Cheering the Soldiers

This is a relatively new thing–you’re sitting on an airplane, and the crew requests that active duty soldiers be permitted to deplane first, and be given a round of applause. I don’t fly enough to know if all airlines are doing this, but I know several are. Sitting on the plane for an extra two minutes while others leave isn’t that big a deal, but the idea of it, and the applause, well, it is a profoundly unhealthy sign, and it brings up several questions.

What ought to be our attitude toward those in the armed forces?  The general default attitude of, “You as a citizen owe them a debt, because they are putting their lives on the line for your freedom,” need only be expressed to reveal its vacuousness. The military, along with the police, are above all a tool of class oppression. For the most part, the police oppress those who live within a given country’s national borders, and the military (under normal but certainly not all circumstances) extend the oppression of capital beyond those arbitrary boundaries. They are certainly not fighting in my interests (given that I happen not to own an oil company), nor are they fighting in your interests. Nor, in fact, in their own, which is where the real tragedy lies.

In large part, the military is recruited from the most hopeless, demoralized elements of society–those who have no other way out. That is nothing to cheer about. It is, in my opinion, something to be sympathetic about, and even angry–that our fellow human beings must, out of desperation, put themselves into a position where they must kill their brothers and sisters, or be killed, ought to make us furious.

But there are many who join the military from conviction–from a belief that they are doing the right thing. These people are willing to risk their lives for something they believe to be higher than themselves. Is that not, at least, laudable? Well, yes, it is. Seriously. Even if (as I believe) they are buying into a reactionary belief system that works against their own interests, even then, an individual willing to risk his or her life for a cause is worthy of admiration. Exactly to the degree that the soldier on the other side who is willing to risk his or her life for a cause is worthy of admiration. As individuals, I admire these people neither more nor less than those against whom they fight.

I make no judgments about the moral character of those who join the service either out of personal desperation or out of  conviction. (There is the closely related issue of a military culture that encourages torture, brutality, and atrocities against civilians, but that is separate discussion.)

The point is, we are not being asked to cheer these people because they are risking their lives for a cause “higher than themselves.” At least, I find it very unlikely that if, for the example, there were POWs from the enemy forces on the plane, we would be asked to cheer them, yet they, also, risked their lives for a cause “higher than themselves.” No, what we’re being asked to cheer are not individuals who are so desperate to escape their hopeless lives that they will risk everything, nor even those who honestly believe “serving their country” to be a virtue worth risking their lives for. We are being asked to cheer a war. We are being asked to cheer a war of oppression, of imperialism; a war waged for the profit of a tiny minority, over the bodies of innocent civilians who live in the wrong place, the bodies of “enemy combatants” who want to defend their homes, and the bodies of our own neighbors and friends.

However, that isn’t the worst of it. Among many, many progressive elements that went into the founding of this country was, in contradistinction to Europe, the placing of civilians above the military. This was done quite consciously by the founders, and was one of the attempts to safeguard our freedom. The ultimate control of military forces rests with the civilian government; the people are above the army. Look at all the problems Lincoln had because he considered that fact fundamental, and even during the civil war had to be careful about when, where, and how the military could infringe on civil rights. Even the Second Amendment, whatever your thoughts on it and its application, was in part an effort to say, “If we need an army, it will be US, not a separate group that has power over us.” When we are encouraged to cheer soldiers, when there is constant propaganda about how grateful we should be to the veterans (usually by those who want do deny those veterans adequate health care and other benefits, by the way) I can only see it as part of an effort to erode our basic human rights.

The NSA spies on us, the police murder us, non-combatants are killed without due process (even Americans!), and, just at this time, the airlines want us to cheer military personnel.

I don’t think so. Here’s my idea: when they are brought home, when the military forces are disbanded, and when everyone who was in the military is given full health-care, decent housing, fulfilling work, and is, in general, treated like a human being, I’ll go ahead and cheer that, and my voice will be the loudest.

Published by

Avatar photo


I play the drum.

46 thoughts on “Cheering the Soldiers”

  1. Well said. I agree with you on all these points. And personally, I hate being told to laud someone. If I feel it, I’ll do it on my own.

