Sunday, September 20, 2009

Why I Don't Support the Troops

This will be the last of my antiwar essays (at least for a while, at least until the current administration gives me another excuse to post something. Shouldn't take long). I originally published this essay in the newspaper of the Thomas Merton Center, Pittsburgh's hub of peace and social justice activism. It also gave me an opportunity to cite Thoreau, which is something I do every chance I get!

Incendiary title notwithstanding, I think the logic of the piece is fundamentally sound. An anarchist acquaintance pointed out to me, however, that despite my conscious refusal to support the troops, I support them and the wars they're fighting every day with my tax dollars. More proof, as Bruce Springsteen reminds us, that it's hard to be a saint in the city.

"Why I Don't Support the Troops"

Headnote: I was dismayed when my daughter told me her class had been assigned to write letters of support to the troops in Iraq. In a meeting with the principal, I protested that children should not be forced to take a moral position they were unqualified to take—that to “support” people fighting a war is not, as he held, morally neutral. I got nowhere with him. But I did put down the following thoughts, which, by coincidence, were composed on Tax Day, April 15.

Imagine a friend of yours has done something you believe to be terribly wrong—say, killing an innocent person. What would your reaction be?

It is probable you would continue to love your friend. It is possible you would not wish him or her harm (though you would likely hope he or she received some form of punishment). It is feasible you would try to prevent him or her from committing another such action. It is not, however, conceivable that you would support the person in committing this action.

Imagine further that this friend continued to commit such acts. You might still love the person. You might pray for his or her soul if you are religious, or hope for his or her reformation if you are not. But you would not under any circumstances support this person in the continuance of actions you believed to be terribly wrong.

This is the reason I don’t support the troops in Iraq. They are performing actions I believe to be terribly wrong: invading a sov­ereign nation, destroying its lands and appropriating its resources, killing and wounding its people for reasons I do not accept as legitimate or lawful. To support them under these circumstances is tantamount to condoning actions I cannot condone.

Some might object that I am misinterpreting the term “support.” They might say that to support the troops simply means to wish them well, to pray for them, to hope for their safety. It is possible, they might argue, to support people even when one condemns their actions.

I do not accept this definition. Let us assume I do “support” the troops in the sense of wishing them well. The fact remains that they are engaged in a conflict in which, to secure their own safety, they may have to inflict harm upon others. More generally, to wish them well under these circumstances is to suggest that I do not condemn what they are doing. It is comparable to saying I wish a murderer well while he commits murder. Though I do not wish such a person harm, I do not wish him well either. I wish only that he will stop committing such acts.

It might be objected, then, that the troops in Iraq are unable to cease committing these acts, or to leave the place where the commission of such acts is likely to occur. It might be argued that whatever the troops think of their actions or of the broader circum­stances that placed them in Iraq, they are committed by the terms of their service to continue performing the actions their superiors require of them.

I do not accept this argument either. There are alternatives to performing actions one finds morally wrong. It is possible for soldiers to refuse direct orders, to desert their post, to apply for Conscientious Objector status. None of these alternatives is easy; most will result in dire consequences, including prison time and all the problems a criminal record brings. But this does not mean soldiers cannot pursue such alternatives. It simply means they must weigh the consequences of doing so against the consequences of not doing so. In the case of a soldier who disagrees with what he or she is asked to do in Iraq yet continues to do it, we must as­sume that this soldier has chosen to suffer the moral consequences of his or her actions rather than the material consequences of refusing them. None of us would wish to be faced with such a choice. But that does not make it any less a choice.

In “Resistance to Civil Government” (1849), Henry David Thoreau describes facing such a choice. He was required to pay a poll tax, a tax he knew funded the Mexican War. Thoreau believed the war to be terribly wrong—an invasion of a sovereign nation in order to commandeer its land and resources, as well as to extend the practice of plantation slavery. Thoreau refused to pay the tax. He went to jail. He said, “Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.” In terms even more pertinent to the present situation, he continues:

A common and natural result of an undue respect for law is, that you may see a file of soldiers . . . march­ing in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, aye, against their common sense and consciences, which makes it very steep marching indeed. . . . 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 moveable forts and magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man in power?

