Heroism at Command

“War is a quarrel between two thieves too cowardly to fight their own battle; therefore they take boys from one village and another village, stick them into uniforms, equip them with guns, and let them loose like wild beasts against each other.” – Thomas Carlyle

Today is Memorial Day in the United States, and the internet always becomes slightly bizarre on this day, revealing one of the most problematic aspects of American intellectual discourse: the idea of supporting the troops. Everyone has to support the troops, and any criticism of militarism is criticism of the troops, and therefore unpatriotic.

Note that I said militarism, not military policy. Militarism as in the cultural centrality and deification of the military and military service. Even a liberal geek like Wil Wheaton has to post about how “their action and sacrifice will always be remembered.” The irony of the gravestone saying “Unknown U.S. Soldier” is quite tragic – the “action” and “sacrifice” will be remembered, but whoever this was, whatever his dreams and ambitions, his body was mangled by some other human shooting him or otherwise killing him. His family never got to see his face again. The body that once housed a living being full of potential for understanding, for change and growth, for love and fun and sex and sadness and bad jokes, was transformed into a disfigured piece of meat.

And why was that person out there? What was he (or she) fighting for? Liberty and democracy? Or natural resources and the strategic interests of the hegemonic few? People have died for both, and it’s not the same. And how can people so easily talk about honourable sacrifice when what they’re talking about is people losing their lives so that a few rich people can get even richer? Is it the same to honour the soldiers who fell in the Civil War or the American Revolution as it is to honour those who fell in Iraq?

There are those who disagree with the various administrations, but say that they support the fight of the troops for democracy. But if you disagree with the invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, why are you doing so? Because you’d rather be bombing the Pakistanis, or because you think that invading Iraq has got nothing to do with democracy? But if so, you have to understand that the people fighting in Iraq are not and will never be fighting for democracy. What they are fighting for is the control of business entities over governmental policies – a political situation otherwise known as fascism.

That’s not to say that the troops are all fascists. But the function they are fulfilling is to occupy and loot less powerful countries against international law and any and all conceptions of justice and democratic behaviour. There is nothing honourable about this. Many of them are certainly honourable people who mean well. But they are honourable people that are fighting for a profoundly unhonourable goal. A great many good people fought for the German side in World War II, continuing against all the odds and supporting their comrades. But that does not mean that I can “honour their sacrifice.” I can feel compassion. I can feel pity. I can feel a great deal of anger at the people who caused them to be there. But I can’t honour a crime against humanity.

And it goes further. As I said, a big problem is the worship of military service. But even if there are many good people in the military, and many of them are there because they mean to do good, can’t we hold on for a second and question this idea that having people whose job it is to kill others is maybe not such a great thing? And that there is something quite disturbing about those who make it the point of their lives to kill in the name of their government? Taking a life is not a small thing. Taking lives professionally is not a small thing either. For someone to want to do this… I find that highly questionable. And I’m fine with you disagreeing with what I say. But if everyone just salutes the flag, even when that flag is a symbol of death, bereavement and oppression for literally millions of people around the world, then we’re heading even deeper into fascist territory.

What about all the people struggling to support their families or themselves? What about the miners, working in conditions as horrid as those of a war? What about construction workers? What about people working three jobs to feed their children? Why glorify those who choose to kill others for a living?

And what about the people who are only there because they need the money? They don’t really want to kill anyone. They don’t want to fight for anything, either. They just want to go to college. When we throw them into the big pot of “died heroically for his country,” we’re basically justifying what is nothing more than murder by economic pressure.

Being shot by an enemy soldier in a country you don’t belong in isn’t sacrifice. It’s just death.

There are soldiers out there who are wonderful, honourable individuals who truly believe in what they are doing. There are soldiers who are out there because they don’t have any choice. And there are soldiers out there who believe in what they are doing even when that is butchering civilians and torturing people for having the wrong skin colour or the wrong God. And all of them are serving the purposes of the rich and powerful by attacking and oppressing countries far away.

We should mourn those lost fighting these wars, just as we should mourn those who opposed them. We should mourn them as victims, and we should mourn their victims. Because for every dead American (or European) soldier there are thousands of dead Iraqis, Afghanistanis, Pakistanis, Somalis, Vietnamese, Serbians, Croatians, and so on. Most of whom died defending their countries, whether they wanted to or not.

“He who joyfully marches to music in rank and file has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would fully suffice. This disgrace to civilisation should be done away with at once. Heroism at command, senseless brutality, deplorable love-of-country stance, how violently I hate all this, how despicable and ignoble war is; I would rather be torn to shreds than be part of so base an action! It is my conviction that killing under the cloak of war is nothing but an act of murder.” – Albert Einstein

Why do we need to support the troops when their mission is an immoral one? When we say we will never forget their actions, shouldn’t that include the shooting of children? The torture of innocents? The bombing of civilians? And even when those killed were truly enemy soldiers – what is there to honour in the killing of human beings, no matter which side they are on? We have to question the fundamentals, not just the surface.

None of the people in these graves wanted to die. Many of them did not wish to be soldiers in the first place, and we have to question the motives of those who did. By perpetuating this myth of sacrifice, we are helping to perpetuate war.

Instead of supporting the troops, let us instead support humanity, which happens to be on both sides of this conflict, and perhaps realize that paying people to kill others cannot be a good thing – neither for the victims, nor for the killers. If you really want to support your troops, how about letting them live lives that do not include killing and being killed?

For those who want to fight for their people in the field of action, who want to experience danger in the pursuit of a worthy goal, there is always the fire department. Now that is true bravery – to save others by facing not other human beings, but the destructive forces of nature itself. To die saving others – that is something I can truly honour.

Comments are closed.