Reader Request Week 2008 #12: Soldiers and Support
At what point does or should personal distaste of the War in Iraq translate into disdain or disapproval for the Service members fighting in that fight? Is it possible to support the Soldier but not the War? If not, is it ‘unpatriotic’?
In general I think it’s perfectly possible to support the soldier even if one does not support the war, and I think at this point, regarding Iraq, this is what a lot of folks are doing. Likewise, I think most people are wise enough to recognize that individual service members are responsible for their own conduct (and when under their orders, the conduct of the soldiers below them), not the conduct of the war in a general sense. Distaste or disapproval generally comes when and if a service person’s own actions are reprehensible.
Now, sure: There probably are some folks who believe that war (or this war) is so wrong that anyone having anything to do with it has a mark against their soul, just as there are people who believe there’s no atrocity that we might commit that’s not excusable, simply because “we’re the good guys.” In either case, there’s not much to say about that. However, I strongly suspect most people are capable of threading the moral needle here, and of recognizing that individuals in a war can act and serve justly and with honor, even if the person believes the conflict itself is unjust or dishonorable.
The question to me brings to mind not Iraq, but the US Civil War. Anyone who has read the Whatever over the years knows that I believe that the Confederate States of America was an elementally evil institution, because it explicitly and affirmatively incorporated the institution of slavery into its Constitution, and I believe slavery is fundamentally immoral and evil (before anyone attempts to sidetrack in the comments, yes, the US Constitution made provisions for the accounting of slaves, but neither mentioned slavery by name, nor — key point — was owning slaves encoded into it as a fundamental and constitutional right). So, the CSA was evil, the war it precipitated was to defend an evil entity, and thus the soldiers who fought on its side in the Civil War were ultimately fighting for an evil institution.
But that does not mean the Confederate soldiers were in themselves evil, or that their personal reasons for choosing to fight were necessarily evil. Some fought because they felt obliged to defend their homes or their home states or may have felt that the political concept of states having the right to secede was worth defending (Confederate general Robert E. Lee, for example, opposed succession, but once it happened, chose loyalty to his home state of Virginia over national loyalty; he turned down Lincoln’s offer of command of the Union forces). I suspect the number of rebels who fought because they thought slavery itself was worth rushing the Union forces for was small (although probably not as small as some Confederate apologists would like to suggest).
Overall, I feel sorry for these Confederate soldiers that their efforts were in the service of an evil nation, and it’s well and good that their efforts failed and the CSA was destroyed. But I don’t feel that each and every soldier who fought to establish the CSA was evil, or deserved disdain or disapproval. Ultimately, it’s something like this: “You were a fine soldier. Shame your country sucked.”
I’m explicitly not comparing Iraq to the US Civil War, nor the US with the CSA, to be clear. The Iraq war is its own singular thing in our nation’s history. Nor, to yet again remind people, was I opposed to invading Iraq five years ago, although that was for my own reasons, and even at the time I recognized that the reasons we were going in were bad ones (I wrote: “even those people who fully support a war against Iraq are rather painfully aware that the stated reasons that the Dubya administration wants to gear up for war are window dressing for a revenge fantasy. It is possible to fight a just war for less than entirely just reasons. We’re about to do it”).
In retrospect, I wish I had twigged to the concept that fighting an unnecessary war is never a good thing, even if one has theoretical reasons for not opposing it; I wish we had left Iraq alone and just focused on Afghanistan. I also wish that I had realized the Bush administration had an Underpants Gnome war policy (“Step One: Invade Iraq!!! Step Two: ???? Step Three: Profit!!!”) rather than one that had an actual plan for what to do after we satisfied Dubya’s need to avenge and/or best his dad by deposing Saddam. These are the things one learns, alas at an unfortunate cost which this country will be paying for the rest of my life (and given the deficit spending of the Bush years, for the rest of my daughter’s life, too).
My personal regrets and observations regarding the Iraq war, however, have almost nothing to do with my opinion of those who serve our country there. Our service people went to war and they and their families have disproportionately sacrificed for it, since this is a war that has entailed almost no sacrifice or contribution on the part of civilians (hell, we got tax cuts). The vast majority of those who have served in Iraq (and so as not to dismiss by omission, in Afghanistan) have done difficult jobs in a difficult situation, and have done so with honor. They have done what their country has asked of them, and have done so longer than anyone ever expected — we’ve been in Iraq rather longer than we were in WWII, which is a thing I think people know but may have trouble conceptualizing — and have done so as volunteers. In sum, our service people have worked hard, worked long, and served with honor.
I’m not sure how one disdains them for doing any of these things, except to rig the deck such that there is nothing these service people could do to satisfy one’s sense of personal moral outrage over Iraq. At which point, one may have to entertain the notion that one is being a bit of a dick, and back off and give these service people a break.
Because here’s the other thing: Those folks who have served in Iraq will be carrying around what they’ve seen and done there for the rest of their lives. Even if they acted justly and correctly in all cases, and did their jobs competently and with honor, what one sees and does during wartime is still a burden, and can’t be unseen or undone. They’ve got a lot to carry already. The last thing they need is you putting something else on their back, something they don’t actually deserve to have to carry. Give it some thought before you try to push it on them.