Saturday, April 7, 2007

Why "Support the Troops" No Longer Works

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Appearing at The Blogging Curmudgeon, My Left Wing, and the Independent Bloggers' Alliance.

The American Prospect sounds the death knell for the slogan that two Bush Administrations have used to whip an ambivalent public into line behind their oil wars. "Support the Troops." I hated the phrase during Gulf War I and I hate it now. I know when I'm being manipulated. As Bush the Elder set out to lick the "Vietnam syndrome," he tweaked a public made guilty by urban legends about returning veterans spat upon by anti-war protesters. My neighborhood, then, was a sea of flags and yellow ribbons. How can you protest the war? You have to support the troops. I support them so much I want to bring them home, I'd say, but there is no reasoning with the mindlessly jingoistic.

In our fifth year of Operation Endless Bloody Occupation, the phrase has been stripped of its utility. As our troops sustain back to back deployments. As they return with broken bodies and broken minds, to rat infested hospitals and a failing VA, any assertion from the Administration that those who want the bloodletting to stop are the one's who fail them seems like crude burlesque.

So the American Prospect informs us, as it reports that deep in red America, Democratic Senator John Tester is facing no serious resistance to his oppositional stance on the war and his vote for the supplemental bill that included a timetable for withdrawal.

Indeed, the only direct mention of the vote came from a young Army wife, who thanked Tester for "supporting the troops by voting for deadlines to bring them home." Heather Scharre is 28. She's married to 27-year-old Sergeant Paul Scharre, who served three tours in Afghanistan while on active duty, then left the Army only to find himself involuntarily recalled last September. He is now on his way to Iraq. "We've been told to expect 14 to 16 months," Heather said of her husband's deployment.

Scharre asked Tester, who sits on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, to make sure that returning Iraq veterans have access to counseling, including couples and marriage counseling. "We were used to four-month deployments," Scharre said. The adjustments after those tours were difficult enough; she could only imagine what re-entry into everyday life will be like after a tour of 14 or 16 months.

"I think we been hearing from some people, like the president and the vice-president, that if you don't support the war, you don't support the troops," said Scharre, "and I feel very strongly that that is not the case."

But the damage done as this idiotic meme crashes to earth is more than the loss of it's use as a rhetorical bludgeon. There is substantial damage to the troops themselves. For having been used as political cover for a corrupt agenda, they are now convenient targets for a public disgusted by this war. Why not? They're not so much human as they are human hyperbole. They ceased to be human beings when they were turned into symbols of mindless nationalism. When they became set dressing for speeches and props for photo ops. Made mute in all matters of political debate by their uniform code, they were, none the less, used as instruments of propaganda for dark political motives. Unable to pick and choose their wars by virtue of signature and oath, they went where they were sent.

As any of my regular readers knows, my husband is one who signed, who swore, who went. So, yes, it pains me when he is called a murderer, an uneducated dupe, a fool. While outrage at the troops themselves for their role in advancing American imperialism is, in my experience, still confined to a small, vocal, minority, it, none the less opens a window into the American psyche. It is only the most extreme example of the shadow projection of a cloistered public, cut off for so long from the direct experience of war.

That we have had no war fought on our soil in our memories, has enabled most Americans to view the horror only through a media aperture. But, unlike the first Gulf War, which looked like nothing so much as a fireworks display, this one "comes into our living rooms" with blood and sinew still attached. Not so easy to ooh and ahh at pictures of the dead children on whom the fireworks fall. But graphic as these images are, they still do not, cannot, capture the experience of the troops on the ground or of the Iraqis who live it daily. We still sit at safe distance, discomfited but naive.

And so we reject it, project it, displace it. Those invested in keeping war "glorious" decry that we see it at all, calling on our media to hide the "graphic" photos in the name of decency; diverting our gaze from coffins and amputees. But at the opposite extreme are those who see the horrors and disown the war itself like a bastard child. At both ends of this sharp polarity is the same disease; the utter failure to take responsibility for what our country has become and for what it has wrought.

We must support our troops. They are keeping America safe.

Fuck the troops. Look what they have done.

Our poor troops do these awful things but they were duped because they are young and poor and had no options.

And all of it, all of it, is denial. Mental tricks to keep unimaginable violence "over there." Ways of keeping a safe distance from the hard reality that war is a fact of life. That every sovereign nation prays for peace but prepares for war. That soldiers the world over are trained to kill, because sometimes killing is necessary. Wars are ugly. People die in them. Many of them horribly. That's true in "just" wars just as it is wars of aggression waged on lies.

But the greatest shame of all; the one that forces us to glorify, to distance, to displace, to rescript, to shun, is that, like it or not, this war is intrinsically linked to our way of life. If we live here, work here, shop here, pay taxes here, we are responsible. If we use petroleum, including plastics, we are most definitely responsible. This war is the dark underbelly of our civilization. It is an imperialist adventure. We are an imperialist nation. Embrace it or protest it, but for pity's sake, own it.

This war is not necessary but it was inevitable. Inevitable in a nation where roughly half the people vote, where politics is a football game, where public schools teach ignorance, and social institutions reinforce learned helplessness. In a nation where slapping magnets on our SUVs is participation in a war effort, but a fraction of the populace fights wars mostly hidden from public view. We have a military to protect our borders. And without them our borders would inevitably be breached. As our empire has grown to encompass corporate agendas that know no boundaries, they protect our "interests." But more than anything, more than anything, they protect our illusions.

"We sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm." ---George Orwell on a BBC broadcast, April 4, 1942