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Why I don’t ‘Support the Troops’: Blasphemy in the temple of national security

Jim Steinhagen, a leader of the local chapter of Veterans for Peace, told his story about his participation in the Korean War at the recent annual gathering of the Minnesota Alliance of Peacemakers. When he discussed his own personal naivete in enlisting in the Marines with his high school buddy at age 17, it struck me that those of us seeking alternatives to war continue to send the wrong (or at least confusing) messages to our young people about military “service.”

Steve Clemens
Steve Clemens

When conscientious people opposing the present war put up signs “Support the Troops — Bring Them Home,” it sends a mixed message. How does one “support” those, who, for a variety of reasons, chose to be trained to kill others on the basis of orders from a “superior” officer or the “commander in chief”? Clearly, the primary responsibility for the war must lie with those who planned it, ordered it and voted to pay for it with our tax dollars (or, more accurately, with debt to be placed on future generations).

But remember those provocative and attractive posters from the Vietnam era: “What if they gave a war and nobody came?” If no one “volunteered” for our “Volunteer Army,” how could our politicians choose to go to war on false and manufactured evidence?

Our politicians know that if we continue to permit many to go uncounted as we claim “full employment” and continue to allow the minimum wage to be set significantly below a “livable wage” and allow college costs to skyrocket while loans and grants to students expire, there will always be some driven by an economic conscription to “enlist.” There will always be another group of young people who are motivated by a narrow view of patriotism who think they are serving their country by “protecting” it and thusly they sign up to put on the uniform and pick up a gun. A third group — those with over-flowing testosterone who see the uniform and gun as an extension of their “manhood,” or those seeking “discipline” or others promised to avoid prosecution or incarceration by enlisting — also will fill out the ranks of the military.

‘Military service’ term is a misnomer
I truly believe there are some in the military who actually see their commitment as “service.” But it is more accurate to identify those in uniform as “military forces,” rather than “military service,” when one takes a hard look at the ways our military is used around the world to protect our corporate greed and domination, rather than the professed task of genuine national “defense.” The very nature of basic training for the various military branches is designed to break down normal, human-defense mechanisms in order to rebuild a new identity as one who is ready and willing to kill on command. The 1980s PBS TV series, “War,” is based on the book by the same title by Gwynne Dyer, a veteran from several nations’ militaries. It includes an episode called “Anybody’s Son Will Do,” which was filmed at Parris Island, N.C., a Marine Corps basic training facility. To visualize the dehumanization which passes for molding “a few good men” is sobering. (A text version available is here.)

Yet it is also hopeful — there is something within the human spirit that must be destroyed before one is able to kill when ordered to do so. I believe there is a healthy, God-given resistance to killing instilled in us that must be broken and then rebuilt if we are to be of any use as one who kills without question.

In 1980, President Carter ordered the reinstatement of Selective Service registration for a future draft as a warning shot over the bow of the Soviet Union ship of state. He is reputed to have said that our nation needed to reach young men before they got to age 22 or so to influence them before they had made up their own minds. Now scientific research is replete with research showing that the teenage brain is still growing and developing and society can’t expect fully developed reasoning in some areas until the early 20s. It is no wonder that military recruiters want to be active in our high schools when decision-making is more impulsive and subject to manipulation.

Troops aren’t to blame
Let me be clear: I don’t “blame” the troops. One only has to look at the post-traumatic stress disorder, suicide rates, broken marriages, the number of vets who end up homeless and on the streets to see that they are victims as well. There is something about teaching another human being to kill — without questioning orders — that scars the soul and psyche of even the most macho among us. Many of the survivors of combat return home with what is referred to as “the thousand-yard stare.” Chris Hedges, former New York Times war correspondent and author of the excellent book “War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning,” describes the “addiction” that war often engenders in its participants and continues to keep hold of them.

I think the American public in general feels somewhat embarrassed about its unwillingness to directly fight and sacrifice for war — or at least this war. People know, at least subconsciously, that those burdens are placed disproportionately on the poor, the less educated, and those with fewer options. So, out of that guilt, we profess special “honor” and “respect” for those who are “willing to die for our country.” But doesn’t this make many of our troops mercenaries? It is hard to separate out how much of the incentive to enlist is out of patriotism and how much economic desperation; what part is the macho urge to dominate others versus the attitude of wanting to serve one’s country?

I don’t blame the “grunts.” It is the politicians who determine the policy. Soldiers are merely functionaries, yet they also must be held accountable — but to a lesser degree than “the Masters of War.” We can’t expect those with questionable educational backgrounds to have the savvy to do political and social analysis about the nature of American geopolitical strategy before deciding to enlist. But when those troops engage in activities ordered by Washington bureaucrats to conduct “enhanced interrogations,” which may or may not breach the strictures of the Geneva Conventions, can we still “support” those troops? The lessons of the Nuremberg Tribunals after World War II make it clear that “following orders” is no excuse.

What about the troops that drop cluster bombs and fire rounds and shells containing depleted uranium? Is the typical soldier supposed to study the Laws of War to discern the legitimacy of using such controversial weapons? Yet if the typical soldier refuses, especially in the theater of battle, there is often a terrible price to pay.

I think that many of the average soldiers go in to the military with honorable intentions. Rather than see their mission as projecting and expanding the edges of the American Empire, they envision themselves as protectors and defenders of “our way of life.” Little analysis is spent on investigating whether that “way of life” is sustainable in a globe of limited resources. But is that really the responsibility of the troops?

Are those who serve as pawns in the hegemonic games of the political and military strategists, the corporate robber-barons and the economic and academic elitists to be held responsible for “following orders” whose ends they don’t really comprehend? Whose responsibility is it to “educate” our young people to those realities before they enlist?

Those of us who do recognize the “Domination System” for what it is have an obligation to warn those unsuspecting collaborators. To do so, we have to ask some hard questions of ourselves about how we benefit from that system before challenging others to take that “road less traveled.”

But while we do that necessary work to educate ourselves and others, let’s at least stop parroting the phrase “support the troops” and be honest with young people about what “service” in the military is all about: being used by the Domination System to protect empire.

Even a true patriot should see that it is not in the world’s best interest for that to continue. Our churches, synagogues, mosques and other faith communities must withdraw their chaplains, who bless and excuse this killing and its preparation. We must actively “counter-recruit” and create life-affirming alternative opportunities for those targeted by military recruiters. Maybe we can tape over the first word of those signs and replace it with “Disarm the Troops — Bring Them Home!”

Steve Clemens of Minneapolis is a peace activist and member of the Community of St. Martin. He also serves on the board of the Pax Christi Twin Cities Area. In 2002, he was a member of the Iraq Peace Team, which traveled to Baghdad to express solidarity with the Iraqis.


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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Craig Westover on 01/25/2008 - 10:16 am.

    Perhaps it is the make-up of the readership at MinnPost, but I am surprised at the lack of commentary on this piece. Although I disagree with much that is written here, this is an excellent essay that raises many valid questions about how we think about the military and the decision to employ it.

    My main objection to the piece is that Mr. Clemens raises his questions to arrive at a predetermined conclusion. There are other paths from the points he raises to very different conclusions. Somewhere between Mr. Clemens “People’s view of the military” and a “Patriot’s view of the military” is an area rich for exploration.

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