The call to “support our troops,” or “our boys,” is really an appeal to support the war in which the troops are engaged. Critics of the war would say that if the war is unjustified, possibly even a criminal enterprise in violation of international law at several levels, as was so clearly true of the Iraq war, supporting the troops and war is to support international criminality. The proper support of our troops and boys therefore is to oppose the war and fight to get our boys (and girls) out before they can kill or be killed while participating in such a criminal enterprise.
Naturally, this critical view of supporting our troops gets little play in the propaganda system, and the propaganda design of the formula “support our troops” is probably effective in the environment of patriotic fervor that wars engender. But the hypocrisy here runs deep. Many of the threads of hypocrisy woven into this propaganda fabric stem from the fact that the political and military establishments care very little about the welfare of our boys. The really bad thing about their deaths, injuries and suffering is the resultant negative publicity and possible increased financial costs of greater attention to their needs that might limit military budget size and flexibility. There has been a notorious struggle over the damage our boys have suffered in Iraq and Afghanistan from economies in the protective equipment provided to them; from the damaging psychological effects of multiple tours of duty; from the reluctance to recognize the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the seriousness of traumatic brain injury (TBI); and the scandals reflecting lagged and poor care of personnel back home and in need of medical care.
In earlier years, also, it was a long struggle to get recognition of the damage suffered by U.S. troops in Vietnam from the massive chemical warfare used there, where, of course, the damage to U.S. personnel was only a small fraction of that suffered by the Vietnamese people, still unacknowledged and unrectified by the responsible criminal state. The ironical usage of “MIA” to mean “missing in America,” referring to war veterans in a sad state of indigence and homelessness at home, also goes back at least to the Vietnam and post-Vietnam war days. There are many MIAs in the United States today, and a dramatic figure that did get some publicity was that more military personnel committed suicide than were killed in combat in Afghanistan in 2012 (349 versus 295).
It is enlightening also that there is an inverse correlation between aggressively supporting U.S. wars and supporting our troops with generous funding of their medical care and post-service education and general welfare. This is plausible. The bulk of service personnel are drawn from that 47 percent of the population that Mitt Romney derided as government-dependent and not “job creators.” (The heads of Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics. Ratheon and Textron are job creators.) Romney, Paul Ryan, George Bush, John Boehner (etc.) and their monied base are fighting a major battle to diminish or terminate the welfare state, and many Democrats as well as Republicans are with them, so that containing what amounts to welfare state benefits to our boys with PTSD and otherwise in distress is entirely logical.
Of course, along with “support our troops” there is an implicit “support our torturers and higher level war criminals.” This flows from the overwhelming and increasingly centralized power in the hands of the dominant elite, including the military-industrial complex (MIC) and leading politicians, and an associated remarkable level of self-righteousness. Anything we do is tolerable because we are not only strong and the global policeman, but also good and always well-intentioned, and are therefore not to be questioned when we do abroad precisely what we condemn in target states. We can support Saddam Hussein and even provide him with “weapons of mass destruction”, when he is doing us a service in attacking Iran, even when he is using chemical weapons there; and with no seeming sense of shame or guilt we can quickly turn him into “another Hitler” when he disobeys orders. We can help the Shah of Iran build a nuclear capability, but threaten war when his successor regime tries to do what was encouraged with the Shah; and again, with utter self-righteousness. It testifies to the greatness of the Western propaganda system that these shifts and mind-boggling double standards can occur without the slightest pause or recognition or any need for explanation or apology.
The really high level war criminals like Bush, Blair, and Obama can get away with anything, not only because they are at the pinnacle of power and can set their own rules, but also because they dominate the external institutions that supposedly make the rule of law international, but fail to do so. One of the prettiest cases is, of course, the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, an act matching Hitler’s 1939 invasion of Poland, and resulting in a million or more Iraqi deaths. Although this was a blatant violation of the most fundamental principle of the UN Charter, while UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan did point out that the invasion was “illegal” he didn’t express great anger or suggest that the invaders be expelled or even reprimanded. He got on board the aggression ship, as did the Western great powers (with the Russians and Chinese essentially just sitting there watching).
But the sick comedy of “international law” rode on, with the UN, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and International Criminal Court (ICC) playing their assigned role by applying it whenever the Big Aggressor or one of his leading allies felt the application of legal principles to be useful. The Big A and his Little Aggressor client Israel wanted a legal input for Darfur, but not for the Democratic Republic of the Congo, invaded by Rwanda and Uganda, whose leaders were Big Aggressor clients, and so it was—Sudan’s al-Bashir was indicted by the ICC, Rwandan and Ugandan leaders were exempt. Big A and allies wanted legal authority for attacking Libya, but not Bahrain, so the ICC and United Nations Security Council (UNSC) obliged with indictments for Gaddafi and sons, silence on Bahrain. The Big Aggressor wants international law applied to Syria, so Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who along with her predecessor Louise Arbour didn’t lift a finger in the case of the Iraq invasion-occupation, which produced a million dead and 4 million refugees, now repeatedly urges the UNSC to call on the ICC to investigate Bashir al-Assad’s war crimes in Syria. Pillay played the same role in the case of Libya, in collaboration with the ICC, greasing the skids for a NATO military attack on Libya and the ouster and murder of Gaddafi.
The role of the “international community” (in the sense of the leadership of the Western great powers and their clients, not the underlying populations) was dramatically exhibited in giving the newly elected U.S. President Barack Obama the Nobel Peace prize in 2009. He hadn’t done anything whatsoever for peace at that time, but gave the appearance of a leader more moderate than Bush and Cheney. A silly award, but once again a giveaway on the supportive-groveling qualities of Western political/cultural institutions. (Can you imagine the Nobel Committee giving the award to Amira Hass, Malalai Joya, Kathy Kelly, or Richard Falk, people actually making genuine personal sacrifices in the interest of peace?) Honest analysis and morality would have recognized that Obama was going to be a major war criminal by structural necessity, embedded as he was in a permanent war political economy where political survival, let alone success, required the commission of war crimes. Obama soon found that political success demanded killing foreigners; that budget enlargement for killing was easy, but spending for progressive civilian needs was difficult and would anger powerful people. He quickly adapted to being a warrior president, his seemingly most proud accomplishment being the killing of bin-Laden.
Obama has played all the war cards. He has lauded the Vietnam War as a noble enterprise and is pleased to participate in and laud a memorial that celebrates it. Like Bush he loves to speak to military cadres where he can draw resounding applause with patriotic and war rhetoric, although increasing numbers of liberal Democrats have gotten on board his war-oriented ship of state and also find his warrior image and actions agreeable. He has gone somewhat beyond Bush in institutionalizing government rights to invade privacy, closing down information access, and criminalizing whistle-blowing. His drone war policy and claimed right to assassinate even U.S. citizens based on executive decision alone breaks new ground in criminality and in enlarging the scope of acceptable war crimes. He has also refused to prosecute U.S. torturers and high level war criminals, violating earlier promises but, more importantly, violating international law and effectively ending the rule of law. We need change we can believe in, but Obama is giving us compromise and literal regression that we must vigorously oppose.
• Article first appeared in Z Magazine April 2013