Do you support the troops? In some respects, that’s a trick question. After all, how could you not support the troops? With each passing day, thousands of men and women in the American military put their lives on the line in far-off places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Lebanon, and even in a series of little-known strategic training operations in Africa — all in the name of protecting American freedom. And while these brave individuals are enduring all sorts of physical and psychological dangers, the rest of us are, well, not. The current American military consists of voluntary forces, and let’s be honest: most of us don’t want to volunteer for a job that involves getting shot, blown up, or other similarly unpleasant experiences that involve significant bodily harm.
And so, to make up for the fact that most of us aren’t in the military, we support the troops. But what, exactly, does that even mean? Of course, in our minds, we’re thanking them for their service; we’re wishing them the best of luck and the best of safety on their respective missions, and we might even stick a “support our troops” magnet on our vehicles. But other than vague, non-action-oriented displays of emotion, what can we really do to support the troops? Well, we hold benefit concerts; we send soldiers care packages, and we donate our frequent flyer miles.
Those are all good things to do, of course, but we as civilians also do something else for the troops that, however well-intended, is also deeply problematic: we double down on the platitudes by calling them “heroes” to the point where we run the risk of stifling legitimate criticism of U.S. military interventions. Furthermore, our platitudes create a culture of soldier worship that oversimplifies the complex beliefs and experiences of the people in uniform.
In a recent piece titled “Stop Thanking me for my Service,” Rory Fanning, a veteran of two deployments to Afghanistan, argues that the “heroism” of military service is often fraught with horrible experiences that are no cause for celebration, and that the American public usually isn’t aware of these experiences when they mouth patriotic platitudes to the troops. “[W]hat about that term ‘hero’?” Fanning writes, “[m]any veterans reject it, and not just out of Gary Cooperesque modesty either. He continues by noting that, “most veterans who have seen combat, watched babies get torn apart, or their comrades die in their arms, or the most powerful army on Earth spend trillions of dollars fighting some of the poorest people in the world for 13 years feel anything but heroic.” Here, Fanning emphasizes that in order to make soldiers into automatic heroes, you have to ignore the ugly realities of war, and you have to ignore the fact that not everything your government sends its soldiers to do is going to be for a worthy cause.
Fanning further quotes journalist Cara Hoffman, who writes that:
Hero’ refers to a character, a protagonist, something in fiction, not to a person, and using this word can hurt the very people it’s meant to laud. While meant to create a sense of honor, it can also buy silence, prevent discourse, and benefit those in power more than those navigating the new terrain of home after combat. If you are a hero, part of your character is stoic sacrifice, silence. This makes it difficult for others to see you as flawed, human, vulnerable, or exploited.
Building on Hoffman’s point about the super-human notion of idealized heroism, Fanning notes that, “Thank yous to heroes discourage dissent, which is one reason military bureaucrats feed off the term.” So why do we want to overly hero-ize American soldiers? Part of this tendency stems from the fact that we want to legitimize American military operations. We want to believe that when America fights, it does so for the right reasons, because it’s the best hope for freedom in the world — or so we think. But there’s another reason why we want to turn soldiers into heroes, one linked to the paradoxical ideal that NOT serving in the military is an inherent right for free Americans. Indeed, historically, compulsory military service has been associated with unfree, dictatorial governments the world over. In the eyes of many Americans throughout history, being forced to fight negated the very idea of American freedom. After all, if the state could force you to die in its name, how could you ever truly be free?
On the other side of that argument is the idea — so often quoted on sanctimonious bumper stickers everywhere — that “freedom isn’t free,” and that those who want to live free better be prepared to die free. But it’s this very conflict — between the idea that military service embodies freedom and the idea that military service can also be an example of state tyranny — that explains Americans’ complicated need to make soldiers into heroes. By doing so, we make their service compulsory in the sense that they act as vessels into which we pour all of our idealized notions of American freedom and goodness. They MUST serve so that we don’t have to; they bear burdens that we assume to be necessary. The problem is that those soldiers who deviate, however justifiably, from this idealized notion of heroism, such as Bowe Bergdahl, face accusations of treason, and the powerful interests who send them to distant war-zones remain in the shadows — unexamined; unquestioned; unhinged.
In an era when military service is voluntary, those willing to die for their country (regardless of the worthiness of the respective cause they’re dying for) seem to embody a heroism that civilians can’t live up to. And on one level, this is certainly true: those in arms are indeed brave and they deserve our gratitude. But when we associate military service with automatic heroism, we legitimize a type of cultural totalitarian nationalism that stifles legitimate criticisms of military operations and the government and private interests that instigate them. If the soldiers who are the agents of the state (and its private sector partners) are sanctified as heroes, then the actions of the interests for which they fight also become unassailable. This is a dangerous development that has emerged in previous eras, and it was just as controversial then as it should be now.
