Wednesday, April 07, 2010

That anti-patriotic feeling

Many opponents of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have over the years declared that, while they may have objected to the invasions and continue to abhor the ongoing occupations, they nevertheless support the troops fighting on the ground, an assertion considered necessary to insulate antiwar folks from claims of insufficient patriotism. But while I understand why people utter the cliche, and sympathize with what it is I think most are trying to say -- that the politicians who start the wars are more to blame for the ensuing catastrophes than the 18 year old grunts sent to fight them -- I also think assertions about supporting those who physically carry out the war crimes reflect a very confused, fatally flawed conception of morality, whereby those who order murder are rightly and unsparingly condemned but those who actually do the killing are absolved of all responsibility, as if by joining the military one also abandons all capacity for judging right from wrong.

Granted, military training does consist of dehumanizing brainwashing, with soldiers taught to have no mercy for The Enemy and that, if the life of an American is perceived to be in danger, to shoot first and cover up later. But then those who join the military know this. It's no great mystery what joining the armed forces what it entails: it means killing people whenever one's commanding officer says so. Sure, ads might depict military life as little more than one big American Gladiator episode, but I think most who join are aware they may be asked to murder on behalf of their government in a war, even if they're blinded by a naive, superficial notion of patriotism. And since no conflict the U.S. has fought over the last half a century could reasonably be construed as one of last resort in strict self-defense, the overwhelming odds are those who sign up for the military will be killing people in unjust, illegal wars -- wars that, as John Caruso ably demonstrates, entail daily atrocities like those depicted in the WikiLeaks video making the rounds.

So yes, let us condemn the emperors first, but let us not forget that the we-were-just-following-orders defense has a rather sullied history and was rejected at Nuremberg for good reason. While most soldiers are probably good people who love their children -- not unlike their commander-in-chief -- they are willing participants in an immoral, vicious endeavor; let's not pretend otherwise. As Herbert Spencer once remarked while detailing his own "anti-patriotic" feeling amid a previous Western conquest of Afghanistan, “When men hire themselves out to shoot other men to order, asking nothing about the justice of their cause, I don’t care if they are shot themselves."

Henry David Thoreau, however, put it best and thus gets the last word:
Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice. A common and natural result of an undue respect for the law is, that you may see a file of soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates, powder-monkeys, and all, marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, ay, against their common sense and consciences, which makes it very steep marching indeed, and produces a palpitation of the heart. They have no doubt that it is a damnable business in which they are concerned; they are all peaceably inclined. Now, what are they? Men at all? or small movable forts and magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man in power? Visit the Navy Yard, and behold a marine, such a man as an American government can make, or such as it can make a man with its black arts -- a mere shadow and reminiscence of humanity, a man laid out alive and standing, and already, as one may say, buried under arms with funeral accompaniment, though it may be,
"Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note, 
As his corse to the rampart we hurried;
Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot
O'er the grave where our hero was buried."
The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus, etc. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgement or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well. Such command no more respect than men of straw or a lump of dirt. They have the same sort of worth only as horses and dogs. Yet such as these even are commonly esteemed good citizens. Others--as most legislators, politicians, lawyers, ministers, and office-holders--serve the state chiefly with their heads; and, as they rarely make any moral distinctions, they are as likely to serve the devil, without intending it, as God.


  1. Anonymous10:41 AM

    This was an amazing read

  2. I have said something similar (but not as eloquently) on my blog over the years at "American Leftist". Something that gets lost here is the fact that if we deny free will and historical agency to people who are faced with the choice of joining the military, we show contempt for them as individuals, a profound disrespect.

  3. You've said almost exactly what's been on my mind in these last few days.

    The men and women who serve the US Military under its current leadership are the farthest thing from heroes. Their fate is tragic because it could have been prevented.

