Who among you do not support our troops? If asked on the street, in the classroom or on the news, you would be hard pressed to find a single hand go up. Whether liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, there is almost unanimous consent in American political discourse that our soldiers not only need our support, but they deserve it as well. Yet to what extent does the morality of the war cloud the morality of the soldiers fighting the war? In an immoral war, isn’t it both hypocritical and unjust to support those waging the war, even if your sympathies lie with their personal predicaments?
In the war in Iraq, it could be argued that every bullet fired, every bomb dropped, every missile launched, was one that needn’t be. Thus, those who perpetrate such acts are themselves individually responsible and should be held morally accountable. Such an assertion is more often than not repudiated by an insistence of the inherent innocence of tools. While it might not be phrased in such a way, it seems that the analogy is actually quite appropriate. In other words, our soldiers are morally neutral because they simply carry out the orders of their superiors, allowing themselves, as a collective, to be used at the behest of their commanders. Because military leaders, not soldiers, determine how such a collective is exercised, the soldiers are free from guilt. Therefore, even if the war in Iraq is illegitimate, the soldiers should not be held liable for fighting because the war was not, in concept or execution, of their design.
Yet are we nothing more than machines? Does the military strip the very humanity from our soldiers in order to craft and wield ethically neutral, flesh-and-bone automatons? Does war itself create a situation where the immediate impulse for survival overrides any notion of human morality? Whatever the case, it would seem that both sympathy and understanding for the troops is merited; but why support? What exactly are we supporting – their cause or their sacrifice?
It makes a great deal of sense to support their sacrifice. While we have an all-volunteer army, no amount of money can adequately pay the dead for their services. But don’t the people of Iraq make the same sacrifice soldiers make? Indeed, don’t they make it in far greater numbers than we do? I read in the paper that 1,381 U.S. soldiers have been killed since the invasion. Terrible as this is, how can it compare to the loss of civilian life in Iraq? According to the Brookings Institution, between 16,000 and 20,000 Iraqi civilians have lost their lives as a direct result of this war. Where is our support for them? It could be argued that support for both the troops and the citizens of Iraq is not mutually exclusive, but in the wake of Abu Ghraib and the recent Human Rights Watch report, this argument is made with ever increasing difficulty.
Morality aside, it seems almost ironic that perhaps our support for the troops in Iraq stems less from ethics than it does from team spirit. It would appear that whenever one’s country is at war there is an impulsive, almost instinctive, desire to support our side and our troops, regardless of how we feel about the war itself. This sentiment was best encapsulated by Howard Dean, when he said of Iraq, “I did not support the policy, but I always support(ed) the troops.” This seems natural, because everyone hopes that our soldiers, many of whom we know and love, will survive the war unscathed. But the truth of the matter is that war is a zero-sum game; when we don’t die, they do.
There is no good way to fight this war and there is no quick and easy solution for Iraq. While I wish that after some 700 words I could say with confidence one thing or another, come to one solid conclusion, and summarize a laundry list of grievances, I’m afraid I cannot. When I sat down to write this piece it started as a black and white polemic; it has since devolved into so much muddy water. This column, more than anything else, has served as an introspective outlet to express the ambivalence towards supporting our troops that I, along with many others, feel. It is on such a note that I must end this piece with the very question that started it: who among you does not support our troops?
-The writer is a freshman majoring in political science.
This article appeared in the January 31, 2005 issue of the Hatchet.