Thursday, February 01, 2007

William Arkin Challenges the Deification of the Military

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There is a very interesting blogospheric debate going on between war supporters and William Arkin, who writes the Early Warning column at the Washington Post.

The debate began after Arkin devoted one of his columns to an NBC Nightly News report in which reporter Richard Engel interviewed several troop members in Iraq who expressed anger about opposition to the war among Americans, especially those who say they "support the troops but not the mission." Arkin made the point that the troops in Iraq also need to support the American people's right to oppose the war:

I'm all for everyone expressing their opinion, even those who wear the uniform of the United States Army. But I also hope that military commanders took the soldiers aside after the story and explained to them why it wasn't for them to disapprove of the American people.
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?

The response was predictable: Arkin got mountains of e-mails attacking his position, some of which were very nasty; right-wing bloggers wrote outraged posts, and their readers posted outraged comments.

I do not agree that American troops are "mercenaries" -- although the army of civilian contractors to whom the Bush administration has given many tasks normally assigned to soldiers certainly are mercenaries, in my view. Nor do I share Arkin's conclusions about the generosity of the compensation, support, and benefits that the government provides to military members and their families. I think it's demonstrably false to say that the Bush administration adequately provides for the economic, emotional, psychological, logistical, or technical training needs of the men and women who are expected to risk and sacrifice their lives for this country. That is, in fact, a major part of Pres. Bush's reeking hypocrisy when he tells Americans how noble our soldiers are, and how much they deserve to be supported.

I do very much agree with what Arkin writes in a follow-up column published today:

Well, one thing's abundantly clear about who will actually defend our rights to say what we believe: It isn't the hundreds who have written me saying they are soldiers or veterans or war supporters or real Americans -- who also advise me to move to another country, to get f@##d, or to die a painful, violent death.

Contrary to the typically inaccurate and overstated assertion in dozens of blogs, hundreds of comments, and thousands of e-mails I've received, I've never written that soldiers should "shut up," quit whining, be spit upon, or that they have no right to an opinion.

I said I was bothered by the notion that "the troops" were somehow becoming hallowed beings above society, that they had an attitude that only they had the means - or the right - to judge the worthiness of the Iraq endeavor.

I was dead wrong in using the word mercenary to describe the American soldier today.

These men and women are not fighting for money with little regard for the nation. The situation might be much worse than that: Evidently, far too many in uniform believe that they are the one true nation. They hide behind the constitution and the flag and then spew an anti-Democrat, anti-liberal, anti-journalism, anti-dissent, and anti-citizen message that reflects a certain contempt for the American people.

Arkin quotes a few of the choicer reader reactions to his first column:

TR writes "you're an America hater and a friend of our enemies."

JS writes that "this country is in the fight of its life. Terrorists are attempting to establish a world-wide caliphate. And you tell us we DON'T need to stop them."

And adds MEJ: "Cowards like you guarantee that my grandchildren will be fighting a war someday because we of the generation were too cowardly and comfortable to be honest about the world around us."

Then he points out:

These are opinions about the war in Iraq and the "war" against terrorism. They aren't facts. I understand people need to believe that the United States is engaged in a grand and noble mission to continue to support the deaths and sacrifices being made by American forces. Nonetheless, there is also an equally valid opinion that not only is the United States NOT involved in some fight for our lives in Iraq but that our military actions merely increases and complicates our insecurities tomorrow.

Exactly. The absolutism of those who support the Iraq war has struck me forcefully from the start, and it frightens me. And what I also find ominous is the way military values of conformity, uniformity, obedience to authority, and the equating of dissent with subversion seem to be permeating the larger society -- even as we are told that the U.S. troops in Iraq "secured" Arkin's right to dissent against the war and against the Bush administration. The deification of the military -- which at its extreme is almost a religion, worshipping soldiers as if they were gods -- is as disturbing to me as it is to Arkin.


Joan said...

Hey Kathy!

I wonder if the problem is that Arkin does seem to have a bone to pick with the troops. For example, he stated that the supervisors of the troops who had spoken out against people who oppose the war, should talk to these troops and tell them it is not their place to disapprove of the American people. Judging our neighbours and fellow citizens is our democratic right. Soldiers are no different. If a soldier's supervisor spoke up everytime a soldier stated an opinion, you would have a chill effect.

Arkin mentions that people continued to support the troops through the numerous scandals, I think he said accepting that these incidents were the work of "bad apples" or poor command. That is an odd thing to say. What reason would we have for blaming every soldier in Iraq for the actions of another soldier. Can I blame ALL men in North America if I am raped? Or better still can I blame ALL men in the USA for the rape of Iraqi girls and women? Rape IS a male crime.

I think we have been more careful this war around to let the troops know that we don't blame them for this war. The soldiers from Viet Nam were treated shamefully. But I don't see wide spread idolation and "deification" of troops. I don't think the troops have to be "grateful" to the American people for not insulting them. I am not grateful or ungrateful when my next door neighbour does not say anything bad about me. I just assume that is the way it should be.

These soldiers really are doing a thankless job and a very difficult job. Many have suffered many personal losses from their experiences in Iraq i.e. divorce, PTSS and so on. I think it is a combination of recognition how difficult it is to be a soldier coupled with the wish not to repeat the Viet Nam experience which has made people careful about what they say about the troops. I think Arkin is wrong that this is idolization.

Arkin over stated his case. Of course that is his democratic right too. He seems pretty reasonable in that he has been willing to admit he made a mistake in the first column. So maybe he can re-think this issue.

Take Care

Chief said...

I have not read Arkin's articles. Remember, the military is not democratic. Having said that I am amazed at how many 60 & 70 somethings that were (are?) my peers are stuck in that authoritation mindset they learned as 20 somethings.

My peers minds have not grown. They do not see or will not accept the truth about Viet Nam nor the fact that POTUS may be lying to them.

I also believe that leadership, especially at the top, in the military has suffered.

I support the trrops so much, I want them all to come home - whole! I ope Congress finds a way to tie POTUS's hands.