Each and every US serviceperson today who is not deserting, refusing to follow orders or turning their weapons on their commanders in, in fact, a criminal, and one for whom we should feel neither sympathy nor pity, let alone the specious solidarity of “support the troops” when it’s those same “troops” who are carrying out slaughter, destruction and torture in our name.
While I absolutely agree with you about the bankruptcy of uncritical “support the troops” appeals, I think that the question of willingness and criminality are a bit more complicated than that.
To the extent that soldiers willingly engage in deliberate violence against innocent people, they are certainly complicit in the crime and should be held accountable. But it’s not quite true that all soldiers in the U.S. military are “willing agents” or “volunteers” unless they “desert or disobey.” Everywhere else in the world besides the military, when someone willingly signs on for a job, they can always quit later if they have second thoughts about either the job in general, or about specific requirements imposed on them by their employers. But in the military these are treated as crimes, and can be punished by death if the government so chooses. Soldiers, even so-called “volunteers,” who want to leave the military, but are coerced into staying by the threat of imprisonment or death, should not be considered willing participants, any more than should victims of the draft.
That’s not an excuse for soldiers who directly commit acts of violence against innocents; nothing can excuse that, even if you were drafted rather than “volunteering,” and you should be willing to face imprisonment or death before, say, gunning down a child or a family on patrol. (That’s true of conscripts no less than it’s true of “volunteers.”) But it does make the situation a lot less clear-cut a case of “willing agency” when it comes to, say, a payroll officer or a mechanic or a truck driver, who is coerced into playing some role in the war machine but is not directly committing violence.
Now, that said, on the question of uncritical blanket “support the troops” messages, and moral responsibility, I agree with you, and it reminded me a lot of something really valuable that Utah Phillips said, at the time of the first Gulf War:
I spend a lot of time these days going to demonstrations and vigils, talking to people who support the war. They can be pretty threatening. But I always find there are people there–and I don’t mean policemen, but there are people there who will protect you. I don’t go there to shout or to lecture, but to ask questions. Real questions. Questions I really need answers to.
When I joined the Army, it was kind of like somebody that I had been brought up to respect, wearing a suit and a tie, and maybe a little older, in my neighborhood. Think about yourself in your neighborhood, and this happened to you. He walked up to me, put his arm around my shoulder, and said,
See that fellow on the corner there? He’s really evil, and has got to be killed. Now, you trust me; you’ll go do it for me, won’t you? Now, the reasons are a little complicated; I won’t bother to explain, but you go and do it for me, will you?
Well, if somebody did that to you in your neighborhood, you’d think it was foolish. You wouldn’t do it. Well, what makes it more reasonable to do it on the other side of the world? That’s one question.
Well, now hook it into this. If I was to go down into the middle of your town, and bomb a house, and then shoot the people coming out in flames, the newspapers would say,
Homicidal Maniac! The cops would come and they’d drag me away; they’d say
You’re responsible for that! The judge’d say,
You’re responsible for that; the jury’d say
You’re responsible for that! and they would give me the hot squat or put me away for years and years and years, you see? But now exactly the same behavior, sanctioned by the State, could get me a medal and elected to Congress. Exactly the same behavior. I want the people I’m talking to to reconcile that contradiction for themselves, and for me.
The third question–well I take that one a lot to peace people. There’s a lot of moral ambiguity going on around here, with the peace people who say,
Well, we’ve got to support the troops, and then wear the yellow ribbon, and wrap themselves in the flag. They say,
Well, we don’t want what happened to the Vietnam vets to happen to these vets when they come home–people getting spit on. Well, I think it’s terrible to spit on anybody. I think that’s a consummate act of violence. And it’s a terrible mistake, and I’m really sorry that happened. But what did happen? Song My happened; My Lai happened; the defoliation of a country happened; tons of pesticides happened; 30,000 MIAs in Vietnam happened. And it unhinged some people–made them real mad. And what really, really made them mad, was the denial of personal responsibility–saying,
I was made to do it; I was told to do it; I was doing my duty; I was serving my country. Well, we’ve already talked about that.
Now, it is morally ambiguous to wrap yourself in the flag and to wear those ribbons. And it borders on moral cowardice. I don’t mean to sound stern; well, yes I do, but what does the Nuremberg declaration say? There’s no superior order that can cancel your conscience. Nations will be judged by the standard of the individual. Look, the President makes choices. The Congress makes choices. The Chief of Staff makes choices. The officers make choices. All those choices percolate down to the individual trooper with his finger on the trigger. The individual private with his thumb on the button that drops the bomb. If that trigger doesn’t get pulled, if that button doesn’t get pushed, all those other choices vanish as if they never were. They’re meaningless. So what is the critical choice? What is the one we’ve got to think about and get to? And, friends, if that trigger gets pulled–if that button gets pushed, and that dropped bomb falls–and you say
I support the troops, you’re an accomplice. I don’t want to be an accomplice; do you?
And I don’t want to dehumanize anyone. I don’t want to take away anybody’s humanity. Humans are able to make moral decisions–moral, ethical decisions. What do we tell the trooper who pulls the trigger, or the soldier who turns the wheel that releases oil into the Persian Gulf, that they’re not responsible–just following orders, just doing their duty, have no choice–bypassing them, making them a part of the machine, we deny them their humanity, their responsibility for their actions and the consequences of those actions. Look, I’ve been a soldier. I don’t want any moral loophole. I need to take personal responsibility for my actions. And if we don’t learn how to do this, we’re going to keep on going to war again, and again, and again.
Utah Phillips (1992): from The Violence Within, I’ve Got To Know