Posted December 15, 2011
The question highlighting the topic of this essay is a highly emotionally charged one, as there can be no doubt that soldiers often exhibit extreme courage and fortitude while dealing with unimaginable hardship and danger in the course of carrying out their orders and doing their job. Probably no one else in any other vocation endure such hazardous conditions in the regular course of their work--at least when a war is actually going on--not even police officers working the inner city beat, or firemen taking on the latest inferno. But the purpose of this essay is not to question any of that, since it obviously goes without saying that soldiers are very often brave, and very often make great sacrifices under nightmarish conditions that test a person's ability to survive and overcome odds like nothing else on this Earth. The very important questions to ask here are:
Does the fact that you are a brave person who endures a huge amount of hardship and sacrifice automatically make you a hero or an individual worthy of praise? And, even more importantly, should the reason you are making those sacrifices, such as the consequences for others as a result of soldiers carrying out their work, and the actual purpose as to why they are following these orders, also factor prominently in the equation? Most definitely, I should say.
The main issue I want to delve into here is the very reason as to why wars are fought in the modern world, and why I believe soldiers should neither be lauded nor derided out of hand without taking all factors into consideration. After all, mercenaries who make the same sacrifices and face the same dangers as government agents, as well as destructive terrorists who unhesitatingly put themselves in harm's way to insure that a Humvee is blown to bits and endure terrible conditions in the field on a daily basis to meet the demands of their ideological/spiritual beliefs, are very arguably acting just as bravely, and sacrificing just as greatly, as any state-sanctioned soldier. The soldiers working for the U.S. military (and other national military units) try to rise above these discomfiting facts by exclaiming that they fight for a noble purpose, which is usually the defense of democratic principles or the stopping of some sort of foreign genocide. Little do they consider that unlike the mercenaries who often fight beside them and the terrorists who often fight against them on the same battlefields, the soldiers are, first and foremost, performing a job, as are the soldiers on the opposite side who oppose them. And these shots are not called by them. A "good" soldier is not expected to act according to their conscience or any set of substantive principles anymore than the mercenary is, or anymore than we believe terrorists to do so: they are expected to follow the orders of those who supply them with their equipment and sign their paychecks. They are expected to carry out a job. That job requires immense sacrifices and hardship, and a lot of courage and valor; but it doesn't necessarily require good intentions or good character, and the latter two traits can often conflict with the dictates of their job. Their job is, plain and simply, to kill and/or defend anyone their superiors say, and not to ask questions. That is the crux of it, there is no call for making complex judgments beyond how best to carry out the stated objective. Those above them calling the shots likewise do not need to be people of good character or noble mien in order to win, they simply have to be good strategists with a healthy degree of cunning.
So, with the above in mind, I would like to quote the words of Vietnam veteran Don Decker, and his complaints about the way Vietnam war veterans were treated after returning home, often in contrast to how soldiers doing many of the same things in the (soon to be concluded) Iraq War and the ongoing fiasco in Afghanistan:
Several million U.S. vets returned from Viet Nam during the ’60s and ’70s, and were forced to endure the widespread anti-military feelings promoted and encouraged by the political left. As if we combat veterans had anything to do with what caused the war in Viet Nam! Yet we suffered as if we were personally responsible. We were spat upon, called vile names like “baby killers” and in many other ways were discriminated against by the public. (Not the entire public, of course, but many who were swayed by the largely leftist propaganda.) Weekly television shows like “The Mod Squad” showed “Viet Nam veterans” returning from the war strung out on drugs, engaging in violent acts like armed robbery and murder. Ultimately we were all painted with that vicious brush wielded by the Hollywood left. This mischaracterization stuck with the TV-watching public. I am being honest here--I loathed those ignorant fuckers! They knew no more about Viet Nam than they knew about the proper procedure to get into a whorehouse. The result was pretty simple; most guys who served started to simply keep their mouth shut, refusing to discuss it. That lasted until the early to mid-1980s.
After the Viet Nam Memorial was built in Washington D.C., the national attitude started to change. Many suddenly realized how terribly the U.S. military’s ’Nam veterans were treated. As time went on and other wars started to brew, ’Nam vets started to get their due. (My reaction? Sorry, pal, too little and too late for this trooper. Fuck you, you people who now feel compelled to apologize.) The purported love affair America now has with her soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines is a result of this failure to treat her Viet Nam vets with the respect they deserve.
Okay, let's take a look at Mr. Decker's concerns and complaints and see if we can shed some perspective on this problem that soldiers often face.
