December 4, 2009

Why Soldiers Deserve Proper Respect

People who know me well (and there aren't that many of them) have asked me why, when I am so at odds with the policies that led to the Iraqi and Afghanistan wars, I insist on differentiating between the cause in which the service is enlisted and the service itself.

This article says far better than I, who have never served in any country's armed forces (and was grateful, growing up, to escape the conscription that killed men only two or three years older than me), why I feel respect is due to the men and women who stand up to serve their country in the military.

I remember being amazed in 1987 to meet some Viet Nam veterans in San Diego and hear at first hand the difficulties they had getting the benefits to which they were entitled. I disagreed with the Viet Nam war too, violently, but was shocked to find that a country could turn its back on the youth it had conscripted to fight its battles in its "backyard" (yeah, right).

The conscription now is largely economic. I have a brother-in-law who learned his trade in the army because it was the only place that would teach him a trade, but it crafted him in other ways too. I remember the amazement of his family when he came home after basic training and made his own bed unasked. I remember too, later, the nervous tic his eyes acquired (and retained) from too many attacks on the troop carriers he drove in Belfast. He joined the army because it offered him the best career opportunities. There are a lot of people today who are joining up for the same reasons. Economic opportunity does not abound for the youth of today's America, and so many of the least fortunate will choose to serve their country. Would that the congressman and senators would protect them as they protect their own sons and daughters.

So I hope, when those who have served return, that this adopted country of mine will find more than empty words to honor the service they have performed. "Thank you for your service" means less than nothing if it isn't accompanied by a place to live, a secure income, a decent standard of living and an honest appreciation of the time spent in harm's way.

Much as I regret President Obama's decision to send yet more troops to Afghanistan, he was at least honest about his intentions during his campaign. I hope that this further investment of America's young men and women will lead to a real improvement in the most corrupt country in the world (or is it the second most corrupt, I forget). Those who agree with his decisions must accept that they bring with them a cost: that of ensuring that the survivors, and the families of the fallen, are not left standing in the cold once this economic winter, manufactured by the bankers in their snug financial parkas, is over.

Hell, if bankers and politicians had to fight wars in person this world would be a far more peaceful place. It's too easy to condemn those in uniform to die by proxy for some policy with purely economic motives. At least, for the moment, this country appears to have a commander in chief who properly weighs the lives he risks. If I felt I had the right I would salute those who venture forth, knowing not whether they will ever return.


Anonymous said...

Mercenaries who kill for money, "a trade" or career opportunities.

They don't defend the country but destroy others for purely economic motives.

They don't deserve to be honored at all. In many cases is quite the opposite.

Steve said...

That's exactly what I mean: you completely fail to distinguish between government warmongering and the individuals who are its tools. Nobody's hands are entirely clean in this world, but many of the troops have far more honorable motivations than you imply. I agree it might be better if everyone refused to serve, but not everyone has that luxury, or feels they do.

I suppose ultimately it supports the contention that the love of money is the root of all evil.

What about those who were conscripted to earlier wars?

jdm said...

Well said, Steve. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Amazement for doing your own bed unasked? I'm not very impressed...

Unknown said...

I am really surprised you need to explain this to anyone. I thought that conflating the soldiers themselves with the orders they are given was a fallacy that died out after Vietnam.

The orders they are given come from our very own political process. Anybody looking for someone to blame can blame every voting-age citizen, because that's where the decisions ultimately come from. (Yes, elections can be bought, but only because we're too lazy to ignore the advertisements and make up our own minds. Choosing to let money decide the races is a choice nonetheless.)

About the war in general, I disagree with you about Afghanistan (but not about Iraq)... but I really, really wish we would have a dedicated war tax for this and for every war. I feel unclean saying "I think this is worth other people losing their lives for, but I don't want it to cost me any cash."

Steve said...

I wasn't trying to impress, least of all an anonymous commenter. That change was just one of many, symptomatic of a basic change in his outlook and a new self-reliance. The military gives some people a structure they need, and it lasts a lifetime.

manuel moe g said...

> Hell, if bankers and politicians had to fight wars in person this world would be a far more peaceful place.

It is more depressing than that. If warfare was _deficit-neutral_ through a property/savings/estate tax that fell only on the richest 5%, this world would be a far more peaceful place.

No appeal is needed to cowardice. Only an appeal to scrooge nature. Such is the craven state of really-existing patriotism.

Calvin Spealman said...

I have to take the rare road of disagreeing with you, Steve.

It isn't that I don't respect the soldiers. Just the opposite, because I respect everyone, including the people I honestly believe are sending the soldiers into illegal, death-probable situations, with purely profit and religion driving their justification. Do I absolutely detest what they do? Of course! I still respect them as fellow human beings, interacting with the world as they best know how.

I am not going to thank my brother in law, still struggling to find his way after leaving the Marines. That doesn't mean I didn't just buy a couch from him I didn't like and didn't need, because I'm doing a nice thing. It doesn't mean I have a problem with him. I don't like why he was there, but I still support him as a human being. I should do so (we all should do so) for all fellow humans beings. For all fellow beings, even.

Was a terribly let down when my best friend, who I pleaded not to enlist in the first place, decided to re-enlist after his four years? Absolutely. His he still my best and closest friend? Absolutely. When I talk to him after he gets shipped back overseas, I won't refrain from letting him know he is there under false pretense and for absolutely no gain. I'll be sure he knows that he may well being doing harm to all of us by his very presence!

