“I oppose the war far more than you do. The fault is not that of soldiers sent to war. Only an immature idiot like yourself would make that claim. Your comments on what soldiers are good for is an embarrassment. They are heroes, you are an ass.” ~ One of my critics
No one questions whether the Russian soldiers who executed 21,000 Polish Army reservists in the Katyn Forest Massacre are responsible for their actions. No one questions whether the German soldiers who invaded Poland are responsible for their actions. No one questions whether the Turkish soldiers who massacred thousands of Armenians in 1915 are responsible for their actions. Why is it then that few Americans — even those opposed to the war — question whether U.S. soldiers are responsible for their actions?
Not only are U.S. soldiers not viewed as responsible for the death and destruction that they bring, we continually see signs and yellow ribbons expressing support for the troops. We also frequently hear from church pulpits that we should pray for the troops. Sometimes this is expanded to praying for the safety of the troops while they are defending our freedoms, but it is usually just the nebulous refrain: “pray for the troops.”
Although many defenders of the Iraq war have tried, usually under the umbrella of “just war” theory, it can’t be said that the actions of U.S. soldiers in this war are so different from the actions of Russians, Germans, and Turks that they should be commended instead of condemned. Labeling the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq a just war does not make it one. By no stretch of the imagination can the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq be called a just war. In fact, the war violates every “just war” principle ever invoked to justify a war. So why aren’t U.S. soldiers viewed as responsible for the death and destruction in Iraq — even by many of those who see this as an unjust war?
Those who say the troops are not responsible are, consciously or unconsciously, saying one of four things (or perhaps even all four).
Some say the troops are not responsible because they are just following the orders given them by their superiors. U.S. soldiers were told to invade and occupy Iraq. They were told to hunt down “terrorists.” They were told to load their planes and their weapons. They were told to drop their bombs and fire their bullets. Even some who oppose the war would agree. They maintain that although Bush the liar in chief and Rumsfeld the secretary of lies are war criminals, the individual soldier is not responsible because the chain of command goes all the way back to them. But I thought it was only God who should be obeyed 100 percent of the time without question? These people are hypocrites. No supporter of the war in Iraq who uses the “obeying orders” defense would allow a German officer at the Nuremberg Trials to get away with saying that he was just obeying Hitler’s orders. Do those who use the “obeying orders” defense actually believe that a soldier should never question the morality of his orders? Should a soldier shoot unarmed civilians because a Lt. Calley orders him to do so? Why not? He would just be obeying orders. Being told to clean or paint a piece of equipment is one thing; being told to bomb or shoot a person is another.
Others say the troops are not responsible because, as citizens of the United States, soldiers, like everyone else, must do as the state dictates. Many evangelical Christians agree, and join in this chorus of statolatry with their “obey the powers that be” mantra. No soldier is responsible for the death and destruction he inflicts as long as it is state-sanctioned death and destruction. Those who consistently hold this opinion have made the state their god; those who don’t should not be taken seriously.
Many say the troops are not responsible because they are American troops. Unlike the soldiers of any other country, U.S. soldiers are always liberators and peacekeepers, never invaders and occupiers. True, the United States has troops scattered all over the globe in 155 countries or territories, but America is a benevolent hegemon. Here too many evangelical Christians concur. They view the United States as the God-anointed protector of Israel that enjoys a special relationship with God. The war in Iraq is a modern-day crusade. The U.S. military is the Lord’s army that fights against the Muslim infidel. The inevitable conclusion to this aberrant nationalism can be seen in a statement from a critic of mine who considers me to be a “traitor”: “Every war that has ever been fought and ever will be fought by the United States has been just and has been for honor.” The government and the military could not ask for a more loyal piece of cannon fodder than this ultimate warmonger, although he himself won’t be the one going overseas — it will be the young men in his neighborhood who will be sacrificed for the state.
And then there are those who say the troops are not responsible because we are at war. As Rush Limbaugh recently said: “When our nation is at war, your duty is to support it, not offer your precious little opinion.” War not only makes for strange bedfellows (like the United States and Soviet Russia in WWII), it can used to cover a multitude of sins. In fact, under the cloak of war, the vilest crimes can be covered up or excused. In the minds of many Americans, a soldier in a uniform is a sanctified individual. In his review of My Battle of Algiers in National Review, Christopher Levenick makes a chilling observation about military uniforms and those soldiers guilty of torturing their opponents: “Indeed, it is not uncommon to learn that such men are capable of living out the rest of their lives without any sense of guilt for their actions. It remains a basic truth of human nature that a uniform is all that many men need to dissociate themselves from the evil they commit.”
Although the U.S. government and the general public don’t hold the troops responsible for their actions (unless they do something particularly evil that becomes an embarrassment), U.S. soldiers need to realize that it is they themselves who will ultimately be held responsible when they stand before God Almighty and give account of their deeds. U.S. soldiers fighting in Iraq need to recognize some things that are true and some things that are not true:
- The war is a crime against the Iraqi people.
- The war violates every just war principle ever formulated.
- U.S. military interventions are detrimental to world peace.
- U.S. foreign policy creates enemies and terrorists.
- God never appointed the United States to be the world’s policeman.
- The war is not in the best interests of the United States.
- U.S. forces in Iraq are not retaliating for 9/11.
- U.S. forces in Iraq are not defending our freedoms.
- U.S. forces in Iraq are not fighting terrorism.
- U.S. forces in Iraq are not defending the United States.
Until U.S. soldiers concede that the war was a grave mistake, they will keep on fighting. Until U.S. soldiers accept responsibility for their actions, they will keep on killing. Until U.S. soldiers understand that the state is a lying, stealing, and killing machine they will continue their state-sanctioned death and destruction. Until U.S. soldiers realize that they are but cannon fodder for the state, they will keep dying for a lie. And until young men and women acknowledge that the U.S. military has become — through its wars, interventions, and occupations — the greatest force for evil in the world, they will keep joining the military to get that enlistment bonus or that money for college.
No one is holding a gun to the head of any soldier and commanding him to fight. Yes, it is true that U.S. soldiers who refuse to continue to participate in the state’s interventions, invasions, and occupations might be dishonorably discharged, court-martialed, sent to prison, mistaken for a left-wing anti-war activist, called a coward, branded as anti-American, labeled a traitor, shunned by family, termed a quitter, ridiculed by veterans, or ostracized by fellow soldiers. Perhaps all of the above. But doing what’s right is oftentimes not an easy thing to do. There are frequently adverse consequences to doing the right thing.
But even if a gun was held to a soldier’s head and he was commanded to fight, does that mean he should give in? Don’t the negative consequences of refusing to fight that I mentioned above pale in comparison to losing one’s life? My answer is still the same: Do what’s right. If it’s not right to invade and occupy another country, then don’t do it. If it’s not right to kill people and break things, then don’t do it. The consequences be damned.
I have prescribed a bitter pill, and some will have a hard time digesting it. I am afraid that Christopher Levenick is right. The illicit love affair that many Americans — and especially many conservative, evangelical, and fundamentalist American Christians — have with the U.S. military means that it all comes down to a uniform. God help us when the absence or presence of a uniform is all that it takes to hold or not hold someone responsible for the destruction of person and property. God help us.