Soon after the Virginia Tech massacre in April of 2007, a myriad of articles and blogs began to appear, each seeking to blame someone or something for the actions of the shooter. One cynical blogger has compiled a list of links to seventy-three articles espousing just as many theories on who or what was to blame for what remains the deadliest shooting rampage by an individual in U.S. history.
The blame game is also being played when it comes to fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some say Cheney is to blame. Others blame Bush the commander in chief or the Bush administration collectively. No, say some others, it is the fault of the big oil companies or the defense contractors. Still others maintain that the neocons are to blame, or perhaps the Project for the New American Century. It’s all about religion, insist some. It is the fault of the Zionists, the Israel Lobby, the Muslims, or the warmonger faction of the Evangelicals. None of these is right, says another, Congress and Congress alone is to blame. No, others reply, the blame lies with Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden or al-Qaeda. A few still think it is all the fault of those 9/11 hijackers.
The same thing goes for the Vietnam War. Johnson is to blame. LBJ should share the blame with Nixon. The fault lies with the hawks in the Johnson and Nixon administrations. McNamara should receive most of the blame. Eisenhower and Kennedy sent in military advisers so they are responsible. We should blame the Vietcong or Ho Chi Minh or Mao, says the super-patriot. When all else fails the Vietnam War can be blamed on the politicians. Maybe no men are to blame at all: Communism is to blame.
But what about U.S. troops? Don’t the ones doing the actual fighting get any of the blame? After all, neither Bush nor Cheney has killed anyone in Iraq or Afghanistan. Just like neither Johnson nor Nixon bombed Vietnam or Cambodia.
Judging from some of the responses I received to my recent article “War Hero or War Criminal?,” some people believe that U.S. troops should not be blamed for the death and destruction they dispense — even in an unconstitutional, immoral, and unjust war:
If your country calls you to service you should go… it is not a soldier’s job to determine the moral virtue of military policy. ~ Critic No. 1
I cannot accept that those who fight these wars are responsible (morally or otherwise) for them. The politicians and leaders who argue for and encourage such wars are wholly responsible. ~ Critic No. 2
I can’t criminalize all of our soldiers, marines, and airmen because the political basis for the war was unjust. ~ Critic No. 3
This isn’t the first time I have received mail like this. I get basically the same song whenever I write about the military and mention U.S. troops being responsible for the death and destruction they mete out:
The politicians are the ones you should be opposing, not the soldiers. The soldiers are there to do what they are told. They perform terrible acts because they are told to do so.
A soldier don’t make the decisions. They are told. You are simply a limp d**k sorry communist a**hole. Morality is for the simple pukes like you and not for the soldier.
I can agree with you on the point of not fighting illegal and unjust wars. But those are not the soldiers fault.
I oppose the war far more than you do. The fault is not that of soldiers sent to war.
The soldier does not commit an actual sin unless he chooses to break a moral law while in the military…. Military service is morally neutral.
The song is a little different each time, but the chorus is the same: The troops are just following orders so don’t criticize the troops. Some are ambivalent about the troops, but would never condemn them. Others will strongly denounce the war in Iraq, but never disparage the troops fighting it. Still others not only are not critical of the troops, they enjoin us with signs, ribbons, and exhortations to respect, support, and pray for the troops. Everyone gets livid if you make any critical remarks about the troops (unless they do something particularly evil that embarrasses the United States).
Unless one believes that the state is God or that the state should always be obeyed unconditionally, I fail to see how soldiers should get such a free pass. And what a free pass this is: killing with impunity and immunity.
Have U.S. troops been deceived by the U.S. government about the necessity of sending them halfway around the world? Definitely. Have they been duped about the nature of threats to the United States? No doubt. Have they been pawns in the game of U.S. imperialism? Certainly. But does this excuse them from being responsible for killing people and destroying their property when not directly engaged in the defense of the United States? Of course not. Ignorance is no excuse — just try to claim ignorance the next time a cop gives you a speeding ticket. And public school education or not, how could they possibly be ignorant, given the history of U.S. foreign interventions in the twentieth century?