  2. It seems to me (uneducated scrub that I am), that this attitude about “cheer the soldiers” has at least partial genesis as backlash to how veterans and active duty soldiers were (reportedly? I’m only 40) treated during the Vietnam War. Whatever one’s opinion of the that War and surrounding issues, it seems like spitting on soldiers may not have been the most humane way to protest, particularly given that many of them were conscripts. Excuse me, draftees. I wasn’t there, obviously, and I try to make a point of not judging, but it seems to me that this is what we’re seeing.

    I assume the powers that be co-opted this “movement” in the way that you describe – because they always do.

  3. As a veteran, I don’t feel compelled to cheer along or applaud, but I do wave and offer priority in line, smile, and generally do my damnedest to help those in uniform feel, as you suggest at the end here, like human beings.

    They’re not uniforms with flesh and blood inside of them. They’re people, wearing a specific set of clothing that identifies a choice they’ve made and, perhaps, communicates some degree of understanding about their beliefs, values, and loyalties.

    What the uniform does not do, as you very nearly make clear, is explicitly identify those choices, beliefs, values, and loyalties. Service members come from all walks of life, not only the two you point out (the hopelessly desperate and the righteous). My platoon had maybe one guy who might have qualified under the former and two who fit the latter. The other 20 or so of us were your average American kids and very young men who wanted to live the romanticized ideal that was our vision of life in the military.

    How quickly many of us, myself included, were disabused of those notions and enlightened as to the very real truths of military service and life.

    It ain’t easy, not by a long damn shot. It ain’t fun but neither is it a bucket of pain strapped to each foot. It’s a job, and a good one for people like me who needed a kick in the tail to get myself going in life. For those who choose it, whether short term like me or to make it a career, for whatever reasons, I’m happy to stand aside, make room, and do what I can to make their lives a little easier, maybe a little better. A friendly face isn’t always close by when you’re wearing the uniform, and especially when you’ve just come home from deployment. I offer what I can as a way of saying, “I know where you’ve been, and I’m glad you made it back home.” That and nothing more.

    And if we ever see that day when veterans are granted all those separation benefits you mention, then I hope you bring your big voice with you. I’ll be cheering loud enough to shake the mountains of Mars.

  4. Thank you for this article. I’m always happy to buy a soldier a drink or donate to veterans organizations, because let’s face it, being a soldier sucks, but I’m extremely uncomfortable with the fetishization of the military that has grown within my lifetime.

    I worry that the next Smedley Butler won’t say no, and that the mass of people will applaud rather than stand in opposition.

  5. “In large part, the military is recruited from the most hopeless, demoralized elements of society–those who have no other way out.”

    I used to think so, but I can’t find a single reliable statistical report that supports that. Can you?

  6. SKZB, well said. It really rubs me the wrong way when somebody (the government or the pilot) says I am supposed to cheer for somebody when there is a political motive behind it. I’ve talked to ex-military and I get the feeling that they are being told that they are better than ordinary (non-military) people. This is, of course, useful if the military will eventually be used to suppress the ordinary people.

    So this is just a sub-plot to the overall notion of controlling the population by whatever means they can.

  7. Mechaninja, as far as I’ve been able to tell, the stories of people spitting on U.S. soldiers returned from Viet Nam are urban legend.

  8. Mechaninja: What Emma said. I know that when I was involved in the anti-Vietnam war movement, we considered them among the victims. No, let me say it more precisely. 99% of those involved were involved specifically because of wanting to save the lives of US military personnel. I was in the other 1%–I was one of those who favored a victory for the NLF, and we certainly never saw the US enlisted man as any sort of enemy.

  9. Well said. A little background, maybe. Steven’s dad and mine was a WWII vet, and never considered his service anything more than a job he did because that’s what the working class was doing. He spent most of his European service as a go-between between the army and the anti-Nazi underground, and spent his train trip home after de-mobilization talking politics and selling 25-cent subscriptions to the Militant, then a socialist paper. He never celebrated his service nor accepted any applause and fought all his life against the kind of group-think represented by those applauding passengers.