Consider the conflict that defined modern American identity as we know it today: the Civil War. In April of 1862, the Confederate States of America instituted the first national draft in U.S. history, commonly known as the Confederate Conscription Act, to fight a war with the North that had already gone on longer than many on both sides had expected. Reception to the Conscription Act was decidedly mixed throughout the South. Some fighting-age men willingly acceded to it and joined the Confederate ranks to avoid being hunted down by conscript officers. Others, however, deserted the ranks or went into hiding to avoid compulsory service. Many believed that conscription favored the poor while exempting the rich from fighting (which wasn’t entirely true), and others maintained that the state had no right to force free men to fight in its name.
But so important was conscription to the southern war effort that Confederate president Jefferson Davis vigorously defended it in a December 26, 1862 speech in his home state of Mississippi. Addressing a crowd in the state capital of Jackson, Davis stated that the Confederate government needed to draft men to serve so that, “the men who had stayed at home — who had thus far been sluggards in the cause — should be forced, likewise, to meet the enemy.” The Conscription Act declared that all men from the ages of 18-35 were liable for military service, and Davis took pains to emphasize that donning the Rebel uniform was intimately linked to the Confederate struggle for freedom from the Union. “[W]ill you be slaves; will you consent to be robbed of your property…will you renounce the exercise of those rights with which you were born and which were transmitted to you by your fathers?” Davis asked. “I feel that in addressing Mississippians the answer will be that their interests, even life itself, should be willingly laid down on the altar of their country.”
This was an invocation for blood sacrifice to the Confederate cause, in which soldiers would die “on the altar of their country” so that the nation could live. But there was another issue that fueled Davis’ sanctification of military service: property. When Davis warned Mississippians that capitulation to the Union would result in them being “robbed of your property,” he was talking about slaves. Indeed, the Confederate quest for national independence was predicated on the notion that the South had the right to preserve slavery, and the most vociferous cheerleaders for southern independence just so happened to be men like Davis — men who were wealthy and powerful slaveholders. By turning military service into an act of devotion and heroism, Davis and other defenders of the Old South’s slave society made questioning the southern war effort — and, by extension, the powerful interests behind it — an act of treason. Those who fought in the Confederate armies for the South’s vested interests were labeled heroes, but those who objected were unpatriotic cowards who “skulk from the duties they owe their country.”
The Confederate experience with military service — as an either a heroic act of national devotion or a potential pawn of vested interests — rings loudly in modern America’s tendency to label all military service as heroism and all dissent as unpatriotic. As Steven Salaita writes, the powerful interests that run the U.S. in don’t necessarily have altruistic motives when they tout the heroism of American soldiers. “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,” Salaita writes. But now, as in the past, the service of individual soldiers can be admirable even as the greater cause remains less so. And the causes for which American armies fight, now as in the past, are rarely one-hundred percent pure-hearted.
Whether it concerns defense contractors, oil oligopolies, or, in a previous era, slaveholders, war is profitable, and profits don’t discriminate between noble and ignoble motives. “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,” Salaita writes. This is not to say that soldiers don’t fight out of patriotic motives in the name of national defense; rather, he cautions Americans to always critically assess why their military fights, and he warns that viewing soldiers as heroes in the service of the American empire makes such critical evaluations impossible. “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,” Salaita observes.
Now, we should continue to “support the troops.” They are our friends, family members, and fellow Americans who shoulder a heavy burden by choosing to enlist, and their efforts are to be commended. That said, however, we should also remember that soldiers are nonetheless human beings who embody all of the hopes, fears, contradictions, and yes, dissent that characterizes the broader human experience. To be sure, soldiers can engage in great acts of heroism, but making them into default heroes ignores both the complexity of military service as well as the fact that soldiers can serve interests that shouldn’t be exempt from criticism.
The Confederate experience during the Civil War demonstrated how a critical stand against militant patriotism can be an act of legitimate dissent that sheds light on the bigger issues about war and the powerful interests behind it. When Jefferson Davis urged Mississippians to sacrifice themselves “on the altar of their country,” he referred to a country that served the interests of the slaveholding oligarchs. Thus, the men who fought in the southern armies fought bravely for a rather ignoble cause, and those who evaded conscription functionally refused to serve that cause — and that’s worth noting.
Americans would do well to remember the past before jumping mindlessly onto the “support our troops” bandwagon without ever considering the broader consequences of conflating military service with mythical heroism. Somewhere, in a deep, dark, possibly undisclosed location, executives from Triple Canopy, Academi (formerly known as Blackwater), and DynCorp are also calling the troops heroes — and that should concern every American.