JR'S Free Thought Pages
Let's All Support the Troops!
I'm presently enjoying a
compilation of short essays titled Nothing For Granted (2005) by Canadian
U of T philosophy professor Mark Kingwell. These essays are selected from a
weekly column he had in the Toronto Globe and Mail over the past few years.
Kingwell, I surmise, is the Globes token gesture to leftist opinion - an
extreme rarity in corporate rags these days. Kingwell is an extremely proficient
writer, as are most philosophers, and he has written several stimulating and
entertaining books that are well worth reading as well. I can recommend three
that I have read personally: Practical Judgments (2002), The World We
Want: Virtue, Vice and the Good Citizen and Better Living(2001), and The
Pursuit of Happiness From Plato to Prozac(1999). All are excellent reads.
Don’t Blindly Support the Troops by Mark Kingwell
Toronto Globe and Mail, April 2, 2003
We've been told countless times over the course of the current Iraqi war, now entering its bloody middle period—the period, that is, when news coverage begins to pall even as casualties begin to mount—that we need to support the troops. It is a sentiment widely considered unobjectionable, imposed alike during editorial meetings, radio talk shows, and the seventh-inning stretch of baseball games. Only a callous brute would deny support for these brave young men and women.
But we should deny it, and for a very simple logical reason. If the war they are engaged in is unjust, then even the bravest and most honourable soldiers do not merit support. We must distinguish between a wish for their safe and speedy return and an endorsement of what they are doing in the deserts of Iraq. We must distinguish between their courage and the uses to which it is put.
This war is unjust by any measure considered valid in the long tradition of philosophical and legal argument that stretches from Saint Augustine, through Pufendorf and Grotius, to the Geneva Convention and the Nuremberg Trials. It is an act of aggression, not defence; it is not being waged to restore peace; it was not the last resort. Whether it is about oil, or imperial muscle-flexing, or testing client-state loyalty in the New American Century—or all of these— matters less than the fact that it lacks basic ethical justification.
You may dispute all of this, may even dispute the worth of the just war tradition. Fine. But do not suggest that opposition to the war is invalid because, now that the war is on, we must support the troops. By that reasoning, any and all war is rendered de facto just, since it always entails feats of courage and self-sacrifice from the admirable young. That is mere militarism, the last refuge of the argument-free. No. If the admirable young are engaged, for whatever reason, in a cause which is not just, they are doing wrong. And our blind approval of their actions is equally wrong.
This is not a popular view, especially in wartime, and it is easy to see why. The shift in media coverage since the war began is palpable. Reporters cannot hide their fascination with wartime machinery and personnel. The planes, the guns, the armoured vehicles—it's all so compelling, like a shaky-camera war movie or first-person-shooter video game. Formerly sober and balanced journalists now reveal themselves as the military equivalent of jock-sniffers, those uneasy nerd professors who pass a failing point guard so he'll be eligible for the Final Four.
The deep compulsion of war is real enough. I know: I grew up in a military family, relished the thoroughbred machines of late-century air power, came within a whisker of joining up. But the green uniforms of the unified Canadian forces put me off; I missed the belted blue tunics and jaunty style of the old RCAF, top button undone, my silver swept-wing Sword waiting on the tarmac. This stuff dies hard. When that other national paper recently ran a graphic of U.S. aircraft being deployed in Iraq, I saw immediately that some witless editor had reversed the silhouettes of the A-10 and the F-18, two warplanes that look nothing like each other. Please!
But the pull of war is more than boy's-own fetishism over hardware. All men wonder whether they would be equal to the demands of battle, the physical courage and ability to withstand pain, the need to react under extreme pressure. Could you hack it? The problem, as the shell-shocked VC-sporting officer in Ryan's Daughter says, is that you just don't know. You can't know. And so the rest of us, the vast majority who will never experience combat, will always wonder.
Politicians and generals have always taken advantage of this, slyly mixing the virtues of the battlefield with those of the debating floor. Plato warned centuries ago that this was dangerous, since the demands of war are for glory, not justice, and the endgame of militarism is a state where only combatants enjoy the benefits of citizenship. (The film version of Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers offers a vivid futuristic version of this, complete with ultra-violence, xenophobia, and Nazi-inflected uniforms.)
The current reality is less spectacular but just as sinister. The warrior's virtues are once more annexed by the non-warrior, and politicians are revealed as the ultimate jock-sniffers, rigid old men willing to send young and brave ones to their deaths. Meanwhile, they deploy selective moral arguments in astonishing acts of high-level hypocrisy.
Consider. The Bush Administration flouts the authority of the United Nations, thereby weakening its global position, then gets on a high horse about the humanitarian aid programs the U.N. has suspended because of the attacks. The United States refuses to endorse the International Criminal Court, an agency that might have brought Saddam Hussein to justice without war, yet Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld angrily invokes the Geneva Convention when Iraqi television shows video of captured American prisoners. Peter Arnett is fired by NBC for saying the first American war plan has apparently failed, even as all reports indicate the first American war plan has failed.
Such artful double-standards are formidable rhetorical weapons of empire. They allow power to keep its opponents always one down while mitigating the naked application of power. Heads we win, tails you lose. Critics of this sleight of hand are then accused of "moral equivalency," as if arguing for fairness and the rule of law were a violation of some prior God-given imperative. Which, of course, in the current atmosphere of repression and aggressive patriotism, it is.
There is a word for this combination of military celebration, disdain of objection, intimidation of dissent, and abuse of sentiment. The word is fascism.