  10. RE: Urban legend … Well, that’s very interesting. I have gone through my life from the time I was a teenager believing that, taking it as a fact, in … fact. Well, learn something new every day.

  11. I should probably mention here that I absolutely am not a fan of group think, and try to avoid situations where I’ll be the outsider for not participating in e.g. this sort of applause whenever possible.

    And yet I keep finding ways in which my life is built around group think. Thank goodness for people who are willing to point those things out for me.

  12. Well, my dad who was a Kansas farm boy, and a kind and gentle man who was thoroughly traumatized by being drafted in WWII and it lasted the rest of his life. In early high school I had a friend whose dad was drafted and killed in the Korean war/conflict. I am pretty apolitical, but I protested against Viet Nam because at my college the protests were organized by returned draftees, many of whom had been wounded physically and mentally. I had a friend with terrible flashbacks where he would scream and scream, finally fall asleep and have complete amnesia in the morning. Several of us looked after him at those times including chasing after him down the street, etc. He also had a lovely scar from a bullet on his side. He was smart and funny and never got his life back together again. So, in my tiny mind, I disrespect the military as a unit, but the individiuals I don’t mind giving my place in line or a little applause because I think about the above and hope it never happens to them. However, if it has already happened to them, it does not hurt to be kind.

  13. It does seem like Steve’s idea of the average military person is out of date, and since I would’ve agreed with him a couple of minutes ago, I’m really not claiming superior knowledge. I only googled ’cause cakmpls called it out. These were the first useful links:

    And since I think I can only get away with two links in a comment here, I’ll post again in a second.

  14. The Heritage foundation study, in particular, is problematic. However, since I didn’t give any numbers in the first place, I don’t think it has any effect on my point.

  15. It seems to me that “applauding the troops” and similar behaviors arises out of the concept of patriotism, which is, at bottom, an ingrained form of cultural propaganda. Members of the military are, essentially, avatars of the nation in much the same fashion as the flag is a symbol of it. We are trained from earliest childhood “to love our country” – and a fair amount of effort is placed on trying to make that love blind and unquestioning – even if “loving” a nation is a really strange thing for a person to do, on the order of loving a corporation (which people also, apparently, do rather a lot, given the brand loyalties some people apparently adopt). The notion has long struck me as odd, personally – I can understand valuing the socioeconomic advantages I enjoy for living in and being a citizen of a powerful and prosperous nation, just as I can value a well-made product – but actually “loving” the institution that provides either of those things is just…bizarre to me. But a nation, like a company, is nothing more than a collection of individuals, and as such is neither more nor less deserving of my affections than any of those individuals. And I am frankly not equipped to love that many people (particularly since when large groups of people act in concert, their chances of behaving extremely poorly rise dramatically).

    I can respect veterans, intellectually at least, for being prepared to put their lives on the line for the sake of others (though not all who enter the military are so altruistic, I’m okay with giving them the benefit of the doubt, barring evidence to the contrary). As such, it seems to me they deserve exactly the same degree of respect as firefighters, police (who sometimes are oppressive bullies, but often are not), and medical professionals (especially EMTs, emergency room personnel, and those who go to impoverished and/or dangerous regions under programs like Doctors Without Borders). It’s a level of self-sacrifice I don’t really share, but can respect in others. I’m not sure military service warrants a HIGHER level of respect than other sorts of service-oriented vocations, though. But then, as I already indicated, I’m not especially patriotic.

  16. Agreed. There’s the myth that soldiers only come from the poorest of the poor, but the reality doesn’t change the fact that many of these people look at their options after high school and see the military as the best or, effectively, the only choice. My brother’s a truck driver who makes a lot more money than I do. His daughter, who is one of the finest people I know, graduated high school, joined the Marines, and served in Iraq during the first year of the US occupation.

  17. Dennis, thank you. I had to look up Smedley Butler. Not too many people are that honest or courageous. They certainly can’t admit to having made a bad decision or action. I can’t see that happening today.

    Emma, I agree (having lived through the Viet-Nam era) that if troops were spat upon, it was an extremely rare event. Of course, it need only happen once for all the “hippies” to be branded as spitters and haters. Most of us had friends that were serving.

