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The Cult of the Soldier

Christopher Hayes speaks truth:

It’s not surprising that during a time of war, civilians and politicians hold an elevated opinion of the nobility and valor of warriors. After all, it is ostensibly for our collective benefit that a tiny fraction of American citizens voluntarily endure (over and over) some of the worst horrors of human existence as both the target of violence and its implacable agent. But the Cult of the Soldier is something more than mere gratitude or appreciation. It’s the insidious belief that since warriors transcend the petty and corrupt world of politics, they are uniquely equipped to make the nation’s decisions about war and peace. In a New York Times/CBS News poll in mid-September, 68 percent of respondents said they most trusted the US military commanders to successfully resolve the Iraq War, as opposed to 21 percent for Congress and 5 percent for the Bush Administration.

Such attitudes are the inevitable result of both political parties and both sides of the war debate reinforcing the notion that the legitimacy of one’s argument about the war derives from its proximity to those in uniform—from Bush’s infamous flight suit landing on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, to John Kerry’s “reporting for duty” campaign as war hero, to the antiwar movement’s persistent focus on the fact that almost none of the neocons who argued for the war have served in the military. Each side tallies up its stock of current and former warriors advocating its position, and since the military is a massive, heterogeneous organization, it’s not surprising to find plenty of advocates for nearly every conceivable position. (In fact, the Washington Post recently reported that Gen. David Petraeus’s direct supervisor, Adm. William Fallon, thinks Petraeus is dead wrong and that we should begin withdrawing troops in a far speedier fashion.)

The uncritical assumption that soldiers are uncritically valorous flies in the face of war itself. I have family fighting in this imperial nonsense, but it would be a grave mistake to conflate my cousins’ reasons for joining the military, or, for that matter, their personal virtues (or lack thereof) with the policies that perpetuate the war. Combat changes all soldiers, not necessarily for the better; it also can alter their perceptions of war policy (which is not to say combat or leadership or even strategy) in really bizarre ways. For example, I read recently, I don’t remember where, that the difference between John McCain’s Vietnam War and most everyone else’s is that he fought it from several thousand feet in the air. He never knew what it meant to walk through a village and know the rage people feel when your bombs and your gas and your guns have destroyed their lives. In other words, until he was captured and tortured, McCain’s Vietnam was largely impersonal; his hawkishness stems from that ignorance. John Quiggin’s supposition that U.S. citizens are prone to hawkishness because they’ve never experienced war itself is an important correlation: personal experience of war, especially at the hands of impersonal killers, changes civilians, too, more often than not in ways that do not create or perpetuate more war. What’s needed is a response to survival (soldiers survive war just as much as civilians do) that doesn’t rely on worship to convey honor: pity combined with respect, not for the sake of trumped up symbolism but rather for the stories they have to tell, perhaps?