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Mindless and Extravagant "Support Our Troops" Display Doesn't Help Soldiers, But Does a Lot for Those Who Profit From War

It's time to examine the "support our troops" rhetoric and understand it does little for those whose lives are at risk.

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Ultimately, the support we’re meant to proffer is ideological. The terms we use to define the troops — freedom-fighters, heroic, courageous — are synecdoche for the romance of American warfare: altruistic, defensive, noble, reluctant, ethical. To support the troops is to accept a particular idea of the American role in the world. It also forces us to pretend that it is a country legitimately interested in equality for all its citizens. Too much evidence to the contrary makes it impossible to accept such an assumption.

In reality, the troops are not actually recipients of any meaningful support. That honor is reserved for the government and its elite constituencies. “Support our troops” entails a tacit injunction that we also support whatever politicians in any given moment deem the national interest. If we understand that “the national interest” is but a metonym for the aspirations of the ruling class, then supporting the troops becomes a counterintuitive, even harmful, gesture.

The government’s many appeals to support the troops represent an outsourcing of its responsibility (as with healthcare, education and incarceration). Numerous veterans have returned home to inadequate medical coverage, psychological afflictions, unemployment and increased risk of cancer. The free market and corporate magnanimity are supposed to address these matters, but neither has ever been a viable substitute for the dynamic practices of communal policymaking. A different sort of combat ensues: class warfare, without the consciousness.

As in most areas of the American polity, we pay taxes that favor the private sector, which then refuses to contribute to any sustainable vision of the public good. The only serious welfare programs in the United States benefit the most powerful among us. Individual troops, who are made to preserve and perpetuate this system, rarely enjoy the spoils. The bonanza is reserved for those who exploit the profitability of warfare through the acquisition of foreign resources and the manufacture of weapons.

Supporting the troops is a cheerful surrogate for enabling the friendly dictators, secret operations, torture practices and spying programs that sustain this terrible economy.

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My wife and I often discuss what our son might grow up to accomplish. A consistent area of disagreement is his possible career choice. She can think of few things worse than him one day joining the military (in any capacity), while I would not object to such a decision.

Those who know me might be surprised by my position, but it arises from a belief consistent with my political outlook, that the power of institutions can never overwhelm the simple act of thinking. In other words, even if the military as an institution often does bad things, the individuals that comprise the military do not have to become bad people. Soldiers can certainly be awful human beings, but so can professors, clerks, musicians, executives, landscapers and athletes.

This way of thinking also inversely demystifies the troops, who are burdened with untenable narratives of heroism the vast majority (like those in all professions) do not deserve. I am neither smart nor foolish enough to define “heroism,” but I am comfortable saying the mere fact of being a soldier doesn’t automatically make one a hero, just as the mere fact of being in prison doesn’t necessarily make one evil.

If we recognize that the troops are in fact human beings, then we simultaneously accept that they are too complex to be reduced to patriotic ephemera. Such recognition is unusual, though. People speak frequently of “our troops,” highlighting the pronoun as if it is imperative to their sense of national belonging. It is an act of possession that projects fantasies of virtue onto an idealized demographic in the absence of substantive virtuous practices that might otherwise foster national pride. Plutocracy ravages the state; we rebuild it with narratives of glory and selflessness, the troops acting as both the signifier and the signified in this nationalistic uplift.