Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Support Our Troops?

We frequently hear the catchcry "support our troops!", and it's considered almost a self evident truth that we should support the soldiers in our military, regardless of any disagreement we might have with larger scale military policies of our country. People talk about the brave soldiers who sign up and put their lives on the line to protect us, and how we should respect the sacrifices they make for us to be safe and free. To most people it seems that it's almost considered treasonous to be anything but fully supportive of the troops.

In this blog post I want to argue that this attitude does a disservice to all of us, including the soldiers themselves. I want to put forward the argument that blind support of soldiers without holding them accountable as part of the larger scale military apparatus of which they are part is both insulting to them, and to all of the people who have given their lives in the past.


There is a long history of considering certain people as heroes, certain occupations in our society as heroic. We will sing praises to the bravery of people such as firefighters, police officers, and of course soldiers. We recognize that while most of us have fairly safe jobs, some people choose careers that put their lives in genuine danger, and that they deserve extra respect as a result of this. Sometimes we will single out a particular person who does something especially brave, and call them a hero.

It is no surprise why we do this. We all have an inbuilt sense of self preservation, but society often needs people to take personal risks for the benefit of others, so pretty much all human cultures have developed various mechanisms, rituals, and so on surrounding bravery, honor, doing your duty for the country/tribe/group, and making heroic sacrifices.

Soldiers are a very interesting case that stands apart from all of the others. On one hand, they are the ones who often have to take the greatest risks, but on the other hand, they are the ones who have a purpose solely focused on destruction and killing. While a firefighter is tasked with saving lives and stopping property damage, and a police officer is focused on keeping peace and only resorting to violence when necessary, the very purpose of a soldier is the projection of force, of killing other human beings and destruction of enemy infrastructure.

While it is true that the military can often be involved in 'peacekeeping' missions or tasked with rebuilding things, the former is really just making a visible threat of violence, while the latter is clearly a secondary use of a large number of able bodied people and equipment, and more cynically, good public relations. If the primary purpose of the military was construction and rebuilding, then clearly their primary tools would not be rifles, tanks and battleships.

So we always need to keep in the back of our minds that despite any particular acts of bravery and courage performed by individual soldiers, we have given these people the power to kill other humans, and they are part of an organization that sometimes brings them to justice when that power is abused, but also quite often does not, and so we need to hold them to a very high standard. And to do that we need a culture where soldiers can be freely criticized when they don't meet that high standard, rather than the usual, "oh, that was just a few bad apples, all the rest of the soldiers are shining examples of perfect morality, we promise".


One reason behind the respect paid to soldiers is the long history of conscription. In a society where people are forced to fight and risk their lives, basically a form of slavery, it's not surprising that we would find ways to make this seem more positive. By mixing in concepts like honor and duty, and having parades and public holidays and all sorts of ways to 'reward' veterans, we can take the sting out of being forced to go and kill people and possibly get killed.

The situation is a bit different when people are volunteering for this role, though. There may still be plenty of bravery and courage involved in what soldiers do, but the fact that they're freely choosing to put themselves in that position should not be ignored. While I'm sure that many soldiers have noble ideas of duty to their country and protecting their loved ones, the fact is that many people volunteer for much more mundane, sometimes even selfish reasons.

It is no accident that serving in the military has always been the province of young, testosterone-fueled males. As much as we try to become a more civilized society and as much as violence is decreasing in our society, we can't change the tendencies towards conflict and fighting that have evolved in humans due to their usefulness over most of our history. Many young people, particularly males, seek action and adventure, and freely admit that this is a large factor in joining the military. This doesn't make them bad people, by any means, but it does mean that we should be cautious about blanket support of people who choose to go seek action and adventure and kill people.

Then there are people who want to travel, or simply who want a job. In a small town with high unemployment, there may not be much local work available, but any young person can sign up for military service (though, of course, they may not be accepted).

And finally, we can't ignore the people who actually enjoy fighting and violence, and have very few avenues to legally engage in those activities. Just as arsonists can be drawn to fire fighting and people who enjoy holding power over others can be drawn to the police force, it should come as no surprise that people who enjoy violence will be drawn to the military.

The point of all of this is not to defame soldiers and imply that they're all doing what they do for bad reasons, but just to make it clear that the old days of people being forced to fight for their country have passed, and in this day and age we should not just blindly support anyone who volunteers to go and kill people. They might have good reasons for wanting to do it, but we are right to question those motives and not just assume that they are always positive.

More Than Dumb Grunts

When we're not fighting anyone, or when we're fighting a popular war, the issue of supporting the troops is much simpler. Everyone is generally happy to do it. It's when we're arguably doing the wrong thing that the question comes up. If you think that the US (and it's allies, like Australia) had no business invading Iraq and Afghanistan; if you think people should be held accountable for the thousands of innocent civilians who have been killed in these invasions/occupations and simply written off as 'collateral damage'; if you think the widespread sexual assault of female cadets and subsequent cover-ups and culture of silence at our military academies is unacceptable; then the question has to be asked how much soldiers should be held responsible for these things.

Often (though not always), when individual soldiers can be found to be committing crimes, they are held accountable. But what about the larger scale misconduct, such as fighting illegal wars? How much are other soldiers complicit in these things through their silence; through not taking reasonable actions to bring about change; though voluntarily re-enlisting and perpetuating the problem? How much should we continue to support them, and how much should we hold them partially accountable for helping to keep these things happening?

The way I see it, we can either consider soldiers to be nothing more than dumb grunts, brainwashed into obeying orders without question, and not capable of seeing the bigger picture. Or we can see them as intelligent individuals who can make moral judgements, and in which case, who have a responsibility to make the hard calls rather than just going with the flow. When your job is killing people, going with the flow should not be acceptable. 

I'd like to think that our soldiers aren't just dumb grunts, and so I think we do them a disservice to treat them that way, which we do when we just blindly support them and not hold them accountable for the apparatus they are a part of.

The real heroes are the soldiers who speak up despite a culture of silence when they know of illegal activities done by other soldiers. The real heroes speak up when they think the higher level military objectives are wrong and innocent people are being killed as a result of it. And the real heroes don't keep volunteering to help their country continue to do the wrong thing, even if that means they have to leave their friends behind when their tour is up. Real heroism is making the hard choices. I don't pretend for a moment that I have the strength of character to be that kind of person if I was in the military. But I don't ask my country to give me a gun and let me go kill people, so I don't need to be. For those that do ask, I think we need to hold them to a higher standard, and make words like 'honor', 'duty', and 'hero' actually mean something.

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