By Damon Krane
November 15, 2005
Andrew Stone’s November 1, 2005 letter, “Don’t blame recruiters,” argues against “counter-recruitment.” That’s the anti-war movement’s growing national effort to stop the Iraq war by further reducing already low military recruitment numbers. Consequently, you may find it strange that Stone’s letter reminds me of my time working as a busboy at a Chinese restaurant. I’ll explain – but first a quick recap.
Stone is both a soldier and a member of a military family. He is now preparing for his second tour of duty in Iraq with the Army while his wife is in the Airforce. He argues that military service is both a noble profession and a way for low-income Americans to improve their lot in life. Therefore, if Americans oppose the Iraq War (Stone seems less than enthusiastic about it himself), then we should try to impact the decisions of politicians, not would-be recruits.
“I owe my success in life to the college scholarship and intangible skills I received from the Army,” writes Stone. “I am extremely proud to be part of [the Army].”
Sure, Stone concedes that “Throughout history wars conceived and started by the rich are fought by the poor.” He doesn’t seem very happy about this when he writes of “grudgingly head[ing] off to Iraq” or when he suggests the U.S. “reinstate the draft, so that the other 99 percent of Americans get a chance to sacrifice a little for this war, those from more affluent communities.” Ultimately, however, Stone sees the poor’s exploitation in war as inevitable. “That is reality,” he writes before rhetorically asking: “but is the war fighter really the one to blame?”
So let’s address Stone’s question over a bowl of wonton soup.
Shortly after I turned 14, my friend Jeff and I started bussing tables at the Hunan Inn in McMurray, Pennsylvania. We Anglo-American lads weren’t conducting any anthropological experiment. Jeff and I had formed a rock band, and we needed money to pay for our musical equipment.
Like the long string of low wage service industry jobs that followed, I came away from this one with a few good stories. Not the least of which was the one where we inadvertently stole a bunch of beer left over from Chinese New Year, got wasted in a nearby muddy field after work, crashed the opening night of a nearby Applebees, and got arrested (well, I did, at least).
However, two particularly annoying aspects of the job stand out in my memory.
First, there were the customers – always old, white men – who, upon seeing I was not Asian, would ask, “Wut part-a Chi-ner are you from, son?” before bursting into proud laughter, as though each believed he had personally invented the joke.
Second, there were the groups of middle-aged women with their fortune cookie ritual. Each woman would take a turn reading her fortune aloud. Then, often after a dramatic pause, she’d add the phrase “in bed.”
So, for example: “Your ability to juggle many tasks will pay off – in bed!” or “It is impossible to please everybody. Please yourself first – in bed!”
Each reading would be punctuated by a group giggle or, depending on the particular ladies, a full-blown cackle session.
Yeah… I guess going out for Chinese was actually kind of a big deal where I grew up. (Is it any wonder I was drinking myself silly in muddy fields at night?)
Anyway, it’s this fortune cookie game that brings me back to Stone’s letter – not because his argument should inspire laughter or make me want to get drunk in a muddy field, but because many of Stone’s statements take on an interestingly different meaning with the insertion of a certain addendum.
For instance, after “Recruiters are merely soldiers trying to complete their mission by increasing the strength of the military,” try adding “to kill innocent people in an unnecessary, illegal war of aggression.”
Similarly, there’s: “The one benefit that recruiters do have is what they are selling truly does provide an opportunity” – to kill innocent people in an unnecessary, illegal war of aggression.
And of course: “Don’t direct your malice at the noble few – recruiters trying to complete their mission or brave Appalachian youth who are choosing to pull themselves out of poverty via the profession of arms” – that kills innocent people in an unnecessary, illegal war of aggression.
And finally: “Throughout history wars conceived and started by the rich are fought by the poor. That is reality, but is the war fighter really the one to blame” – for killing innocent people in an unnecessary, illegal war of aggression?