As Mr. Decker pointed out, the soldiers who either volunteered or were drafted into combat duty were not responsible for the factors that started the war in Vietnam, much as their modern counterparts are not responsible for the causes of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. But they were acting as official agents--read: employees--of the government whose foreign policies helped a long way towards making the conditions in those countries that led to war materialize, as well as declaring those wars in the first place. These soldiers carried out their orders regardless of any type of misgivings some of them may have personally had about the many unsavory aspects of war, and the fact that Vietnam was clearly not a war that the government was serious about "winning" in any serious capacity, but actually prolonging over an extended period of time, and which resulted in a huge amount of atrocities and hardship not just for the soldiers fighting the war, but for the countless innocent civilians (i.e., "collateral damage") caught between the two sides.
It's a well established fact that as brave and courageous as soldiers are, engaging in such conditions, especially in a prolonged capacity, is going to take a heavy psychological toll on many of them, resulting in several of them becoming unstable and escalating the level of atrocities committed against civilians and their property. This is the toll that war needs to be expected to take on others, and while many people honorably retreated or fled to Canada rather than willingly participate in this quagmire, a few million soldiers carried out these truly atrocious orders without question, or did it regardless of the questions they were asking because it was their job and patriotic "duty," as they saw it.
Yet keep in mind that we were strongly encouraged not to buy it when S.S. soldiers who committed the atrocities they did in Nazi Germany pointed out that they had done so not because they were awful people or had any type of malice towards the people they hurt, but were "just following orders"; in other words, it wasn't their fault for putting their job before their consciences and committing those acts, but the onus was entirely on those politicos and generals who ordered them to do it. They will also mention (accurately, it must be said) that the rules which soldiers are legally expected to play by are different from those that govern civilian rights and activities, and they could be court martialed if they refuse to obey a direct order from an officer of superior rank despite any personal misgivings they may have on ethical grounds when it comes to following any specific order. We don't buy it when terrorists kill innocent people and destroy the property of others when they claim that they did so because it was in the service of higher ideals (i.e., patriotism or nationalism) or a higher power in the universe (i.e., Allah, or Yahweh, or God; take your pick). When we share either a legal citizenship, religious connection, or basic ideological convictions with soldiers or insurgents, etc., we automatically give exception to them, and attempt to justify their actions based upon what we perceive to be the greater good that will come out of it. We identify our well-being with the actions of these people, and so individuals whom we would consider blatant war criminals for committing a certain series of acts on behalf of a foreign government or opposing ideology suddenly become valiant heroes when committing a similar series of acts under the direction of a state we have citizenship under and identify with, or a basic ideology or system of religious beliefs that we also follow.
One can see this tribalistic loyalty at work most prominently with the idea that any action taken by the Israeli government is automatically in defense of Jewish people all across the globe, so actions taken by that government must be judged differently from similar action taken from soldiers or nationalists supporting a government who are not perceived as identifying with Jewish interests; the many responsible and humanitarian people of Jewish descent who denounce deplorable actions taken by the Israeli government as not being representative of their interests are castigated as "self-hating Jews," and any American politician who does this is ripped to shreds as being "anti-Semitic" by the very powerful right-wing Israeli lobby in the U.S.
So, should we hold soldiers culpable for the orders given them by the government they were serving? The sole blame cannot be held on them, of course. But the fact that they still commit these actions despite not having started the war themselves must nevertheless not be ignored, because we considered it righteous to hold S.S. officials from Nazi Germany complicit with deplorable actions they committed while under orders despite how they may have personally felt about those actions. There is no doubt that soldiers are brave and deal with massive hazards to both their physical and psychological well-being on a daily basis when serving in a combat capacity, especially in a prolonged conflict, but these things alone do not make them heroes.
At the same time, I am not saying we should abandon soldiers in the same way Mr. Decker mentioned had happened to the Vietnam vets upon returning home. What Mr. Decker failed to mention is that the government he loyally served pretty much abandoned the people who fought for its interests, along with the greater interests of the government's corporate masters. The severe amounts of physical and psychological damage suffered by many soldiers, and the inability of many of them to find gainful employment upon being discharged from service, should have been generously tended to by the government. Granted, these soldiers usually had access to free government health care for life, among other benefits for spouses and children, but that has always been touch and go depending on how much the government has been willing to allocate to their health care programs for veterans, especially when you consider how costly from a financial standpoint fighting a prolonged war is. And of course, it's the soldiers, and not the corporations who directly benefit from these wars, who are expected to carry the fiscal sacrifices of these monumental government expenditures to finance a decade-long war. Why don't the war profiteers like the good folks who own Raytheon, General Electric, and Haliburton provide all the help needed to those veterans who sacrificed so much for them? Why did they tolerate the huge amount of psychologically scarred and chronically unemployable vets who were sleeping on park benches and subsisting on donated change from strangers they solicited while begging in the streets? You see, Mr. Decker, I may not be a veteran myself, but I have many family members who were veterans, including my mother's recently deceased spouse, and I saw what the war did to them.
