True Americans

William Arkin, who writes a blog for the Washington Post, recently incurred the wrath of the blogosphera when he lamented some soldiers’ inability to distinguish between supporting the troops and supporting the mission the soldiers have been ordered to do. He wrote:

>Friday’s NBC Nightly News included a story from my colleague and friend Richard Engel, who was embedded with an active duty Army infantry battalion from Fort Lewis, Washington.

>Engel relayed how “troops here say they are increasingly frustrated by American criticism of the war. Many take it personally, believing it is also criticism of what they’ve been fighting for.”

>First up was 21 year old junior enlisted man Tyler Johnson, whom Engel said was frustrated about war skepticism and thinks that critics “should come over and see what it’s like firsthand before criticizing.”

>”You may support or say we support the troops, but, so you’re not supporting what they do, what they’re here sweating for, what we bleed for, what we die for. It just don’t make sense to me,” Johnson said.

>Next up was Staff Sergeant Manuel Sahagun, who is on his second tour in Iraq. He complained that “one thing I don’t like is when people back home say they support the troops, but they don’t support the war. If they’re going to support us, support us all the way.”

>Next was Specialist Peter Manna: “If they don’t think we’re doing a good job, everything that we’ve done here is all in vain,” he said.

>These soldiers should be grateful that the American public, which by all polls overwhelmingly disapproves of the Iraq war and the President’s handling of it, do still offer their support to them, and their respect.

>Through every Abu Ghraib and Haditha, through every rape and murder, the American public has indulged those in uniform, accepting that the incidents were the product of bad apples or even of some administration or command order.

>Sure, it is the junior enlisted men who go to jail. But even at anti-war protests, the focus is firmly on the White House and the policy. We don’t see very many “baby killer” epithets being thrown around these days, no one in uniform is being spit upon.

>So, we pay the soldiers a decent wage, take care of their families, provide them with housing and medical care and vast social support systems and ship obscene amenities into the war zone for them, we support them in every possible way, and their attitude is that we should in addition roll over and play dead, defer to the military and the generals and let them fight their war, and give up our rights and responsibilities to speak up because they are above society?

I know some of the readers here are “troops” (as William Safire would not say), so it would be interesting to have your feedback on this. The interesting thing about Arkin’s post is the vitriol it produced. For instance:

>You know I’m sick and tired of liberals deciding domestic policy, simply because they control all of the airwaves.It’s hi time that we true Americans (Stop the Liberal presses).We do need to boycott their networks and Put major pressure on their sponsers.We need to shut the liberals up.let’s give them a new assignment to report first hand accounts of unemployed and worthless. Let’s do it on behalf of any soldier that you know.Because My two nephews in Iraq do not deserve to die on behalf of people who hate them.

That’s nutpicking–combing comments to find a nutjob’s comment and then concluding that everyone in the comment section (and the blog) is a nutjob. No one’s doing that here. But I couldn’t find anyone who seriously addressed the distinction between supporting that troops and supporting the war effort.

12 thoughts on “True Americans”

  1. “So, we pay the soldiers a decent wage, take care of their families, provide them with housing and medical care and vast social support systems and ship obscene amenities into the war zone for them, we support them in every possible way,”

