Monday, July 27, 2009

About War, Peace, and Supporting Our Troops

We've been at war for so long, I almost forgot, until recent remembrances about Hiroshima reminded me of how horrified I am by it. Not just this war, or that war, but war at all. The fact that it exists, bad enough. But the glorification of it, to the point that "supporting our troops" is something that now defines our patriotism or lack thereof, has got me pissed off. I'm standing up on a soapbox and saying I'm Mad as Hell about it.

I've been a pacifist all my life, at least since I got thrown out of school for a day for wearing too many McGovern buttons to sixth grade on Election Day. Walter Cronkite reporting those killed in action figures every night on the news -- US troops 32, North Vietnamese 427 -- always made me queasy. I remember asking my mom, after watching those lopsided "scores" for a couple of years, "So that means we're winning the war, right?" She patiently explained to me that no, it did not.

So: I'm a pacifist. What does that mean, exactly? My right wing friends will immediately start in with either: "What about the Nazis?" or "What if someone was about to rape your wife?" I answer, "I might have supported our entry into WWII, but I wasn't there," and "I'd kill the motherfucker," and they smile smugly thinking they "got me."

But the truth is, there are exceptions to every rule; it doesn't mean we don't make rules. And if we're not constantly questioning and reassessing rules, then we're not thinking clearly or critically; we have become ideologues. And I am not an ideologue. I am one who believes that in almost all cases violence is a poor solution to problems, even and especially if the problem is violence. I believe that there are so few cases where war is the right option that it's worth making it a rule not to engage in it.

Here is I how I responded to a conservative friend who flipped out when I said I do not "support our troops," and and who accused me of drawing a "moral equivalency" between those soldiers who killed for the Axis powers and those who killed for the Allies. Pardon, it's long.

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Our political views may indeed be irreconcilable, and reflect entirely different world views. While you may not share my world view, I wish to explain it, or at least try to assuage your lingering amazement that I deemed Nazi soldiers and American soldiers in WWII "morally equivalent."

First: I did NOT say they were "morally equivalent." I said that they were "more alike than different." These are two very different things.

There is no doubt that the moral arguments behind the two opposing forces in WWII were very different, and in no way equivalent -- at least in Europe. The Nazis were an aggressive, racist, murdering regime bent on global domination; the US was, at that time, a very nearly altruistic liberating force defending European allies -- "nearly" because we were of course defending our own economic interests in Europe. The conflict of Japan and America is somewhat less clear cut, as it was really about territorial hegemony beyond each's borders [further note... by that I include the formerly sovereign nation of Hawaii, hence my issues with raising the specter of Pearl Harbor.] Nevertheless, I would not argue, now, that we should not have entered into that war -- though I can easily see myself, as a genuine pacifist, arguing against it at the time... and who knows where the US not intervening in Europe would have led? Aggressive, murderous, racist regimes tend not to last very long, even without foreign intervention. But I digress.

I was referring not the causes of Axis and Allies being more alike than different, but to the Troops themselves. I was referring to the Average Soldier, who generally has neither the contemporary geopolitical awareness at the time of his 18-25 year old service nor the benefit of historical hindsight to accurately assess his or her own part in the geopolitical chess match. My argument was that as a group, those who agree to participate in the chess match as pawns for their country, patriots all, are liable to pay with their lives for whatever cause their King tells them they're fighting for -- without even a 50-50 chance that they're on some "right" side. Perhaps you'll agree with that... unless you're a "my country right or wrong" type... which is its own insidious brand of moral equivalency.

To illustrate. If you believe that wars and armies are generally just or unjust, and that the troops fighting in them are therefore moral or immoral, and that ours, at least, are inherently "moral" and worthy of "support," I challenge you to rate from zero to three the Average Soldier in the following 14 causes, where 0 is a soldier fighting for an unjust cause, and 3 is a soldier fighting for a just cause. I suggest you do this without scanning the list first, just your first impression.

1. A British soldier fighting in WWII.
2. A German soldier fighting in WWII.
3. An American soldier fighting in WWII.

Easy so far, I guess; as you rightly point out, WWII was a fairly exceptional case.

4. Same American soldier, fighting against North Korea in the Korean War.
5. A Viet Cong soldier fighting against the same US soldier (who's a general by now!).
6. A Japanese kamikaze pilot.
7. The suicide bomber who drove a truck into the US Marine barracks in Lebanon in '83.
8. An Afghani Mujahedeen soldier fighting against the Soviet Union with American arms in 1979.
9. The same Afghani soldier, now Taliban, fighting against American soldiers with North Korean arms today.
9a. The same Afghani soldier, fighting against Afghanis in an attempt to re-take Kabul.
10. An Iranian soldier in the 80's, fighting the Iraqi army, armed by the US.
11. An Iraqi soldier in the 1990s, fighting the US Army.
12. A Panamanian soldier fighting the invasion of the US (poor guy)
13. An Al Qaeda general who dies plummeting into the Twin Towers.
14. An American soldier securing the Southwest against Santa Anna in the Mexican-American War.