I'll still support him in his life, as my friend, interacting with the world as best his experiences have taught him to do. Now, in his case that meant joining and remaining in an organization I consider corrupt and contemptible. The thing is, I don't need to keep "respect for the soldier" despite that contempt for the soldier's orders. I don't need respect for the soldier, because I hold equal respect for all, as we all should.

So, do we need a conversation about how to treat soldiers, or how to treat people? Instead of expressing my distaste for the orders by hating the ordered, I'll express it by doing the very thing I hate the orders for in the first place: treating the world as a bunch of beings, doing their best in a confusing world.

Noufal said...

I understand your point of view and agree with some parts of it but I think there is sometimes the issue of putting aside your own conscience when you're serving in the army which I consider a cardinal sin.

Steve said...

@Manuelg: That's certainly the case in the West, where the arms manufacturers and those who get rich by their activity have a lot to answer for. I'm not sure how it plays out in Africa, though, or the Middle-Eastern counties where war is endemic. Do the rich in Palestine profit from the war with Israel? (For all I know the answer may be "yes").

@Calvin: reading what you wrote I'm not so sure we disagree that radically. While I've never agreed with dulce et decorum est pro patria mori I think those who serve because they genuinely believe they are protecting their fellow citizens achieve a level of altruism I doubt I ever will.

@Noufal: Yes, joining the armed forces is a somewhat Faustian bargain, I agree. But motivations are complex, and it's difficult to put yourself in someone else's shoes.

Anonymous said...

I agree totally with you steve!

If the Nuremberg trials have taught us anything is that it's 100% okay to do anything as long as you are ordered to do it.

I mean what can these poor souls do? Not taking the best career opportunities? Of course not! If bombing residential areas and turning a country upside down is the only trade our men can get I said Afghanistan was asking for it, they should have provided us with better job options.

Now excuse me while I sign up for another illegal war. It's okay guys, I'll just be following orders.

Steve said...

You will learn, as you grow, that nothing can be assessed in the black or white fashion you adopt above. I am happy for you that you cannot be coerced into compromising your principles. Not everyone has the luxury, or the intellect, to be so.

Noufal said...

Yes. Motivations/reasons are complex and it's finally down to the individual. I tend to view a "professional" soldier with a jaundiced eye though. I guess you're more optimistic thatn I am.

Steve said...

@Noufal: probably not; where you use the term "professional" I might use "career". Someone who signs up for eighteen years has probably taken the military ethic on board hook, line and sinker. Someone who joins up for four years to learn a trade and earn a wage isn't really in the same category from my point of view.

Anonymous said...

As much as I disagree with your views, as much do I disagree with most of the commenters here.

But especially if signing in to the US troops, you should think about how some of the presidents think of playing watchman for planet earth and sending troops to anywhere. It's not like you're neutral Switzerland, there's hardly any conflict in the world without US troops on site. I'm not judging here, but if I was an American in service, I would anticipate this "government warmongering", basically taking it for granted.

On a different note, regarding this:
Much as I regret President Obama's decision to send yet more troops to Afghanistan, he was at least honest about his intentions during his campaign.
Do you have any link/references backing this up? Most of the people over here in Europe that I talked with about Obama's politics were actually thinking there'll be less troops in Afghanistan.

Steve said...

Sadly I think that most people you talk to over in Europe were listening to their own desires rather than what Obama said a year ago or more on the campaign trail.

The Rude Pundit is my principal source for my assertion, and I believe his claims to be reliable. He's as much against war as I am.

I don't disagree that American is an imperialist nation, even though most American citizens will be horrified by that assertion. You only have to look at their foreign policy and war history, especially since the second World War, to see that its foreign policy has been a tool of its economic policy. Sadly human rights rarely get a look in.

Anonymous said...

I find it quite interesting to hear the perceptions of those who enjoy the very freedoms our armed forces ensure for us all.

The truth of the matter is, our country is responsible for the troops being in Iraq and Afghanistan and not one single soldier, sailor, airman nor marine is to blame for our war efforts. You can blame a president or a political party, but we are all Americans and should stand together to support and defend our country.

These patriots, who serve unselfishly, don't do it for money, excitement nor for glory. But most simply serve out of belief and the knowledge that we have become a great nation, only due to the actions of those who gave their lives for the country.

Those serving our country should be honored and treated with great respect. For if not for them you may have been the one to be called. To call them mercenaries is not only wrong, it's something I find personnaly offensive. The degrading of our sons and daughters, who serve for us all, is a very low and dispicable behavior.

I was honored to serve this country for over twenty years, as did my father and his father before him. Without the sacrifices made by our men and women in uniform, we would not enjoy the freedom to post our opinions freely, as we all have here.

I don't intend or believe this will change anyone's mind, but hopefully will let you all see the view, from this side of the issue.

God Bless the United States of America!!!

ajung said...

That's exactly what I mean: you completely fail to distinguish between government warmongering and the individuals who are its tools. Nobody's hands are entirely clean in this world, but many of the troops have far more honorable motivations than you imply. I agree it might be better if everyone refused to serve, but not everyone has that luxury, or feels they do.

Indivduals going to the military should know what they are part of a bigger game and used as tools. Otherwise they are naive.

Steve said...

@ajung: maybe they are naive; maybe they are also ill-educated. I don't see politicians trying to do much about that, as the present state of affairs suits our political leaders very well.

And maybe from their point of view signing up to serve in the armed forces is the only way t keep their family fed. That can be a powerful motivator, even for someone who may have qualms about joining up. Most have some level of desire to serve their country (and they will assume this means serving their fellow citizens).