Perhaps the most insidious byproduct of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has been a reflexive sanctification of the military. To put this in bumper stickerese: Support the Troops.
Well, I have an ugly confession to make: I don't support the troops - at least not unconditionally. When somebody tells me they serve in the military, my first impulse isn't to say, "Thank you for your service!" like those insufferable chickenhawks on talk radio.
My first impulse is to say, "I'm sorry to hear that." Because I am. I'm sorry to know that the person I'm talking to might someday be maimed or killed on the job, or might someday kill someone else. Or refuel a plane that drops bombs on buildings.
I can't see how anyone who calls himself or herself Christian - or human, for that matter - wouldn't be sorry.
The fact that we have an army, that we need an army, is inherently tragic. It's an admission that our species is still ruled by fear and aggression.
There are, of course, plenty of laudable functions that soldiers serve. But their sworn duty is to wage war. They may perform this duty with courage. They may feel great love for their country. But we don't pay them simply for their patriotism or integrity. We also pay them to kill people.
And here it's worth making a point often overlooked. Anyone who pays taxes in this country "supports the troops." We're the ones who subsidize their training and equipment and medical care and education.
I'm happy to do so, as long as I believe those soldiers are being deployed on a mission that feels morally necessary - targeting terrorists who seek to kill civilians, for instance, or trying to prevent a genocide.
The problem with the knee-jerk militarism of the past several years is that it has led to an absence of financial and moral oversight that is fundamentally undemocratic. Our troops have become human shields for war criminals and profiteers.
Consider the $1.39 billion contract awarded in 2003 to a subsidiary of Halliburton. The reconstruction project was secretly bid - to one company. There was much tough talk in Congress about preventing such sweetheart deals. But five years later, the US government continues to pay vast sums of our money to firms with ties to the administration.
In 2005, we learned that $9 billion allocated for reconstruction projects had been lost. With the US economy slumping, fighting this kind of flagrant graft and mismanagement shouldn't be politically risky. But then, anyone who cries foul runs the risk of being accused of . . . not supporting the troops.
No surprise. After all, this was the rallying cry used to silence dissent when the core rationale for invading Iraq evaporated. And it's still being used to justify the occupation.
It remains unthinkable for a politician (or public official of any sort) to say aloud that our troops sometimes commit atrocities, that they are not all worthy of support, that some of them - faced with a terrifying and ethically incoherent mission - are driven to savagery. This grim duty has been left to the soldiers themselves.
Americans have often looked to heroic violence as a means of spiritual regeneration. Our most powerful national myth is the notion that anyone fighting on our behalf is a hero. I understand why friends and families of our soldiers feel this way. But for the rest of us, too often "supporting the troops" isn't about the troops at all. It's about the childish desire to feel morally exempt from the violence carried out in our names.