Sunday, July 22, 2007

"Support Our Troops"? (Complete)

Sooner or later, everyone who opposes Western imperial adventures in western Asia will be forced to declare their orientation towards those people who are making it a reality on the ground. It might be a supporter of the war demanding rhetorically "Do you support the troops or not?" to score political points. Or scattershot hostility might spring all of a sudden from someone you try to hand a leaflet -- someone who has a child or partner bearing arms right at that very moment in Afghanistan or Iraq for whom the understandable emotional intensity of the desire that their loved one return safely leaves little space for any other consideration.

How should we, as people opposed to war and empire, approach this issue?

By far the most common answer to this question among anti-war activists is the slogan, "Support our troops, bring them home!"

On the surface, this slogan has a lot to recommend it. The rhetorical power to delegitimize that flows from the accusation that someone is not supporting the troops is a result of a double barrelled shot: The person so accused is seen thereby as attacking the imagined nation to which accuser, accusee, and troops all belong, and which the state of the same name spends massive resources trying to foster as the primary attachment in its subjects so they can more easily be mobilized in the direction that the power politics of the moment dictate. And they are also seen as attacking ordinary people -- little Johnnie Appleby from down the block (don't you remember when he was knee high to a smurf?) and poor Mrs. Macdonald who has got both her boys away to war, bless her.

"Support our troops, bring them home!" allows war opponents not only to advance a version of support that might be compelling to loved ones of soldiers because it is predicated not on the possibility of their death but on the assurance of their safety and life via their removal from the arena of combat, but it also allows you to introduce the evidence that the other side really doesn't support them at all. In Canada, that evidence might consist of showing how the state is putting Canadian youth in harm's way (and in a situation where they will inevitably be complicit in violence against innocents) to advance the interests of owning-class and other elite Canadians by sucking up to the fool emperor who lives next door, and the complete dishonesty about the nature of the mission to get the rest of us to go along. Or, in that emperor's more direct territory, by the even more massive catalogue of lies told in his name to get the whole affair going to begin with, the sheer incompetence of inadequately equipping the troops, and cutting health and other benefits that are supposed to support them once they are discharged.

And, to take a slightly different tack, it also gives the appearance of being more reasonable and less ideological -- in the sense of obscuring what's actually going on by deploying abstractions -- because it admits Mrs. Macdonald's boys as human beings rather than as faceless instances of an ideal type, i.e. "troops". This refusal to overlook the humanity even of people who are doing things we don't particularly like has a certain moral appeal as well -- one that some might dismiss, but that I think has value even if I would interpret it in my own idiosyncratic way.

"Support our troops, bring them home" is a slogan that is seldom subjected to much scrutiny, however. A little more reflection reveals it to be politically iffy and even nonsensical.

This may appear to be a minor example, but it has larger implications, I think: this stance by the anti-war movement, such as it is, set up a recent tactical defeat for anti-war organizers in Toronto. Since October, emergency response vehicles in the city have been sporting "Support Our Troops" bumper stickers. Once this was actually noticed it touched off something of a political firestorm, especially since it had been done without approval of city council. Because the vast majority of people who identify as anti-war are wrapped up in being perceived as supporting the troops even as they oppose the mission in Afghanistan, there is no already-built critique of the notion of supporting the troops that is easiliy accessible in public discourse. And that means that even though everyone concerned knows this is a piece of pro-war messaging, those people who enacted it and who support it could pass it off as politically neutral without looking like idiots because, "Hey, you people say you support 'em too, right? Heh-heh, heh-heh." They take advantage of all the hard work that anti-war activists have done to show that they support the troops too. (And to any readers who point out that "Support our troops" is technically a neutral statement, even without any deeper analysis of the content I feel very confident in saying -- based on the fact that I spend a great deal of my time thinking about how people will take up, understand, and respond to language -- that it will function in pro-war rather than neutral ways for the vast majority of readers.)

I have also come across a couple of other left writers recently who have challenged the slogan.

The first was Michael Neumann, a Canadian academic at Trent University that I know very little about -- I see his stuff occasionally at CounterPunch, and I often find things in it to disagree with but it also usually challenges me to think about things in new ways. He addressed the slogan in a couple of paragraphs in a larger essay arguing that even if you accept the motives for Western involvement in Afghanistan, you still must oppose the actual actions because the resources committed to achieve them are so inadequate to the task -- at least an order of magnitude too little -- that failure is inevitable and disaster is the predictable result.

