My 16-month-old son was having a bad day. When he doesn’t sleep in the car, he usually points and babbles his approval of all the wonderful things babies notice that completely escape adult attention. On this afternoon, though, he was teething and hungry, a lethal scenario for an energetic youngster strapped into a high-tech seating apparatus (approved and installed, of course, by the state).
When it became clear he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, sleep it out, my wife and I stopped at a nondescript exit, the kind one finds every six miles in the South, with two gas stations and three abandoned buildings (if you’re lucky, you also get a Hampton Inn and Cracker Barrel). While she tended to the baby, I entered a convenience store — one of those squat, glass and plastic rectangles that looks like a Sears & Roebuck erector set — praying it would have something other than beer, cigarettes and beef jerky.
I settled on two Kraft mozzarella sticks, resisting the urge to purchase for myself a shiny red can of Four Loko.
“That’ll be $1.82,” the lady at the counter cheerily informed me. After I handed her two ones, she asked, “Would you like to donate your change to the troops?” I noticed a jar with “support our troops” taped to it in handwritten ink.
“No, thank you,” I answered firmly.
“Well … OK, then, sir,” she responded in subtle reproach, her smile not quite so ascendant anymore. “You have a good day now.”
She had good reason to be disappointed. The vast majority of customers, I imagine, spare a few dimes and pennies for so important a cause. Her response evinced more shock than anger. She wasn’t expecting a refusal of 18 cents, even from a guy who looks very much like those responsible for the danger to our troops.
Besides, nobody likes to have their altruism invalidated by a recalcitrant or ungrateful audience.
I could have asked how the donations would be used, but no matter the answer I would have kept my 18 cents. I don’t consider patriotism a beneficent force, for it asks us to exhibit loyalty to nation-states that never fully accommodate their entire populations. In recent years I’ve grown fatigued of appeals on behalf of the troops, which intensify in proportion to the belligerence or potential unpopularity of the imperial adventure du jour.
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Such troop worship is trite and tiresome, but that’s not its primary danger. A nation that continuously publicizes appeals to “support our troops” is explicitly asking its citizens not to think. It is the ideal slogan for suppressing the practice of democracy, presented to us in the guise of democratic preservation.
I returned to the car, wondering if it will ever be possible to escape the inveterate branding of war as a civic asset in the United States. My son happily grabbed his snack and giggled as I jingled the change before dropping it into the ashtray.
* * *
The troops are now everywhere. They occupy bases and war zones throughout the Arab world and Central Asia and have permanent presence in dozens of countries. They also occupy every tract of discursive territory in the United States. The troops are our omnipresent, if amorphous, symbols of moral and intellectual austerity.
No televised sporting event escapes celebration of the troops. Networks treat viewers to stars and stripes covering entire football fields, complementing the small-but-always-visible flags the studio hosts sport on their lapels. The national anthem is often accompanied by fighter jets and cannon blasts. Displays of hypermasculine prowess frame the reciprocal virtues of courage and devotion embedded in American war mythology.
Corporate entities are the worst offenders. On flights, troops are offered early boarding and then treated to rounds of applause during the otherwise forgettable safety announcements. Anheuser-Busch recently won the Secretary of Defense Public Service Award and in 2011 “Budweiser paid tribute to America’s heroes with a patriotic float in the Rose Parade®.” The Army’s website has a page dedicated to “Army Friendly Companies”; it is filled with an all-star lineup of the Forbes 500 as well as dozens of regional businesses.
I do not begrudge the troops for availing themselves of any benefits companies choose to offer, nor do I begrudge the companies for offering those benefits. Of greater interest is what the phenomenon of corporate charity for the troops tells us about commercial conduct in an era of compulsory patriotism.
It tells us, first of all, that corporations care far less about the individuals who happen to have served in the military than they do about “the troops” as an exploitable consumer category. Unthinking patriotism, exemplified by support of the troops (however insincere or self-serving), is an asset to the modern business model, not simply for good P.R., but also for the profit it generates.
Multinational corporations have a profound interest in cheerleading for war and in the deification of those sent to execute it. For many of these corporations, the U.S. military is essentially a private army dispatched around the world as needed to protect their investments and to open new markets. Their customers may “support our troops” based on sincere feelings of sympathy or camaraderie, but for the elite the task of an ideal citizenry isn’t to analyze or to investigate, but to consume. In order for the citizenry to consume an abundance of products most people don’t actually need, it is necessary to interject the spoils of international larceny into the marketplace.
* * *
“Support the troops” is the most overused platitude in the United States, but still the most effective for anybody who seeks interpersonal or economic ingratiation. The platitude abounds with significance but lacks the burdens of substance and specificity. It says something apparently apolitical while patrolling for heresy to an inelastic logic. Its only concrete function is to situate users into normative spaces.
Clichés aren’t usually meant to be analyzed, but this one illuminates imperialism so succinctly that to think seriously about it is to necessarily assess jingoism, foreign policy, and national identity. The sheer vacuity and inexplicability of the phrase, despite its ubiquity, indicates just how incoherent patriotism is these days.