  4. Charles,

    the comments section:


  5. DBake6:24 PM

    I understand why patriotism is a bit of popular morality you think we'd be better off for abandoning. But I'm confused why you'd regard popular conceptions of moral responsibility beyond question. The Milgram experiments, the Stanford Prison Experiment, etc., seem to show that if you put the vast majority of people in the right environment, they will act very badly. 'I was only following orders' might not strike us a good excuse, but that's probably because we're all too busy congradulating ourselves on how strongly our moral character has resisted so many imaginary pressures so far to acknowledge that the vast majority of us would just follow orders as well, if we ended up in that situation.

    I guess you can say it's obvious that the US engages in imperialist wars, not wars of self-defense. In the few years following the WTC attack, to an 18-year-old, learning about the world from his public school, an American news magazine, and the TV, it might not have been that obvious.

  6. Laughing about murdering people (and then their unarmed would be rescuers) can be explained away by inexperience and youthful indiscretion?

  7. DBake8:41 PM


    Charlie's original post said that the soldiers in general are culpable, unless I misunderstood. I don't recall saying anything about the particular case you mention. I was claiming that a notion of personal responsibility which makes all or the vast majority of soldiers culpable is unreasonable, because it demands a level of intelligence and moral courage that very few human beings have.

    And my claim was that *joining the military* can be explained as youthful indiscretion, and that most people, after military brainwashing and spending a year or more in a warzone, will have a seriously damaged moral compass. And people who have a damaged moral compass because of brainwashing are generally not as culpable for wrongdoing as a normal person would be.

    Mr. Davis seemed to concede this second point in his post, but said that the soldiers were culpable nonetheless because they should have foreseen the brainwashing and its results. I think this is to demand quite a lot of very young men, given the primary channels of information in our society. And so it remains unreasonable to hold this people to the same level of responsibility that a person who avoided military indoctrination and does not live in a warzone would face.

    If you believe I am wrong about any of this, please explain.

  8. Dbake,

    First off, respect for your response. I don't agree, but it's well conceived and supremely well written.

    I believe I understand your argument. I know when I was getting ready to sign on the dotted line (luckily, and against my wishes, that fell through), my father warned me that Uncle Sam was going to spend a year wrapping me the flag so tight that I might never get it off. He said that, as a veteran of foreign wars.

    Still, I think the initial point holds: we don't have a conscript army. Anyone joining the military knows that he's gigging up for a chance that he'll be sent off to kill furrenners a half a world away.

    My own recruiter didn't leave me with any illusions about boot camp. I knew - in the six months of hard prep work and pre-drill - that I was going to learn how to become a mean motherfucker with a gun (and a Vengeful Jesus, at the time).

    I knew I would be sent to Saudi Arabia, Iraq or Kuwait to kill people (it then being the run up to Schwarzkopf's Desert Bash).

    It's no different now.

    The people signing up to load bombs, handle a 50mm portable gatling, drive a tank or fly a drone certainly know that they will be trained to kill.

    Whether or not they understand the geopolitical complexities of power, or how the capital spectacle obfuscates the crushing misery of class and foreign exploitation by directing domestic angst towards alien Others, or how resource wars are planned and coordinated, or whether or not Jesus really hates the hajjis, or if Saddam tickled Osama into knocking down the WTCs - none of this has any bearing on their willingness to take the dollar to kill someone else's child, somewhere else.

    Then again, I could be wrong.

  9. Jack,

    Thanks for your response as well. It prompted me to remember a few people I've known who took steps to get themselves kicked out of the army or airforce when they realized how limited their rights to disobey orders would be. And your Dad's quote is awesome.

    In either case, I should probably add that I agree with the main point here. The 'I'm Against the War but I Support the Troops' meme is pernicious because it suggests that the troops are admirable, whether the war is good or bad. If I'm right that the kids who sign up are excusable because they could reasonably believe they were doing the right thing, spreading the word that fighting makes you a hero regardless of the cause helps perpetuate the ignorance.

  10. Minor Player6:07 AM

    Growing up in the south in the home of a WW II veteran with a brother in the USAF for a career it never occurred to me to question the Vietnam war. I did my tour on a gunboat in a river and have the Agent Orange exposure sequelae to show for it.