    ye gods. of the first, no, they don’t, which leads into the second. if those first two statements were true, why did i have two guys in my fire team on food stamps and delivering pizzas to keep up with the bills (they both had two kids and wives that also worked). Arkin should try to raise a family of four on 14K per year. Base housing is barely adequate, excepting the officer’s quarters. as for medical care, yeah, sure, if you call the loss of a limb or an eye being appraised at 75% of your base salary at the time of injury, “care.” “obscene amenities?!” God forbid these men and women should not have some momentary respite from their daily trial by death with a few comforts from home. finally, they don’t support us in every possible way. not being spat on or reviled as a “baby killer” (which, btw, i have been, on a bus in this glorious city) doesn’t equate to unanimous support of the troops. the VA still will not compensate most vets for PTSD treatment–no public outcry there; if mr. arkin really thinks vets are so beholden to the public for their outpourings of support, then perhaps, on the first of the month he should come to the VA hospital on the west side of our fair city and watch the lines of homeless veterans trickle in and out of the VA hospital for their paltry disability checks. we don’t ask for much, not for parades, or medals, or glory–just for a normal life, or as normal as it can be.
    however, i can see arkin’s point; even in the face of their great sacrifice, the actions of the troops and our feelings about the war are not prohibited speech, nor should they be. you’ve coined the nutpicking phrase and, believe me, these “war correspondents” do the same thing. they find the guy that’s the most burned-out, frazzled leader of troops and they quote him/her for the proepr amount of vitriol. arkin should recognize this, or at least acknowledge it, but he doesn’t. bad form–but, as i said, he’s got a point. no one in this society, not the president, nor the senator, nor the general, nor the private is above criticism and and pointed social discourse. that said, however, it’s hard for a warrior to separate his/herself from the war. on this side of the pond, we find it much easier to compartmentalize, some of us, anyway. the way you, as the warrior, interpret the war protests in the moment is that someone is telling you that everything you do is for naught, or for a criminal cause. that’s hard to hear. it stings. it still stings me–but i know that’s exactly why i served, to preserve those rights, to assemble, to free speech, etc. so i cringe and bear it. i can do that, because i’m home now, but it’s much harder, almost impossible, for a person in that situation, to comprehend what it means to support the warrior, but not the war. in fact, it seems even to me a nonsensical claim. perhaps i’m still a jarhead, perhaps, i’m taking this a bit personal, but it is personal for me. it will always be personal. how is the warrior separate from the war? to be sure, his/her activites are apart from the cause of the war, because soldiers and sailors and flyboys and Marines don;t fight for ideas, or regime change, or democracy–they fight for each other. we go where we’re told to go and do what we’re told to do. we do what we have to do so we can go home and, hopefully, get our college paid for. that’s got zip to do with WMD’s and all the other rhetoric and vitriol the adminstration stirred up. i don’t agree with the causes of this war, or with the fact that it is still being fought. one of my buddies’ lives was not worth the deposition of a dictator that the u.s. empowered in the first place and i’vve lost more than one. i don’t know how to articulate that to my friends that are still there. they know how i feel, because i made it apparent when i was there, but we never speak of it now. the pain is too close. maybe there is a better way to articulate our bifurcated loyalties. i don’t really know how at the moment, but i’d be interested to see what some other commenters can come up with, people who can maintain a level of impartiality that i, for the moment, cannot.

  2. Thanks for the comment. Arkin didn’t claim that the pay was extraordinary, only that it was decent. But in light of what you say (and what one reads about the VA, and so on), that seems not to be the case. I’m not sure what he means by obscene amenities (is it Taco Bell or rather amenities obscene in their content?) but that seems hardly relevant to his point.

    As you suggest, perhaps Arkin’s problem is that he has engaged in a kind of nutpicking (which I didn’t coint unfortunately) of complaints. And rather than direct his complaint to the distinction between the justice of the war and the justice of the soldier, he complains that their whining is unjustified, which is as irrelevant as the commenters.

  3. I have to agree with Mr. Mayo on this one. I\’d like to add that making an argument based on the comments of a couple of dissatisfied soldiers does not constitute a representation of the general feeling of the members of the military. Nevertheless, no matter much soldiers might dislike the apparent contradiction of supporting the troops but not the war, I think that is the right attitude. If the war is unjustified, which I think at this point its undeniable, and the troops are not responsible for the unwarranted war, then it is appropiate to separate the warriors from the chicken hawks in this way. Ultimately, the best form of supporting the troops is not to waste them in an exercise of futility in overseas endeavors which do not protect our freedoms and so on, but actually puts these freedoms at risk at risk.

  4. dr. casey–
    you wrote:
    “I’m not sure what he means by obscene amenities (is it Taco Bell or rather amenities obscene in their content?)”

    i’m sorry, that question wasn’t on the list.

    mr. grey–
    you wrote:
    “If the war is unjustified, which I think at this point its undeniable, and the troops are not responsible for the unwarranted war, then it is appropiate to separate the warriors from the chicken hawks in this way.”