Hence, I do agree we should "support the troops," as the popular slogan goes. However, I disagree with how we should support them based on the common patriotic narrative. Instead of cheering on their victories for American corporate interests that often come at the cost of immense civilian casualties and destruction of needed infrastructure, as well as eroding civil liberties and government services at home to deal with the costs of financing the war, we should admonish the government for sending them on these imperialist excursions in the first place. We should demand the cut off of funds allocated towards prolonging a needless war like Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. We must demand that the government treat terrorism as a criminal tactic, and not identify it with any one nation or ethnic group or as something akin to a faux sovereign nation, and encourage law enforcement agencies to work with their international counterparts to combat terrorism and treat it as a law enforcement issue, and not a matter for the military. We should demand that the government change its foreign policies drastically, which includes the needed allocation of funds that are now poured into the Pentagon to fund the global empire-building machine to instead go into developing sophisticated but environmentally friendly means of efficient energy generation that does not hinge on depletable fossil fuels like oil, which is presently a huge source of global inventive for imperialism and war. We should demand that the brave soldiers limit their hazardous combat activities to self-defense of the country's borders and waterways, and to essential rescue missions of both government personnel and civilians. In other words, we should demand the allocation of funds into means of preventing war, not more efficient means for fighting them. That would be the best and most honorable way to show support for the troops. Hi-fiving them whenever they invade and occupy a new country successfully, or blow another Middle Eastern neighborhood to oblivion, and rationalizing these things as being in honor of American devotion to freedom and democracy, is not the way to go.
We must also take into consideration that contrary to what Mr. Decker wants to believe, these soldiers are usually not making these sacrifices and enduring all of that hardship for "us," i.e., the common citizens of the nation. They are not doing it for lofty democratic principles related to bringing freedom to oppressed people abroad, or taking out deadly and powerful foreign despots who are capable of wiping out our own country. They are doing it because it's their job, and that job is to put their own well-being, along with the well-being of the civilians and cultures of whatever country they invade, aside in favor of the interests of the government that hired them, whose job it is in turn to make the world friendly to American corporate interests. There is no need to go into the point in this particular essay on how continued support and defense of a money-based system predicated upon private ownership of the industries and services is fighting for the continuation of the very material factors that cause war and encourage the building of empires in the first place. That too should go without saying. What does need to be explicated in detail are reasons why we need to be circumspect in how we view soldiers, what purpose they are usually put into combat situations for, and why they should be seen as neither heroes nor villains, but rather as victims of war as much as any "collateral damage" they may cause.
Another concern of Mr. Decker's I would like to address is in regards to his lament about the treatment of Vietnam War vets who were returned to civilian life on television, i.e., how he felt they were too often depicted as violent drug addicts. Okay, let's face a few facts here. War is not a pretty thing. It takes a heavy toll on the minds of too many of the people who fight it. Not only because of things that may have happened to them, or what they happened to see that was so far out of sorts with what the average person normally sees in the course of their everyday life, but also things they may have been forced to do that violated every sense of principle they had. If these men were truly decent human beings with a set of strong personal principles--and no doubt large numbers of them were--then we shouldn't be surprised that being forced to follow certain orders would leave many of them with sometimes horrid emotional scars that led to conditions like post-traumatic stress syndrome [PTSS], which prevent them from leaving the war even after it's long over in a technical sense, and provide massive barriers to them re-integrating into civilian and family life.
Hence, it's foolish and irresponsibly naive to expect even brave individuals like this who suffer from PTSS not to oftentimes turn to drug and alcohol abuse, to commit or at least frequently contemplate suicide, or to undergo drastic personality changes from the person they once were that are not for the better, including but not limited to violent tendencies. Some of these violent tendencies rise of out of extreme frustration with their inability to return successfully to civilian life, to find a job and support themselves and their families, and the bitter frustration that this situation engenders.
I saw all of the above things happen to veterans that I knew personally. Do I sympathize with these people? Yes, of course I do, because they are human beings in need, no matter what they were ordered to do, and they are victims of a system that require the frequent use of human beings as cannon fodder and instruments of death to protect and expand the privileges of the ruling class that own 99% of all the available wealth. And I explicated above all the things which I believe the government of the U.S. should do--and should stop doing--in order to help these vets, as well as what we "average" civilians can do prior to fully junking this type of socio-economic system in exchange for a more socially advanced system of social ownership of the industries and services.
