I don't usually get a multitude of comments on my blog, but I am hoping this time yall will jump in and add your two cents. A rather heated exchange on another blog has resulted in this post. I'm not really prepared to write it, and it keeps coming out all wrong, or at the very least, it sounds limited. Thus, I need some of you folks to help: clarify, add, subtract, criticize, correct me, whatever it takes. I welcome it. No offense at all will be taken. I would like to have a serious discussion. Canadians and other non-USA-citizens are particularly welcome: Please don't be shy.
Here are the questions for discussion:
Can one "support the troops" without supporting the war? How?
Can one criticize the atrocities of the war without actually describing in some detail WHAT "the troops" have done?
I don't think so, unless one is deliberately, determinedly vague. Yes, it's nasty over there. How nasty?
And then, the discussion grinds to a halt.
Some time during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, the mantra "Support the troops!" developed into a full-fledged battle cry; a compulsory litmus test of any criticism of American military adventures abroad, which are constant and never-ending. The United States has had it's fingers in the business of so many countries, I couldn't begin to name them all. As people here at home die from no transplanted kidneys and no health insurance, we have propped up corrupt dictators with millions of dollars. We have funded covert operations in every nook and cranny of the world. We have kept countries from having elections (as we nullified the election of Ho Chi Minh), and forced others into having elections they weren't ready to have, or perhaps, didn't even want. We have invaded countries, supposedly on the behalf of other countries. The list is interminable. I am ashamed of it. This was never my decision; I wasn't consulted, although they HAVE used my money to do it. Just as I belong to the biggest bully of Christendom, the Catholic Church, I belong to the biggest bully of the nations, the USA. It is my task (my destiny?) to reform both, to do whatever I can to humanize these institutions. I seek to increase and magnify the good in them (and there IS so much good) and minimize or eliminate the bad. Needless to say, I have my work cut out for me.
Since Vietnam and the abolition of the draft (and certainly, even before), the army has been drawn from the poor and working classes of the USA. This has been deliberate. Ashley Wilkes went dashing off to fight the yankees, but that is probably how long it has been since large numbers of upper-class men enlisted, William F. Buckley and a few other adventurous rich men notwithstanding. As the Bruce Springsteen song reminded us, prisons have habitually been emptied in times of war, with poor kid-car thieves and dope dealers used as cannon fodder. During the Reagan Admin, an increase in the "college funds" incentive was added to the formidable list of military benefits in the existing G.I. Bill. Obviously, kids who already have college paid for, wouldn't find this any kind of incentive to enlist. The class element is very clearcut and unapologetic.
Eliminating the draft army and using only volunteers meant there had to be SOME incentive to enlist; three-hots-and-a-cot wasn't enough. (As my brother once said, you can get that much in JAIL, forgodsake, and jail is safer than the battlefield.) Health care for life (however slipshod, it's better than none), preference in Civil Service jobs, life insurance packages, social networking for future employment leading to a solid place in the middle class--these are valuable incentives. But above all, the free-college bribe, the G.I. Bill? That was the big enchilada, and poor kids from the ghettos, the barrios, the farms, the projects, all saw a way out.
And so, the US military had a ready supply of cannon fodder, as needed.
I will never forget the documentary film Soldier Girls, in which the girls from the Bronx tell each other they have to hang in there--they MUST endure the abusive basic training drill instructors--because then they will go back to the neighborhood in uniform, looking fine. "Everyone will see that we made it!" one girl says to the other, embracing her as she cries that she can't go on.
Thus, there is also significant pride in military service, a sense of some lofty accomplishment that is preserved as long as the mystique of the military is preserved. To question that mystique is to puncture the egos of anyone who subscribes to it, including people who have spent their lives being proud of the uniform.
The Reaganites knew all of this. Reading The American Spectator and other right-wing publications throughout the 80s, one could read their open discussions regarding how to capitalize on these emotions, the need to build "a poor man's ego" and the accompanying need to feel accomplished, important and useful. The working class/poor have so little to be proud of--we can give them this... and fight our colonialist wars in the bargain. We can make them The Few, The Proud. Be All You Can Be, was the 80s army recruitment slogan.