    Not until after the time in Vietnam did I feel that the war was wrong. At first to me it was cruel incompetence of US leaders. Only several years later did I recognize it for criminal aggression. To date I have never known a family member or acquaintance of my youth who would follow me in this 'recognition'.

    My point is that, for what I imagine is a high proportion of enlisted (and, in my day, conscripted) military personnel, the rightness of the wars of the US is such a major part of their sense of who they and their families are that only direct bitter experience can 'wake them up'. And for many Vietnam vets today, I suspect, their sense of their own sacrifice will forever cloud their understanding of what it was they perpetrated.

  11. This is my new favorite blog! Keep it up!

  12. MP,

    That's an unavoidable point. I think you and Dbake make a salient case for the consideration of context.

    I'm just not sure (and this is a personal perspective, not a broadly political insight) that worldview justifies atrocity.

    I think we can understand, for example, that the heir to a slave-owning plantation in antebellum South Carolina might have grown up with little cause to question slavery. His worldview might have incorporated religious, racial, class and familial antecedents which blinded him to the humanity of people owning other people.

    But his particular circumstances did not and could not mitigate the wrong itself.

    If it's wrong to own slaves, or massacre people, or order executions w/o trial or charge, such as the Hopium Lord has just done, then it's wrong even if the person doing it has a head full of contradictions, no?

    And I'm not even assuming an absolute standard of right and wrong that anyone can check, like a cheat sheet for morality, and always get the right answer.

    I mean that if decide that these executions cannot stand muster, the worldview of the perpetrators has not bearing on the wrongness of the act they've committed. It might help us understand "why," but it cannot justify the "what for."

  13. "inhumanity of people owning people"

    I suck.

  14. My god, has an intelligent, respectful discussion broken out on the Internet? On a blog? In the comments section?

  15. Anonymous11:05 AM

    Boot-camper Brainwashing or not, it's still wrong to kill another human being unless in mortal self-defense.

    The "brainwashing" did not create any reason for anyone to believe there was self-defense in play. Where were the people on American soil, attacking Americans?

    I mean, we haven't had anyone attacking Americans on American soil via military means EVER in the 234 years of this country's existence.

    I understand the urge to defend "soldiers," but the simple truth is that defenses which stretch facts and logic to distorted ends are nothing more than morally reprehensible excuse-mongering.

    I have a 2d cousin (mother's cousin) who was shipped off to Vietnam. He returned an utterly broken man, shattered psychologically. Spent about a year in the psych wards of Walter Reed, then when released had a very hard time finding work, and shook like a late-stage Parkinson's patient.

    Why would it have affected him that way, if not for the existential variant on "cognitive dissonance" between the reasons he was sent to Vietnam, and the morality which suggests lethal force is justifiable only when directly threatened with lethal force?

  16. Minor Player11:13 AM

    @Jack Crow

    I was thinking in writing the earlier comment about the difficulty of tearing oneself out of a seamless dreamworld of nationalist goals and 'ideals' and how even bitter experience within that world doesn't necessarily break one out of the dream.

    If there is a point in that, it is a political one, if we are talking about a democracy. What does one do to wake people up? Will anything short of mass suffering in the 'homeland' suffice? And who here would want that, however richly deserved?

    For the record (to the extent that a 'handled' anonymity can make a record), nothing can ever or could ever justify/excuse what the USA did to Southeast Asia. And it is worth recalling that when the massacres assisted by the CIA in Indonesia are added to the Indochina casualties, the total killed gets close to the Nazi genocide numbers.

  17. This particular post about troops caused me to really evaluate how I feel about the soldiers "on the ground." I also agree with the main idea here in that it's pernicious to blindly support the troops even if the war is bad (thereby making their actions wrong).

    Where is the line between condemning a soldier for the murder he commits and understanding that he is brainwashed? Again, this does not make the murder okay, this does not make the killing justified, but I find it hard to point to someone who is brainwashed and say, "You should know this is wrong."

