Nearly a century after the November 11th armistice ending the Great War in 1918, its anniversary is still celebrated under different names worldwide. For Americans, November 11th is Veterans Day, for the British, Remembrance Day, and for the French, just le onze novembre. These names reflect differing national attitudes to mourning and war. “Veteran’s Day,” for instance, focuses on celebrating the military, whereas “Remembrance Day” emphasizes peace and laments loss of life. While the British often wear a poppy on their lapels during the week of the 11th to symbolize blood sacrificed (the French sometimes wear blue cornflowers), Americans commonly sport a flag pin on Veterans Day–more of a pledge of allegiance than a eulogy.
Many in the Princeton community prepared care packages and penned letters for soldiers stationed overseas during “Support the Troops Week,” which lasted November 12th to 16th this year. For Americans, however, the phrase “support the troops” is one that is heard year-round, although outside of Veterans Day, it rarely has anything to do with material support. Instead, it’s an obligatory article of faith for anyone claiming to be “patriotic.” In the US, criticizing the military is a huge party foul.
The American public’s respect for the military is unusual among Western democracies, most of whose armed forces lost some of their luster since the Cold War. This change was due to full media access to wartime theaters of operations, which brought to light the reality of war; the revelation of war crimes (memories of the Battle of Algiers have not yet faded for the French); and the rise of guerrilla warfare.
Today, the British Army’s tangling with the IRA has tarnished its reputation, just as the French Army has seen its prestige challenged by the Algerian FLN, or the Israeli military by Hezbollah. The French image of the typical soldier is highly unflattering: an aristocratic, lunkheaded Saint-Cyrien or an ultra-Catholic crypto-fascist. In the US, however, it is rare to hear an American of any political orientation speak of the military as an institution or a profession with anything less than respect. Unfortunately, this unquestioning patriotism in the US allows the military to become something of a cause célèbre. In contemporary civilian life, “our troops” have become Our Troops(TM), a source for soppy human interest stories and empty gestures by multibillion-dollar franchises. Celebrities fly to Afghanistan for photo ops with soldiers, and the NFL holds ceremony to commemorate the troops, each one more overblown than the last.
Take the case of Pat Tillman, for instance, a lantern-jawed Cardinals safety killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan. After his death, Tillman was subsequently built up as a martyr by the media, the US military and the NFL. There’s a world of difference between the hero treatment Tillman received and the soldiers who came back from Vietnam in 1969 to accusations of being “baby-killers.” In fact, I’d argue that the Vietnam War caused a fundamental change in the relationship between the media and the military establishment. This war was the first to be covered on TV, and, not coincidentally, it was the most protested war in American history.
Since Vietnam, the government has cracked down on media coverage of its wars. The current political climate imposes a legacy of mandatory patriotism that serves as an excuse to curtail freedom of information. Glenn Greenwald of the Guardian gives a well-founded outside perspective on the one-sidedness of the discourse on the American military: “The military is by far the most respected and beloved institution among the US population — a dangerous fact in any democracy — and, even assuming they wanted to (which they don’t), our brave denizens of establishment journalism are petrified of running afoul of that kind of popular sentiment.”
The collusion of political leaders, the press and the public places the army on a pedestal that forms a military-emotional complex, harmful not only to democracy, but even to the military itself in the long run. An institution that no one can criticize without attracting a shitstorm of controversy is unaccountable—and it’s also divorced from the public. It’s 2012, and I can see the Gaza War live-tweeted before my eyes, but I have no idea what it’s like to be in Afghanistan as a soldier or civilian. If we view soldiers as demigods, we dehumanize them. We don’t feel bad for demigods. We are told that these Captain America figures are going into their second or third or fourth tours of duty to pacify some evil, chaotic country where people wear turbans, and we just think that’s awesome and heroic.
Making people blindly Support Our Troops(TM) ends up being a great way to have people support war without thinking about what the military is actually doing or not doing in foreign countries. I’d say that the groupthink enforced by the military-emotional complex is, ironically, responsible for the American public’s detachment from the armed forces’ involvement in the Middle East. Maybe if the public were better informed about the horrors of war, Bringing Our Troops Home would be considered with greater urgency. Instead, though, America’s military-emotional complex fosters blind patriotism that, in forbidding criticism of the army, has mandated a mindlessly positive discourse on war. It would be in the spirit of the November 11th holiday to reject the militaristic propaganda that we are fed year-round and truly support the troops’ best interests by more thoughtfully reflecting on the consequences of war.