Friday, November 12, 2010

This should have gone up yesterday #1

This is something I posted two years ago on Veterans' Day. I've decided that I'm going to post this and the post that follows every Veterans' Day. There may be slight edits in the intro and the Footnote if there is one, but the main body, the original post from June 2008, is unchanged.

November 11 has become so well-known as Veterans' Day that not many people remember that it was originally called Armistice Day. It was intended to commemorate those who died in World War I by an observation of the end of the war, which ended, at least on the Western front, on "the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month." But after World War II, the US changed its day to Veterans' Day and over time it's become not a commemoration of those who have died in war but a celebration of anyone who's ever been in the military. It has slid from a commemoration of the dead and of peace to a promotion of militarism, to the "nobility of sacrifice" of "true" - and apparently the only true, as they are given due unavailable to the rest of us - "patriots."

So for my own observation of Veterans' Day, I'm going to re-post something I first posted in June 2008. Here it is:

I've tried various ways to start this, wanting to make sure that I say what I mean and only what I mean. But I've come to realize that there is no way that will not be misunderstood, either accidentally or deliberately, by some. So I gave up trying to do anything other than say it outright.

I am deeply disturbed by the increasing tendency among "progressives" to adulate all things military, and particularly disturbed by the practice of referring to soldiers routinely as "our heroes" or some similar formulation. Let me be clear here: Soldiers are not "heroes." A "hero" is by definition someone who is in some way extraordinary, remarkable, worthy of emulation. It is at best a risky business to define someone as "extraordinary" simply by virtue of wearing a uniform and in fact it is potentially dangerous as it makes it too easy to slip into the militaristic attitude that what soldiers do goes beyond "necessary evil" or just necessary, beyond even honorable, to admirable, to something to celebrate, an attitude that makes it all to easy to promote additional enlistments, additional weapons, and even additional wars.

The root of this, I'm convinced, is that after years of the constant drumbeat from the right that those on the left are "soft" on "national security," that we aren't "tough enough," not ready enough to "do what's necessary" to "protect our way of life," we increasingly have decided to, if you will, fight on those terms; that is, we have absorbed the idea that we have to prove ourselves on "security" issues by proving that we're "tough."

Our means of doing this, a means that first appeared during the Gulf War, was to declare loudly that "We support the troops!" That was our way into the national security debate, a way to (supposedly) oppose the war while, we declared, supporting the men and women sent to fight it. We would prove that we were as committed to the military and national security as the right, just, well, in a sorta different way.

One less important but still revealing example came on Monday during Jon Stewart's interview with Senator Jim Webb. Most of that interview was a discussion about Webb's bill to expand veteran educational benefits, under which, in return for three years in the military, soldiers would receive four years' tuition at their best state college plus the cost of books, plus a monthly stipend. At one point, when Webb said that the least we can do for our soldiers is give them the chance for "a first-class future," the audience burst into loud applause.

And I thought then, as I have before when this bill was being discussed, would there be any chance, any chance at all, of that same sort of reaction if the same proposal was made on behalf of any other group? What if someone proposed paying for four years of college for, say, firefighters? Or cops? How about volunteers in VISTA (now AmeriCorps VISTA)? Or the Peace Corps? The latter two provide some educational benefits for those who put in their time, but nothing vaguely approaching four fully-paid years of college.

What about publicly-funded continuing education for doctors and nurses? Such continuing education is not only a good idea for health care professionals, it's often a requirement for maintaining their licenses to practice. And certainly having doctors and nurses who are up to date on the best knowledge and practice is beneficial to the public. So why not have public financing of that continuing education?

When it comes down to it, why not have public education, tuition-free, taxpayer-supported public education, right up through four years of college for anyone who can show themselves capable of meeting the educational standards for a college degree? Can you seriously imagine a studio audience bursting into spontaneous, enthusiastic applause for someone seriously proposing such an idea?

Why only soldiers? What does it say about us that the idea of paying soldiers' way through college gets ovations while the idea of anyone else getting the same benefit gets at best quizzical stares if not overt sneering rejections? It says that we regard the work of soldiering as inherently more important, inherently more deserving of praise and reward, than the work of others - and the lives of soldiers as inherently more valuable than the lives of the rest of us. That is the attitude we are buying into.

But if it was only things like veterans' benefits, it might not seem particularly important. I say that despite the fact that the amount of money involved in such benefits is not trivial and Webb's argument that his bill just provides the equivalent of educational benefits given to veterans of World War II is quite misleading: For one thing, many of those soldiers had been drafted "for the duration," so it wasn't automatically a matter of three years and out. For another, the avowed purpose of those World War II benefits was to make up for what those soldiers had lost in regard to their civilian careers as compared to those who had not been in the military. That is, they were to insure that soldiers did not wind up being penalized for having been soldiers. They were not intended to give soldiers a leg up over others (or "a first class future") and they most definitely were not presented as being a reward for military service. But that's what they have become over the years and that's how Webb's bill treats them.