    The propaganda in this country is VERY strong. The reality is that the United States is an imperialistic, hawkish country that needs to reason to launch a war or flex its military might. However, when you are born here, you usually do not grow up with that perception. You are put into a government-funded school where the history books have a nationalistic slant. In elementary school you have to stand and pledge your allegiance to the flag on a DAILY basis "with liberty and justice for all." These types of indoctrination have a strong effect on a developing mind, a mind that has yet to develop a real moral compass or sense of what is right and wrong.

    In middle school you do more daily pledges and you are taught more history with a pro-American slant. In high school it's more of the same, but you also start to see military recruiters. You have classes like ROTC.

    There is a glamorization of the military in not only in school, among the youth, but also on T.V., and even within the public because you always hear, "Support the troops, support the troops!"

    Then you have to consider factors such as some people are less intelligent, or grow up in a military family where they are taught that a career in the military is honorable, respectable, etc.

    This does not make the killing justified, but it does make people brainwashed from CHILDHOOD---some of these people are brainwashed even BEFORE they join the military. They join because they have a completely distorted view of what the military IS and why the United States engages in war.

    I personally think it IS black and white that killing people who never did anything to you is wrong, but when people are brainwashed, when they are indoctrinated with propaganda from birth, it's harder for me to look at them and say, "You should KNOW this is wrong. There is no excuse for this."

    In a way, I feel that I have the privilege of seeing the killing the troops do for what it is because of my life circumstances: I was not brought up in a military family, no one ever presented the military as glamorous in a way that I believed, my parents were middle-class and I had access to things (such as good schools) that impoverished people do not have, even in school I had the intelligence to question what I was taught about history, I could afford to go to college, etc.

    Someone with different life circumstances may not have had the opportunity to develop a proper, real sense of right and wrong OUTSIDE of the context of what the United States tells you is right and wrong.

    The propaganda in this country is EVERYWHERE and it is very effective: just look at how much of the population falls for the puppet show that is the two-party political system---even though this same system is oppressing the people, they have been indoctrinated to support it. If someone doesn't have the will or character or reasoning to understand how the government (oligarchy) is exploiting them because propaganda clouds their judgment, it stands to reason that, in a different scenario, someone else doesn't have the will of character or reasoning to understand how our imperialism is also wrong because propaganda clouds their judgment.

    This doesn't change the fact that these brainwashed people are killing innocent people. Nothing can justify that. However, it at least makes it harder for me to judge SOME of these people for "following orders."

  18. One sentence above should read: "The reality is that the United States is an imperialistic, hawkish country that needs NO reason to launch a war or flex its military might."

    Also, this blog is AMAZING. Everything here is so well written, so thought provoking, and how WONDROUS to see people having a reasonable, rational DEBATE in the comments section! Sharing ideas in a constructive way---WHY can't there be more of this in America and on the internet? :P

  19. Paul Y1:18 PM

    How lucky the author is; never did a stupid thing in his life.

    "But then those who join the military know this. It's no great mystery what joining the armed forces what it entails: it means killing people whenever one's commanding officer says so."

    Ah, not quite. If you bother to ask any young recruit why he joined, you are likely to get something from him like "to protect my country". Not, "to kill innocent people on demand."

    When I was 18 I joined the Marine Corps. I am forever thankful I was never put into a situation requiring killing another. I am appalled at my stupidity back then, at how easily I was tricked, but at least have some sympathy with my former self. The fact is, countries sometimes do need to be defended. Or at least one's fellow human beings do. All that the Empire needs to do is use this truth, and the fact that teenage boys want to become men, mix it in with 12 years of indoctrination and a culture that celebrates killing, and they have their army. Maybe a few escape it, like the author I suppose, but it doesn't matter.

    Whacking soldiers is a mistake. These men are victims, as well as victimizers. They are not all monsters, although some surely do turn into monsters. But you won't stop the killing by telling people their sons are evil. This is not even remotely a winning strategy.

