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.