On "Support our Troops"
Jan 21, 2011

On "Support our Troops"

There is one sentiment that is seemingly an unconditional, unquestioned and a virtual rite of passage for any political or media figure to express: support for the troops. That these are the bravest and best of citizens valiantly giving their lives to defend our freedoms is considered fact and to challenge the framing in any way is a social taboo. Nonetheless, I reject not the veracity so much as the framing of this sentiment and feel this unilateral glorification of the troops is a proxy for glorification of war, represents a distinct asymmetry in how we perceive the costs of war, and displaces significant discussion about war that is far too absent with this positive association.

This is one of those issues that gets such universal support a politician can, and basically must, say it loud and often even though the sentiment has so often been repeated by every politician it is essentially meaningless as a distinguishing characteristic and whose chief purpose at a political level is to include positively received items into a talk which get the audience agreeing with them. It is much like the ubiquitous unconditioned praise for the country, for its key values like liberty and democracy, and for religious references. "May God bless our troops who bravely defend the liberty and freedom that keeps America so great" paraphrases most politicians.

It is in this sense that I think the praise is vacuous, but it goes further than that. At its core, praising the troops ends up being a proxy for praising war. When one of our soldiers dies, we are emboldened by the rhetoric which maintains all the virtuous characteristics in which this person gave their life. It is tragic, but the sentiment is that there was value, meaning and glory in his death. It is hardly a leap to conclude there is value, meaning and glory in that endeavor he was doing: war.

While this connection is not explicit and direct, the continual and unerring repetition of positive language towards soldiers who are innately connected to the war results in an increased positive association in the public consciousness. Repetition is a powerful phenomenon in the media and it legitimately changes minds. It is in this sense that glorifying the troops becomes a proxy for glorifying war. I should note that no individual politician may deliberately do this - indeed many who oppose war still support the troops - but this is the aggregate effect.

There is a significant asymmetry involved in who gets praised, or even noticed. Every single Canadian who dies in Afghanistan gets a full round of media attention. It is very rare for significant coverage of victims to be covered. If it is done at all, it is as a statistic and there is certainly no glorification for the innocent civilians who have lost their lives and families in a war not of their own making. Our troop deaths are glorified, while the deaths of others - even the innocents - are forgotten. This asymmetry extends to almost every aspect of media coverage of war; genuine nonembedded journalism that presents the real consequence to human beings rarely exists. These costs, which make up so much of the costs of war, are externalized from the public consciousness. We may be vaguely aware people are suffering but what we see clearly and openly, plastered on the front page is only the troops on our side with all their positive attributes and actions. When the costs are so heavily on this other side, is it defensible to talk at such length exclusively about western soldiers deaths and not those of innocent civilians?

Of course, this monolithic presentation of what soldiers are like simply doesn't apply; there is enormous diversity and diversity of reasons why people fight in the military. Sadly, lower ranks of the military are disproportionately poor, having only high school education and coming from rural areas. In the US, it is also disproportionately black (although minorities are underrepresented in Canada, largely a consequence of the rural recruitment ground). The point here is that many people turn to the military as they have little other options. One must also include in the troops both the Bradley Mannings of the world and those who have been found to collect fingers of people they illegally killed as trophies.

A particularly ironic twist comes from those who are firmly in the unconditioned troop glorification camp yet oppose open gay service in the military or women serving in active combat roles. Worries about the distractions, the harassments and the lack of morale quickly surface. So which is it, are service men and women the most valiant people on the planet or are they homophobes and rapists - or, less extremely, incapable of functioning adequately around gays or women?

Now I should be clear, I am not anti-troop. I am pro human life and saddened that people fight and die in wars beyond their control. Afghan an American alike. So I fight for what is best both in the wars and afterwards when they are all too often under supported despite their physical and mental injuries. I think the best way to support troops is to try and minimize or end the conflicts they die in. Glorifying the endeavor as a proxy does no one a service, it merely entrenches a belief of just war in our consciousness. We would be naive to think the ubiquitous, de facto acceptance of unconditioned, asymmetric support for our troops espoused constantly does not influence our consciousness in precisely this way. 

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