I cannot be accused of a lack of sympathy for American service men and women. I have posted numerous times about the folly of sending them on multiple combat deployments, of the many ways soldiers are abused and neglected by the Armed Forces, “chewed up and spit out by the Empire” is, I believe, the way I described it once.
That said, I am bothered by the habit of referring to anyone who dons a uniform as “a hero”. I thought of this today I as heard on the radio that a group has formed to raise money for the family of Robert Bales, the alleged assailant in the recent Afghanistan atrocity, which took the lives of 16 civilians, most of them children. I wondered about this; would the group had formed if instead of killing Afghans, Sgt Bales had waited until he returned to the United States and killed a bunch of American children? Shouldn’t money be raised, instead, for the families of the victims (most of whom were the children of one man? I am not trying to be hard here; Sgt Bales had served four deployments, and had suffered brain injuries on one. And no one who has not been in combat should speak too quickly to condemn those who, in fear and the chaos of combat, make quick and regrettable decisions. But this was not in combat. He was not in immediate danger. He went into a sleeping village. He killed little children. I have read that other veterans, similarly traumatized and dealing with the trauma without violence, are insulted when well-meaning people make excuses for his actions. Maybe he was insane, totally out of it, but it is strange that this could be hidden in the crowded conditions of a military encampment.
In fact, not everyone who enlists in the military is a hero. I know, even opponents of the empire speak habitually as if this were the case, afraid of being tarred with the dread accusation of hostility to the troops. This can be directly related to the aftermath of Vietnam, when antiwar activists were accused of spitting on returning soldiers. This is almost certainly a myth; there are no contemporary accounts of such things, and a 1971 poll showed that 94% of returning vets reported a friendly reception from their peers. I certainly, as a very young participant in the antiwar movement in those days, did not see any hostility toward veterans; quite the contrary. But George Bush Sr used this myth to stir up support for the first Gulf War, when Americans engaged in a cathartic orgy of watching the bombing campaign on TV, often cheering at the destruction while munching on popcorn. Any dissent was drowned out with the mind-numbing mantra of “support the troops support the troops”. It made me so crazy that I joked about making a bumper sticker that said “fuck the troops”. NOT REALLY! THAT”S OFFEENSIVE AND NOT FUNNY AND I DIDN”T MEAN IT! Plus, whoever killed me would get off, claiming justifiable homicide. But it made me that crazy.
In truth, people join the military for any number of reasons.
True, some join because they want to serve in what they view as a noble cause. I think of Pat Tillman, the football star who walked away from a 3 million dollar NFL contract to join the Army Rangers right after 9/11; I may think him misguided, and indeed he came to see this himself, but that was heroic (killed by” friendly fire” the government attempted to lie about the circumstances of his death and milk it for propaganda value). And I for one can appreciate courage and sacrifice, even if I see the cause as unjust.
Those who join for patriotic reasons solely are no doubt a minority. Many more join for more personal reasons: jobs are scarce, the recruiter promises a lot of benefits, or maybe they hope that the military will give their life some direction, or their parents are pressuring them to get out of the house, or whatever.
But it would be naive not to realize that some join so they can, as Rush Limbaugh describes the purpose of the military, “kill people and break things”. All with social approval. Like the police force, the military may draw those who wish to serve the community or the nation. But by its nature, the job also attracts bullies.
And of course, many no doubt enlist with mixed motives, part patriotic, part selfish, part bully.
But it is strange to in one breath decry contemporary youth culture, with its violent rap and metal and video games, and then speak in the next as if its denizens are automatically transformed into chivalrous warriors, all by the magic of enlistment. And I have read enough first hand accounts from Iraq and Afghanistan to know that on the ground a lot of soldiers have little sympathy for what is to them a strange culture, that they often sound like a particularly rude bunch of frat boys.
I don’t know what kind of person Sgt Robert Bales is; I do know that when my children ask me “Are (fill in racial or ethnic or religious type here) good or bad?” I always answer “Some of them are good and some of them are bad.”
And so it is with the troops: some of them are good, and some of them are bad. Some of them are heroes.
And some of them are villains.