  20. Paul,

    I'm not at all suggesting that people go up to the next soldier they see and spit in their face and call them "evil" -- a recruiter, maybe -- but I think it's important to challenge the notion that those who fight and kill in unjust wars are heroes. If even anti-war folks maintain that fiction, that only further entrenches the mistaken belief among some naive young men and women that serving in the armed forces can be "honorable", no matter the justness of their cause. That doesn't help the victims of U.S. policy, nor does it help prevent the next gullible kid from falling prey to military indoctrination.

  21. MP,

    You wrote: "I was thinking in writing the earlier comment about the difficulty of tearing oneself out of a seamless dreamworld of nationalist goals and 'ideals' and how even bitter experience within that world doesn't necessarily break one out of the dream."

    I cannot disagree. Before I gave up the management racket, I had an employee who came from a military family. Grandfather, father, older brother all soldiers. Armenians who already had some bias against Islam. A* was a nice kid. An all around decent person. But, the law and order bug had bitten him deep. he wanted to become a police officer, protect people, set the world right. He was putting himself through school to get an LE degree. Not my bag, and plenty of reasons to object, but the kid's motives were substantively different from those of most head knockers.

    Like I wrote, genuinely nice kid.

    Then he got it through his egg that the Marines would be a good career move. Objectively, he was right. LE degree, plus Marine = getting a job as a cop. It's just that he got this notion two years after Dubya decided Mesopotamia wasn't quite broken enough by 12 years of sanctions.

    I tried to talk him out of it. I even enlisted the help of guys who'd already got back from Iraq. I asked him if he could be the sort of man who killed children. I told him that if he went to Iraq he would assuredly find himself in a situation where it obeying an order meant killing children.

    His brother tried to talk him out of it, a man desperately tearing the flag off his own body - growing hair out of every possible part of his body to look as little like a Marine as possible.

    He was already wrapped up tight in the flag, though.

    So off to SC, then nevada/California and then over into Fallujah.

    We kept up correspondence, and even phone calls, while he was over there, but he dropped off the radar after he came back.

    I ran into him in a CVS, sometime in 2007. He was slumping over a snack rack, haggard, dark eyed, broken. He mumbled.

    We made polite conversation, talked about the coming birth of child, tried a desultory "remember when."

    Then he said, "You were right. I killed children."

    Then he told me, almost in the next breath, that he was lucky he came home alive, because this job he was about to get at Raytheon - that's right, fucking Raytheon - meant he could take care of his daughter.


    Doing the things he did broke him. He shattered a sustaining portion of his humanity, just staying alive in Iraq. He went a nice kid and came back a child murderer.

    He knew it.

    I think it really hurt him.

    But the pain never triggered a transformative moment, a cascade of idea challenging doubt.

    Perhaps because his motives were never ideological. They were symbolic and emotional, but they weren't a degradable architecture of concept. The pain and self-doubt couldn't corrode what was never there.

    How to reach a man like that, to muddle through the suffering that has no political context, that dwells in deeper emotional and symbolic pools of experience?

    As I write this, I'm sure I don't know...

  22. Ok, at this point I'll concede: the comments to this post are much better than the actual post itself. You all have, however briefly, restored my faith in the Internet.

    Now to enrage myself by reading the comments to a Daily Kos diary . . .

  23. Paul Y1:58 PM

    Well, I still think the tack taken is wrong.

    If you say to a high school kid, "I don't think soldiers are necessarily heroes," you will only accomplish his walking away from you, if you don't get a punch in the nose first. I think a better way would be to appeal to his self-interest. Ask him if he knows that the suicide rate among soldiers is extremely high, and ask him why he thinks this is so. It might get him thinking that soldiers are forced to do things their conscience knows is wrong, and how it's like to have live with that. And there are other similar approaches, like the old Vietnam Veterans Against the War group (kids will at least listen to former soldiers) and information about living with part of your body shot away ("Born On The Fourth Of July").

