian, mercenary or other petty motivations involved in actual events, I think it’s an ideal worth keeping in mind.

The fact is that the current status of America’s military is absolutely not something to be proud of. The basic function of any army is, after all, per a formerly-favored phrase of a certain right-wing broadcaster “to kill people and break things.” The scandalous truth is that at best, an army is a necessary evil, justified by the threat posed by other armies. This justification, logically, rises or falls largely in proportion to the degree that there are unfriendly armies on a scale similar to one’s own:

US 'defense' spending is about as much as the rest of the world, combined

Also, not every dollar is spent on short-term resources so a good deal of this compounds over the long term

Every other functional activity frequently cited when praising “the troops” is not really the job of an army. Building schools and providing clean water is a job for The Peace Corps, not the army; if we want to do these things we should give more money to The Peace Corps. (Of course, such activity would seem to be the very definition of the “foreign aid” which is the one government expenditure Americans are nearly unanimous in wanting to reduce.) If it is impossible to carry out these activities in a given place without doing so at gunpoint, then we should usually leave a bad situation alone rather than insisting, contrary to overwhelming evidence, that our army can make it better. Fighting terrorists or “insurgents” is not a job for the army, either; these are jobs for a police force, and usually for a local force. Again, if local security proves inadequate that is very often a local problem, presenting no solid rationale for the deployment of a foreign occupying force. Since the end of World War II there has simply been negligible evidence that the goal of defending America is particularly well-served by military operations outside of America.

The worthy cause of humanitarian intervention may in theory call for deployment of armed forces into foreign territory, though evidence for the effectiveness of such interventions is very mixed; some situations may well simply cry out for intervention, in which event however there is all the more argument for at least restricting such interventions to situations which persuade an international coalition to act, ideally through the United Nations.

There is absolutely nowhere, meanwhile, any justification for military invasion and capture of foreign countries followed by open-ended armed occupation costing innocent lives and vast amounts of our limited resources. None.

I imagine that people instinctively feel the need to “support the troops” because “we are at war,” and yet the unthinking repetition of the term “war” throughout the past decade has perpetually struck me as one of the most dubious elements of this whole misadventure. If America is “at war,” I have long been wondering, who are we at war with, why are we at war with them and how will we know when we have won? I have yet to receive any satisfactory answer.

Sadly and tellingly, even Mike McGuire seems confused about the justification for continuing to station the very army in which he serves in Afghanistan. “I am here, with my company, still defending our country,” he says, but who or what he is defending us from is left an undefined phantom. Later on he provides a laundry-list of activities which keep him and his fellows occupied:

We check on the progress with a local dam project. We assist local health clinics. We provide humanitarian aid. Some of our platoons assist the Afghan Army and teach them how to function as an army on their own. We are involved in digging wells for water, or building dams to help with crops, even with a pistachio farm. Normal missions for us now also have us engaging with elders, police chiefs, security, local governors and school superintendents.

Many praiseworthy activities, here, and yet how does any of this amount to defending America? McGuire even attempts to directly confront the muddle, and ends up simply highlighting it: “What is our mission over here? I even get confused with that question sometimes. I will tell you this … in my heart, we want to help the local people and to bring back my soldiers. We all just want to come home.” I don’t believe this even requires comment from me.

It’s time to stop muddling, stop indulging in feel-good fantasies that end up causing real hurt, and start getting real. Understand that I’m as dazzled as anyone else by the bravery and the daring and the glory which genuinely can be found in war. Military history was one of my favorite courses in college; I have read countless books about wars and battles since; I have made many pilgrimages to one or another museum or battlefield or monument.

But none of this changes the fact that an army exists to inflict nonconsensual violence on other human beings. Or the fact that if such activity has at times been justified, and perhaps even advanced a noble cause or two, America’s army has mostly been inflicting violence in circumstances without adequate justification for more than half a century.

It’s time to stop. It’s time to pull the plug, to bring Mike McGuire home, to dismantle the military-industrial complex. And, perhaps most important of all, it’s time to stop stop treating “support the troops” as a sacred cause unto itself.

postscript: We do, at least, seem to have mostly stopped being “at war” at some point in the past several years. While this is nice in various ways, the ambiguity of when and how this happened just emphasizes my point about the lack of any clear process for determining how “we are at war.” Which, I think, remains a cause for deep concern.

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