A couple of months ago, I published an article in The New York Times about a phenomenon I referred to as the cult of the uniform: the ritualistic piety, mainly on the part of those with no personal connection to the military, about the “heroes” who “keep us safe” and the way that piety makes it harder for us to have an honest debate about our empire, our wars, and our defense budget. I thought I’d be hanged from a lamp post. In fact, the response was much more positive than I expected. Sure, I got some hate mail (“sorry piece of human crap”; “pseudo-liberal fascist asshole”; “I’m quite sure that Obama will just love your article. Did you write it for him?”), a few brickbats from right-wing websites, and an invitation (declined) to play the piñata on Fox and Friends.
But mostly the response was good, and much of it came from military people themselves. One correspondent, a retired Navy captain, observed that our lionization of the military leads the country to charge the Armed Forces with missions—nation-building, broadly speaking—that it isn’t trained to carry out. Another, a Vietnam vet, remarked that the support in “support the troops” is really “a mile wide and an inch deep.” A third pointed out that “saluting the troops” is good business and included a link to this truly nauseating ad. Quite a few people insisted that only a draft can bring us back to reality.
What I had the good sense (or cowardice) to refrain from saying in the original article is that the language of heroism also distorts the reasons people enlist, as well as the things a lot of them do in uniform. Some people do indeed join the military for idealistic reasons. But most do it because they need a job, or to get money for college, or to get away from the place they live. Some just like the idea—let’s be honest about it—of hurting people. Every officer knows that soldiers fight to protect their buddies, not to keep the country safe.
Of course, it doesn’t really matter why you joined or why you’re fighting if you’re now exposed to mortal danger (as well as the moral danger of taking a life). But far from everyone in uniform is. Most people in the Air Force, as one of my respondents noted, have desk jobs. Sailors at sea are extremely unlikely, the way our wars now go, to find themselves in peril. There’s nothing wrong with that. What’s wrong is throwing a blanket of “heroes” over a couple of million people and thinking that you’re honoring them by doing so.
But the hardest thing to say is this: the people who fight for us, who die for us or have their minds or bodies shattered for us, are not keeping us safe or “preserving our freedom.” They, and we, may certainly like to think they are, but how many of the wars that we’ve fought in the last 50 years, major or minor, have done that? Vietnam and Iraq are not the Revolution and the Second World War. Mainly, we fight to preserve our empire—which means, to enrich the people who run our empire—and to help politicians get reelected. In other words, our servicemembers don’t fight “for us” at all. I’m not a pacifist. I believe we need a military. But I’m sickened by the way we use it now. What I mainly feel for our people in uniform is not veneration (or contempt), it’s pity—it’s sadness. Such a criminal waste of life.
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