Whereas the ladies’ fortune cookie wordplay added some comic relief to their lives, my verbal addendum is intended to add a much needed dose of reality to Stone’s letter – and indeed, to the entire popular discourse that tries to separate the alleged nobility of being a soldier from the obvious immorality of a soldiers’ current duties.
The few, the proud… the conflicted, the defensive…
Stone claims, “The discipline and self-worth imparted by military training gives young men and women a desperately needed route into adulthood…” But for some of us, adulthood includes assuming responsibility for our own actions.
In this war, U.S. soldiers are victims, but they are also perpetrators. People who choose to serve the U.S. empire cannot declare themselves blameless for the crimes they commit on its behalf.
As for recruiters, Stone argues that they are just like any other soldiers, honorably attempting to complete a mission whose unquestionable dishonorableness he does not attempt to defend. The truth, however, is that recruiters differ from soldiers in one very important sense. Recruiters avoid being sent to kill and die by finding others to go in their places. (Google “Judas Ram” for a good analogy.) That certainly doesn’t make them pinnacles of virtue in my book – any more than killing people in an illegal war of aggression makes any soldier one of “the noble few.”
Yet, as far as I know, I am the first local anti-war activist here in Athens, Ohio to publicly discuss the “blame” of soldiers.
No doubt the issue of soldiers’ blame has been raised repeatedly over the past two years – but by whom? Time and time again, by soldiers and their families. (Stone is both.) This begs the question: Against whose charges have blame-obsessed soldiers and military families been defending themselves all this time?
I suspect there are two answers.
First, they’ve been defending themselves against their own consciences.
Despite all that military training and family loyalty, there is probably a part of each of these individuals that knows soldiers bear some responsibility for their actions – and they’re desperate to hide from that knowledge. After all, the military isn’t only supposed to provide job training and money for college – it’s supposed to give soldiers a sense of pride, a sense of “self-respect,” as Stone put it.
However, due to the obvious nature of the war in Iraq, many soldiers know better than to think their current duties are honorable. They can no longer defend the war, so they struggle to defend the sense of self-respect that fighting the war was supposed to give them. And they do so the only way they can, by trying to convince themselves – against all intelligence and better human nature – that U.S. soldiers are no more than blameless victims of this war, not responsible for their own participation in it, and therefore honorable.
At first glance it seems strangely ironic that soldiers, who take such serious risks on behalf of others, would be so fundamentally irresponsible when it comes to their own behavior. But maybe it is precisely the soldier’s belief that he is selflessly sacrificing himself for others that enables the soldier to blame everyone but himself for his or her own actions.
At any rate, it seems serving in the military does require sacrifice. Not only may it cost you your life, it may cost you the capacity to be honest, responsible and rational.
Thankfully, many soldiers aren’t willing to sacrifice those parts of themselves. A growing number are acting like adults, taking responsibility for their actions, and embarking on a more honest, logical path to self-respect.
Yet while the ranks of Iraq Veterans Against the War, Gold Star Families and similar groups continue to swell, we still find people like Stone dedicated to staying the course in a losing battle to achieve self-respect through the denial of individual responsibility.
Well, that’s his problem to deal with.
If the anti-war movement causes soldiers and their families to suffer some pangs of humanity, so be it. The organizations I mentioned above are waiting to support them in their transition to adulthood. And if some truly brave soldier ever needs a ride to Canada or a basement here to hide out in, I’m happy to oblige.
However, self-respect isn’t the only thing blame-obsessed soldiers and their families are fighting for these days. There’s also the respect of others.
Heightened social status is one of the military’s chief selling points. And if soldiers are afraid they might not be able to take pride in their own service, they have to know that the overwhelming majority of anti-war Americans are capable of drawing similar conclusions. Soldiers and military families have sacrificed so much (mostly the lives of others, mind you), and risked so much more (again, mostly the lives of others), to gain this heightened social status that hey are highly invested in defending it.