    i think you’ve introduced some intriguing language here, that is, the language of responsibility. it might be argued that the troops gave their assent by becoming part of an all-volunteer force, but that’s probably a rare argument offered by some pretty callous people. however, even if the troops are not responsible for the cause of their presence in iraq, they are responsible for the effects of their presence. we cannot simply pass over atrocities such as abu ghraib and haditha as extended consequences of bush et. al.’s deceitful warmongering. we swear an oath when we join to uphold and defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic, but we also swear adherence to a Code of Conduct, governing our actions in combat and as prisoners of war. wwe are to operate in good faith of that sworn oath. we swear to follow orders and i am sure these men and women had ROE (rules of engagement) briefs, briefs which i highly doubt included the sanctioning of murder and torture. the men and women at abu ghraib, regardless of rank, had a sworn duty to aviod exactly the type of conduct they engaged in and, in light of their shirking of that duty, which is a duty to the all men and women in uniform, as well as in-theatre civilians and POW’s, they were rightfully castigated by the american public. the stress of being under fire is indescribable, unimaginable to those who haven’t encountered it, but that stress cannot become the crutch for wanton abuse of power. a young Marine shoots a man lying on the ground because the play dead act had become the preferred tactic in an najaf–that’s combat stress causing an unfortunate accident. a POW is led naked on all fours by a collar, that’s a war crime. i served honorably; i did my bit. i’ll not have anyone cast aspersions on my hard-earned record by their inability to maintain their identity as a professional fighting man or woman. to some extent, then, the troops are responsible, but only insofar as it regards their actions in theatre. you’re right to point out they didn’t start the war, but they are fighting it and they are responsible for the manner in which they do so. so, in this regard, i can see arkin’s gripe, but i still maintain he’s using a gross overgeneralization of troop sentiment and complete misunderstanding of the pay scale and veteran’s benefits to argue for it.

  5. I by no means meant to imply that troops that get out of line are not responsible for their actions simply because they are not responsible for the Iraq war. There is a difference between a just war and justice in war. With the Iraq situation I don’t think there is any doubt that it is an unjust war. In the former it is a matter of determining the justice of waging war in general, in the later it is a matter of ethical conduct and responsability during war. Even unjust wars can be, and should be, fought justly, to the extent that any war can be fought justly in actuality. Although, I think there is something inherently unjust about war in general.

  6. “Even unjust wars can be, and should be, fought justly, to the extent that any war can be fought justly in actuality.”

    well said.

  7. Former soldier, chairborne or not, I\’m beginning to see Arkin as having bungled a pretty straightforward argument. What I think he means to say is that it ought to be clear to the soldiers that America still supports them personally and financially as individuals who are doing a job (and pointed to the evidence of that fact), but Americans no longer by and large support the conflict they are engaged in (and reminded them and the many who can\’t see this point of its basic soundness). Unfortunately Arkin\’s analytical method is impoverished–rather than making the obvious point that the soldiers ought to learn to appreciate the distinction between support for them and support for the war, he argues in an ad hominem and needlessly hyperbolic way that the support for Vets is adequate. I think few informed people–Arkin among them–could claim that soldier pay is adequate for the job they do. And he probably shouldn\’t have given the impression that it was.

  8. dr. casey–
    you wrote:
    “the soldiers ought to learn to appreciate the distinction between support for them and support for the war”

    how would one go about such an activity? the soldier in combat lacks the critical space necessary to think abstractly aboutthe combat situation s/he finds his/herself locked in and to attempt to do so might entail a horrible result. i still think that it seems impossible, in the warrior’s mind to separate his/herself from the war. perhaps the american public, in the righhtful exercise of free speech and right to assembly need to become conscious of the implausibility of the war/warrior bifurcation to the mind of soldier. i think arkin is committing a form of blaming the victim here.

  9. I would scratch “learn” from that earlier remark. I wouldn’t know how to address questions about the psychological reality of the soldier’s situation. And I wouldn’t recommend that distinction be a subject of battlefield contemplation. But there is a fundamental and foundational distinction between just wars and unjust wars, as Mr. Grey pointed out. Whether a war is just or not however is largely beyond the purview of any one soldier. In the absence of this distinction, the soldier would bear moral responsibility for participation in an unjust war. In addition to that, in light of the fact that our soldiers represent the military wing of a democracy, they must accept that some of the public does not advocate the military policy they spearhead. Such is the nature of a war in a democracy. And even though some of the public does not advocate the policy, this does not mean that they blame the individual soldier. Of course as you correctly point out, that someone has to face these brutal realities is the consequence of the injustice of the war. And continuing to support the war in order not to offend the soldier would only compound the injustice.

  10. “continuing to support the war in order not to offend the soldier would only compound the injustice.”

    i couldn’t agree more. i think that’s part of the reason my buddies and i leave this topic off the table. where support for the ongoing war effort is concerned, they must and i can’t.

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