Friday, November 11, 2005
The Eleventh Hour
Today is Veterans Day. It seems like a good time to make two confessions. My first confession is that I support our troops, and my second confession is that this is rather new.
I don't like war; I don't like violence. I really think it's just about the worst way of solving a problem, and I think it speaks badly of humanity that it's still being used all over the world. Whenever the pacifist stance is assumed, there's always somebody who says, "Wait a minute, what about Hitler? Do you think it was wrong to go to war against him?" Well, yeah. I think war was the only solution to that problem -- in 1942. If we had dealt with Hitler earlier on, and not given him a decade's head start, there were other options. All through the thirties, we had a live-and-let-kill approach to European fascism, and by the time we got involved, perhaps it was too late for a nonviolent solution.
How about the 1991 Gulf War? Even if our true national objectives were money, power, and oil, it's not difficult to argue that protecting Kuwait from Saddam Hussein was a noble goal, consistent with humanitarian foreign policy. But the idea that it would take a war to do this was fallacious. Even at the time, dissenters within the first Bush administration felt that Saddam could be deterred through sanctions and other diplomatic means. Bush Senior wanted to be a war president, though, not a wimp president, and there you have it. The Gulf War looks pretty virtuous now that we have the current Iraq debacle to compare it to. You don't have to be a pacifist to see the Iraq war as an unnecessary tragedy; you can believe in war and still oppose this tower of war crimes built on deception.
Most of the time, my opposition to war has carried over into a milder opposition, to those who would choose to fight. In the earliest days of the Iraq war, I couldn't bring myself to express support for the fighting men and women. My attitude was: They signed up for the armed services, knowing that if there should be a war, they'd be called upon to kill. And no motivating objective -- money for college, the opportunity to travel -- could justify that. If they really were fighting to protect people's freedom, that would be one thing, but obviously nobody's freedom is being defended in Iraq. Precisely the opposite.
If General Motors is a horrible company, I thought, the people who work in the mail room do share some of the responsibility. Not as much as the upper echelons of management, but still -- there is a moral imperative not to be a cog in an evil machine. "We'll give you $400 a week" or "We'll put you through college" -- these enticements, however attractive they may be, should not induce good men and women to do the bidding of villains.
I continue to feel this way in theory, but I realize now that there was some hypocrisy in my old refusal to express support for the troops. The whole attitude was supposedly built on compassion, but I really had no compassion for the soldiers themselves, and this was because they'd signed up to fight. College is no excuse, I'd exclaim -- because I didn't particularly care for college, either. "Joining the army so you can go to college," I once wrote, in one of my most regrettable expressions, "is like shitting yourself so you can stink."
Yeah, I actually said that. A long time ago. I was allowing my opposition to violence to supersede everything else -- like the abject poverty and hopelessness which leads many young Americans to regard the armed services as the best available option, the only clear path to a better future. It must have seemed like a reasonably safe gamble, before we had a terrorist dictator instead of a real president. I still can't respect the decision to join up out of an active desire for combat. But I know now that there are other, better reasons to join, and that the 2,057 American troops who have now lost their lives in Iraq are victims of this mess, too.
Not everyone opposes violence, after all. There are plenty of good people in the world who believe that sometimes violence is necessary, and under precisely the right circumstances, they might be able to convince me of that, too. And if we set aside, for a moment, the pacifism debate, the willingness to risk one's life for the sake of others' lives is about as noble and selfless as you can get. Regardless of whether I think war can serve the cause of freedom, if they think it can, and they think that's what they're doing, all I can really say is thanks for your service.
Of course, you can support the troops without supporting the commander-in-chief; you can support the warriors without supporting the war.
If someone told me, "I joined up because I love airplanes, and I wanted to be an airplane mechanic, and the military offered me a stable career with which to support my family," I would be all compassion. If someone told me, "I joined up because I love guns, and I wanted to shoot people," I wouldn't. But just because someone is wearing a uniform doesn't mean I'm going to suspend the benefit of doubt. Many good people have to work for terrible companies in order to meet their own goals.
The only way to really get to the bottom of this is to ask the soldiers themselves. And the only way to do that is to bring all of them home.