He takes on the slogan by subjecting it to a little bit of materialist scrutiny. He points out that it is meaningless to declare abstract support for the troops.

[T]he entire opposition to the Afghan war worships at the altar of Supporting our Troops (Bring Them Home!). This is either hypocrisy or nonsense. If you support the troops, you must support them where they are, not where you might wish them to be. So someone might ask: do you or don’t you wish that the troops who are in fact now in Afghanistan remain safe? If you do wish that they remain safe, you wish them to possess that huge military asset, invulnerability. You want their armor and air support and heavy weapons to protect them. This can only mean that you hope they kill any Afghan who threatens their lives. Push come to shove, you want them to win all their battles. This, as an anti-war stance, is nonsense. “Support our troops, bring them home” is not an anti-war slogan, it is mere evasion. But if you don’t wish them to remain safe, then you don’t really support the troops. You’re a hypocrite: you can’t support them if you don’t hope to keep them from harm. No one I know admits to this attitude.

His materialist disruption of the philosophical idealism in the slogan, in other words, focuses on a physical and immediate situational where.

The other work I encountered that addresses this is a commentary by U.S.-based writer and activist Rahul Mahajan -- permalinks to each post don't seem to be working on his site at the moment, but if you just scroll down the top page to the July 2, 2007 entry you will find what I am referring to.

Mahajan's attack on the slogan is also materialist, but focuses more on what (or, if you like, where in a social and institutional sense).

[P]erhaps it is time for the left to put to rest the nonsensical slogan, “Support the troops, bring them home.” It is true, as crafters of this slogan have been at pains to point out, that the other side makes precious little sense either. Supporting the troops by not anticipating the dangers, waiting years to adapt Pentagon procurement practices so that they’re equipped as well as possible, and having psychologists deny them rights to combat-related disability benefits because of claims that their PTSD actually results from when their parents didn’t take them to the circus is not exactly in accord with the vernacular definition of “support.” I wouldn’t deny this. But I think their version still makes more sense than the antiwar movement’s version.

“Support the troops, bring them home” sounds a lot to me like “Support the policemen, make sure they don’t have to fight crime” or “Support the ballerinas, keep them from performing dangerous dance steps that could lead to serious joint injuries.” If your daughter was a doctor fighting, say, a malaria epidemic, would you be “supporting” her by trying to get her called away?

Of course, it is true that, unlike said doctor, many of the soldiers want to leave. Do you mean “support the soldiers’ wishes?” Do you really think decisions about war and peace should be made by polling the military? I imagine not.

For whatever reason people join the U.S. military, the truth is that it exists to fight wars abroad. If we fought lots of noble wars abroad from disinterested humanitarian motives and nobody was killed (except, of course, for “bad guys”), and the countries we bombed were transformed into Sugar Candy Mountain, then perhaps that would be a noble goal. As it is, the last war we fought in which our participation was unequivocally a good thing (with lots of horrors embedded within it, of course) was World War II and at the start of that war we barely had a standing military.

I think I would challenge his characterization of World War II, but overall I think he is on to something important.

See, most discussions of "Support our troops", whether or not they dwell on the anti-war addendum of "bring them home!", revolve around the word "support." This whole thing comes out of the right accusing a lack of support and left-liberals and others falling all over themselves to demonstrate that they support, and it's more support, and better support, because it is support based on a more accurate understanding of support, and don't forget about that support. Even Neumann's commentary, decidedly not liberal at all, is based on taking the blinders off about what "support" would really entail.

This is important stuff, no doubt, but it does not exhaust the possibilities for discussion. What Mahajan does is move the focus to the word "troops." This, I think, is a very important move, though the commentary leaves a lot of questions unresolved.

You see, little Johnnie Appleby and the Macdonald boys are those sweet kids who grew up in your home town, and we shouldn't just forget that. But that's not all they are; they are also "troops." "Troops" is not just an abstract category. It is not a badge that can be put on and taken off as simply as a "Support our troops, bring them home!" button. It is not a taste adopted nor a fashion worn. "Troops" is something done to human beings, a deliberate process to prepare them for a role that human beings generally do not wish to fill, as killer or killed. And "troops" is located within a particular web of relationships that shape their actions and define how they function in the world.

