For the War and Against the Troops

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Antiwar comedian Bill Hicks used to quip that, on the issue of the first Gulf War, he had etched out an unusual position for himself: "I was for the war," he said, "but against the troops." At least once he followed up by saying it was u201Cnot the most popular stance I’ve ever taken on an issue.u201D

Actually, that position, being for the war and against the troops, appears to be quite popular.

The hawks don’t see it that way. They in fact often insist that you cannot support the troops but oppose the war. This is their response to the dovish slogan, "Support the troops. Bring them home!" The warmongers like to argue that if you support the troops — even if you are against the war in principle — you must "support the war effort," for only victory will ensure safety for America’s young soldiers and marines, and only solidarity behind the war will mean victory.

In truth, however, it is the war that is endangering the troops, that is killing them every day, that is maiming many of them for life, keeping them from their families, destroying their relationships and early careers, and engaging them in brutalities which will forever traumatize so many of them and defile their conception of life. To support the war, then, is to support the continuing death and injury of America’s men and women in uniform.

Often the pro-war camp will retort that since the U.S. Armed Forces only comprise voluntary enlistees — in other words, since there is no draft — antiwar Americans disgrace them in saying they support them but oppose the war. The troops know what they’re fighting for, we are told. They signed up voluntarily. They chose to go to war, and we should honor their choices.

Well, now many of them want out. The overwhelming majority of them, in fact, want to get out of Iraq by the end of the year. A good quarter of them want to come home immediately.

Some in the antiwar camp — Brandon J. Snider on this very site, for example —have argued that so long as soldiers are voluntarily going along with an unjust war, they deserve not our support. They might deserve some kind of sympathy, but not our approval or resources or solidarity. This compelling, methodological-individualistic way of looking at the issue is not totally new, but has been advanced by respectable proponents ranging from Herbert Spencer to Buffy St. Marie.

In the early 20th century, in his essay "Patriotism," British philosopher Herbert Spencer wrote:

Some years ago I gave my expression to my own feeling — anti-patriotic feeling, it will doubtless be called — in a somewhat startling way. It was at the time of the second Afghan war, when, in pursuance of what were thought to be u201Cour interests,u201D we were invading Afghanistan. News had come that some of our troops were in danger. At the Athenum Club a well-known military man — then a captain but now a general — drew my attention to a telegram containing this news, and read it to me in a manner implying the belief that I should share his anxiety. I astounded him by replying — u201CWhen men hire themselves out to shoot other men to order, asking nothing about the justice of their cause, I don’t care if they are shot themselves."

In the mid 20th century, in her song "Universal Soldier," native American musician Buffy St. Marie wrote (and sang):

And he’s fighting for Democracy,
He’s fighting for the Reds,
He says it’s for the peace of all.
He’s the one who must decide,
Who’s to live and who’s to die,
And he never sees the writing on the wall.

But without him,
How would Hitler have condemned him at Dachau?
Without him Caesar would have stood alone,
He’s the one who gives his body
As a weapon of the war,
And without him all this killing can’t go on.

He’s the Universal Soldier and he really is to blame,
His orders come from far away no more,
They come from here and there and you and me,
And brothers can’t you see,
This is not the way we put the end to war.

Again, this is a compelling perspective. But what of the Universal Deserter? What of the men who no longer wish to "hire themselves out to shoot other men to order"? What of those who wish to quit their jobs and are only prevented from doing so by force and deception?

Even putting aside the backdoor draft of stop-loss, we know that the troops can’t quit if they want to. It is not really a freely chosen vocation if, once the troops see what is happening in the war zone, they are not allowed to quit. It is curious that these same people supposedly too young to buy alcohol or, in some states, to own handguns, are nevertheless suited to give themselves to the Army or Navy without the freedom to decide they made the wrong choice.

They entered the military being dishonestly told that they would be defending the United States and its Constitution, rendering their agreement to serve all the more revocable, given the present circumstances. Clearly, from the fact that so many of them somehow believe Saddam was connected to al Qaeda and 9/11, they have been deceived.

A majority of soldiers want to come home, and the war is the only thing keeping them there. If the government let them all quit when they wanted to, it’s hard to see how the war could persist. To support the war, then, is to effectively be against the troops who want to return home.

Supporting this war might go along with supporting many things. You can support the war and support the Republican Party (or the Democratic Party), the Bush administration, or the U.S. government. You can support the war and support imperialism, interventionism, and death. But if you support treating the troops like human beings, which necessarily means allowing them the right to quit their government jobs offered to them on false promises, you must oppose this war.

If you support the war, you support the troops’ continued presence among an unhappy, occupied people that wants them gone. You support their continuing to die for a lie — the lie that if they continue to die in vain, those who have already died in vain will not have died in vain.

Support the troops by bringing them home — at least the many who want to come home — out of extreme danger and back to their families and lives. Yes, this would destroy the war effort — which is what supporting the troops, at least in today’s context, implies. If you oppose doing this, you do not really support them. How can you support them by continuing to insist that they die against their will?

You can’t.

Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He is a research analyst at the Independent Institute. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.

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