Who, for instance, are “the troops”? Do they include those safely on bases in Hawaii and Germany? Those guarding and torturing prisoners at Bagram and Guantánamo? The ones who murder people by remote control? The legions of mercenaries in Iraq? The ones I’ve seen many times in the Arab world acting like an Adam Sandler character? “The troops” traverse vast sociological, geographical, economic and ideological categories. It does neither military personnel nor their fans any good to romanticize them as a singular organism.
And what, exactly, constitutes “support”? Is it financial giving? Affixing a declarative sticker to a car bumper? Posting banalities to Facebook? Clapping when the flight attendant requests applause?
Ultimately, the support we’re meant to proffer is ideological. The terms we use to define the troops — freedom-fighters, heroic, courageous — are synecdoche for the romance of American warfare: altruistic, defensive, noble, reluctant, ethical. To support the troops is to accept a particular idea of the American role in the world. It also forces us to pretend that it is a country legitimately interested in equality for all its citizens. Too much evidence to the contrary makes it impossible to accept such an assumption.
In reality, the troops are not actually recipients of any meaningful support. That honor is reserved for the government and its elite constituencies. “Support our troops” entails a tacit injunction that we also support whatever politicians in any given moment deem the national interest. If we understand that “the national interest” is but a metonym for the aspirations of the ruling class, then supporting the troops becomes a counterintuitive, even harmful, gesture.
The government’s many appeals to support the troops represent an outsourcing of its responsibility (as with healthcare, education and incarceration). Numerous veterans have returned home to inadequate medical coverage, psychological afflictions, unemployment and increased risk of cancer. The free market and corporate magnanimity are supposed to address these matters, but neither has ever been a viable substitute for the dynamic practices of communal policymaking. A different sort of combat ensues: class warfare, without the consciousness.
As in most areas of the American polity, we pay taxes that favor the private sector, which then refuses to contribute to any sustainable vision of the public good. The only serious welfare programs in the United States benefit the most powerful among us. Individual troops, who are made to preserve and perpetuate this system, rarely enjoy the spoils. The bonanza is reserved for those who exploit the profitability of warfare through the acquisition of foreign resources and the manufacture of weapons.
Supporting the troops is a cheerful surrogate for enabling the friendly dictators, secret operations, torture practices and spying programs that sustain this terrible economy.
* * *
My wife and I often discuss what our son might grow up to accomplish. A consistent area of disagreement is his possible career choice. She can think of few things worse than him one day joining the military (in any capacity), while I would not object to such a decision.
Those who know me might be surprised by my position, but it arises from a belief consistent with my political outlook, that the power of institutions can never overwhelm the simple act of thinking. In other words, even if the military as an institution often does bad things, the individuals that comprise the military do not have to become bad people. Soldiers can certainly be awful human beings, but so can professors, clerks, musicians, executives, landscapers and athletes.
This way of thinking also inversely demystifies the troops, who are burdened with untenable narratives of heroism the vast majority (like those in all professions) do not deserve. I am neither smart nor foolish enough to define “heroism,” but I am comfortable saying the mere fact of being a soldier doesn’t automatically make one a hero, just as the mere fact of being in prison doesn’t necessarily make one evil.
If we recognize that the troops are in fact human beings, then we simultaneously accept that they are too complex to be reduced to patriotic ephemera. Such recognition is unusual, though. People speak frequently of “our troops,” highlighting the pronoun as if it is imperative to their sense of national belonging. It is an act of possession that projects fantasies of virtue onto an idealized demographic in the absence of substantive virtuous practices that might otherwise foster national pride. Plutocracy ravages the state; we rebuild it with narratives of glory and selflessness, the troops acting as both the signifier and the signified in this nationalistic uplift.
The selflessness of our troops is particularly sacred. Not only do they bring order and democracy to lesser peoples; they also risk (and sometimes give) their lives for the good of others, so that civilians might continue driving, shopping, dining and watching movies, the hallmarks of American freedom. That these notions of sacrifice connote a Christ-like narrative of individual-death-for-collective-pleasure only endows them with even greater cultural power.
Whether or not our son ever joins the military, questions about the deployment of mythological slogans in the service of socioeconomic iniquity need to be addressed. His joining or not joining will have no effect on that need, which will remain even if he becomes a teacher or doctor. I want him to enter into adulthood in a world where people impeach and diminish the mystification of corporate plunder. More than anything, I want him to participate in the process, whether he does it from a barrack, a cubicle or a corner office.
It would be wise to avoid countervailing slogans, such as the assertive but nonetheless meager Support Our Troops, Bring Them Home! One goal is to disrupt and rethink, something much easier to accomplish in the absence of shibboleths. Another goal is to continue exploring why support for troops as prescribed by sports leagues and conglomerates actually does a great disservice to the human beings who comprise the military and reinforces a plutocratic imperium for those who do not.
Next time you are asked to “support our troops,” then, remember that in a country where wealth decides the fate of so many communities, such an uncritical gesture isn’t even worth the change from a broken dollar.