This is also why becoming a war-loving culture is committing a massive disservice to the soldiers under U.S. government control. It aids and abets government policies to justify pre-emptive and prolonged wars, and it also embeds the ideology into the general citizenry that the propensity for killing other people in support of our ideals--as long as the government approves of and sanctions it--rather than used only as a last resort for self-defense, is somehow the path to glory and honor, and that it makes a "real man" out of us. It also inculcates our culture with the idea that danger and willingness to fight or enter a battlefield makes someone a hero, and that almost any type of conduct can be justified as long as it's done for the "right" side of a conflict.
The above explains why war should be viewed as a very dangerous business that should not be entered into lightly; that diplomacy should always be tried first; that wars should be fought only for self-defense; and when it does become necessary, it should be done with the strong intention of ending the conflict as soon as possible, eschewing deliberately prolonged or "endless" time schedules. And we must always demand that proper protocol be followed when war is declared, and insist that it cease becoming an accepted but technically illegal practice of having the sitting President declare it whenever they please, rather than leaving that extremely important decision to Congress; the judicial branch of the government is the only one of the three branches that has been empowered by the Constitution to commit the nation to the costly-on-all-levels decision to go to war, as abdicating that power to the executive branch morphs a president into something more like a king or an emperor.
As this essay comes to a close, please note this other excerpt from earlier in Mr. Decker's above quoted and linked article, where he discusses the conflict he had with his father, a combat veteran from World War II who opposed his son enlisting in the Armed Forces to serve in the Vietnam War:
[...]I enlisted in the Army in 1969. I had one hell of an argument with my dad about my military enlistment, as he thought the whole ’Nam war was bullshit. His attitude was pretty simple; we kicked hell out of Germany and Japan because we went full bore--“balls to the wall,” so to speak--and did it in four years. Yet we dicked around in Viet Nam, with no apparent intention of winning. (Kind of like the horseshit going on today in Afghanistan.) He saw the entire Viet Nam conflict as futile. I had been in college, but left to enlist, which really pissed him off. But that was my decision.
Mr. Decker's dad clearly learned good strategy during his time in World War II--why war is not something to be taken lightly, and why a deliberately prolonged war with no actual intention to "win" by the standard definition that is declared by the President instead of Congress is a recipe for disaster on many levels. I thank and commend Mr. Decker's dad for telling him all this in no uncertain terms, as unpleasant as hearing that and having such an argument must have been for Mr. Decker.
And lastly, it should be observed that Decker's blog posts carry this "ironic" signature line in defense of war:
Except For Ending Slavery, Fascism, Nazism, and Communism, WAR has Never Solved Anything
Except it was largely economic factors that knocked out American chattel slavery, with the Civil War simply being the final instance of the factors leading up to the dissolution of the Confederate States.
"Communism" (i.e., state capitalism) wiped itself out due to its own inefficient method of operations, and the Cold War didn't have much to do with it.
Nazism was a form of Fascism, and was a symptom of a particular nation's reaction to a socio-economic system in decay, which included the following familiar features: The typical media practice of fear-mongering and stereotyping of certain groups of people as the cause of all the world's ills that diverts attention away from the system itself; the galvanization of patriotic/nationalist sentiment that the "Fatherland" is greater than all other nations; the glorification of the ruling class and the embracing of emotion over reason that places the death knell on civil liberties; all of which which inexorably lead to...war. The Axis powers were defeated by war, but the factors which lead to war were left totally intact, and this was not so much a defeat of Nazism as the ending of its foothold on that particular nation while leaving the seeds for a future revival under the right conditions in the right nation under just the right "leader" (i.e., commander) to arise under a new banner to serve new nationalistic "principles" with an identical end result. In other words, the swastika will be traded for a new symbol that will ultimately epitomize the same type of fascism.
None of the above socio-political phenomena that Mr. Decker used as examples of being ended by war would have occurred at all if conditions conducive to war didn't exist in the first place.
As such, soldiers under combat conditions ultimately related to money are making their noble sacrifices needlessly, are taking the lives of too many civilians needlessly and would be better served to focus their courage in other directions. When on the battlefield for prolonged periods of time, soldiers cease being heroes and become as much a victim as the civilians who were blown up in the former's path to glory, machismo, and respectability in our contemporary cultural mindset.