    I'm not saying you are wrong; I'm saying your approach will not yield any fruit. This is a sales job; learn the best way to make your appeal. You have a few minutes to at least begin to counteract 12 years of indoctrination; how are you going to do that? Fortunately, the government's case in this is absurd, and you have truth on your side. But you can't just tell a kid his father or his older brother was a war criminal (essentially what you are doing) and expect it to go over well.

  24. Paul Y: I understand what you are saying, but there is that uncomfortable thing called the truth. For example, read Dahr Jarmail's article, accessible at and, about atrocities in Iraq described in the Winter Soldier hearings.

    At some point, you have to start telling the truth, or people just continue to believe that the lie is the truth. When do we start doing that? Because, at some point, we have to do it. You may also be underestimating the ability of people to intelligently engage with others. After all, a lot soliders say things about the war publicly that we aren't supposed to say because it supposedly turns people off. Personally, I don't use the term war crimes, because, I agree, it doesn't get you very far, and, also, I don't believe much in the international law perspective that supports it.

    But, we should talk about what the troops actually do, as revealed in regard to the recent night raids in Afghanistan (carving the bullets out of the bodies of the pregnant women victims) and the occupation of Iraq. Otherwise, we will be having this same conversation 20 years from now.

  25. For anyone who is interested, here is a post that will go up at my blog, American Leftist, late tomorrow afternoon:

    [On Wednesday, Charlie Davis posted an entry asserting that we shouldn't support the troops for their actions in the Middle East and Central Asia. As long time readers of this blog know, I have expressed similar sentiments for years, some of which can be accessed by clicking on the "Support the Troops" label at the bottom of this one. Most criticisms tend to focus upon the brutalities inflicted upon the populace in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and rightly so. But there is something that often gets ignored.

    Liberal peace activists who have pushed the support the troops mantra reduce the people who enlist in the military and perpetuate these occupations into an amorphous, unthinking mass, a reduction that characterized the collectivizaton of the peasantry in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the determination by urban planners like Corbusier that proletarians should be required to live in sterile, strictly controlled environments. In other words, people who enlist in the military lack any free will and historical agency, a perspective easily refuted by the many people who have returned after military service and candidly described what they did.

    Of course, we shouldn't be surprised. Liberals have adopted a similar perspective with the middle and lower middle class generally, as it purports to speak on their behalf while insisting that they continue to politically support Democrats that implement neoliberal policies to their detriment. There is a vanguardism here, one that appears to be driven primarily by the fear that the people from whom they purport to speak may actually begin to speak for themselves. Hence, the apparent contradiction between their espoused identification with progressive economic beliefs and the actual policies that they support is readily explained. By intensifying the insecurity of the groups for whom they claim to represent, they preserve their monopoly of speech, and all the power that it entails.

    Prior to his death, there was a vigorous debate about the support the troops attitude at Steve Gilliard's blog, The News Blog, probably sometime in 2006. Steve took the support the troops line, while I, and a few others, insisted that those who enlist should take responsibility for that decision and their subsequent actions. At one point, I suggested that some troops may actually rebel, and that if that ever happened, we should publicly support any such action. Oh, my goodness! Now, that really terrified the liberals who posted there, because, after all, just think about all the terrible things that could happen if troops started disobeying orders. They might even disobey the President.

    As far as many of these liberals were concerned, better that they continue to kill Iraqis, Afghans and Pakistanis, than refuse to do so. My response to this hysteria was straightforward: the Democratic and Republican parties have taken away far more of my rights in the last 30 years, and remain a threat to take away more, a much greater threat than the people enlisted in the military. The contempt that many of them had for people who served in the military, based upon intellectual and class bias, came out quite clearly. I came away with the impression that while many liberals claim to want to downsize the military, they believe that it perpetuates a necessary system of social control.

  26. Anonymous2:12 PM

    Dan S: Wonderful post, and comments.

    I was thinking, as I read, that many of these arguments re: moral culpability can, and are, easily leveled against gang members, most of whom join gangs because they come from degraded urban places, because of peer pressure, etc. They kill for understandable reasons: peer pressure, necessity, honor, self-defense.

