People are often surprised when I say that I support a strong military. I suppose it doesn’t seem to fit with my otherwise liberal worldview and smacks of a latent conservatism. Whether this last is good or bad or even true is beside the point, and I even feel that my belief in a strong military is in fact a very liberal notion. I feel this way because, in my opinion, a strong military is predicated upon the proportional strength of the civilian population. It is a strength that, in our modern age, should only grow from the people and must remain true to the tenets and ideals of the country which it protects. Otherwise, it is at best a bully, throwing its weight around to see the little folk tremble, and at worst a monster, unfettered and insatiable.
If this is the danger that having a military presents, why have one at all? Shouldn’t we be advocating for a world of peace where people don’t fight each other and where we don’t need to arm ourselves against our neighbours, locally and internationally? I will be the first to say that I would love to live in that world and that we should work toward it, and I think a great number of servicemen and servicewomen would agree with me. Most of the people I know in the military are fairly peaceful individuals, and none of them are bloodthirsty. They don’t serve because they like killing. They serve because they like living. They serve because they feel that what they are doing is important, that they are protecting their loved ones, as well as their fellow citizens. They serve because they see a need to show strength to those who might want to harm us. The question is whether these men and women who serve in the military are right about the need for such a show of strength. I think that they are.
There is a George Orwell quote that you often hear from people in the military. It goes, ‘People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.’ It sounds a bit arrogant, almost like they’re saying, ‘You’re welcome’ without being thanked. That’s because it’s true. Serving in the military is a strangely thankless job, though I understand why. It makes us feel uncomfortable to have someone doing things all over the world that we don’t believe in (or sometimes even know about). ‘Doing violence on our behalf? Um, no thanks, guys. If it were up to me, you wouldn’t even be there.’ But is it not true that we can relax because we know that there’s someone to call if something goes wrong? There are the police who will protect us if our homes are invaded or if we feel unsafe. How is it any different with the military?
The difference, of course, comes in the phrase ‘feel unsafe’. I doubt many people have any problem with the military rolling out to fight off an invasion, but the grey area of ‘national security’ leaves a bad taste in our mouths. So where’s the middle ground? How do we know if there’s danger or not? It’s a difficult question, to be sure. As an international affairs major in Washington, DC, my friends and I used to joke about ‘spoon-fed realism’ and an approach to studying global issues that warned of unseen threats lurking around every corner. Realpolitik was the watchword of my undergraduate experience, and although I still reject it in much the same way as I did then, the practical approach to threat assessment and security is a necessary part of good governance. We do have enemies, after all, and regardless of how we’ve made them, laying down our arms and declaring peace won’t get many of them to do the same. Peace is, of course, a process, and I think that most people understand that quite well.
I’ve always enjoyed the old aphorism ‘Fighting for peace is like fucking for virginity’, and on the face of it this is very true. You can’t have peace and war at the same time. No doy. I do take issue with this phrase, however. It is correct only in the most literal sense and is otherwise too simplistic. Nonetheless giving it the benefit of the doubt, I will assume that it attempts to educate us on the dangers of the so-called ‘perpetual war for perpetual peace’ idea that we seem to have stumbled into since September 11th. It is indeed a fitting and necessary indictment when viewed this way, but before getting into that, I’d like to look at how we benefit from a strong military.
No matter how you feel personally about the military, it’s there. Men and women join it and serve in it, and they do it to protect their homeland. Call it patriotism, call it nationalism, call it an outdated sentiment that we should move past, none of that changes the fact that they believe in it and they are doing what they feel is right. We don’t have to kill anyone or risk being killed. They do that for us. They are there to stand between us and bombs, bullets and bayonets (they still use bayonets, right?). They keep the oceans safe for trade so that we can buy our fancy imports and export the few things we still actually make in our country. In short, they take care of the scary stuff out there so that we can stop worrying about it and live. It’s pretty awesome, if you ask me, and if you look at it that way I think it’s fairly clear why it’s necessary.
But lest you think that this blog is being funded by the military-industrial complex (and if you do think that, just read some of my other posts and you’ll see how laughable the idea is), let me go on to say that this is only part of what is necessary. As I said above, a strong military necessitates a strong civilian population. The reason for this is that our soldiers are counting on us. When they sign up for the military, they are agreeing to put their own opinions and beliefs about politics and foreign policy in a box and keep it to themselves. When they are called up for a war they don’t believe in, they go anyway. Is that hypocritical? No, because what they are doing is following the chain of command. When they get their orders to go to Iraq, Afghanistan or, God-forbid it should come to that, Iran, they go and they do not question the decision outside of personal discussions they might have with friends or family. They go because they are called, and that’s part of their duty. They go where they’re told and they obey the commands they receive in the life-or-death situations they find themselves in, secure in the knowledge that their superior officers have more information than they do. Perhaps word has just come in about an imminent air strike and the unit needs to break cover and risk taking on enemy fire in order to evacuate the area about to be hit. Soldiers rely on information coming from above to protect them on the ground (or in the air or on the water, as the case may be), and they use that information to fight. Below I’ll talk a bit about the cases where a soldier has to make his or her own decisions in combat, but for the simplified (I know, it is simplified) treatment of soldierly duty, I’m going to stick with the ‘following orders’ part of their job.
