As the United States’ military engagement in Iraq approaches the four year mark, public support continues to deteriorate. Despite this turning tide, politicians and pundits critical of the war continue to adhere to a curiously cautious ritual: qualifying their critique with assurances that they “support the troops”. Many war advocates dismiss this rhetoric as duplicitous, and for once they’re (unintentionally) correct.
Let’s be clear about the establishment: both critics and proponents of this war serve each other’s purposes in a mutually reinforcing fashion. Without exception, each and every participant in this endless debate has supported the authority of the State. While war opponents may not have supported this particular exercise of privilege and brutality, they nevertheless agree that the government reserves the arbitrary right to impose itself upon citizens. Privilege, not some bureaucratic or strategic error, gave us this war.
Faithful adherents to the State, hawks and doves alike, appeal to the same sacrificial and mystical arguments as those who peddled the war originally. The myths of glorious liberation and foreign menaces spun by war proponents are not different in principle from all other government attempts to regulate, control, and manipulate society. Skeptics of the invasion questioned its expediency but not the right to invade, reducing the controversy to amoral calculation and cost/benefit analysis.
Among the establishment this debate has more to do with the strategic, profitable management of “human resources” than representing the interests of citizens. Moreover, the entire domain of policy is hopelessly immersed in abstractions and theories which only serve to drag consensus further and further from the concrete reality of its effects. The drive towards war was only a slightly cruder invocation of the same double-talk and domination that governments have always foisted on people. “Support the troops” is a failsafe mechanism designed not to stop wars but to conserve the power to wage war another day.
Oil, terrorism, and dictators are just peripheral issues, after all, compared to the bedrock goal of preserving faith in the power and sanctity of our government. The only thing worse than losing a war is losing the right to wage war. The only thing worse than losing an election is losing the system of power and privilege which makes elections worth winning. And the only thing worse than implementing bad policy is the realization that policy is largely irrelevant to reality. Critics of the war are obligated to speak in terms that reinforce the abstract dogma of the State — otherwise, why would they seek office?
Even for an “antiwar” politician, the military is the final guarantee of order and control, both domestically and abroad. So the only thing worse than opposing the troops is to challenge the special nature of this thing we call “the troops” – to stop treating servicemen and women as some abstract policy artifact and examine their objective human reality. The truth is that “the troops” is an entirely artificial construct. Juxtaposed against an equally absurd abstraction, “the American people,” it can be used in a variety of clever ways to manipulate public sentiment at will. But “the troops” are really just human beings; so are “the American people” and, for that matter, so is “the enemy.” That is the empirical, material reality that will remain once the lights and cameras are gone and the bombs have stopped falling. It is far too horrible to contemplate on its own terms.
Every last shred of professed obligation to support the military, let alone the unbearable moral ambiguities piled upon soldiers, is a coordinated myth designed to trick us all into working together like a big, amoral machine – with policy wonks at the control panel, of course. The reality is that people are wrongly dying because of the State, people have always wrongly died to preserve the State, and they will continue to die until we, the people, start saying “no”. We cannot count on establishment types to say “no”; until people are finally unwilling to believe in fairy tales, storytellers are easily replaced.
Criticizing the war while “supporting the troops” is just another sneaky way to preserve the long term power to wage war – and it’s just about as duplicitous as it gets. We should assert our human sovereignty and solidarity on our own, unmediated terms and reject appeals for obedience and sacrifice based on meaningless abstractions. Only then can we – soldiers, civilians, humans – begin to truly do away with the contrived abstractions that dehumanize our planet and fuel war.