Love the professional, but hate the profession
Date: Tuesday, November 25 @ 12:28:33 UTC
Topic: Troops

By Gabriel Ash,

In the din of the sour festivities of Veterans Day 2003 stands out a common refrain of progressive voices, many of them veterans themselves. This refrain is epitomized in the slogan that a group of veterans brought a parade in Florida, "Honor the warrior, not the war!"

One can easily grasp the tactical advantage some seek in differentiating between the common soldiers and our corrupt rulers. The rhetoric is smart, pointed, designed to appeal to "the average American," who is suspicious of government, yet patriotic and proud of "our men and women in uniform." There is only one problem. This rhetoric is either dishonest or confused.

The people who march behind these slogans usually agree that the Iraq War is a fraud, a corporate ratchet, practically an armed robbery of an oil-rich foreign country. So what do they mean by "honor the warrior, not the war"? Can we adapt their slogan to fit other misdeeds? "Honor the robber, not the robbery!", "honor the polluter, not the pollution!", etc. Does this make much sense?

One could argue it isn't the participation in this particular war that we are honoring, but the very act of doing one's duty with courage and self-sacrifice. Unfortunately, it isn't that simple.

There was outrage when Ronald Reagan paid homage to the Waffen SS (the Nazi equivalent of the Special Forces) buried in Bitburg. Japan's prime minister Koizumi's visit to the Yasukuni shrine, which commemorates 2.5 million Japanese war deeds, also created unease. But why? Didn't these young German and Japanese soldiers fight valiantly according to the orders of their superiors?

It turns out the Pentagon chose an old Nazi code name -- Iron Hammer -- for its latest operation in Iraq. That doesn't mean that the current U.S. regime is as perfidious as Nazi Germany was. But similar thoughts cloth themselves in similar words. The two copywriters who came up separately, over fifty years apart, with the same catchy code name were looking for the same thing -- a short, smart expression of might, domination, invincibility, etc. Quite likely, both were equally unaware of, and uninterested in, the consequences of that might for others.

We can choose to honor people according to relativistic, aesthetic principles. We can choose to appreciate professionalism for its own sake, without regards to consequences. Indeed, one could say this is the natural moral code of professionals. It allows us to admire the beauty of a perfectly executed murder, the logistical brilliance of the people who designed Auschwitz, the verbal dexterity of a skilled disinformer such as Ari Fleischer, the majesty of the Enola Gay bomber. It allows us to live in peace with our own participation, in countless ways, in the mayhem that our government unleashes upon others and the devastation of the planet by the corporations we work for. But we pay a steep price for this comfort -- a desiccated soul and a dying planet.

But wait, you say, our democratic government will cease to function unless people respect legitimate authority even when they disagree with the command. The soldiers risk their lives for their country, taking orders from the properly elected government. Their fulfillment of their duty is thus honorable, even if the orders they obey are not.

Putting aside the question of who elected our government, this argument shouldn't be persuasive. If the smooth functioning of the U.S. government is more valuable than the life of its victims, than we shouldn't be honoring people like Daniel Ellsberg and Phillip Berrigan, who disrupted the functioning of the government, and people like Michael Simmons, who spent two years in jail for refusing to serve in Vietnam. We cannot, unless we are confused, honor two such diametrically opposed moral choices simultaneously.

Our men and women in uniforms, as they are often called, are just beginning a dirty war against the Iraqi resistance. They blow up buildings and cars of "suspected targets" in the middle of a town. They now demolish homes, a practice learned from that other beacon of virtue, Israel. Without the newspeak, they lash out blindly against unknown Iraqis. The resulting slaughter of civilians is motivated less by the hope of success -- for every fighter accidentally killed in such attacks ten new recruits will join the resistance -- but by the iron demands of Bush's electoral calendar. The heavy handed attacks draw press and create the impression of forward momentum, necessary to protect the presidential swagger.

Our men and women in uniform, reduced to hired guns for the Mugger in Chief, deserve compassion and understanding of their predicament. We should wish them a safe return and we should mourn their losses, and we should mourn the people they kill. But to honor them is something altogether different. Honor is more than understanding and compassion. It is the elevation of an act to an example worth following and repeating. If we don't want this war repeated, if we want people to be thoughtful before they engage in killing, to refuse to participate in crimes, even crimes authorized by "legitimate" government, we can't honor the opposite behavior.

American soldiers are young men and women who have been deceived and lured into becoming thugs in the service of greed and prejudice. I understand how this works; twenty years ago I was a young recruit in a similar position, joining the Israeli occupation army in Southern Lebanon. I understand the soothing power of an M-16 slung over one's shoulder, the sexiness of lethality, the pride of marksmanship, the pleasure of being admired by forth-graders. Young soldiers are almost made-to-order victims for the lies of politicians; consider just how much money is spent every year, in media, in Hollywood epics, in education, to make war alluring, attractive, erotic, patriotic, honorable. But soldiers are willing victims -- or at least docile victims -- attracted to the exploits of masculinity, the field camaraderie, the responsibility of command, the promise of upward mobility. We must help them find the courage to listen to their guts, the courage to say "I won't." We don't help them do so by honoring them. We help them by being straightforward about what kind of behavior we admire.

[Gabriel Ash was born in Romania and grew up in Israel. He is an unabashed "opssimist." He writes his columns because the pen is sometimes mightier than the sword - and sometimes not. He lives in the United States.]

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