Memorial Day in the United States is a time for absentminded, almost spontaneous, flag-waving and military worship; a time when yellow ribbons become ubiquitous and the mantra “support the troops” enjoys renewed life. For those of us who are keenly critical of the United States, its foreign policy in particular, those accoutrements of Memorial Day are more than enough to induce the worst kinds of nausea and even heartache. My family and my close friends are aware that I don’t support the troops. For many of them, that makes me weird and suspect, even arousing their anger and frustration. Given that my position is based on carefully reasoned principles, and not just callow contrarianism, I will attempt to explain it, so that it might be examined anew.
I am often bewildered at what an individual means by stating that she supports the troops, especially where that individual opposes wars and imperialism. It has become apparent to me that many support the troops out of a sense of duty or obligation, one that in American life is screened from debate more fanatically than almost anything.
For one who backs war itself, perhaps it makes perfect sense to support the troops, the necessary constituent parts of the larger practice advocated. If you say you support a movie production, then it follows that you would support the various actors, screenwriters, producers and cinematographers involved in the overall process.
What is rather stranger and more perplexing is the spectacle of one who opposes or is critical of America’s wars, but nevertheless insists that we must support the troops. But what could that mean? Are we to believe that the war is a thing separate and apart from the individuals who actually execute it, that it exists in a vacuum as some mysterious evil spirit in and of itself? It’s an awful lot like proclaiming, “I oppose the House of Representatives, but I support the individual members of Congress.”
It seems untenable to support the integral pieces of the very thing you stand against. Though it may still be plausible, if we assume that to be an anti-war troop supporter just means that they feel compassion for the troops and sorrow at their fate.
But if “support the troops” means only just that — that we ought to pity these burnt offerings to the state and corporate gods of war and respect them as fellow human lives — then, of course, who could disagree? In that case, even I would support them. But no one on any side of the war question, if you will, really believes that the trumpeters of “support the troops” mean that. Rather what the dupes and malefactors most loudly adjuring that we support the troops are really saying is that we should get in a straight, marching line behind the American War Machine for no more worthy a reason than that it is American and so too are we.
Such rationales have very little to do with genuine honor, loyalty or other noble values, but are merely a sinister, nationalistic cult that we are meant to swallow without criticism or thought. Indeed the “support the troops” propaganda script is designed to do just that, to promote active hostility and outrage at anyone that might have the temerity to question the United States’ hegemonic military domination of the world — and the whole political economy that it travels with.
Do I hate the troops? Certainly I do not. No, instead my execration is turned toward the sniveling politicians who send them to their deaths, and to the inhuman defense contractor executives who profit from them — both groups just as much terrorists as the al-Qaeda leadership. And both the U.S. military establishment and al-Qaeda prey on and take advantage of the misconceived anger and patriotism of society’s benighted, mostly young men, who see themselves as freedom fighters and their cause as virtuous.
These youths, the sacrificial lambs of empire, are victims; to say that you support them as troops — that is, in their capacity as tools of the Empire — is to shamefully devalue their lives, to concede that they are nothing more than the military industry’s cost of doing business. And war is business. The entire political and economic paradigm in the United States for decades on end has been based on a formula of a military industrial complex at home and sycophantic colonies abroad.
“Support the troops” is among those “smelly little orthodoxies,” to quote George Orwell, that nurture and preserve injustice in society. We must get under tired clichés and banalities if we are to arrive at the reality of important issues. As a tradition, anarchism has endeavored to do just that — to confront the superstitions that have so long crusted over genuine critical thinking. This Memorial Day, try out the anarchist’s counter-tradition of challenging the political mainstream’s domination of the discourse. You may be surprised what you find.