    And yet, we have no qualms about sending them to jail. The legitimacy of the State, and it's ability to sanction killing, is the entire issue here.

    But many commenters are entirely correct: there remain many places, and many cultural contexts, in which joining the military is the "manly" thing to do. What approaches have been taken to make inroads into the "gang banging" mentality? How have interventions been structured?

    If I'm not mistaken, personal testimony from veterans (of gangs, that is) is always the most powerful tool in that regard. But even that will not be enough. We need to make it both comprehensively "uncool" to join the military, and we need to get this country (socially, economically and politically) to the point where we simply don't need one.

    We used to fear standing armies. Perhaps we can again.

  27. Mr. Davis:

    I appreciate what you are trying to say, and I applaud you for working to ensure - through your writings - that liberals/progressives/Democrats do not reflexively defend what Obama is doing just because they are now in power.

    I must emphasize, though, that on this specific issue, the soldier him(her)self is put into an impossible situation.

    The nature of insurgency and the (pardon the sports metaphor) "home-field advantage" enjoyed by natives puts an 18-year-old kid into a hellhole of difficult, even paralyzing, choices. There's actually not going to be too much debate about that point, but one must then realize that an 18-year-old person has likely not tasted a full sweep or scope of life experiences, to the extent that s/he can really appreciate what it means to go to war.

    At age 34, I can understand - but only with the passage of enough time - how little I knew about life, the cosmos, and the human condition at age 18. Yes, at an early age, a well-adjusted person is supposed to be able to distinguish right from wrong, but war is another matter.

    A lot of Americans are exposed to violent entertainment, and to good guy-versus-bad guy narratives which glorify violence against evildoers. September 11 surely inspired many young Americans to fight for their country, completely convinced that they were doing nothing less than or other than the right thing. And not just the right thing, either, but the very best thing they possibly could do.

    I didn't then and don't now agree with any such sentiments, but the point is that for many American young people, fighting connotes not the killing of others, but the willingness to put one's body and life on the line in the service of a higher cause. This - like so many issues under the sun - is and can be framed to be glorious and noble, and it takes a person older than 18 or 19 years to learn (at least in most cases) that governments and elites have sent young men (and now women) into combat over the course of millennia.

    War's visceral nature is so overwhelming, its inclusion of primal fear so overpowering, its violence so encompassing, its finality so unmistakable, that an 18- or 19-year-old kid really can't be blamed for the ugly things that happen in war zones... not unless the defenselessness and impotence of an adversary are beyond obvious and exist without the slightest threat to that soldier's bodily well being.

    To take the side of a young soldier in this debate does not, in my mind, promote or perpetuate a pro-war stance; it is a statement about the frailty of youth and the lack of sophistication which characterizes almost all late-teenagers or early-twentysomethings.

    None of this even touches on the reality of Abu Ghraib, where Lynndie England took all the heat while the likes of a Don Rumsfeld and other power brokers and decision makers essentially got off scot-free. Higher-ups can always use their access to the levers of political and military power to minimize political fallout and cushion whatever blows they receive. The soldiers on the ground, and at the bottom of various pecking orders, don't possess similar amounts of leverage or systemic avenues for redress of grievances. And they're the ones in the theaters of battle who live with the psychic scars of war. Commanders, generals and Defense Department people don't have to worry about those inconvenient kinds of things.

    Defending soldiers in this matter goes deeper than you might at first appreciate. An 18-year-old cannot possibly know the full measure of what s/he is REALLY getting into when s/he joins the military.

    Thanks to all who have contributed to a very impressive blog comments section. Yes, they are rare indeed.