    It’s a fine line between being “asked” to applaud while you are in a tin box with all your civil rights suspended, to being later questioned about why you didn’t applaud.

  18. My take on it? Military personnel have placed their moral and ethical judgement in a blind trust; why they have really doesn’t matter to me. They have essentially said “I will go do whatever you decide needs to be done, including killing anyone you decide needs to be killed, regardless of the issues.” That is not citizenship; that is cult membership. That is what a standing army is all about.

    I won’t even go into how many women and men are raped and sexually abused by their own fellow servicemen. It is clear that once they have outlived their usefulness, soldiers are disposable. They are offered the minimum of benefits to prevent rebellion

    I doubt that they will ever bring back the draft, because the present system helps create a divide between civilians and military analogous to that between police and civilians in many places (most notoriously LA) which leads to that us-vs-them mentality that is so useful to the powerful. It’s much easier to bust heads of people you are alienated from. The end of that road is Haiti’s Tontons Macoutes or the SS. New Feudalism.

    Home is precious to me; if there were a real threat to home, I’d be the first to load up my AR and move. Likewise if some really horrible situation occurred, like a Hitler or a Stalin wreaking havok on civilization. That we invaded Iraq on bogus pretexts and are backing this current Gaza atrocity makes me horribly ashamed. I sometimes wonder which side the present regime would have been on in 1941. Germany had many supporters among our captains of industry, the same sort of people who now very clearly own us.

    My father served for 20 years, initially as a way to get the hell out of Jersey, and he saw service in Laos and Vietnam. When people say “Thank you for your service” he is apt to remark rather sharply that he got paychecks for it. He refused to wear American flag lapel pins because the Bush-Chaney crime family always did. He used to put his Vietnam Service Ribbon on because, as he put it, “Those bastards can’t wear these.”

    You’d think in a good cause the Bush twins might have joined the Air Force and fueled aircraft or something. No. The problem is that our governors are free with war because the people who are affected are “Nobody WE know.”

    New law: In future, whenever the US opts for military action abroad, the President and all assenting members of Congress get to hit the ground first. If it’s such a noble cause, they will be happy to risk their lives for a change.

    I won’t be there and neither will my daughter.

    As for airlines–I refuse to engage in jingoism. I work food service on Amtrak and I don’t even like having to give priority service to people in uniform. This is Northern California–if you are going to Sacramento, you can wait in line like everyone else. Actually, most uniformed people are quite cool about waiting their turn; I have actually had to give the bum’s rush to a guy in a uniform that looked sharp until you looked close and realized that he was combining elements of both Marine and Army insignia. And people wanted to treat him to drinks!

    Jingoism–it saves on thinking!

  19. I have been cheered and thanked while in uniform (I’m out now). Frankly, it just made me feel uncomfortable.

  20. Politicians learned a valuable lesson since Vietnam. During that war, draftees were condemned, as if they had a real choice. So they made sure this time to not have draftees, and to be vocal in their praise of there “heroes”.

  21. Since 2001, the United States has been involved with a variety of brushfire wars which, once an initial spurt of enthusiasm wore off, were generally ignored by most of the population. The mass armies of the Cold War have shrunk to a relatively small group of professionals, their experience separated from the daily lives and imagination of most Americans. But we know they’re out there, because we see a steady drumbeat of stories about their suicide rates and their ongoing mental and physical disabilities. The result is massive guilt. The American public knows little and wants to know little about the results of the foreign policy it’s enabling. It sees that soldiers are getting maimed as a result. So it makes gestures-useless, mewling gestures, like letting soldiers get off the plane first. Because useless gestures are what Americans excel at.

  22. As politeobserver said, the heart of the matter is jingoism. In my opinion, jingoism being deliberately whipped up to prop up a war that is vastly unpopular. To repeat what I said in the OP, I am not going to make judgments about an individual’s choice to join the service without knowing what drove that choice; but the deliberate pushing of patriotism down my throat is more than objectionable, it is a very worrisome symptom.

    howardbrazee: “During that war, draftees were condemned…” by whom?

  23. “In large part, the military is recruited from the most hopeless, demoralized elements of society–those who have no other way out.”