I personally find it nearly impossible to meaningfully differentiate any "average soldier" in any of 4-14. Is the Viet Cong fighting to defend his village with a stick, or a paid operative armed by Moscow and trained by Peking, or just a brainwashed peasant? Is the Afghani right in warring against the Soviets, but wrong in warring against us? There are too many nuances for easy answers.

I suppose if forced to, I would give only one 3 (the British in WWII, who were a peaceful, democratic people actively defending their own homeland which was under attack despite signed treaties from an aggressive, racist, and murderous regime) and a 2 only to American soldier 3, who was primarily there as an ally of Britain and France, to liberate Europe, and who also probably also felt a genuine existential threat to his homeland..

I might give 1's to 5, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12. They are, presumably, defending against what they (rightly or wrongly) perceive to be an immediate and existential threat from foreign troops on their own soil. But even then, are those troops all, therefore, equally worthy of "support?" The Panamanian army under Noriega? The Taliban? The communist, Soviet and Chinese backed Viet Cong?

I'd give zeroes to everyone else, because they're clearly fighting and killing on what I consider unacceptable grounds: on someone else's sovereign soil, sans a direct request or alliance with the sovereign of said soil and without a present and existential threat to their own homeland, generally with economic or geopolitical power as their goal rather than self-preservation.

Note that in every American war on the list with the sole exception of WWII, -- and almost all others not on the list -- I give America a solid zero because they fall into one or more of my "unacceptable" categories. We've never fought a foreign enemy in our homeland. [NOTE, I wrote this to my friend; he hasn't written back yet, but I've no doubt he'll say Pearl Harbor and 9/11 were homeland attacks. Fair enough... but again, WWII is an exception, and re: 9/11, see below.] I say, then why the fuck exactly are we warring so much? Why at all? You can give lots of answers, about spreading freedom and democracy (i.e. opening markets, i.e., seeking wealth and geopolitical power) and felling tyrants -- but as often as not we find ourselves not thanked for our benevolence in bringing war to these places.

So... all this makes me a pacifist. But I believe that being a pacifist doesn't mean I would never kill or commit acts of war any more than my being a Democrat means I can't vote Republican (though I never have). There are exceptions to every rule. I would make an exception in a genuine case of self-defense. I'd try to kill a guy trying to kill my wife or dog if I had to. But I don't believe we've faced a genuine war of self defense since the Civil War. You might argue that the war against Islamic Fundamentalism is one, or WWII was one. But just as I wouldn't drive across town and kill a guy who made a threat against my wife, I don't believe that "self-defense" includes us projecting military power across the globe. Absent existing alliances, I might have argued for mobilizing troops and arms to the east and west coasts of America to repel invasion by Germany and Japan. My idea of justifiable self defense against Al Qaeda would be, taking out those 9/11 planes the instant they were hijacked. But we missed that chance, and our military (for so it is called) budget would now be better spent looking more actively for Al Qaeda planes, boats, trains, suitcases, whatever, crossing our borders. You know... "defense."

Finally, and back to the point of "supporting our troops," I refuse to kowtow and give blanket "respect" to every American in a uniform. I'm happy to support and respect individual soldiers, who in my considered estimation fought for a good cause, for the right reasons, in genuine service to Good (whether or not that Good happens to align with American Interests). I know a lot of those people, and I do respect them. But I will not respect some guy who kicked ass in Grenada because he wanted a free education, or a woman who didn't want to go to college and couldn't qualify for any other job and said her interrogation techniques were her "duty" at Gitmo or Abu Ghraib, or a guy who bought God's "Manifest Destiny" as a reason to slaughter Indians or Mexicans, or even a vet wounded because he was drafted into what he believed to be a bad war in Vietnam but didn't have the guts to resist. That's what "support our troops" bumper stickers not only ask me, but command me, to do.

That, my friend, is my take on America, war, and our "place in the world" as far as our troops go. I think if want to be leaders in the world, we should do so by example, not by force. And I think that for all that everyone "hates war," few people act to eliminate it. I think the only way to end collective behavior that we we hate is for individuals to stop participating in it. So, to that extent, I do not support our troops. I prefer to support those who choose not to go to war on principle. And I respect, more than a single one of our soldiers in uniform, the Gandhis and Kings and Aquinos of history, who find another way to fight tyranny.

I believe someone said, "blessed are the peacemakers." He didn't say anything about "our men and women in uniform."

Jess