Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Chris Hayes and Patriotic Correctness about "the troops"

Liberal journalist Chris Hayes took some flak from the usual suspects this past weekend when he suggested that talking about soldiers like 12-year-old fanboys gushing about their favorite comic-book heroes might not be entirely appropriate on all occasions for adult citizens in a democracy.

Paul Campos gives an account in Chris Hayes apologizes for saying something intelligent LGM 05/28/2012. Charlie Pierce recalls how Republican partisans "honored the troops" back in 2004. (What Are the Gobshites Saying These Days? Esquire Politics Blog 05/29/2012)

Chris is neither the first to catch this kind of flak nor will be be the last. I'm even seeing little inspirational posters to honor military dogs these days. I addressed this issue, for instance in Sleaze 02/17/2012. I posted on the issue on which Hayes' controversial comment touched in Do "the troops" = the war policy? 04/16/2012.

On 02/07/2007, I posted William Arkin gets in deep doody for not "supporting the troops". The links to Arkin's columns there are now broken. (Which is why I like to quote relevant passages from the articles I link as well as referencing the article name and source, which makes them easier to locate with a web search. Although I wasn't able to find versions of those on a quick search that I would consider reliable ones.)

Here's what I wrote about Arkin's offense against Patriotic Correctness in that post:

He was challenging the increasingly daffy political convention in America of arguing about Iraq War policy in terms of what's best for "the troops", who are routinely described as brave, noble, self-sacrificing, [fill in your favorite superlative]. We're against the war because we're asking too much of "our troops" who are fine, wonderful, etc. No, we need to stay in Iraq because "the troops" want to finish the job, being as they are brave, determined, capable, etc.

This convention has become increasingly popular over the last three decades. To a significant extent it's the result of having an all-volunteer military, though other trends have contributed to it, such as the Christian fundamentalists deciding that the military was a rich "mission field" for their message. But was result of all those trends is that fewer and fewer Americans have direct contact with the military themselves or through neighbors and family members. Idolizing "the troops" is kind of an informal but real psychological bargain.

The civilians who don't serve and haven't served gush about the nobility of those who do. Those in the military are expected to then be jacked around as the politicians and our infallible generals decide (the generals also being dedicated, noble, selfless, etc.), and they shouldn't make everyone else feel uncomfortable by bitching and moaning about it. More particularly, no one should make the offspring of affluent Republican white folks feel guilty about the fact that while they cheer for wars and recite bloody slogans as loyal Republicans are expected to, most of them don't feel moved to volunteer for those wars they find so vital to the interests of the Homeland. That's what we have fine, noble soldiers for, who just happen to be disproportionately Southern, disproportionately minorities and disproportionately working class. Military recruiters should confine their high-pressure recruiting efforts to mall and high-schools in working-class neighborhoods and not trouble nice young Republican white folks about such things.

And that's a big downside of this idolization of "the troops". Because "the troops" are strangers to so many Americans, and because they are abstracted to be the Best of the Best, it makes it psychologically much easier for most of the public to cheerfully agree and even applaud to send them off on dubious missions where their lives and bodies are placed on the line. Too many people view them as The Troops, not as what they are: men and women just like the rest of the society they come from, though with the demographic disproportions I mentioned above.

Arkin made the point in a clumsy way. But doing verbal somersaults to make Iraq War policy sound in the best interests of the soldiers is getting increasingly unreal. Anyone who's not a Big Pundit or totally into the Oxycontin worldview understands that it's obvious that war is never in the best interests of "the troops". Their best interests is in not being put in some Middle Eastern hell-hole where they may be killed or maimed or shot out their helicopters or driven to PTSD.

Also, it surely must be clear to most anyone not washed in the blood of High Broderism that whether the soldiers in the field want to carry on the fight is not the determining factor in war policies, unless things come to the extremes of the army collapsing or revolting. I'm not aware of any country which lets the rank-and-file soldiers vote on whether to initiate, continue or end a war. I suppose you could make some sort of romantic-Bolshevik case that they should get to decide by a vote. (Not that Communist governments ever followed such a practice.) Soldiers in the American Civil War got to elect some of their officers, a system that didn't have such great practical results.

But who outside Beltway punditry or rightwing think-tanks pretends that's the way the world works? Of course, wars are bad for the soldiers' health and well-being, including the businesses, marriages and family lives that are negatively affected by their absence. And of course the soldiers in the field don't get to decide, short of some kind of insubordination or revolt, whether or not their country is going to enter a war, keep on fighting or come to a peace agreement.

And I quoted Arkin describing the rightwing "populism" of war fans who argue for their policy preferences in the name of "supporting the troops" (even when "the troops" themselves have a diversity of opinions on the policies relating to the wars in which some of them are fighting):

But the bigger point is that any dissenting voices are just those of whores, politicians, tin foil hat liberals, or worse, un-Americans. In this view, there are no actual experts in this world, no one who studies and measures public opinion, no one who studies war or the military, who do not wear the uniform. This is not some post-modern relativism, it is pure anti-elitism. The elite think they know it all, while those who do all of the dirty work, who do all of the suffering, are methodically ignored and dominated.
But this is Tea Party style "anti-elitism". I quoted a Military Times analysis from late 2006 of a poll of soldiers that found, "Only 35 percent of the military members polled this year said they approve of the way President Bush is handling the war, while 42 percent said they disapproved." And, "in this year’s poll only 41 percent of the military said the U.S. should have gone to war in Iraq in the first place, down from 65 percent in 2003."

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