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A Soldier’s Honor

Shanghai.

A short while ago, a soldier, having returned home from active duty, called a suicide prevention helpline, and was placed on hold.

The soldier, left helpless and alone, took his own life.

Such a scenario has been the subject matter of black comedy, but always with the understanding that such negligence would never happen.

Yet, in our case, the impossible did occur.

There will be many who will call this a tragedy.  Yet, the fate of this soldier was not tragic, but horrific, in which a negligent system repaid his honor with dishonor.

Since the Reagan “revolution”, the honor of the soldier has become a powerful political trope.  It is the honor of the soldier that is the weakest link in any conception of security, and it is the concomitant mood of courage which is the foundation of patriotism.

Against the background of two Vietnams, the one the protesters saw, of soldiers burning villages and killing innocents, and the other, of supporters of the police action, the hostile reception of returning soldiers by protesters, patriotism was weaponized in the Reagan and Bush era against the Democratic party, the peace movement and the counter-cultural left.

By the time of the first invasion of Iraq, all were in agreement – including the anti-war left – that one may question the war, but one must not question the honor of the troops.  At the very least, the troops will serve with honor and dignity.

This iconic conception of honor has been defamed many times since Reagan, but each defamation, as with genocide, torture or incidents of rape, has only served to strengthen and refine the icon of the soldier’s honor as a bedrock notion of national security.

The conscientious objectors, draft resisters (“draft dodgers”), and deserters became the counter-image of honor in the Reagan re-branding – he who has refused to serve his country dis-honors himself by placing his life and desires before the needs of the nation.

With this image, the “culture wars” accelerated with a right wing evangelical evocation of a new manifest destiny, at home and abroad, in which history finds its end with a Pax Americana.  The “Vietnam Syndrome”, Bush declared, must come to an end.

Bill Clinton was the fortuitous benefactor of fatal divisions within the right – in the figure of Ross Perot – over this new breed of American exceptionalism.  Yet, his accidental election and initial acts as president (“Gays in the military”, his first) re-united and galvanized the forces of the right in government and at the grassroots level as the “America held hostage” movement began with the talk radio ravings of Rush Limbaugh.

The intense focus by the Reagan and Bush administrations to re-establish respect for the presidency (after the disgrace of Nixon and the humiliation of Carter) was jettisoned when Clinton became president.  It was not the president, the talk radio hummed, but the honor of the presidency which is defamed by this man.  It is we, the talk radio audience, who will conserve, in safe keeping, the honor of the presidency.

The republicans took back the House in Clinton’s first term, after decades away, with the ascendency of Newt Gingrich to the Speaker.  This was the beginning of the grid-lock suffered by two Democratic presidents and surely a third, if either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders wins in November.

Honor, they say, was restored to the presidency with the election of the second Bush, and with the events of September 11, 2001, it became the indelible character of citizenship, one that would be assessed through myriad surveillance programs.  Talk-radio defended torture, civilian casualties, mass surveillance, the militarization of the police and countless other transgressions of democratic norms when Bush was in office.

With Obama, talk-radio merges with internet conspiracy and the “wingnut” is born: far-right paranoia mobilized for the systematic denigration of the president (the birther movement, coded and uncoded typologies of racism, Islamophobia), who is either a Muslim, Communist or, in one claim, a gay male-prostitute.

The echo chamber of the far-right discourse repetitively weaves a web of plausibility, like a magic trick, and those who lost their parents to Fox News may now have lost them completely to Alex Jones.  Mass hysteria not only drives ratings – as CBS declared with respect to Donald Trump – it is also a powerful force to build and destroy political fortunes.

But, what of our soldier?  With all the name-calling and imperial aspirations, we have lost sight of the soldier, suffering from a mental health crisis, who was abandoned by the system that was allegedly established for his care.  Is a soldier only a soldier when he is in service?  What of him and the promises made to him when he comes home?  Or, is he treated with the same disdain as other members of the working class?

It has always been easy for politicians to send young men into battle to die.  But, what of those who come back with PTSD, disabilities, or other challenges?  We are told that it is the Veteran’s Administration (and the GI Bill) which assures the care of the returning soldier.

As we know, this explanation is short on credibility.  Bernie Sanders, member of the Senate Veteran’s Affairs Committee, has made it clear throughout his campaign for the Democratic nomination that the state of care for soldiers is in utter disarray.

After decades of continuous war, the VA, severely underfunded, still has not digitized soldier files, which have amassed to the extent of causing a bough in the floor of the warehouse in which they are stored. The VA moreover remains a political no-go area due to the politically explosive (for the arms industry) nature of revealing victims of war.

But, what is the difference between a soldier dying in war and one who kills himself when the suicide hotline places him on hold?

Both have lost their lives to impersonal systems.  Yet, the soldier who dies in battle is considered a hero who has died honourably – and consented to this possibility when he took his vow.  The soldier who killed himself, they say, is pathetic – he has lost his honor in his desertion.  But, desertion from what exactly? From a life destroyed by war, from a faulty system that is mandated to care for him during his personal crisis?

Instead, let us say that the soldier is a victim of specific politicians, economic groupings and the networks in which they operate.  The soldier, not willing to suffer the indignity of the situation, ends his participation with the hypocritical order.  Desertion and refusal of orders are less extreme forms of non-participation.  In that he had already served honourably, his suicide is in turn honourable as a protest against and rejection of those who would throw young men into death for merely political and commercial reasons – and when they come home, turn their backs on them and let them suffer and die.

It is the militarist, hearkening on about patriotism, who dishonours the soldier by disavowing him after he has served his active function.

Such hypocrisy reveals clearly – once again – that war concerns neither self-defence nor the honor of the soldier or the nation, but instead, naked commerce and power.  There is no power – and therefore, no gain – in caring for a soldier afflicted with the scars of war.

Their patriotism is a lie they tell us to empty our pockets and feel pride when our young men are thrown to their deaths.  But, they are not patriots, but traitors who destroy our honor.

Active duty soldiers and veterans should re-consider their political loyalities.

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James Luchte is a philosopher, author and activist in the United States. He is also Visiting Professor of Philosophy and Aesthetics at Shanghai University of Finance and Economics. He is the author of Marx and the Sacred Revolution. His latest book is titled “Mortal Thought: Hölderlin and Philosophy” (Bloomsbury 2016).

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