Unfortunately, rather than holding soldiers accountable for their actions, the anti-war movement has mostly been happy to help them escape responsibility.
“We honor and support our troops, but we are deeply opposed to the mission on which President Bush has sent them,” Stephen Cleghorn of Washington, a member of Military Families Against the War told the Associated Press in October 2003. Such statements are common in the anti-war movement. Michael Moore’s follow-up book to Fahrenheit 9/11, a compendium of soldiers’ letters from Iraq, is titled “Will they ever trust us again?” not “Will they ever become responsible human beings?” Or better yet, “When will people who should know better stop acting like serving in the U.S. military is honorable?”
I agree that the Bush administration and Congress are chiefly responsible for the Iraq war. But since the war could not be fought without soldiers, soldiers bear responsibility, too.
This is a difficult thing for many anti-war Americans to accept, largely because a lot of us have ties to the military, too. Most of us have friends or family members who have either served in the past or are currently enlisted. We want to be kind to them. But our kindness has become the kind that kills.
By working to end the war, the anti-war movement “supports our troops” as human beings far better than anyone who puts a yellow ribbon on their car. However, we cannot support them as troops without effectively supporting the current war and encouraging the likelihood of future repeats. If we act as though serving in the U.S. military is honorable no matter how dishonorable its wars, we help promote one of the military’s chief selling points. People join the military looking for increased social status precisely because we give it to them.
This is why, along with promoting alternative paths to education and professional development in low-income communities, stripping military service of its air of respectability needs to be part of the short and long term projects of the anti-war movement.
Whose responsibility? Our responsibility
That said, I am much less concerned with soldiers and recruiters than I am with my own responsibility for stopping this war.
While Stone may have paid for his college education with other peoples’ blood, I abandoned mine two years ago to focus on anti-war organizing. And I’m not calling myself one of “the noble few” for doing so. I don’t want a parade. I don’t expect preferential treatment when applying for jobs. I’m just trying to do everything I can to do what’s right. If I didn’t, who would I have to blame – soldiers? recruiters? The elected officials Stone blames for the war?
No. I’d only have myself to blame.
And that’s what the counter-recruitment movement is really about. It’s not about “blaming” ordinary soldiers or recruiters. It’s about each and every one of the 75 percent of Americans who oppose this war taking responsibility. It’s about the immediate task before us: stepping up and doing what’s necessary to end the war.
Nationally, the military is already falling short of its recruitment quotas. A concerted effort to make the number of new enlistments fall further and faster is our best chance to end the war. The Bush administration is happy to disregard the opinions of an overwhelming majority of the American people, but it can’t fight a war without soldiers.
In an effort to scare affluent Americans away from the counter-recruitment movement, some have argued that its success could lead to reinstatement of the draft. Incidentally, I agree with Stone that if we’re going to have a military, its burdens should be more democratically distributed. I should be at much at risk of being expected to serve as anyone – and everyone – else. However, the reality is that the draft is a smokescreen.
Faced with a choice between ending the war and reinstating the draft, the Bush administration would surely choose to end the war. The reason is simple. A “voluntary military” is precisely what enables the U.S. government to wage overwhelmingly unpopular wars. People who don’t have to worry about being sent to fight a war they oppose may limit themselves to simply “speaking out” against it, but put their lives at risk, too, and the majority of Americans will start “acting out” in big ways.
Reinstatement of the draft would put the 135 lb. anti-war movement on anabolic steroids. The result would not only be a quick end to the war on Iraq but to the Bush administration as well. Bush may be an idiot, but his cabinet is neither stupid nor crazy enough to hand its opposition the best Christmas present ever.
With enlistment numbers as low as they are, the only way the counter-recruitment can lose is if the people who say they oppose the war don’t take advantage of the opportunity to stop it that’s staring them in the face.
The other day I got a fortune cookie that read: “Don’t wait for your ship to come in, swim out to it.” I don’t think that means anything in bed, but its implications for the anti-war movement should be pretty obvious.