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William Rivers Pitt | The Danger of the Sacred Soldier

We must stop idolizing soldiers and start caring for them as people.

Mario Tronti, a member of the 42nd Infantry Division of the US National Guard, performs "Taps" as an American flag is raised on the facade of the New York Stock Exchange, November 10, 2017, in New York City. (Photo: Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

On a day devoted to acknowledging the people who have served in the US armed forces, it is equally important to take sharp note of the profound effect so many years of sustained war and war preparation have had on this nation. The acceleration of that effect after September 11, Afghanistan and Iraq has been truly remarkable, and remarkably damaging to the fabric of freedom many wish to believe is weaved into the flag itself.

The phenomenon crops up in the strangest of places, and is wielded by politicians of low character as the bluntest of tools. Consider the ongoing saga of NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who famously took a knee during the national anthem last year to protest police violence against people of color. Some will argue this issue has been done to death, but on this day, it is instructive to recognize the fearsome rhetorical barrage leveled at Kaepernick for what it is: one symptom in a larger malady afflicting the country from root to branch.

The formula is as old as Why do you hate the troops?” Donald Trump, surrounded by a series of ever-escalating scandals, pulled a classic Look over here! move and made Kaepernicks protest his hate cause of the week. His core argument: By taking a knee, Kaepernick was spitting not only on the anthem and the flag, but on US soldiers as well. This type of red-meat mob baiting is nothing new for Trump; during his presidential campaign, he declared that anyone caught burning the American flag should be stripped of their citizenship, despite the fact that such an action is expressly forbidden by the Constitution.

Invoke the Sacred Soldier, and simple logic falls to dust.

There it is, though, as always: the Sacred Soldier, nameless and faceless, used as both sword and shield against the enemies of power and the status quo. The genuinely grim part of this is not the fact that a sitting president would steal the valor of soldiers to save himself from criticism and scrutiny — that number is older than rocks — but is the astonishing number of otherwise-intelligent people who either cant or wont see this facile sham for what it is. Invoke the Sacred Soldier, and simple logic falls to dust.

White House chief of staff John Kelly recently summoned the shade of the Sacred Soldier to defend the coarse behavior of Donald Trump. The soldier in question was none other than Kellys own son, Robert, who was killed by the Forever War in 2010. When Trump was accused of disrespecting fallen soldiers and their families recently, Kelly sailed to his defense with his son’s memory in tow, unleashing an avalanche of hyper-authoritarian gibberish that, under normal circumstances, should have ended his career in politics. In the presence of the Sacred Soldier, however, Kelly stood unscathed, even as he argued that anyone who has never worn the uniform is a lesser breed of mortal.

After so very many years of condensed war seven decades and counting since Pearl Harbor and the National Security Act, with the inevitable violent blowback hitting us where we live — the United States has fully adopted the siege mentality necessary for the implementation of a permanent state of conflict. That mentality has poured out of the Pentagon and down onto Main Street everywhere, patrolled by armored police driving through communities of color with tanks and sporting military-grade weaponry that came to them at a steep discount from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The nightly footage from the local news and the international news looks more and more similar by the day.

The rhetorical deployment of the Sacred Soldier is, among other things, a very lucrative enterprise these days. Trillions of tax dollars have been diverted by war over the years to the coffers of a select few whose names most of us will never know. An entire entertainment industry has been established to normalize the jarring process of full national militarization. Many of the newest TV shows, the most popular video games, the biggest Hollywood movies take the brutal reality of war abroad and at home and shrink it down to an easily manipulated false reality that fits snugly on a small screen.

Any nation that does not care for its war veterans has no business making new ones.

None of this is the fault of soldiers themselves. Of course, some enjoy the reverential treatment, as that is simple human nature, but that is far from commonplace. Many soldiers today do not even want you to thank them for their service. They wish simply to come home, to heal, and to find their parcel of normal after a season in Hell. This is the most reasonable expectation imaginable, and the fact that this country still struggles to fulfill even this small measure of solace tells you all you need to know about our national priorities. Any nation that does not care for its war veterans has no business making new ones.

The fault lies with politicians who glorify and take advantage of the Sacred Soldier in equal measure, even as they slash funding for real soldiers who desperately need it. The trauma of multiple deployments, combined with the deliberate undermining of the national economy for the benefit of the wealthy, has made for a hard homecoming for many of those real soldiers. Their reward — to be used as advertisements for the vast payday of permanent war whether they like it or not — is beneath contempt, and profoundly dangerous.

My grandfather served in the Navy during World War II, and my father volunteered for Vietnam. No one respects a soldiers sacrifice more than I do, but on this day of all days, it cannot just be about flags and bunting and a slick PR campaign featuring F-35s and AR-15s. The Sacred Soldier is being used deliberately to undermine and destroy the rights real soldiers have fought for and died to defend. Remember that, too.

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