Even though the yellow ribbons of the Bush era are out of fashion, the admonition to support our troops continues to grate. In January 2006 then-Los Angeles Times humor columnist Joel Stein wrote an inflammatory oped titled “Warriors and Wusses.” “I don’t support our troops,” he began. “But I’m not for the war. And being against the war and saying you support the troops is one of the wussiest positions the pacifists have ever taken — and they’re wussy by definition.”
Despite his gutsiness, Stein doesn’t seem like the most politically savvy guy — by “pacifists,” he most likely meant mainstream liberals. His reasoning, however, was impeccable.
Blindly lending support to our soldiers, I fear, will keep them overseas longer by giving soft acquiescence to the hawks who sent them there — and who might one day want to send them somewhere else.
Of course he did ask “that we give our returning soldiers what they need: hospitals, pensions, mental health, and a safe, immediate return.”
He understood the support-our-troops campaign, though.
We know we’re sending recruits to do our dirty work, and we want to seem grateful. After we’ve decided that we made a mistake, we don’t want to blame the soldiers who were ordered to fight. … But blaming the president is a little too easy. The truth is that people who pull triggers are ultimately responsible, whether they’re following orders or not.
Then he posed one of war’s ultimate dilemmas: “An army of people making individual moral choices may be inefficient, but an army of people ignoring their morality is horrifying.”
Most who join the service today, with the age of the draft long gone, likely have no opposition to the use of force. Many, to whom the service is just a job and a stepping stone to a college degree, no doubt hope to avoid combat. It’s unfair to expect them, once in the thick of it, to exhibit the wherewithal to determine exactly which civilians it’s OK to kill. All too often they fall back on the default position of protecting their squad, their buddies. They can’t know that their superiors are counting on exactly that to get them to carry out ill-defined missions.
Of course, one soldier able to clearly differentiate between the good guys and the bad guys was Bradley Manning. Among the best profiles of him thus far is “Bradley Manning’s Army of One” in New York Magazine by Steve Fishman, who writes that an intelligence analyst such as Manning was trained to sit “at his work station and [target] the enemy, reducing a human being to a few salient points. Then he made a quick decision based on imperfect information: kill, capture, exploit, source.”
Visiting a counselor unaffiliated with the army, Manning told him
… about a targeting mission gone bad in Basra. “Two groups of locals were converging in this one area. Manning was trying to figure out why they were meeting,” the counselor told me. On Manning’s information, the Army moved swiftly, dispatching a unit to hunt them down. Manning had thought all went well, until a superior explained the outcome. … Manning felt that there was blood on his hands. “He was very, very distressed.”
… Manning later explained … “I was actively involved in something that I was completely against.” The job wore down lots of soldiers. Some survived by becoming desensitized — the blood and death goes right past them. Manning took it personally.
No matter what other issues, such as being bullied because he was gay, are factored in to his decision to turn government files over to WikiLeaks, Bradley Manning saw for himself what was going on and chose to try to put a stop to it in his own way. In fact, he has done more to support the troops by attempting to get them out of harm’s way than those who’ve charged and jailed him.
Reprinted courtesy of Foreign Policy in Focus.