As the Bush Administration prepares for its impending invasion of Iraq - an invasion that contravenes international law and world opinion - the jingoistic appeals to support the troops is heard in numerous quarters. Whether heartfelt expressions of concern or cynical manipulation of patriotism, such appeals are based on a profound misunderstanding of what the troops represent and how they are used in war-making and consensus-building.
It is important to underscore the fact that these men and women have been put in harm’s way by an Administration and military system that values them only as instruments for war. Our care for them as relatives, friends, neighbors, and, fundamentally, our fellow-citizens should not be in doubt. In no way, however, does this condone the policies they will be forced to carry out - policies that will lead to the slaughter of tens of thousands of Iraqis in the furtherance of an arrogant and obsessive vision of a new American empire. Hence, they go into battle as the empire’s troops, not our troops.
Clearly, the Bush Administration is worried about potential war crimes embedded in their plans for war on Iraq. From the air strategy of “shock and awe” where thousands of missiles would bombard Baghdad in the first 48 hours, killing massive numbers of innocent civilians, to the use of landmines, bio-chemical and even “low-level” radiation weapons, Washington policy-makers are aware that military strategists and their troops could be found guilty of war crimes by the new International Criminal Court. George W. may have even pronounced such an inadvertent judgment when he cautioned Iraq’s generals they would be “held to account as war criminals...if they take innocent life, if they destroy infrastructure...” (New York Times, 2/26/03, p.1) Perhaps this also explains why the Bush Administration has shunned the International Criminal Court and negotiated deals with individual countries to resist turning over any US military members to the Court.
Such concern for individual troops is more a commitment to waging unfettered war without moral scruples than protecting the well-being of US soldiers. In fact, as one reviews how US soldiers have been treated by the Pentagon in recent wars, one is left with the distinct impression that the Washington policy-makers don’t give a damn about their troops. In the Vietnam War, the average grunt was used as bait in the infamous “search-and destroy” strategy, susceptible to high percentages of friendly fire and at times doused by the carcinogenic herbicide, Agent Orange. In the Gulf War, US soldiers were injected with experimental anti-nerve gas agents and flawed anthrax vaccine. On top of that, they were also caught up in the residues of dangerous depleted uranium. No wonder that the Pentagon refuses to acknowledge the Gulf War Syndrome!
Even now, as the preparations to a full-scale attack on Iraq are readied, there are reports of faulty protective gear being distributed to US soldiers. Furthermore, the Bush Administration and the Pentagon are just itching to try out a wide array of newly devised weapons, some of which will undoubtedly cause harm to advancing US troops. The one concern that may give the war-makers pause is the risk of large numbers of US casualties and a drawn-out war. While civilian Pentagon planners may be emboldened by a 1999 study of casualty aversion by the Triangle Institute for Security Studies which suggested that the public might tolerate up to thirty thousands US deaths in a war in Iraq, Washington is still skittish about thousands of body bags coming home and a prolonged conflict.
As a way to protect against such an outcry over US deaths, not to mention the massive suffering of innocent Iraqis, the Pentagon is planning to use a complicit media to highlight the heroic role of selected troops and to cast the anti-war movement in a role of unpatriotic back-stabbers. In a recent article in Time magazine, an anxious US soldier in Kuwait was quoted disdaining the protest activities of those back home and worrying about whether he would be spat upon by protesters when he returned home. The whole manufactured image of anti-war protesters spitting on returning vets, as Jerry Lembcke points out in his important book, The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam, was created by the media and utilized by the Reagan and Bush Administrations to ramp up aggressive interventions and discredit peace activists. In fact, Vietnam vets were courted by the anti-war movement and became key allies in undermining the war efforts, especially, of the Nixon Administration.
Although the elimination of the draft has made it more difficult for organizing within the military, there are seeds of discontent that are evident from weekend warriors to former and present military officers, especially in opposition to a war on Iraq. The whole Bush doctrine of pre-emptive war and the recklessness of Bush diplomacy is causing alarm for citizens inside and outside the military. Our task is not to rally round the troops, but to bring them home now!
Fran Shor is an anti-war activist and teaches at Wayne State University.