On a recent return trip from Atlanta, as I took my window seat on the plane, the middle-aged white man sitting next to me looked across the aisle and said, “Thank you. We really appreciate all that you’re doing for us,” to a soldier in desert camouflage uniform on our row and shook his hand. The man’s words and manner were awkward, a little embarrassed, but certainly sincere. The moment provoked discomfort in me. The soldier quietly acknowledged the gratitude, and we settled in for the cross country flight. Upon our arrival in Los Angeles, as the plane taxied to the gate, the pilot addressed us passengers over the PA with the usual landing script, and then at the end of his comments, he acknowledged the presence of several active duty military personnel on the flight and again thanked them specifically for “protecting our freedoms because we know freedom isn’t free.” After a momentary awkward silence, the passengers clapped- politely? sincerely? -yes, both. I didn’t clap. I continued to look out the window. I don’t know if anyone noticed. My neighbor was again shaking the soldier’s hand. I didn’t clap because the United States military has not protected the freedoms of U.S. citizens since Little Rock. U.S. military might is used to project U.S. power and U.S. capitalism, and the Defense Department is an insidiously deceptive moniker for the U.S. military institution.
It is difficult for U.S. Americans to see their military as anything other than a supreme defensive force. We’ve been trained to see them that way. Decades of Hollywood war heroes: colonial war heroes, Independence War heroes, Civil War heroes, Indian War heroes, range war heroes, WWI heroes, and especially WWII heroes, the “last good war,” decorate our imaginations. The plot has been laid out and repeated ad infinitum in movies and television series, drama and comedy, the U.S. military to the rescue. Mistakes may be made, but the intent is always noble. Even the Vietnam War’s heroes are being rehabilitated, after having been subjected to a critical film eye for a brief moment in Hollywood with films like The Boys in Company C and Apocalypse Now. That defeat suffered in Vietnam was a serious blow to U.S. American confidence, and the Empire’s citizens have been too comfortable with asserting the country’s “interests” through military force to compensate for the Vietnamese victory ever since Ronald Reagan gave them permission to feel justified in their belligerence. For most U.S. Americans, the United States Military is always the cavalry coming to the rescue, and its force is used for good.
The recent invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq may be the most open uses of U.S. American force, but they are in keeping with a well established if under reported and under analyzed pattern of use of force. What Dr. King said in 1967 remains true: the United States is still the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today. By no means is the U.S. alone in the wholesale use of violence. But the mistaken characterization of that violence by the majority of U.S. citizens is unusual in the world, but familiarly dangerous. The U.S. American military establishment operates from what was once the War Department, which after World War II was redefined as the Defense Department, funded through defense spending, redefined with the emergent National Security State in the Cold War context. The framing of U.S. military activities as defense assumes the moral high ground in any conflict and obscures the assertive, belligerent and bullying practices of the U.S. military.
What was the U.S. military defending throughout the 19th Century as the country expanded its territory across the continent? The settlement of the Louisiana Territory, purchased from the French imperial state, land they had no right to sell, was accomplished through violence of both citizen-settlers and the state.
Mexico was invaded, the Hawaiian island de-stabilized, the Caribbean invaded, the Philippines invaded and occupied. The transition from the 19th to the 20th Century was bloody indeed, and in keeping with the tradition of militarism established early in the nation’s expansionist history. During this expansion, the figure of the U.S. American soldier and sailor has been unassailable in the mainstream, the anomaly of Vietnam notwithstanding. Indeed, the movement against the war in Vietnam has necessitated the vigorous reconstruction of the U.S. American soldier as the preeminent defender of democratic freedoms and human rights in the world, rather than as the heavily armed guarantor of capitalist economic structures in their neo-liberal, transnational corporatist stage.
U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen and women, and marines are not heroes, unless we want to characterize them in Voltaire’s manner as “heroic butchers.” So we must know that when we say that we support the troops, not the war, that we are still supporting the massive use of violence against civilian populations because it is the soldier on the ground (and the flier in the air) who perpetrates the violence.
None know this better than the soldiers themselves, and I think it is rare to find veterans glorying in their war experiences. They are suffering greatly for an ultimately ungrateful empire, languishing in unemployment, homelessness, depression, substance abuse, damaged relationships, and too often resorting to suicide. So no, I don’t support the troops. To do so is to endorse empire. To do so is to endorse white supremacy domination. To do so is to endorse business in the world as usual. No, I don’t support the troops. I don’t exactly blame them either.
That the troops are simply following orders is no defense. But it is hard to refuse an order when the culture of the military demands obedience, discipline and loyalty. That loyalty to each other, if not to the mission, gets many of the soldiers through their tours of duty. For many, it’s why they fight. How much more difficult it must be to refuse an order under the circumstances of occupation and counterinsurgency. How much more impossible it must be to refuse an unjust or criminal order when the government that sent one to war has perpetrated the first war crime by committing a crime against the peace.
The wars are illegal. The government conducts them in an unethical manner, placing the U.S. American soldier in an untenable position in which the abuse of the civilian populations is inevitable, and the torture of prisoners becomes routine. No, I don’t blame the troops. The governments that send them to war and keep them at war bear the responsibility, the culpability, Republican and Democrat.
Soldiers are heroes when they resist inhumanity. They are heroes when they protect human rights at the cost of liberty or life. They are heroes when they refuse criminal orders and illegal deployments. The air cavalry that put themselves between Vietnamese civilians and Lieutenant William Calley’s unit at My Lai, they are heroes. The Winter Soldiers of the Vietnam War, they are heroes. Camilo Mejia, who refused to deploy to Iraq, he is a hero. Lieutenant Ken Watata, he’s a hero. They are the troops who require our support. Resist empire by resisting the cultural pressure to worship military personnel as above reproach, one of the most pernicious reactions to the warranted critique of the Vietnam War and U.S. imperialism in Southeast Asia. The protectiveness toward the U.S. soldier has effectively silenced criticism of assertive military power, only deepening the political-cultural economy of militarism that Eisenhower warned against and that Dr. King identified as one of the three great evils that would continue to plague the nation.
The military should not be a jobs program, but it is. The military should not be a college funding program, but it is. Working class men and women, finding no employment prospects and suffering from a dearth of college recruiters and a surplus of military recruiters in their high schools turn to the military to create futures for themselves. They are praised for their patriotism and sacrifice, both of which may be sincere, because military service in the United States is voluntary. That volunteerism masks an economic draft, men and women with few choices and few resources opting for stability, sometimes grudgingly. And certainly, many service men and women leave the military with a new political understanding and first person knowledge of U.S. American power in the world. It is the citizens who praise them and worship them who suffer the delusion of American Exceptionalism, a particularly insidious imperial disease that blinds its victims to the severity and even to the facts of the crimes of the imperial state.
We would all do well to remember that great American hero no one knows nor any corporation or lobby promotes, General Smedley Butler, a man who should be revered for exposing a proposed fascist coup against President Roosevelt during the Depression but is instead mired in obscurity. In retirement, he wrote a book about his military service titled War is a Racket. In short, Butler explains how he thought he became a Marine to protect the United States, but he soon found out that his real job was to protect United Fruit and Standard Oil.