Don't Support the Troops

by Brandon J. Snider by Brandon J. Snider

"I have already alluded to the difference hitherto existing between regiments of men associated for purposes of violence, and for purposes of manufacture; in that the former appear capable of self-sacrifice – the latter, not."

~ John Ruskin, Unto This Last, 1862

This was the view of one of the 19th century's most prominent and influential leftists. Ruskin goes on to say that "the soldier's trade, verily and essentially, is not slaying, but being slain." It isn't the natural danger of being killed in battle that has Ruskin mesmerized. One can be killed doing almost anything. It is the fact that the soldier "holds his life at the service of the State." Service. This is Ruskin's euphemism for being a hired killer.

Current Attitudes

"Support the troops – Bring them home!" is a familiar refrain in current libertarian antiwar dogma. The slogan assumes they want to come home. It assumes they don't like what they're doing over there. It practically assumes they're libertarians. But are they? If so, why did they join the military? The fact is that American soldiers probably reflect the attitudes on war and interventionism of the US populace at large. Let's face an unpleasant truth: the voting majority in the US is pro-intervention. That same majority thinks that both World Wars were swell adventures, and that, if Vietnam was a failure, it was at least a noble effort. This is the pool from which the United States draws its military. Soldiers may think they're defending the country, or they may believe that action, whatever the consequences, is better than inaction. In other words, better to do something about an atrocity than stand by and allow it to happen. This kind of thinking needs to be debunked and it cannot be done successfully without reasoned criticism of the troops. Libertarians cannot say that war planners and the ideologues who drive them are evil, but that the instruments of those plans are peaceable innocents.

There's a tendency in libertarian circles to think that radical criticism of supposed sacred cows will prove to be disastrous to the future of the movement. I look at it differently. I think the other side should be ashamed of themselves, and we should encourage such shame with our rhetoric. We should not apologize for our views; we should make the statists apologize. We are libertarians, they are totalitarians; is this not correct? When I see libertarians Supporting the Troops! and reserving criticism for policy-makers, I see this view in practice. Yet Supporting the Troops! is a distinctly collectivist idea. Self-sacrifice for the state – is there any principal more anathema to individualism? Why should anyone sacrifice himself for the state unless he is a mere worker bee?

The state is greater than the individual; more important than anything else, and all must be sacrificed to protect it, even from its own parts. Those who are willing to sacrifice themselves should be held above all others – praised as though they were saints. This is what we're tacitly saying when we Support the Troops!

Many libertarians I read regularly gloss over the issue of The Troops, and exactly what they're doing in their glorious adventures. When atrocities occur, it is reported as "the US did it…" or "the administration did it…" The terms are invariably abstract enough so that no names are named.

The US has an all-volunteer army now. These aren't the days of the draft, where men are ordered to kill-or-be-killed (though even in the days of the draft, it was possible to peacefully resist). Still, many arguments abound against criticism of troops:

The troops were lied to by the administration, specifically with regards WMDs. What a revolutionary idea, that politicians lie. Strange that we libertarians never believed those lies. Strange that we knew from the second that they escaped Colin L. Powell's lips that it was, as Powell himself said, "bullsh*t." I suppose we libertarians have access to special information that everyone else can't see or make any use of.

The US military should only ever be used for defense; it says so in the Constitution. Please. When, oh when, has the US military ever been used as a defensive force? The US is not in danger of invasion, has never been in danger of invasion, and does not require a standing military. Even with these obvious truths, the US has had a standing military of ever increasing size since before the Cretaceous period. The US military is, was, and ever shall be, an offensive force, existing at the meddlesome whims of political masters. If GI Joe joined the military thinking he would only be used if the US were attacked, he was suffering from an incurable form of galactic foolishness. Let's not lionize a fool, especially one with a gun.

Another thing, I could live without ever hearing a libertarian talk about again is the blasted Constitution. Lysander Spooner wrote a little book called No Treason: the Constitution of No Authority 135 years ago. Allow me to summarize; the Constitution is a contract between parties which do not exist and have not signed it. Therefore, it clearly exists outside the law, got it? If you're going to be a radical, be a radical, don't talk like Republicrats. Besides, the Constitution is a Living, Breathing Document as long as there are living, breathing human beings in the state apparatus to interpret it. Get over your fantastical dreams about an all-powerful document which will restrain the power of the state. These kinds of tiresome, illogical arguments don't seem radical, just very, very. Don't even get me started on the Founding Fathers (Full disclosure: I'm Canadian).

They're naïve; they didn't understand what they were getting into when they signed up. And yet, again, we do seem to understand. Libertarians did not sign up, because we didn't want to kill or be killed, for the state. What have we been doing right that they have not? Is the information so hidden that they cannot seek out and determine for themselves what they're getting themselves into? Certainly there is no substitute for experience, which they certainly lack. But is it not their responsibility, given what they do know about their impending duties, to seek out and inform themselves of what awaits? They are, after all, being asked to take a weapon and kill other human beings. They know that much. That's not the sort of thing one would do in Sunday school. How much more pathetic and contemptible does it make them that they didn't properly investigate the situation before they volunteered? It is also reasonable to assume that many of them do understand and are happy to carry out their orders, and it is reasonable to ask what we would do in their place, and why they do not do so. If we had joined the military, gone to Iraq, and suddenly become libertarians, what would we do? Would we not do as Kevin Benderman has done? Refuse to obey any future orders, and willingly go to prison for it. Better that than continue to kill. The fact that the troops continue to obey orders, and some no doubt enjoy their jobs, clearly reflects their attitudes – and suggests what level of sympathy they deserve.

In joining, they're acting in their financial best interests, like we all do. It's not their fault, it's the system. Some equate the military to being on a public works project. Before you continue with this easy, lazy line of thought, be sure to draw a clear moral demarcation point between building a road and blasting someone's head off.

Troops are victims of military planners. If so, they share equal responsibility for their victimhood. What do we call someone who's killed by an invading force? We usually try not to call them anything at all. We usually ignore them and focus on our own casualties. They are, however, clearly victims. The troops who have victimized them share responsibility with the military planners. Troops are not mindless machines, automatons carrying out prearranged instructions as if without free will. At any time, they can lay down their weapons and refuse kill.

War is just one big insane disaster; blaming individual troops for what happens is not fair. Military-worshipper Tom Hanks made a similar comment on Charlie Rose's program a while back. He said "In the Vietnam War, there were no bad guys." A deft maneuver – reducing thoughtful, reasoned analysis into a 2-second sound bite, while simultaneously granting pardons all around. This is an argument against war, not against joining the military and following orders. If you and I know that war is an insane kill-fest, then why doesn't GI Joe know it beforehand? And isn't it his responsibility to know?


It's easy for libertarians to dislike politicians, but not so easy for them to dislike GI Joe. We hold brutal killers like John Wesley Hardin or Charles Manson in the lowest regard, but the difference between these killers and military troops is semantic and symbolic. It's time to address the issue of the troops with the brutality it richly deserves. It's time to deconstruct the myth of the glorious military adventure. It's long past time we shame people who think about military service. Perhaps then fewer young people will throw their lives away. "Kill the head and the body will die" is a truism that many libertarians no doubt use to justify their attitudes towards the troops. But the supply of troops and the attitudes regarding them is also a key. Shame people into refusing to join and the supply of cannon fodder will atrophy to the point where foreign adventures will not be possible without a draft. Will the populace accept a draft? I have an idea that a draft at this point would be the same as poking a sleeping grizzly bear with a stick. Try it, just try it.