And now, in America, it is virtually verboten to discuss WHAT soldiering is. As a consequence, many soldiers are stunned when they find out. "Peacekeeping forces"--after all, doesn't sound so bad, as Orwell's WAR IS PEACE doesn't either. Hey, it HAS TO BE DONE. Somebody has to keep the peace, right? The PR of "peacekeeping" served two functions, one for politicians to ask for more warbucks from the voters, and one to keep the soldiers in the dark. Many soldiers have no idea whatsoever of the politics of the countries they are deployed to. They don't know the languages, religion or cultures. The army likes to keep it that way. No classes in any of that are included in Basic Training, beyond what is necessary to find one's way around. (History? We don't need no stinking history!)
In the discussion I refer to, someone actually used the phrase "they were only following orders"--apparently with no irony and no memory of the Nuremberg Trials, where that line was first popularized.
Let's backtrack a minute.
My first introduction into world politics was the Indochina Peace Campaign, a road-tour by Tom Hayden, Holly Near and Jane Fonda. I loved them all, so I went to hear them. I was 14 years old. I still have the flyer in an old scrapbook, advertising their visit to the Ohio State University campus. They had just come from their highly controversial (putting it mildly!) FTA Tour, which was made into a movie that few people have ever seen. The concept was to go to the troops directly, based on some of the ideas presented above: the soldiers are often poor and working class, and need to be educated that Vietnam is a quagmire, a no-win situation, that benefits a certain class of American profiteers. A review of the movie fills us in:
During 1971 and 1972, Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland led a quasi-USO tour that played in towns outside of U.S. military bases along the West Coast and throughout the Pacific. Fonda referred to the tour as "political vaudeville" and the show itself was called "FTA" (the acronym standing for "Free the Army" and "Fuck the Army"). The audiences were primarily the men and women of the U.S. armed services, and during the tour Fonda and her company interviewed the various soldiers, sailors and marines regarding their thoughts on the Indochina slaughterhouse.Here we clearly see that the soldiers themselves often didn't agree with what they were doing.
Viewing "FTA" today is like opening a long-forgotten time capsule. The film's true power comes in the frank, often rude comments from the servicemen and women who openly question the purpose and planning of the American involvement in Vietnam. Most memorable here are the members of the U.S.S. Coral Sea, who presented a petition to their superiors demanding a halt to the bombing in Vietnam; African-American soldiers and marines who angrily decried racist attitudes among the white commanding officers at the U.S. military installations, usually with an upraised fist of the Black Power movement; women serving in the U.S. Air Force who talk unhappily about sexual harassment from their male counterparts; and soldiers who pointedly refer to the dictatorial government in South Vietnam which was being presented as the democracy which they were supposedly defending. The extraordinary air of dissent that rises out of "FTA" provides a rare glimpse into a unhappy and demoralized fighting force stuck in a war which they did not believe in.
If there are any who do not NOW agree, we certainly aren't hearing about them.
Perhaps the "Support the Troops!" mantra only refers troops that have accepted their fates? Can we support dissident troops? (Are there any?)
In 1970, one of the bloodiest years of the Vietnam engagement, Hollywood gave us some blatant, pro-war propaganda in the movie PATTON. General Patton, of course, was a commander during World War II, not Vietnam, but in this manner, Americans could look back to a time in which we had been on the morally-correct side of a military action. It was a cozy, well-acted valentine to Richard Nixon and General Westmoreland. George C. Scott earned himself an Academy Award, which he famously refused.
Despite the fact that Hollywood is supposedly so liberal, then as now, precious few openly anti-war movies have EVER been made. (One fascinating fact is that one of the co-authors of this screenplay, Francis Ford Coppola, DID go on to make one of the greatest anti-war movies ever made, Apocalypse Now.)
Speaking personally, I will do anything to end this war. Playing games about what war is, avoiding the truth, is not the way to do it.
"You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out."
Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman
Letter to Mayor Calhoun of Atlanta,
September 12, 1864