Friday, March 23, 2012

Some zombies never die: blaming the soldiers version

When I first saw the title of David Rothkopf's article, A New Challenge for Our Military: Honest Introspection Foreign Policy 03/19/2012, I was thinking was would just post the link with a comment like, "Not a chance. Not unless Congress or the President forces them to."

But then I see he repeats one of the most durable zombie lies in American politics. In fact, it's become so well established it's more like national folklore tradition:

Perhaps our silence is understandable -- to a degree. It was a national scandal how badly our troops were treated in the wake of the Vietnam War. They had sacrificed greatly and served with honor, and it was wrong to take them to task as a group for the misjudgments of those who directed their actions or for a few bad soldiers who committed some terrible misdeeds. In subsequent years, political leaders like Ronald Reagan won great national approval for embracing those troops and trying to redress the wrongs done to them and their reputation. [my emphasis]
This is so widespread that it's even repeated by serious present-day war critics. So it may be like spitting in the wind to repeat once more what a crock it is. But it is a crock. More on that below.

Buying in to that piece of folklore leads people to do what Rothdopf does in this piece, which is to pepper-spray his own message, which he at first states straightforwardly:

We have lost more than lives in our wars in the Middle East, more than money, more than precious elements of our national reputation. We have also lost our ability to judge our actions or their consequences with a critical eye. [my emphasis]
One of the reasons is that writers like Rothkopf are so afraid that someone might criticize them for not "honoring the troops" because he's criticizing some failure of policy or pointing out a war crime, that they do what he does in this piece, which is effectively apologize for even bringing it up.

Let me suggest a formulation for how I think most adults actually look at the "honor the troops" slogan. People who volunteer for the military are doing something that is often unpleasant and demanding, and entails real risk to life and limb. So do other public servants like police and firefighters. Most people respect that, and have some sense that they deserve to be well-treated officially. The same goes for prison guards, though their reputation is generally less glowing. TV shows about heroic cops and military units are too numerous to count. Ones about heroic prison guards? Not so much.

The same level of respect does not apply to non-public-service versions of similar jobs: security consultants who act as soldiers, aka, mercenaries, a word that seems to have nearly dropped out of the American vocabulary; building and other private-security functionaries, aka, rent-a-cops, a term that is common; or firefighting services that won't put out a fire at your house if you are behind on your firefighter subscriptions payments, as recently occurred in at least one privatization experiment.

Why should there be such a difference in respect? One obvious reason is that soldiers, cops and firefighters are working in the public sector without the sometimes-spectacular earnings opportunities their private counterparts might offer. The other is that those public servants are responsible in law (if not always in fact!) to elected officials and monitoring training, conduct and effectiveness is part of the business of the governments that operate them.

Mercenaries, on the other hand, may not care so much about the law or any public service goals. They get paid to follow their orders. There's a continuum of rental muscle and firepower that ranges from the responsible to the shaky to mobsters and drug gangs. People admire fighter pilots in the Air Force because they see them as Top Gun defenders of the country. Airline pilots are respected for their incomes and their skill, but are likely to come under criticism much more quickly for mistakes than pilots in one of the services.

When it comes to realistic views of the public servants, that can vary greatly. African-Americans learn early in life not to be so trustful of cops, for instance, as white Americans tend to be.

And there is a certain proportion of the public who even approves of our public servants committing, war crimes like the recent Kandahar massacre, or killing people with Tasers for no good reason, or torturing prisoners. But most people actually expect their public servants not to do this. They expect soldiers to kill opposing troops or actual terrorists, not go busting into houses and just murder people as the shooter(s) in the Kandahar massacre did. They expect cops not to kill people for no good reason.

One thing the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations brought out is the extent to which Wall Street firms buy special treatment from the NYPD by massive contributions to police-connected charities. Cities allowing this kind of blurring of the public-private distinction with the police risk eroding what respect the police maintain as public servants as opposed to rent-a-cops.

Now, to the folklore. I've been writing about the blame-the-soldiers folklore for a long time. Like in this post, Rehash the Vietnam War? Bring It On! 03/05/2004 (Have I really been blogging that long?)

Since critics of war crimes are not equating all soldiers involved in a war to the ones that commit war crimes, we're justified in assuming that there is considerable projection in those accusations - those who want to honor the war criminals along with other soldiers in a war wind up accusing those who condemn the war crimes of condemning all soldiers.

And our infallible generals are certainly glad to have the aura of "honor our soldiers" shield them from any criticism, as well. Rothkopf points out that our generals' decisions and actions also deserve critical scrutiny:

It was the military that opted to make these two wars [Afghanistan and Iraq] the first in U.S. history in which the majority of people we had on the ground were private contractors -- with all the errors, abuses, and problems that have been associated with some of those contractors. It was the military that made the spending recommendations resulting in the costliest wars [in dollars] in U.S. history -- even though both will end very unsatisfactorily. In Iraq, we are likely to end up with a fragmented country under the rule of a strongman and subject to Iranian influence. In Afghanistan, we are likely to turn the country over to either a corrupt, incompetent current government or the very Taliban we entered the country to flush out.
Which brings me back to my original impulse on seeing the article's title. Congress, the public and the White House need to force the Pentagon to take a serious, self-critical look at their performance in those wars and over the last 10 years generally. The military does practice self-criticism and review. But the kind that is needed here won't happen in a public atmosphere of worship and reverence for the glorious generals.

Such an attitude is just not the attitude a democratic public or a democratic government should be taking towards the military.

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"It is the logic of our times
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