Friday, September 30, 2016

Conscientious Objection (Part 3: Militarism)

Mel Gibson is now in the throws of promoting a new movie, Hacksaw Ridge, and is very quick to make abundantly clear that, while he objects to war, he admires the warrior. And he'd better speak this way if he doesn't want his career absolutely destroyed. If there is one thing we've learned since 9/11, it's that neither the government nor the American public will permit bad things to be spoken about the American Soldier--even if a situation like Abu Ghraib once dominated the headlines for months.

Part of the reason for this is pure fiction, even if people don't realize it. The fiction runs this way: the soldier isn't responsible for the poor decisions of their government or commanders. They are doing their job, which is de facto heroic.They signed up to defend the nation, and their conscience is clear so long as they do their duty, which is to follow orders. It is the job of others to figure out what the moral thing is on a global, political, or military scale. In short, our myth paints the soldier as one with little or no moral choice or conscience in the matter, and plays on our collective memories from when soldiers were drafted, or found themselves caught up in the winds of a storm larger than themselves. Like the men by the fireside in Henry V, we suggest that the soldier's conscience is utterly clear: it is the King who must bear the guilt if the war is immoral. 

This might have been more true, once upon a time, though even Henry refuses to accept this burden in Shakespeare's play. For us, it isn't very true at all. There hasn't been a draft since Vietnam, so it doesn't really apply--the conscience of everyone who enlists must be weighed, on their own, and there is no coercion involved. Granted the government may have gotten us involved in these wars for the right or wrong reasons, but that is for each soldier to decide using their own conscience, before enlisting. If you claim to be against the war, but for the soldier, at this point in history, you are at least in some ways talking out of both sides of your mouth--and you should have the decency to be honest as to why you consider the cause they are endorsing with their lives to be immoral. I have no idea what Mel Gibson's new movie is like. Perhaps it does justice to the the morally confused environment of our times. But if it merely glorifies the soldier while condemning war, it's more Hollywood nonsense. Having said this, part of the reason our current cultural situation is so confused lies in a creeping militarism that neither party has any desire to stop. A couple of days ago, I pointed out that the abortion debate is a useful wedge issue for Republicans that they have never really been committed to changing.  The anti-war, peace movement occupies a similar place among Democrats.

While Democrats have maintained a popular image of being the party of peace, the facts simply don't support it. Over the last quarter century, as we have fought the unending wars of the Middle East, our two Democratic Presidents have certainly been critical of Republican hawkishness, but they have never been shy about using military might in whatever ways it suited them. President Clinton seemed to use that power almost arbitrarily during his administration, so much so that he sometimes even appeared to use military strikes to cover his oval office scandals. President Obama, while running on a platform of peace, has not extricated us from the region, and will probably go down in military history as the political leader who pivoted from modern to post modern mechanized warfare, launching the full fledged era of drone attacks. Obama's legacy is the more troubling. Clinton can always claim he inherited a disastrous middle east police from George H.W. Bush, but Obama's decision on drone warfare was made without any public debate as to the ethics or morality of the practice. It might very well go down, along with the mechanized warfare of WWI, as one of the most inhuman developments in the history of war.    

Compounding this, to the vast majority of Americans, the wars are not real. We have a vague sense that they are being fought "for our way of life" or "for our freedom." A great deal of this might be self-inflicted gibberish by our neo-colonialist leaders, especially during the second Bush administration, when neo-conservative theories of imperialism were a major part of the administration's ascendant political philosophy. But on the whole, the wars don't touch us. We're vaguely grateful someone else, or someone else's kid, is the one being blown up, or on the Wounded Warriors commercials. The NFL accepted millions in payment from the Armed Forces to stage touching, seemingly spontaneous outpourings of affection for our troops, and we lap it up. It's part of the psychological and overly sentimental bargain we have: we will cry for you, and we will support you, regardless of our party affiliation, and regardless of whether or not we're against the war, if only you will let us play our video games and not have to do it ourselves.

But the wars are real. They are real for the people in the Middle East who have been dealing with the consequences of them for the last two decades. They are real for the refugees. And they are real for the soldiers themselves, who haven't necessarily been given all the information they needed before signing up for this supposedly glorious cause. We have a moral obligation to make them real. 

This nation has not had a draft since Vietnam. There is a reason for that. Vietnam was an unpopular "police action" (the preferred euphemism for war that never got a full declaration of war--in other words, a war that wasn't declared by Congress, representing the people of the United States). For this reason alone, there is no wonder there was such a public backlash. To be drafted into a war that wasn't acknowledged as such, by a government that hadn't made a convincing case to the American people and hadn't sought their approval, was an insult to our system of government. It didn't even bother keeping up appearances. The lesson the American government should have learned was clear: Get A Declaration of War. Instead, they decided the real problem was the draft itself. Better to sweeten the pot for soldiers, make sure the G.I Bill served them well, and to make sure that, unlike during Vietnam (whem many soldiers were mistreated upon their return to American society) they are treated gloriously at football games, and at every other turn. It is a powerful recruitment tool to tell a young man who has never felt of value that he will always be treated with dignity and respect by his community after his service. What is never talked about is the morality of our cause. The government never deals openly with ethics, never discusses the moral dimension of our nation's use of force. The discussion is always dominated by American economic interests or fear mongering.    

Around the time the Iraq War began, Rep. Charles Rangel (D, New York) called for a draft to be reinstated. It was seen as a cynical move, simply to create protests on college campuses and blunt the support for the war, and failed to gain traction in the hyper-patriotic aftermath that was post 9/11 America. For what it's worth,  Rangel, a Korean War Veteran, has continued to push for draft reinstatement all the way into the years of the Obama administration. Would we be able to maintain these wars if, instead of NFL tear jerking ceremonies, our main experience of the wars was the fear that we or our children would be drafted and sent off to the desert or the mountains of Afghanistan? What if the G.I. Bill was removed, and the draft restored? Would our nation feel the wars more profoundly, and would they be so supportive of the idea? What if Colin Kaepernick was burning a draft card rather than kneeling? 

Conservatives are quick to point out what they consider to be leftist plots to "buy" the population with free stuff (free healthcare, free education, free food). But there is more than one way to buy a population. What about free wars? All the government asks is that you don't think about them, and that if you don't approve of the wars, at least adore the soldiers. 

My point is neither to condemn nor praise the American soldier. There are different reasons for enlisting, and this system has now offered a great deal of carrots and propaganda, with very little discussion of reality. Instead, I'm pointing out a basic deception of our system. To suggest the soldier has no moral obligation to think through the morality of wars we are engaged in is wrong. A soldier's conscience is their own.  As Shakespeare's King Henry tells us, the night before Agincourt:

Therefore should every soldier in
the wars do as every sick man in his bed, wash every
mote out of his conscience: and dying so, death
is to him advantage; or not dying, the time was
blessedly lost wherein such preparation was gained:
and in him that escapes, it were not sin to think
that, making God so free an offer, He let him
outlive that day to see His greatness and to teach
others how they should prepare.

My further point is that your vote will not stop the wars, nor will they usher in an era of real discussion about whether or not we should continue down this road of American Empire (which we now are). The system is too strong and set, and both parties are behind it. 

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