As is the case about so many things, more information is easily available about the United States than about our own country, but from what I understand, even allowing for some variation between armies, the phenomenon of "basic training" is a standard feature of turning citizens into the kinds of soldiers needed to wage the kind of war that modern industrial states wage. And basic training is awful. It dehumanizes those who go through it, and forces upon them "an idealized military masculinity based on the denial of attachment and compassion" that ensures they are able to kill when told to. The kinds of experiences that are part of being "troops", including but far from limited to basic training, have a lasting impact. For example, you can read about a U.S. Department of Justice study that found veterans to be twice as likely to be incarcerated for sexual assault as non-veterans. I have seen related numbers about rates of violence by male soldiers against their intimate female parters on U.S. bases. I cannot paint a complete picture of the kinds of impacts that being "troops" has on the individual human beings who are forced into that category, but this should give you a sense. How can we support that?

And as much as the right pushes us to see Johnnie Appleby just as Johnnie Appleby, once he is in that uniform he takes up a very particular place in social relations as well as remaining himself as an individual. He is obliged upon threat of serious legal sanction to obey orders, and it is the path of those orders that ties him in. He cannot see where they flow from, but flow they do, through him and out into consequences in the real world. I once quoted Jane Jacobs on this site as saying, "Imperialism, in whatever form, is a global process -- it occurs across regions and nations -- but even in its most marauding forms it necessarily takes hold in and through the local." And it is through Johnnie that this happens. And, yes, part of that is the mission. But part of that is inherent to being "troops" connected to particular forms of human organization that predictably and reliably turn to violence against ordinary people to protect and enhance the power of the already powerful.

Now, some might counter this with all manner of mythology about Canadian benevolence in general and about the benevolence of the Canadian military in particular. This is, for the most part, hogwash. The fact that the Canadian military has not been as deeply implicated in horrific doings as the U.S. military over the last century is not about virtue, it is about privilege -- the privilege of not mattering in the world system, and therefore not having to play as direct a role in defending it by force. Disaster relief activities are noble, but whatever organization you have to respond to things like the Red River flood and the great ice storm of a few years back does not need to be armed or trained to kill, so some other institution could be created to replace the military in that capacity. At home, since Confederation, the Canadian military has also been used on many occasions to break strikes and to enforce colonial relations on indigenous peoples, and even if the former hasn't really happened since the first half of the twentieth century, the latter has happened much more recently and is envisioned by the hawks in charge as being a prime component of what the "troops" are supposed to do well into the future. At the international level, the resources devoted to peacekeeping were always a very small proportion of the military budget in Canada -- I'm afraid I don't have the number handy, but it was not large -- and in any case peacekeeping has always had colonial overtones, as Sherene Razack's work on the Somalia Affair has illustrated. And as Canada's chief general, Rick Hillier, infamously said a year or two ago, "We are the Canadian Forces, and our job is to be able to kill people."

In short, by being so hung up on showing that we support the human beings who are "troops" for Canada, we end up falling in to supporting all the bad things that go along with "troops". We get to oppose the mission, but we do not get to mount a critique of the institutional circumstances that created the mission in a way that is not about a particular bad politician but is about organizations, institutions, social relations. Our admirable instinct for human connection is used to pull us in to support phenomena that are as profoundly anti-human as you can get.

This does not leave us with a simple, easy way to orient ourselves to the troops. I saw somewhere -- I forget where, or I would link to it -- the idea of "Free the troops!" as a slogan. Again, this has a certain appeal, but I still don't think it quite captures what is at stake. Perhaps more importantly, I doubt its meaning would be widely legible, particularly in the absence of involuntary conscription. "Detroopify the troops!" captures more of what matters in the situation, I think, but not only would it not be easily comprehensible to most people, it sounds silly and it would be completely unable to activate most of the advantages that flow from "Support our troops, bring them home!" as outlined above.

So there is no easy slogan. We can do our very, very best at avoiding all of the things that the war mongers still manage to accuse us of whether we actually do them or not; we can listen, we can foreground the humanity of those trapped in the imposed (to a certain extent even if chosen) category "troops", we can be Buddha-like in our compassion; but we still have to face the fact that there are powerful social and psychological forces at work that will mean a great deal of hostility from many military members and their families (even though, as the author of the article linked admits in his newer preface, he has probably undersold the capacity for resistance among vets and families -- sometimes the guards do revolt). This is unavoidable.

I still don't think that means we should give up. Nor does it mean that we should revert to simplistic slogans that make no sense and commit us to lousy politics.

