I originally conceived of this essay back at the American Historical Association convention in January, when Marilyn Young pointed out that one of the “lessons” learned from the Vietnam war was that even if you don’t support the war, you must support the troops who are fighting that war if you want to be perceived as an ethical person whose voice deserves to be heard. Indeed, supporting the troops has been a crucial legacy of Vietnam for the Iraq war, since it essentially means we are not allowed to oppose war funding, and those funds hide their purpose — the murder of Iraqi freedom fighters and civilians, as well as the inevitable death and maiming of U.S. soldiers — behind the lie that those funds are only being appropriated to “protect” Americans in a war zone. Hence, one of the reasons the United States is able to keep fighting the war is that those in Congress who claim to oppose the war continue to vote for appropriations — not to support the war, mind you, but to “support the troops.” Hence, when we support the troops (and this was Marilyn’s point) we support the prosecution of an illegal and immoral war, and we pretend that we have no other choice as responsible citizens.
This is nonsense and it is a lie. Let me start with a little historical context.
What is being called on here is some version of several famous, and false, narratives. The first is the “stab in the back theory:” i.e., that Imperial Germany would have won the Great War in 1918 had Jews and Communists not undermined the war effort on the German home front. It was a lie, of course, a lie told in the service of nationalism. But the stab in the back theory, in turn, later became a narrative engine that justified, not just the rise of Fascism, but the suppression and extermination of Jews and Communists more generally in the interwar period.
The second is related to the stab in the back theory, and comes in two parts. Part one — repeated in classrooms everywhere — is the shameful scenario of soldiers returning from Vietnam who were spat upon by ignorant and angry Americans, unwilling to acknowledge veterans’ sacrifice, desirous of degrading their honorable military service, and desecrating the memory of fallen comrades. But Jerry Lembcke, a Vietnam veteran and sociologist at Holy Cross argues in The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam that these stories cannot be documented. Except for a few incidents that he did verify, of Veterans of Foreign Wars members spitting on veterans who demonstrated with antiwar protesters upon their return, Lembcke argues that veterans were not, in fact, spat upon, either as a general phenomenon, or even once in a while by the occasional, hair-brained anti-war loony. You can read a short account of Lembcke’s research here in a little piece he did for The Veteran, an online newsletter hosted by Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
Part Two of this late twentieth century stab in the back theory continues to circulate among those who believe — without proof and against all evidence that Vietnamese guerillas were willing to fight another hundred years or so if necessary — that had politicians on both sides of the aisle possessed the courage to continue to pour American lives, money and bombs into Vietnam, or maybe used a well-placed nuclear weapon or two, that the United States would have actually won that war. Since it didn’t happen, it is hard to know what “won” would have meant. What victory would have most likely meant was, as Barry Goldwater is said to have once remarked in his support for the nuclear option, was turning all of Vietnam into an uninhabited “parking lot.” But — and here’s where we get back to supporting the troops — this would have supported American troops by providing the “victory” that, in turn, would have proven to all that those who died did not die in vain. Ergo, political cowardice caused fallen veterans to be metaphorically “stabbed in the back,” or, in other words, caused them to be robbed of the victory that would have made them happy to be dead.
So when those of us who are against the war in Iraq talk about how we wish to end the war while still supporting the troops, I think that is, as we used to say in the ‘sixties, really fucked up (this phrase was how we indicated the failure of critical analysis to truly address the issue in all its details.) But let me rephrase that in the language respectable college professors use: supporting the troops while ending the war is a problem. I think it is a problem for a couple of reasons that need to be woven into anti-war strategies so that we can help support “Americans” in not becoming “troops” in the first place. That, I think, should be the goal and here are a few of my ideas.
We must go on the offensive to actively persuade people not to join the military. This means camping out in front of recruiting stations as the anti-abortion people camp out in front of women’s clinics and holding daily teach-ins to persuade potential recruits not to sign up. One huge difference from Vietnam is that there is no draft. You have to actively enlist to get into the military. And while no one is more sympathetic than I to the ways in which education and job training have been linked to military service for the poor, you have to return from Iraq alive and unharmed to use those benefits. And even if you do — is it moral to purchase those benefits at the cost of Iraqi lives? In fact, taking a leaf out of the book of those right-wing protesters, why not stand outside recruiting centers with large pictures of hideously wounded people who are now battling the government for some kind of benefit so that they don’t become homeless? Or a picture of one of those guys who lost three out of the four limbs he was born with, but is only eligible for two prostheses, like the twenty-year old vet I met while on vacation last year?
We must work to get military recruiters out of our public schools. The government is not entitled to proselytize violence in our schools, turn our children into soldiers and kill them. Our efforts in this direction should include protesting the presence of military color guards at athletic events, rejecting military sponsorship of all youth activities, and lobbying local media outlets and movie theaters to turn away military advertising. In fact, like drug dealers, porn parlors and sex offenders, military recruiting stations should, through the judicious use of local zoning ordinances, not be permitted within a mile of any youth facility. The military is far more of a danger to these children than sexual predators or pornographers are, since one out of every five soldiers who actually returns from Iraq does so with a brain injury.
We must organize to get military recruiters off college campuses when they are there against our will and contrary to non-discrimination clauses in our bylaws. I thought of this last week when the information went out over our peace network at Zenith that the Connecticut National Guard might be coming to recruit on campus. Zenith explicitly prohibits discrimination on the basis of many things, including sexual preference and gender identity, and the United States military discriminates. Hence, they should not use our campus to recruit. But by federal law, we must allow them to do so, or risk losing federal fu
nding, including federal financial aid. But we do not have to allow them to recruit unopposed. We can surround them, we can chant, we can sing, and we can challenge the lies that they use to recruit people into a war where they will be killed, maimed and likely to commit acts of criminal violence.
Gay, lesbian, bi and trans people should organize against the military rather than insisting on their right to become part of it. Support our queer youth. Let them live.
But, you might ask, what about those who are already in the service? Should we not support them? And my question is — what do you mean by this? I cannot support their presence in Iraq, in an illegal war, where many of them are committing acts of criminal violence against innocent people. I really can’t. I can support them exactly one way:
By bringing them home. Now.
Not another penny for this war, unless that penny goes to bring our troops home or to help those damaged by this war, in the United States and in Iraq, rebuild their lives. This is what we must work for: war spending bills that are dedicated only to the return of our soldiers, their reintegration into society and the dismantling of the war state.