As usual on Veteran's Day, we are urged to honor our "heroes" and salute their martial courage, while ignoring the murderous imperial role they play in "fighting for their country."
This really cannot be done. A professional army is by definition an organized band that kills on command. This can only be justified on the grounds that its mission is purely defensive, designed to repel invasion of the national territory the troops are sworn to protect and defend.
But this is hardly the role of the U.S. armed forces today, when Washington maintains hundreds of major military bases around the world, and thousands of smaller military installations, all of them dedicated to maintaining an economic and political status quo increasingly protested by popular majorities seeking a freer, more democratic world. In short, in spite of its multicultural and bi-gender facade, the U.S. military is an anti-democratic force. And there is nothing heroic about suppressing democracy.
Yes, our troops often display spectacular physical courage under fire. But so did soldiers defending Nazism and Communism, Japanese soldiers defending a brutal empire, and Confederate soldiers fighting to preserve chattel slavery. We do not ordinarily consider these soldiers heroes, no matter how great their martial courage, because we rate the missions they were sent on as illegitimate or evil.
We cannot have it both ways. If military service is value neutral, then it does not matter what cause soldiers fight for, we must salute their courage under fire. But if the value of physical courage is inextricably bound up with the legitimacy of the mission a soldier is sent on, then we must withhold hero status from imperial soldiers who fight - not to defend us from evil - but merely to preserve and extend the hegemony of empire. In the latter case, their bravery is stained and diminished by the ignoble cause they have been commanded to serve.
Actually, these days a soldier does not even have to demonstrate physical courage to be designated a hero. Cheap praise is heaped on our soldiers merely for being in the military, quite apart from anything they may do on a field of battle. This is directly related to a steady decline in public support for imperial military missions, which the architects of empire resist by equating anti-war sentiment with hostility to soldiers. "Support our troops" actually means "support the mission," no matter how illegitimate.
This we must not do. The grotesque barbarity displayed at Abu Ghraib - hardly ancient history - was neither heroic, nor accidental. In fact, it was deliberately sanctioned policy, extensively pre-tested by Israel, to associate all resistance to foreign invasion with sexual humiliation. In short, it was an attempt to make legitimate heroism impossible for Iraqis, to stain public memory of resistance with images of utter disgrace. To invoke "support our troops" in this context is to embrace complete moral degeneracy.
A better option would be to widely publicize and critique the civilian leaders who craft such policies, and degrade our troops in the name of honoring them. "Support our troops - dispatch Donald Rumsfeld to jail," should have been a national slogan years ago. Today, we have just as much reason to call for the same for Barack Obama - our first African-American president, who overthrew a Libyan government with the highest standard of living in Africa, leaving the country to the mercy of murderous and plundering gangs.
Service? Honor? Respect? What have any of these words to do with the role of the U.S. military in the world today? What is honorable about occupying Afghanistan in the service of a government so corrupt it makes the Taliban seem preferable? How is respect cultivated by mass murder of civilians by drones? What kind of "service" is involved in establishing an international network of torture centers in defiance of international law and basic morality?
Yes, let's honor our troops, not by continuing the atrocities that degrade them, but by abolishing the imperial military and developing a real national defense policy to replace it.