    I used to think so, but I can’t find a single reliable statistical report that supports that. Can you?

    I don’t think it’s true any more.

    As we get more and more people who have no better choice, and as they made it a pretty good choice unless you get killed or wounded, the most hopeless, demoralized people have an increasingly hard time getting in.

    When you need a great big army and you can’t afford to pay much, then you’ll get the people who can’t do much else. But when you need a hi-tech army and the pay is not that big a part of the cost, you might as well hire people who’ll make good professional soldiers and pay them what they’re worth.

  24. “But when you need a hi-tech army and the pay is not that big a part of the cost, you might as well hire people who’ll make good professional soldiers and pay them what they’re worth.”

    I agree with the first half of that sentence, but I don’t think military pay is all that.

  25. Well, I don’t remember any gross large-scale examples of attacks on soldiers or denigration of their roles immediately post Vietnam. Any rational person on the antiwar side who knew what was going on was well aware how screwed the soldiers were by selective service and by the evil politics of the day and would be more likely to have compassion for them.

    But I daresay any Weather or Morituri types would have scorned soldiers during the heyday of that kind of militancy, long before the war was over, And you can easily imagine returned soldiers trying to fit in at college on their GI bill scholarships having some issues with the stupider types of liberal students.

  26. I don’t know the names of people who condemned draftees (and volunteers) – but I saw it in person. My choice was AFROTC in hope of becoming an astronaut, but I didn’t have the right stuff.

  27. I’ve read that people from urban areas are more likely to try to get military jobs that would give them good jobs back home. Small town and rural personnel don’t see that those skills will be useful in getting them jobs back home, so they plan on having full careers in the military – so they prefer jobs that give them military promotions. And those jobs are more likely to kill them, which is borne out in statistics.

  28. Miramon: “But I daresay any Weather or Morituri types would have scorned soldiers during the heyday of that kind of militancy, long before the war was over,” I very, very much doubt that. The anti-war culture (of which I was a part, beginning in 1968) was steeped in the GI–particularly the draftee–being victim, not culprit. Now, the attitude toward officers was entirely different, but that seems to have been (and be) true within the military to an even greater degree.

  29. “you can easily imagine returned soldiers trying to fit in at college on their GI bill scholarships having some issues with the stupider types of liberal students”

    Imagine, sure. I was at Beloit in the ’70s, and some vets attended then. One was a friend. He never mentioned getting flak from anyone, and I never saw it.

    I kind of hate to say this, but sometimes I think the stupider liberal students were better informed in my day than today’s liberal students. Yeah. It just means I’m getting old.

  30. Will – as a student at Beloit in a mix of decades after you (unspecified), I’ll say that I do agree that the stupider liberal students did indeed get stupider…

    But I was happy to blame that on their parents who grew up during the 60s….

  31. Jeff, it’s true. I think the greatest comfort grandparents have is knowing that their grandkids will judge their children harshly.

  32. “Military personnel have placed their moral and ethical judgement in a blind trust; why they have really doesn’t matter to me. They have essentially said “I will go do whatever you decide needs to be done, including killing anyone you decide needs to be killed, regardless of the issues.” That is not citizenship; that is cult membership. That is what a standing army is all about.”

    Believe it or not, enlisteds are still taught to refuse unlawful orders, like those that would require war crimes to follow. I’m not sure this is better, since it makes presenting a united front contingent on the moral compass of everyone involved. If a commander orders their subordinates not to interfere with an ongoing war crime for a good reason (clever subterfuge, perhaps) but without time to explain that reason, any one in the outfit can take the initiative to judge the order unlawful and involve themselves in what is now an armed conflict.

    And jingoism has its place: at Central High in Little Rock many if not most of the National Guardsmen were teenagers and very young adults from small towns in Arkansas (like my dad), many of them all white. Dad said they were not thrilled with the importance put on a few negroes, but he did his duty regardless, and was proud to serve under the direct interest of the Commander-in-Chief.

  33. Jwilson75503: Thanks for you comments. But I do not think you have the definition of “jingoism” down. Or else I’m misunderstanding your point.

