Location: St. Vincent & Grenadines

You were driving home in the dark on one glass-slippered heel, window sliced open and bathing in the snowliquor of the night air. We heard you singing, and couldn't bear to wake you.

11 November 2005

That's where the beach was, that's where the sea.

Today is Veterans' Day, and I don't have to work because my country has set aside this day to honor the people who fought to protect our freedoms. (Not fought and died to protect -- that's Memorial Day.) It would be good of me to thank them.

I'm having a hard time with that, though.

I'm thinking today about how no politician in his or her right mind ever says anything against soldiers. That's a no-brainer. Hawk or dove, peacenik or warmonger, there's just no downside to saluting our brave men and women in combat. And because it's so easy, because it's a no-brainer, it's got me thinking. I'm going to risk being offensive here, and I hope you'll stick around anyway.

Murder is bad. Really bad. Get drunk and go driving and kill a kid, that's bad too -- that's vehicular manslaughter and you'll spend time in prison -- but it's not the same as murder, not quite as bad as murder, because murder involves malice aforethought. A murderer is someone in full possession of her or his faculties for reasoning who deliberately decides to kill someone else. Those are the people we execute on Death Row, and that, I do believe, is chapter one of the irony textbook.

Certain people pose a threat to society, and for the greater good must be removed from it. I agree with that completely. That's what jails are for. Jails exist so that we don't need to kill dangerous people. Sort of the equivalent of a long-term (or permanent) time-out, rather than a spanking.

As far as I can see, the ONLY time it is morally defensible to kill another human being is in a situation of immediate and dire self-defense. (And let's not talk abortion right now -- save that for another day.) It is OK to defend your right to stay alive if someone else is trying to kill you. Killing another person should be an action of last resort, taken only when no other option is possible.

With me so far?

Now. When we move outward from a personal level to a communal level, we have to consider the possible need to defend a community against aggressors. If the Visigoths are coming to rape, kill, pillage and burn your huts, and diplomacy is not an option, then you take up arms and do your best to stop them -- or you die. Again: defensible. Horrible, horrifying, but defensible.

What if the Visigoths are coming to r, k, p & b the decent folks in the next village, who are still recovering from the last raid and don't have enough wherewithal to defend themselves? You might decide that's none of your business, but eventually it will become your business when the next village is obliterated and the Visigoths set their sights elsewhere. So if you're smart, you take up arms and do your best to stop them.

The two key elements in all of these scenarios are necessity and defense. If you initiate violence, or if you participate in violence that is unnecessary, you are in the wrong. You are the murderer rather than the victim. Engaging in violence is defensible only when it is defensive and imperative. There has to be no viable alternative that will prevent violence being done unto you.

Still with me?

Now, to my point. We honor soldiers because we believe that they are engaged in the horrible, horrifying, but defensible work of keeping our country safe. Their task is to defend when necessary. That is, indeed, an honorable and essential task that must be undertaken.


When soldiers engage in violence for reasons other than that, they are behaving indefensibly and dishonorably. And, all too often, that is the case with the soldiers of the United States military.

I do not celebrate such behavior.

I know that many good and decent people serve in our military, many of them believing they are doing something that is right and necessary. But they're not. And however good and decent they may be, the crime they are committing is still a crime. It is the worst crime: the deliberate, conscious, unnecessary killing of other human beings.

I feel sympathy for good people who have believed in lies and found themselves trapped in Hell. I honor the good intentions of the people who wanted only to protect their homeland against danger, who were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice of their own lives to keep others safe. I have the deepest respect for those intentions; I can only hope I would be so brave. I am glad for the soldiers who have survived armed conflict and come home safely, although of course many who come home are deeply wounded -- and for them I feel sorrow, as well.

That they would have given their lives for their country, had it been a necessary sacrifice: that I honor. For that I feel gratitude.

But for what they've actually done, actually, in the real world? No. I cannot thank them for that.

You don't thank a victim. You don't thank someone who's been abused for their harrowing experience. You listen, you try to understand what they've endured, you find some way to help them come back to a place of peace.

Not all were victims, of course. Some were aggressors. Some knew that what they were doing was unnecessary, and they did it anyway. That's malice aforethought. That's murder. And murderers -- whether they be overzealous generals, callous footsoldiers, or greed-crazed sociopaths in the executive office -- belong in jail. Where they can do no more harm to anyone who cares to live in peace.


Blogger Jemaleddin said...

I completely understand what you're saying. But after 6 years in the military, I have a different perspective.

I think that, as nuanced as your argument is, things aren't that simple. There's a lot of space for other opinions between "everyone involved in an evil war is an evil person" and "support the troops -they're fighting for our freedom!"

4:43 AM  
Anonymous frederika said...

I think that you left out the question of why people join the military, which is important. A lot of people join the military because it is their only means of survival. They're too poor where they are to do anything else. It's the only way out of poverty, many times. Then, when they get to the actual fighting, really it is self-defense, or defense of their friends who are fighting next to them. It's much more complicated than you're making it out to be. I see your point, I do, but I think you're over-simplifying it.