Thoreau concludes by urging individuals to refuse wrong actions and fight for what they know is right. “If [the law] is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.”

With these thoughts in mind, what do I hope for the United States troops bogged down in the hellhole of criminality and injustice, torture and torment that is the Iraq War? I hope for their immediate return home, where they will be freed from the prospect of taking further lives or of having their own lives taken. Failing that, I hope for them to refuse to commit the acts they are being pressured to commit. If they adopt this position, if they transform their lives into a counter friction to stop the machine of war, I will support them. Until that time, I will continue to oppose—not support—the troops.


  1. Excellent article, Josh. As I've argued elsewhere, all the pressure to "support" the troops isn't good for them or for the country. In the final analysis, the new G.I. Bill is the only thing we have really done to support the troops, and conservatives resisted that on the grounds that it would discourage retention. Everything else has been lip service, aimed at appeasing and reconciling them to their oppression. As women can certainly attest, one of the best ways to oppress someone, ironically, is to venerate and put that person up on pedestal.
    You and your readers may be interested in something I published some time ago relating to the neo-conservative attempt to revise history, representing Vietnam as a "noble cause" (Reagan's rhetoric, of course. Ours was a dubious cause at best.
    --Ed Palm, enlisted veteran of the Vietnam War and Major, USMC (Ret.)

  2. By the by, Josh, the position you took with that principal reminds me: I feel very much the same way about high school teachers, and even freshman composition instructors, who come on too strong in alerting young minds to the dangers of global warming or the exploitation of Walmart--or even how bad McDonald's food is for us. Personally, I agree with all those positions. But as a former professor and dean, I know how easily students are intimidated by a teacher or professor who seems really well-versed in a topic, and I question whether classes built around such topics really give a fair hearing to divergent points of view.
    I say this having long ago taught a course of my own design called "Vietnam in Fact, Fiction, and Film." The course was very much one-sided. Having studied the history of our involvement, I knew all about the cultural and historical misapprehensions, as well as the cynical Realpolitik, responsible for that original "wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time." And I fervently believe that the revisionists who have come along since, trying to justify that war as in our strategic best interests, are wrong. But the fact remains that, having only so much time, I did not give much time and attention to other points of view. And some students were probably afraid to challenge me.
    I'll add something that may at least serve to prime Josh's controversy pump. Counting my Naval Academy time, I have been a full-time academic for 16 years, and if there is one thing I have learned about the academic profession, it is this: Academics are no more open-minded than anyone else. They're just better at articulating and defending their prejudices." Hence, I side with Stanley Fish, who once admonished us all to "save the world on your own time."
    Feel free to attack me here, or on my own blog:
    --Ed Palm

  3. I tend to agree with Ed about not proselytizing in the classroom (though I'm sure I've been guilty of it at times, as have all human beings, academic or not). I too have taught a class on war literature (and I regularly teach one on environmental literature), and one of the reasons I resist preaching is that it forestalls the truly difficult, creative work necessary if people are to see real-world issues in all their complexity and act in thoughtful ways to address them. You walk into a class and tell students, "Global warming is bad!" or "The environment needs to be protected!" and they'll piously nod their heads, say a word or two about recycling, then resume their patterns of thinking and being without missing a step. If educators are truly to effect change--and I don't necessarily mean political change, I mean the deepening and strengthening of young people's ability to think critically--I believe we must encourage discussion, debate, and disagreement, not hijack these messy processes by privileging our own beliefs.

    Of course, what I'm doing here is blogging, which is arguably quite different from teaching, even when a teacher does it. That's a subject for another discussion, though.

  4. As an active-duty Sailor in the U.S. Navy, I imagine you probably get a lot of grief for your views on this subject in this day and age of commercialized patriotism.

    While I cannot in good conscience agree with everything your wrote, I find your honesty remarkably refreshing. Better to be slapped in the face than stabbed in the back, I always say.

    PSC(SW) Matt Nemmers
    United States Navy

  5. Thanks, Matt. I'm glad to know we can agree to disagree--and that we both can be truer patriots as a result.