“Support our troops” is an unconditional American mantra. We’re told to celebrate them as warrior-liberators, as heroes, as the finest fighters the world has ever known. They’re to be put on a pedestal or plinth, holding a rifle and a flag, icons to American toughness and goodness.
What we’re not told to do is listen to them.
Today, I’d like to suggest six vows we should make when it comes to those troops:
Vow #1: Let’s start listening to them. And when we do — when we begin to recognize them in all their frailty and complexity, their vulnerabilities and imperfections — we’ll realize that they’re as restless and conflicted about our wars as many of us are.
How do I know? I’ve had the privilege of reading hundreds of emails from today’s (and yesterday’s) troops sent to me in response to articles I’ve written for TomDispatch.com. From these I’ve selected a handful of passages to share with you: voices that resonated with me, words that often got me right in the gut.
Consider this passage from an Army national guardsman, a non-commissioned officer who answered his country’s call and deployed to Iraq:
“I am… on my second tour of Iraq. My unit… has been plagued by suicides and psychiatric problems. Our guards-men even prior to deployment come from compromised social and economic environments, leaving them very susceptible [to military recruiters]. Many of our soldiers are almost forced into volunteering for multiple tours due to the lack of economic opportunity and the cold fact that there is no other way to support their families…
“I have seen blatant corruption among the [private] contractors [in Iraq] and even cases of outright human trafficking and forced prostitution among female third country nationals… My hope is that the U.S. can withdraw from this senseless war… This war has bankrupted the U.S. and caused untold suffering among U.S. Forces and women.”
When we praise our troops as volunteers in our “All-Volunteer Military,” how many of us consider that significant numbers of them are not truly volunteers? Rarely do we face the fact that our country has been running a poverty draft, sweeping up the disenfranchised and disadvantaged, with an emphasis on the rural working class, and sending them halfway across the world into harm’s way.
Which leads to my second vow:
Vow #2: Let’s stop consoling ourselves with the myth that all our troops are volunteers — a myth which leads most Americans to pay remarkably little attention to and take no responsibility for the wars our “volunteers” are fighting.
The second part of this sergeant’s letter calls for yet another vow. It reminds us that war, by its nature, breeds corruption and gives free rein to abuses of all sorts. Indeed, as a historian of past wars, the harsh realities of psychological casualties, of forced prostitution, of rampant corruption should hardly surprise me — but I confess that they still do. As one officer who specializes in contracting wrote me from Baghdad, he found the amount of war profiteering by private contractors in Iraq “mind-blowing, but nonetheless eye-opening.”
Despite evidence of endemic corruption and rampant war profiteering, why do our eyes remain glazed over, if not stubbornly shut? Is it because our government-military-media complex is always seeking to put the best spin on our wars?
Vow #3: Let’s stop putting a happy face on our wars. Americans should start taking them in for what they truly are in all their waste and inhumanity. Only then might we be moved to put an end to them.
As we glamorize war, or, if not war itself, the “voluntary” decision of young soldiers to fight and possibly to die in them for us, we continue to play down the hardships involved, while refusing to consider the hopelessness of the tasks we’ve assigned them.
A helicopter pilot wrote me recently as he was preparing for deployment to Afghanistan. The odds of successful “nation-building” in that country were not good, he assured me, when you consider past “abject failures” in Haiti and elsewhere. How in the world did such nation-building efforts, denounced as worse than useless by Rush Limbaugh and presidential candidate George W. Bush in 2000, come to be considered right, just, and true — or even practical?
As this pilot summed up the Sisyphean situation in which he and other American military personnel have been placed: “Somehow this heretofore impossible task [of nation-building in Afghanistan] will now be accomplished by complete novices while people are trying to kill them.”
Just ponder that sentence: All by itself it could serve as an antidote to the Afghan Kool-Aid being drunk in the halls of the Pentagon. Which leads to my next vow:
Vow #4: Don’t send novices on nation-building exercises in places where the natives are hostile and the rebels are trying to kill them.
Again, if you listen closely to our troops, you might be surprised at their views on how and why we fight. Consider the following confession from an Army lieutenant colonel:
“I have been in uniform for almost 30 years — obviously I love my country. But it is astonishing to see a nation that once was so committed to liberty and truly assisting the world, turn into a narcissistic empire fighting out of insecurity, as opposed to increasing security. (Whatever happened to walk softly and carry a big stick?)”
Here’s a simple truth Americans seem to have lost touch with: greater security doesn’t come from fighting more wars; it comes from fighting fewer of them or none at all.
Vow #5: Some things are worth fighting and dying for, others aren’t. It’s time for us to do a far better job of figuring out the difference.
With respect to how we fight, the email message that hit me the hardest lately came from a recently retired general and former infantry division commander. In his considered words:
“As an old warrior, I keep wondering how it is our leaders keep praising our supposedly superior arms while licking wounds inflicted by [Afghan] village warriors armed with little more than IEDs and small arms. As for the drones, if I were a Jihadi/Taliban, I would think them a coward’s way of doing business — an obvious sign of cultural weakness. [Because of the end of the draft,] our leaders breathe war and our people care not. We reap what we sow.”
Are we as a nation breathing war more and yet caring less precisely because the killing in our name is now being done by “volunteers” and ever more of it by remote control? And here’s a question: As we praise ourselves for our innovative, comparatively low cost (to us) high-tech weapons like our “Predator” and “Reaper” drones, is our reliance on massive firepower only serving to strengthen the resolve of the enemies we’re fighting? Which leads to my next vow:
Vow #6: Don’t get involved in land wars in the Middle East and Central Asia — unless you’re willing to reap what you sow.
Whether we realize it or not, the truth is that we’re already reaping what we’ve sown. Leaving aside the “collateral damage” we’ve inflicted on others, our own harvest is measured in the wounded bodies and minds of our troops who still aren’t getting the medical and psychological care that they’ve earned and deserve. And in these budget-cutting times, is it not likely that we’ll soon hear about cuts in benefits even possibly for wounded veterans?
Which leads me to a final vow:
Bonus Vow: Recalling Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, let’s vow to care for those who have borne the battle, and for their families, and strive to achieve a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Finally, a special “thank you” to all the troops and veterans who have written me from the boonies, whether deserts or mountains — or even the green and peaceful hills of retirement. I hope my vows do you some justice.
William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and professor of history, is a TomDispatch regular. He welcomes reader comments at [email protected]. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which Astore discusses the difficulty of speaking one’s mind in the military, click here, or download it to your iPod here.
Copyright 2011 William J. Astore