Where do we come in? We are a soldier’s best support system because we keep them out of harm’s way until it’s absolutely necessary. We make sure that the military isn’t called in for reasons that are merely politically and economically motivated (by which I mean reasons that would serve political and economic interests while not being necessary to our survival…it’s a sticky wicket, I know), and in that way we ensure that soldiers are only risking their lives because there is no other way. Yay us! Oh, but wait…we don’t actually do that, do we? Most of us couldn’t care less about politics and foreign policy. That’s why we elect politicians to think about those things for us. If they think the war is justified, it probably is, right? Or we blindly echo the call for war and rally to the flag, saying that we support our troops when we have no idea where they’re going and why they’re about to kill and die. Neither of these attitudes is helpful, and neither one is holding up our end of the deal.
On the one hand, we need educated soldiers who can think for themselves but are nevertheless willing to flip that switch and obey orders that might seem counter-intuitive or even dangerous. What we do not need are robots who will do anything that they are told. ‘Just following orders’, as anyone who has seen A Few Good Men knows, is not an excuse for committing a crime. We don’t need soldiers who will blindly follow orders no matter what they are. A thinking human being, intelligent and conscious of his or her actions, is essential to make the military work, and for the most part that’s just what we’ve got. On the other hand, we need a strong, educated, interested populace in order to reign in the politicians and leaders who send in the military. It is not the responsibility of the military or even the government to keep the armed forces in check, but of the citizenry. The government itself is beholden to its citizens-we’re its boss, and we are the ones who should be paying attention. Electing officials to make decisions does not give us the chance to opt out of politics. If anything, it’s harder this way. We have to stay informed while working our full-time jobs, and that isn’t easy (for many, I recognize, it’s currently impossible). It’s up to us, though. It’s our responsibility as citizens of a democracy.
Following September 11th, fear spread throughout the nation, and war fever was quick on its heels. We were scared, we wanted revenge, and we wanted to be safe and secure. Only one of these was really wrong. Damn right we were scared. We’d just been attacked, and we didn’t even really understand who the enemy was. Wanting to be safe and secure was a natural and logical result, but revenge was a natural and illogical one. Revenge does not and has not made us safe. We took our men and women to Afghanistan and Iraq, countries that had nothing to do with the September 11th attacks, and used a tragedy as an oppourtunity for war. Our soldiers went, willingly or unwillingly, and they fought and killed and died because we stopped paying attention. We weren’t thinking about what was right or wrong. We were feeling scared and angry. Well, when you’re the biggest superpower in the world and command armed forces that could wipe out every living thing on the planet, you give up the luxury of thinking with things like fear and anger. Having a strong military is a privilege, not a right, and we forgot that after September 11th. In fact, we forgot it a long time ago.
Going to protest against the war in Afghanistan was like going to a Jane Fonda fan club meeting in the 70’s. There was almost no one there, and we were looked at as pathetic, misguided, anti-American hippies. Not wearing an American flag pin got you stares on the DC metro and condescending offers of a spare that you should put on immediately ‘since you forgot yours today.’ Questioning the reason for war was like asking why America was bad. There was no in-between. You were either with the war machine or you were with the terrorists. I don’t know how many times I heard, ‘Oh, but don’t you realize that if you say things like that, the terrorists win?’ This was in response to questions like, ‘Why Afghanistan?’ and ‘What does Saddam Hussein have to do with Osama bin Laden?’ The tide shifted somewhat in September of 2002 when the march toward war in Iraq was in full swing. Nevertheless, my fellow citizens spat on the ground in front of me and called me names for holding a sign that said I loved soldiers and didn’t want them to die. It was during all of this madness, however, that something wonderful happened.
One of my absolute favourite stories of my protest days in DC took place on the metro. An Air Force colonel (I’ll never forget that) sat down kitty-corner from me and glanced down idly at the satchel on my lap. It was covered in buttons and ribbons with various slogans protesting the war and calling on Americans to question their government. He nodded to himself, a bit uncomfortably, but said nothing. It was a look that spoke not of judgment but of understanding. ‘Here’s one of those protestor guys,’ it said. By now we were already fighting in Iraq and our ‘No War’ slogans had changed to ‘Stop the War’. I plucked up my courage and addressed this man, explaining that one of the main principles of the movement I was working with was that we supported our troops and just wanted them back home with their families (‘Support Our Troops-Bring Them Home’ was one of our most widespread and meaningful slogans). I told him how we sent people to receive wounded soldiers at the airport to thank them for their service (without signs or literature, simply as a gesture-we never identified ourselves as protestors), how we worked with veterans groups to raise awareness about what it’s like to serve, how we weren’t anti-military, just anti-war.
This colonel looked at me and said that he was very happy to hear it because there had been so much hurtful language during the Vietnam-era protests. I stressed that we were actively trying to redeem the anti-war movement and avoid the kind of bitter accusations and hateful messages that soldiers encountered on returning home from that war. In the end, I told him, we weren’t as much anti-war as we were pro-peace. And then he said something that I will always remember. He said, ‘Well, those men and women are over there fighting for your right to speak out, so don’t stop speaking out.’ Incredible. This man hadn’t said, as so many had, ‘They’re fighting for your right to free speech, so shut the hell up!’ He knew the value of that freedom and the importance of exercising it. That one colonel showed me how truly necessary it is for us to do just what he said. If we don’t use our rights, what’s the point of having them? What’s the point of dying for them? Thank you so much, Air Force colonel.
So today, on Memorial Day, I’m writing about why we need to be as strong as our military. The solution is not to weaken the armed forces–and by that I do not mean that would should not reevaluate military spending and seriously overhaul the military-industrial complex–the solution is to strengthen the people. The stronger and more informed we become, the better able we will be to do what we should be doing already, namely, protecting our soldiers. They fight for us and die for us, and we owe it to them to do our part, to make sure that their fight has meaning and that it is necessary. As I said above, it’s up to us as citizens living in a democracy. It’s our responsibility to our government, to ourselves and to our soldiers.