I think it's hard to judge the actual people fighting without ever having fought myself.

2:19 PM  
Blogger Felix Helix said...

Jemal, of course there is plenty of space for all opinions -- it's a big universe and I'm just one guy. I'm willing to listen to anyone. (To a point. There's only so much Ann Coulter one can bear.) I'm not implying that people should be dichotomized into two groups of absolute good and absolute evil. I know it's not that simple.

Frederika, I know I don't know shit about what it's actually like to be a soldier.

There's a lot I don't know. I'll never know what it feels like to give birth, I'll never know how it feels to be black, or gay, or a fundamentalist Christian. I can only speak from my own perspective.

I have the greatest respect for survivors, as I said. On the other hand, there are undeniably some members of the military who have consciously chosen to cause unwarranted violence. It was sucky and disrespectful that people spit on veterans returned from Vietnam and called them baby-killers. You don't cast that kind of hatred on anybody, and especially not on people you don't know, whose stories you haven't heard. But were there baby-killers in the United States military during the Vietnam War? You know there were. You know atrocities were committed. Does that behavior deserve thanks from me?

Veterans, congratulations on still being alive. I'm sorry you went through Hell and I'm glad you came back from it, because I don't like it when ANYBODY dies unnecessarily.

But thank you for taking part -- willingly or unwillingly -- in an evil enterprise? I can't do it.

4:45 PM  
Blogger Jemaleddin said...

You do realize that your argument is just a weensy bit fallacious, right? I mean, condemning an enormous group of people for the crimes of few? (That's not something you believe, I just know it isn't. You're better than that.) And when I say few, I can back that up: most members of the military never carry guns. They're support personnel, they're truck drivers, they're administrators and fitness instructors (no shit) and in a few cases they're translators like me. Heck, in the air force, the only people who even carry guns are pilots (just in case) and military police.

Speaking of the police: I think your argument above could be made about the police, right? I mean, they've been tools of evil for much of our history. They spent a lot of time oppressing people, segregating people, planting evidence, raping some guy in New York with the broken end of a broom handle... Oh wait - that's probably less than 1% of their time. They spend the other 99% protecting and serving, even the bad cops. And who else are you going to call when your house gets burglarized?

Heck, let's make this closer to home: school teachers have long been tools of the establishment, right? Compare Zinn's People's History to what they pass off as a history textbook in any school in America and I think you'll realize that every history teacher is engaged in gross distortion at best and brainwashing at worst. And that's when school teachers aren't abusing, raping, beating and having children with their students (paging Mary Kay LeTourneau). Talk about evil - those are children, man! But that's not what teachers do, right? Even a terrible teacher doesn't set out to do those thing.

Do I even need to mention doctors?

Let's be realistic: there are always bad people in every organization. And on a long enough time-line, members of every organization are going to do some evil things. And what makes this especially hard to accept about the military is that we keep score. How many children were abused by priests over the 50 years? We don't know. But we can tell you how many people were killed in every conflict going back to 1000 B.C. And for peaceniks like you and me, those numbers are terrifying. And when we don't believe in the cause, it's easy to vilify everyone involved.

But like Frederika was saying, are you going to blame some 19-year-old kid who's just trying to pay for community college? They don't give you much of a choice as to what job you get, and they spend a lot of time conditioning you to follow orders. The uniforms, the organizational structure, the ranks and flags and everything else conspire to take away your free will - but not to turn you into a killing machine. They just want you to do what you're told. They make the decisions, and they teach you that your leaders are responsible for the orders that you carry out. Disobeying an order from an officer - even an unlawful order - results in jail time.

So if you hate the war like I do, don't waste your time being upset with individual soldiers. Not one of them was in that group of 90 senators that authorized the president to go to war in Iraq. If you want to be angry, be angry with the people who put them in those terrible situations.

5:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know a lot of people will disagree with your thoughts. I will not be one of those people. I could not have said your words more clearly and well thought out than you did. I wish I could copy and paste this to everyone I know.

6:53 PM  
Blogger Wesley said...

FH, I agree wholeheartedly. War should be something mourned as a necessity, not celebrated.

As far as condemning anyone who is in the military for perpetuating the racket of war -- that's a slippery slope. If you go with that premise, and you believe you live in a non-fascist state (you know I would argue the contrary), then you yourself have responsibility for the actions taken in your name by your country. Participation in the system (e.g. paying taxes) is tacit agreement, and it's hard to draw a line between your situation and that of, say, the guy who sorts the mail at the army post in Kabul. (To be clear, I'm not saying I somehow exist outside that framework -- even though I'm living overseas, I still pay U.S. taxes, have a U.S. passport, and am generally just as guilty as any other American when it comes to the whole tacit agreement thing.)

I also think most people join the military because, in their hearts, they want to keep the country safe. This goes with your "necessary evil" line of thought. That they get sent to Iraq on flawed reasoning is not really their fault, though of course they have some choice in the matter.

10:16 AM  

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