I'm not sure how to do it, but I think one important avenue is beginning from our own complicity. Part of what makes this whole issue so difficult is the disjuncture between the individual and the relations into which they are socially organized. Yes, this disjuncture can be particularly acute with individuals who are part of the military. But it is hardly unique to that context. Who on this planet is more wrapped up in violence, for example, than white middle-class North American men, even if we have never raised our voice in anger, never committed an act of interpersonal violence, never voted for a right-wing politcial party? (Other experiences marked by significant privilege are similar.) Who I am and what I can do has been shaped by all manner of violence, from the epidemic of sexual and other intimate violence experienced by women and other gender oppressed people that gives me privilege as a man, to the superexploitation of workers in the so-called Third World who make possible my significantly less severe exploitation, to the indigenous nations whose colonization gives me a place to live and a resource extraction industry that functions to the benefit of the settler middle-class in my city, and so on. This is not a matter for personal guilt, but recognizing the pointlessness and paralytic potential of guilt on a personal level does not change the fact that it is violence of that sort that creates the boundaries in which the individual agency and potential of my life is experienced.

This means that approaching the question of "our troops" from a pose of innocence, whether that is followed by unrelenting criticism of them or a pledge to support them by bringing them home, is a lie. No, I'm not saying that we should fail to hold individuals accountable for actions and choices -- those individuals who commit atrocities should face consequences, for example, and even more so the powerful people who create the atrocious circumstances to begin with. But what I am saying is that "troops" may be the edge of the imperial sword, so to speak, but that does not give we who carry along happily as part of the imperial body any valid claims to superiority, let alone innocence. We are in it, we are part of it. We are struggling against, striving to get beyond, but we are still very much within. And that's where we have to start. We have to start by foregrounding that shared complicity. It is not an easy place to start, and is perhaps a pointless one on a very immediate level when faced with Mrs. Macdonald's fear about her sons channeled into anger. But it is all we have. We must allow it to cure us of the urge to point unreflective fingers at people, many of whom may have had fewer real choices in their lives than the more privileged among us. And we must engage in radical experiments with using it as a starting point to form connections that can expand our struggles against that which entraps us all.

And yet there's still something missing in all of this. Others have pointed out that focusing too much on "the troops" can itself be a trap, no matter what stance we take in so doing, because it can detract attention from other aspects of war and empire. In particular, it can make us lose sight of the fact that the disproportionate burden of war and empire is always, always borne not by troops but by non-combatant women.


the red toque said...

great post, scott.

i have been thinking about this for months. your writing has added a lot of depth to the issue.

i think there is yet another dimension. check out this quote from a CP wire story in the July 16th Hamilton Spectator:

"We don't want any family to experience the terrible pain of losing their son or daughter, but if Canada and NATO abandon the Afghan people, the sacrifices Lane, our family and others have made will be for nothing," [Wanda, mother of Pvte Lane] Watkins said today.

"They deserve your respect. In supporting them, you'll make our loss much easier to bear

and so a mother's grief is tied up in the mission and in "supporting our troops." how can you abandon a grieving mother? i know of no stronger nationalist symbol.

the article goes on to say how wonderful and well trained Canadian soldiers are, and how Pvte Watkins liked to give out candy to Afghani children. It also said he was an ambitious soldier, hoping to become a paratrooper. if he had succeeded, i doubt he would've have the same opportunity to give out candy.

soothing a mother's grief, and soothing our doubts...


Scott said...

Hi Andrew, and thanks.

And what a great example of using our urge for human connection to sucker us into supporting anti-human ends...I haven't really read too much from the dominant media on Afghanistan, but most of what I've read has been similarly simplistic and propagandistic.

Todd said...

Just a thought (since I've been trying to think up something we could use):

How about a diamante poem, starting with "support" and ending with "troops" sandwiching a materialist analysis between them:

helpful friendly
supplying paying arming
guns bombs tanks jets
invading destabilizing dehumanizing
dehumanized bloody

(This should have a diamond's shape, but I don't have enough room.)


Support the troops!
Support the occupation!
Support the Right!
Support the rigged elections!
(etc. as far as you want to go, then ending with)
Support the troops?

Either'd look good on a t-shirt, I think . . . .

Scott said...

Hey Todd...I definitely like both of those...I think the second makes its point more immediately, so it might work better on a t-shirt...but then, provided people have that extra second or two to get what it's saying, I really like the progression of the first one.

Good ideas!

thwap said...


Right off the bat, I have to say that "Support the troops, bring them home!" is a simplistic slogan that is designed to keep the anti-war position in the game, so as to keep playing and eventually win more broader victories.

And it's a rigged game, and we don't have home-field advantage, and we didn't invent the rules.

It's a dissatisfying position to be in, for all the reasons you pointed out, but there you have it.

