Recently, a young man who has been part of my extended family since he was four years old went into the Marines. I visited with him a couple weeks prior to his reporting date and asked him what he hoped would happen. Like many people his age, he was unclear except for the fact that he knew he would end up in Iraq or Kuwait sooner or later. When asked how he felt about that, he shrugged his shoulders as if to say he hadn’t really sorted out his real feelings on the matter. His stepfather (my brother), who has great misgivings about the young man’s decisions, told me that he thinks his stepson just wants someone else to think for him. He didn’t say this in a mean manner, just as a statement of fact.
Meanwhile, I have been following various threads on a half dozen newsgroups that are discussing the upcoming antiwar protests in September. While the newsgroups are dominated by subscribers who generally oppose the war, there seems to be a lot of confusion as to whether such protests are in the best interests of the troops in Iraq and other combat zones. Despite the very clear call to make the troops’ lives safer by bringing them home, many of these liberal-minded folks wonder if this is the proper message of support. Of course, the more reactionary subscribers have no doubt about where they stand, stating in essence that the troops should get unqualified support no matter what they do. After all, if the troops aren’t over there killing and dying, then who knows, the government might start the draft and send us.
There seems to be a couple of issues involved here: the first is the biggest one and is very simple. If one supports the troops does that mean they support the war in all of its death, destruction and gore? The second issue is less obvious but also revolves around the men and women in uniform. It has something to do with the relief that many here in the occupying country feel that these men and women are doing our dirty work and taking the hits instead of us. This relief is part and parcel of the wanton ignorance our society feigns when it comes to acknowledging what our lifestyle extracts from the rest of humanity. Columnist Thomas Friedman addressed this back in 1999 when he unabashedly wrote in The New York Times Magazine: “The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist. McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies to flourish is called the US Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.”
Now, I know the young man I referred to at the beginning of this piece didn’t join the Marines to make the world safe for McDonald’s. Indeed, his reasons have much more to do with the need to prove his manhood and adulthood. In addition, there is a bit of patriotism involved in his decision. He’s been told ever since he can remember that the US is the greatest country in the world and, after the events of 911 it needed young men like him to keep it that way. Of course, his understanding of politics doesn’t encourage him to think how putting on a uniform and going to Iraq to kill or die is going to keep the US great. Indeed, as I already wrote, most of his reasoning has little to do with politics or capitalism-he just wants to grow up and do something with his life and the recruiter convinced him that joining the Marines was the best way for him to do that.
There seems to be a commonly held belief among many antiwar folks that most servicemen and women have been duped into serving or forced into the military for economic reasons. While the economics do play a huge part in many young people’s decision, I believe it is a bit of a stretch to say that these folks have been duped. Their decision may be made without having all of the facts, but most of the young people who join the military are quite aware of the risks involved. Like people who smoke and chew tobacco, they know what they are getting into, generally speaking. This fact doesn’t mean that recruiters don’t lie and that the military doesn’t use advertising methods that deceive and manipulate, because they do and it does. To see what I mean, just watch an NFL game on television or, even more obviously, take a look at the photos coming out of Bush’s visit to the National Boy Scout Jamboree this past weekend-an event that had Bush encouraging boys in uniform to put on the uniform of the US Army while military recruiters worked the crowd.
Then there are those who join the military because they want to kill for their country (and god). A friend of mine in Vermont who has been actively involved in antiwar activities since 911 has been thrown out of antiwar meetings and asked to leave protests because of his distaste for the military and the people who are in it. His distaste (that borders on hatred at times) stems from the fact that he was in the service in the 1990s and had a terrible time. Like my brother’s stepson, part of the reason he joined the military was to “grow up.” He ended up in boot camp and then in the infantry where he met men whose greatest thrill was hurting people and wishing for a war so they could kill somebody. Whether or not these men were this way before they joined the service I don’t know. However, I will always remember a story a friend of mine once told me about boot camp. My friend, who is nearing 70, was in the service in the late 1950s and early 1960s. After boot camp he went to jump school because he wanted to be in the airborne. Now, my friend is a very independent and often ornery fellow. If the words “Don’t tread on me” were written for one person in particular, they were written for him. Even so, he told me once over a beer that after he left boot camp he had no mind of his own. When someone of a higher rank told him to jump, he jumped. If they told him to get down and do a hundred pushups, he did a hundred pushups. He continued by saying that if he had been told to kill one person or a hundred he would have done so without so much as blinking an eye. Then he stated that, in retrospect, he was very happy that he had been in the service in between wars (Korea and Vietnam).
Anyhow, my point is that even those who don’t want to be killers will be turned into one in the service. Add to that those who believe that they are killing for god and/or country and are therefore exonerated from any guilt and you have a situation where one has to truly wonder how they can support the troops as long as they are in combat. How many soldiers are killing for their god is anyone’s guess. However, if one recalls General Boykin’s remarks calling the Muslim religion idolatry and the Iraqis as Satan, it’s not a far jump for a Marine or GI to make the same claim, especially if they come from a conservative Christian background to begin with. While Christianity has always been part of the US military’s culture, friends of mine who are in the service or recently retired tell me that never before has it been so rampant and even encouraged on many bases, with commanders allowing bible groups to use military facilities and even punishing those soldiers who do not attend these groups or other prayer sessions.
A report put out last week by the Iraq Body Count project and the Oxford Research Group, stated that the war and occupation have produced almost 25,000 civilian deaths. Of these, 37 percent resulted from the actions of coalition forces, 36 percent from criminal activities, and 9 percent from insurgent action. Now, whether or not the actual numbers are accurate, the proportions tend to stay the same no matter what the source is for civilian casualty numbers. This means that the US military is doing most of the killing in Iraq. If one supports the troops without qualifications that is what they support. In addition, and more fundamentally, they are supporting the policy that put the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan in the first place. This means that they share the underlying assumption that the United States has the right to send its military anywhere in the world it wishes in order to maintain its current position in the world. Underlying that assumption is the assumption that the lives of people in those lands where the US troops are sent are less valuable than US lives and are therefore expendable in the name of US goodness.
With all due respect to the soldiers who have been convinced otherwise, their cause is not noble. What they are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan is no different than what their predecessors did in Vietnam, Korea the Philippines, and the American Indian lands. They are not making the world safe for democracy or even for their fellow Americans. Their mission is not heroic, despite the various acts of individual heroism that occur daily in battle. The most heroic act must be undertaken here at home by those of us who sent them over there. It is time that we demand these men and women come home now. There is no timetable for withdrawal unless we organize people to get into the streets and demand that the troops be withdrawn.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org