But not only is ignorance no excuse, it is a point that is rarely raised by my detractors. My critics are united in their belief that morality is put off when a uniform is put on. Not so? Then what else are we to conclude? If U.S. soldiers should not be blamed for their killing of tens of thousands Iraqis, Afghans, Vietnamese, and Cambodians (who never lifted a finger against the United States until U.S. troops starting bombing them) because they should just do what their government tells them without regard to the morality of killing foreigners in their own country (again, who never lifted a finger against the United States until U.S. troops starting bombing them), then it is the uniform that makes all the difference. No one but the most ardent anti-Islamo-fascist super-patriot would excuse me, a civilian not in the employ of the U.S. government, if I boarded a plane for Iraq, landed, kicked in a few front doors, and opened fire — even if I tried to justify my actions by saying that I was fighting terrorism. But U.S. troops are lauded for “defending our freedoms” as they do this very thing.
I can hear the howls of protest from those who say that they are being misunderstood. U.S. troops cannot just kill indiscriminately. A uniform does not mean that all morality goes out the window. U.S. troops can only kill whom the U.S. government says to kill; they can only destroy whatever property the U.S. government says to destroy.
I see. No soldier is responsible for the death and destruction he inflicts as long as it is state-sanctioned death and destruction. I guess Voltaire was right: “It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.”
But is there anything U.S. soldiers shouldn’t do if commanded by the government? Few would say there isn’t. So, morality is not just for liberal, commie, pacifist, traitor, simple pukes like me after all. Morality does come into play — even in wartime. The problem is that some people have such a flawed view of the military that it has warped their morality. They would make a difference between the U.S. government ordering an American soldier to go to Iraq and kill a man clutching a gun and the U.S. government ordering the same soldier to go and kill a woman cradling a baby.
But why? No U.S. soldier has any business killing in either case. And no U.S. soldier has any business in Iraq in either case. The only reason an Iraqi would be pointing a gun at an American soldier in the first place is because the soldier traveled thousands of miles from the United States to invade and occupy Iraq at the behest of his government.
If no actions of soldiers obeying orders should be criticized because “it is not a soldier’s job to determine the moral virtue of military policy,” then what are we to do if U.S. troops are used against American citizens? What will those who think that soldiers should always do as they are told do when these same soldiers are ordered to march through their neighborhood and break down their front doors while participating in the war on drugs, the war on terror, the war on illegals, or the war on dissent? Will they still insist that “military service is morally neutral”? If so, then they are fools; if not, then they must believe that U.S. troops are not immune from criticism.
There exists a terrible inconsistency when it comes to troops following orders. To be consistent, no one in America should get upset with individual soldiers from other countries bombing, maiming, injuring, or killing Americans, military or civilian. They should be honored as war heroes for defending the freedoms of the people in their countries. Our anger and hatred should be limited to the politicians and leaders of the countries that order them to wage war against the United States. Why should U.S. soldiers always be considered liberators, peacekeepers, and defenders, but foreign soldiers invaders, occupiers, and attackers?
I also think that many people, including some veterans, are naïve about the military.
First, some soldiers (I didn’t say all soldiers or even most soldiers) don’t need to wait for an order from the U.S. government to kill. They just plain like killing what they consider to be ragheads, sand niggers, or camel jockeys, and have fun while they are doing it (“hedonists with guns” is how one Marine Corps veteran described it to me).
Second, most young people today join the military, not because they are willing to follow orders to keep the country safe, but because they are willing to follow orders to get enlistment bonuses, tuition assistance, educational allowances, help with student loan repayment, incentive pay, career training, world travel, thirty days of leave, free medical and dental care, the GI Bill, VA loans, and a pension.
Soldiers love the opportunity to wear something that others don’t have, something that makes them stick out in a crowd and makes them part of a special group. This is why they volunteer for Airborne, Special Forces and Ranger units, where they can wear berets with colors that make them stand out, and wear shoulder patches that make them the envy of others. They want badges, shoulder tabs, patches, etc., to signify their completion of difficult courses and combat tours. If an Army GI doesn’t have a patch yet on his right shoulder (signifying combat duty overseas with that unit), he feels naked around those who do. The cure? Get a combat tour and get that patch.
Uniform or no uniform, committing acts of aggression is immoral no matter who tells you to commit them. It’s high time that we started blaming the soldiers for the death and destruction they mete out. Perhaps then they won’t be so willing to fight in unconstitutional, unnecessary, and immoral wars.