I don't think it's as vulnerable as you, Neumann and Mahajan have made it out to be.

1. Neumann's whole argument is based on ignoring the entire second half of the slogan. If they're brought home, they won't need the armour and firepower to make them invulnerable and allow them to carry out their imperialist project.

2. Mahajan likewise ignores the second-half of the slogan, or he imagines that that second half has to be applicable to all other applications like ballerinas or doctors. It doesn't.

3. You, Neumann, and Mahajan are arguing based on the ugly underpinnings of the military's functioning: oppressive, hierarchical institution used as a tool of violent domination.

But the Left isn't really going to get pulled into a trap of supporting militarism, hyper-masculinist violence, etc., etc., by this slogan.

This slogan is a political slogan, ... a crude shorthand, signifying an acknowledgement of the soldiers' humanity and a hope for their safe return.

It is necessary to establish (in a hostile political environment) that we do not wish harm on an important segment of the population in this debate.

All the other qualifications, etc., can wait for further clarification.

Just (might i add) as the right-wing's "support" can be further scrutinized at a later date and (as you yourself mention in that post) it can be found to be highly hypocritical and stupid.

I think your outlining of the dangers of this jingoism is necessary, but in the end, your concerns are overblown.

"Support the troops, bring them home" can lead to the trap you describe, but it isn't inevitable that it will.

Anonymous said...

"Support our troops" is offensive in any context when our country is engaged in an aggressive military occupation.

For those who are so overwhelmed and insecure that they feel the need to play to the militarists' "advantage", I humbly propose the following:

"SAVE our troops - bring them home!"

Scott said...

Hi thwap...thanks for commenting, and for drawing attention to it at enMasse as well. Sorry I didn't reply earlier in the day, but I haven't been at my computer.

First off, you have voiced the best reason for not retiring this particular slogan: brutal political practicality in a hostile environment. It is the best reason, but I'm not sure whether it is sufficient or not.

That said, I don't agree with everything you say. I don't agree that Neumann and Mahajan are ignoring the second half of the slogan, for instance. Neumann is pointing out that either the support declared in the slogan is either implicitly conditional on them not being where they currently are, as per the second half of the slogan, which is hardly support at all given that they are stuck where they are at the moment; or it is not conditional on their location, the logical practical conclusion of which would mean more dead civilians in Afghanistan. As he says, it is hypocritical or nonsensical.

Mahajan's basic point is likewise: particularly obviously in the U.S. American case, which is what he is writing about, being "troops" is not fleetingly about doing nasty imperialist things, it is an inherent part of the role and has been for decades. He links this to the politics of many anti-war liberals in the U.S., who have managed to construct Iraq as some sort of inglorious exception to a generally glorious past, rather than recognizing that it is a logical extension of business as usual.

In the Canadian context, in my opinion, the slogan and the broader politics most often attached to it allows many people who oppose the role in Afghanistan to do so without having to confront the real history (and present) of Canada's complicity in war and empire. It is definitely important that we establish that we do not wish harm upon a particular segment of Canadians, and that our politics would in fact lead to them being less likely to experience harm than those who are pro-war. But I think much more often than a provisional device to buy a little breathing room, this slogan and the broader politics associated with it effectively allow people who are anti-war to avoid the difficult stuff altogether -- avoid having difficult conversations that really need to be had within our own groups, around dinner tables, on street corners, in the media, or even within ourselves. Those conversations need to happen -- we need to be talking with people who have an uncritical understanding of the Canadian Forces that is not rabidly pro-imperialist but that is essentially passively pro-imperialist at a functional level in a way that doesn't just try to get them onside by sticking to lowest common denominator stuff but that really challenges them (and includes lots of listening as well, of course).

And as for the NDP, I have been very disappointed in a lot of the things they have been doing around the military in recent years...I seem to remember them campaigning on increased military spending, for example. And some of the symbolic stuff, while I can see the electoral wisdom, I just have no stomach for...


And hello also to anonymous..."Save the troops, bring them home" has a nicer ring to it...if I were designing a t-shirt I might want to add something in smaller print underneath to further clarify the politics somehow...

But I still think there is no simple slogan that really does the job.

Purple Library Guy said...

The issue might be turned around. How can anyone be said to "support the troops" if they are willing to let them be sent anywhere an authority says they should go, without thinking about whether it's a bad mission that's going to get them killed doing bad things for bad reasons? If you're really into "supporting the troops", don't you owe it to them to second guess and if necessary attempt to overrule the decisions of lying scumbucket politicians as to what they should be doing?