  34. I’ve wondered some about the concepts of psychopaths and sociopaths – comparing them to “ordinary people” who are trained to kill upon orders of others, often without the nightmares that effect many. It seems the difference isn’t whether we don’t know what is right or wrong – but whether we are willing to let others make the decisions for us.

    This isn’t limited to war – we accept our peers’ evaluations for much of our ethical values. Who we’re allowed to hate or feel superior to. Who we are allowed to feel good believing they are going to Hell even if we don’t hate them. Whether cheating is OK or not. Whether it is OK to be comfortable while destroying our environment. Whether to believe lies that people of our own political persuasion are telling us.

    And in current times, it is very easy to find peers on the Internet to support any extreme position.

  35. skzb

    It seems to me that what is happening is that the military are being fetishised, and that airlines are doing this for purely, or rather impurely, commercial purposes.

    People in the US tend to be risk averse by comparison with Europeans, and getting them onto planes not only involves trying to persuade them that 9/11 could never happen again, but also that no-one is going to shoot their plane down.

    PR campaigns are hugely expensive; two minutes priority in deplaning plus a round of applause costs nothing…

  36. Stevie: I differ with you on the issue of it being for purely commercial reasons, but, “the military are being fetishised” is spot on and best expression of the phenomenon I’ve heard yet.

  37. skzb

    I spent Wednesday morning in Istanbul airport, and passed some of the hours talking to an Iraqi family who were also on their way back to their home. They were very kind – they snaffled a seat for me, which is no mean feat in Istanbul Airport- and very gracious when I did my best to apologise for the role my country had played in the destruction of their country, and to explain that at least some of us had tried to prevent it, and many now deeply regret it.

    It is, obviously, hopelessly inadequate but it was all that I had to offer, one human being to other human beings.

    Meanwhile, back in England the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq invasion is still unpublished because it is claimed that publication of Blair and Bush’s conversations would gravely damage US/UK relations; I’d be fascinated if you could unpack that one, without impinging on your writing time, of course..

  38. skzb,

    …and of course, another sad irony of the process…most of the people cheering are cheering a stereotype rather than actual people (with their own thoughts on their experiences and beyond).

    Diana Butler Bass (writer, lay participant and critic in The Episcopal Church, which I’m a clergy in), told this story on Facebook:

    “On tonight’s flight back to DC, I was sitting in a row behind an older couple and a young Latino soldier. The older couple made a big patriotic deal about the young soldier. Then, however, they got in a discussion about social issues. The soldier talked about how much he appreciated Pres Obama, about his worries regarding economic inequality, his concern for the poor, and his support for universal health care. The older couple were deeply offended; the man began lecturing the soldier on economics defending Wall Street and the need to have a class of super-rich as an example of what capitalism could achieve, and slamming the people now enrolled in Medicare and Obamacare as freeloaders who are stealing health care from people who pay for it and deserve it. He actually told the soldier that when he “grew up” and “matured” to the same point of wisdom as he and his wife, he would understand that they were right. They were mean, patronizing, and full of fear. Their patriotism dissolved in a tirade of veiled racism and hatred of the President. The soldier was fine as a role, but as a human being with his own ideas and opinions, not so much. After they exited, I pulled the soldier aside, “You are an intelligent young man. You are right. They were wrong. You honor your Commander in Chief. I’m so glad that you, in that uniform, are standing for social justice. The future is on your side.” He smiled, “Thank you, ma’am.””

    The point here isn’t to laud the President, but to lament that most people leading the cheers (and insisting other people do as well) do so to reinforce their own convictions (or perhaps manage their guilt), rather than to acknowledge the complicated individual lives of those who serve in the military.

    Thanks for your posting, and looking forward to buying and reading Hawk…

  39. I’m a recently returned veteran and I took a flight home last week. With my national guard ACU carry on bag, I make it pretty obvious. The flight attendant asked me about it and we had a brief conversation. Her son is deployed to Afghanistan. I showed her a picture of my team in multicams, and she showed me a picture of her son with his team. I think people like me and this flight attendant feel isolated in our society, and rituals like applauding military members reduce that isolation.

Leave a Reply