I also want to make abundantly clear in case it's not or is willfully ignored that the benefits being questioned here do not include such as medical care, rehabilitation, and counseling for vets wounded either physically or psychologically. But, yes, veterans benefits are too generous to the extent that they become a reward for being in the military. So I am against Webb's bill and I don't give a damn whether it will affect retention rates or not. I am opposed to it so long as soldiers get singled out for an opportunity for higher education that is becoming increasingly financially impossible for many people.

Even so, again, if that's all there was to it, it might not seem like a great big huge deal. But that's not all there is to it, not when we are trying to lay claim to national security chops by out troop-supporting the right, insisting that we're the ones who really support the troops, we're the ones who really support their brave courageous efforts and we prove it by undaunted adulation, blandly treating, with no hint of hesitation, the phrase "have a lot of courage" and the word "soldier" as synonymous.

So we were the ones who loudly decried the lack of body armor and the lack of reinforced plating on military vehicles, accusing the right of "not supporting the troops" as much as we do because of that failure. But as Mark Twain pointed out in "The War Prayer,"
[i]f you would beseech a blessing upon yourself, beware! lest without intent you invoke a curse upon a neighbor at the same time. If you pray for the blessing of rain upon your crop which needs it, by that act you are possibly praying for a curse upon some neighbor's crop which may not need rain and can be injured by it.
In war, in combat, as long as the soldiers are there, there is an unavoidable trade-off: The more you wish for them to remain safe, the more you are wishing for them to kill others. That is what safety in combat means. The more you wish for them to return safely, the more you are wishing for Iraqis not to. The more you wish life for them, the more you are wishing death for others. The more you wish that American mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, sisters, brothers, daughters, sons, don't suffer the loss of a family member, the more you are wishing that Iraqi mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, sisters, brothers, daughters, sons, do.

So when we express "support for the troops" by demanding we "give them the equipment to do the job" and "then come home safely" rather than simply and solely saying "get them the hell out," we are offering a tacit - and sometimes not so tacit - endorsement of the killing. For the sake of the blessing of safety and life for our soldiers, we are calling down the curse of risk and death on Iraqis. When we declare support in terms of equipment rather than withdrawal, that is what we are endorsing. In war, there is no other way.

Undoubtedly, there are those who are prepared to declare American lives are worth more than Iraqi lives. I am not among them.

The emotional embrace of "our heroes" as some sort of disembodied ideal has policy implications beyond the immediate ones. Within that embrace, and the effects can already be seen in various interviews and commentaries, it becomes easy to absorb, absorb so deeply that one is unaware of it, the idea that a veteran's take on the Iraq war - and by extension, all things military - is inherently more valuable than that of others not by virtue of knowledge or logic or informed comment but simply by virtue of being a veteran. We regarded it (correctly) as a scandal when media outlets used retired generals who were actually Pentagon-trained PR flacks as "experts" on military and foreign policy questions in the runup to the Iraq War - but an overlooked point is that the reason retired generals were so prominent in that number was that their status as military people gave them added credibility in the eyes of many viewers and listeners. In our pursuit of "support the troops," we have fallen prey to that same attitude, one that regards the statements of Iraq War veterans as more valuable, more telling, than those of non-veterans. It even has become fairly common to hear dismissive references to those who "never saw combat." At first, that was a legitimate argument, directed as it was against chickenhawks, those rightwingers who were eager for fights, ready for wars, provided they did not have to take part in them. But increasingly it has been used as an all-purpose putdown, even against those on the left who have criticized soldiers - as, I imagine, it would be directed against me (a non-veteran and a Vietnam-era draft resister) were my voice loud enough to attract the attention.

But the real danger is that as the attitude persists, it distorts our way of thinking, drops a magnet on our moral compass. In a bizarre mirror image of the fanatical right, we refuse to blame soldiers who commit atrocities, or, more exactly, we refuse to acknowledge them. We refuse to blame those who shoot civilians even when the attacks are clearly acts of vengeance; we downplay the war crimes and the routine cruelties; we make excuses for those who shoot the wounded or torture prisoners; even when official Pentagon reports casually mention how a US soldier summarily executed a wounded fighter and shot another wounded, unresisting fighter twice in the back, we pay little notice - and if we do, it's usually to brush off complaints with that all-purpose "you've never been in combat" defense. "These things happen in war," we say.

Yes, they do. And "our heroes" are doing them. Which is, even as the deniers seem incapable of recognizing it, the point. Just as the right tries to blame the individuals and exonerate the hierarchy, we want to blame the hierarchy and exonerate the individuals, to remove all their responsibility for their own actions. That is an idea we were supposed to have rejected nearly 60 years ago; apparently, we haven't.

Soldiers are not heroes. They can be heroes, they can act heroically, they can do heroic things - but the act of putting on a uniform and agreeing to put your conscience in a lockbox for the next so many years does not make your life more important than others, it does not make your opinions and insights more worthy of respect than others, it does not exempt you from moral judgment. It does not make you a hero.

And we should not fall prey to hero-worship.

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