    Matt Zemek

  28. Anonymous8:24 AM

    Being a vet, and son of a WW2, and later, "lifer", I'm well aware of the brainwashing and propaganda that sweeps both the nation as a whole and the individual family. I grew up hearing the "war" stories and tales of base life that after a while these stories grew into Olympian proportions. It didn't even enter into my mushy skull while a teen that when my father told me he'd pack me off to Canada (this being the Vietnam years) should the need ever arise. This coming from a man I didn't even get along with! Even he, with all the years serving in the belly of the beast, could see something was wrong and wouldn't sacrifice me to the Moloch of the State. Maybe it was self serving, I'll never know because he died before I could ask, but it didn't even register with ME until many years later. I was a stupid kid for signing up and finding out for myself that all the fantasies I'd heard my whole life were just that.... LIES! And today, with sons and daughters, I'd never let Uncle Sam get his claws into their minds and souls and have told them repeatedly to beware. There is no "honor" in pulling the trigger and being the hired killer, or even support personnel, for swine who themselves would never sully their already dirty hands with the deeds of Empire.

  29. Anonymous9:59 AM

    At age 12 I knew already that war was murder.

    I was 12 in 1973, so I was witnessing the MSM's portrayal of Vietnam -- a tiny snapshot of the reality seen on the ground over there.

    At age 12 I told my family that if Vietnam was still ongoing when I hit Selective Service age, I'd leave the country.

    The smug, "fact"-ish suggestion that an 18 year old kid can't make that same conclusion is betrayed by my own experience at an age 6 full years younger.

    Excuses are what are offered on behalf of 18 year olds who go to the military. There is ALWAYS another option. ALWAYS.

  30. Minor Player1:25 PM

    Options are limited by perceptions. If one perceives that a war is criminal, the options are different from the options available to one who perceives the war as justified.

    The world would a much better place if more of us had had the perceptiveness of the 12 year old Mr. Oxtrot in 1973. By then my navy days were behind me and the memory of my navy experiences had begun to have their enlightening effects.

    But that is the problem, for many, perhaps for most, the picture presented by the national leadership, the news media, the movie industry, and by our families through their expectations of us and through their traditions conditions our perceptions. The draft notice arrives and you either await conscription or roll on down to the navy or air force recruiting office and sign up ... that is what you perceive your options to be.

    Things are different now that the draft has been suspended. Still, the demand for volunteers is generally met. War doesn't swallow as many as fast as it used to. The recruiting goals are more modest. Much of the daily maintenance of the troops and the equipment has been privatized. The alternative employment opportunities are not as bright as in the 1960's and early 1970's. A lot of families reflexively support the nation's goals and see the national project as good if somewhat error prone, see themselves as complicit or rather supportive of the project through there own histories and career choices.

  31. Anonymous3:06 PM

    another 12 year old doing something about war

  32. Anonymous9:10 PM

    I have NEVER supported the troops. Anybody who goes to a foreign land to kill civilians is a murderer and is deserving of my deep contempt and loathing.

    I have never confused the "leadership" as you say and the troops / individual soldiers. Both are complicit, both are guilty and both are deserving of the utmost contempt and loathing (and a whole lot more).

    Not one serviceman or woman, setting foot on a foreign soil, has "defended American freedoms", unless of course you mean American hegemony or corporate domination.

    Any service person presently engaged in a military service outside of the boundaries of the United States is nothing more then a mercenary, I don't care if they're a pencil pusher or a painter, they're guns for hire, engaged in foreign domination and occupation for American "interests", and nothing they do has anything to do with American defense or American freedoms.

    I am a vet myself and have seen the domination of the world first-hand by the U.S. military. I do not excuse any of the men and woman who are engaged in this global domination.

  33. @Jack Crow I was thinking in writing the earlier comment about the difficulty of tearing oneself out of a seamless dreamworld of nationalist goals and 'ideals' and how even bitter experience within that world doesn't necessarily break one out of the dream. If there is a point in that, it is a political one, if we are talking about a democracy. What does one do to wake people up? Will anything short of mass suffering in the 'homeland' suffice? And who here would want that, however richly deserved? For the record (to the extent that a 'handled' anonymity can make a record), nothing can ever or could ever justify/excuse what the USA did to Southeast Asia. And it is worth recalling that when the massacres assisted by the CIA in Indonesia are added to the Indochina casualties, the total killed gets close to the Nazi genocide numbers.