Many opponents of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have over the years declared that, while they may have objected to the invasions and continue to abhor the ongoing occupations, they nevertheless support the troops fighting on the ground, an assertion considered necessary to insulate antiwar folks from claims of insufficient patriotism. But while I understand why people utter the cliche, and sympathize with what it is I think most are trying to say — that the politicians who start the wars are more to blame for the ensuing catastrophes than the 18 year old grunts sent to fight them — I also think assertions about supporting those who physically carry out the war crimes reflect a very confused, fatally flawed conception of morality, whereby those who order murder are rightly and unsparingly condemned but those who actually do the killing are absolved of all responsibility, as if by joining the military one also abandons all capacity for judging right from wrong.
Granted, military training does consist of dehumanizing brainwashing, with soldiers taught to have no mercy for The Enemy and that, if the life of an American is perceived to be in danger, to shoot first and cover up later. But then those who join the military know this. It’s no great mystery what joining the armed forces what it entails: it means killing people whenever one’s commanding officer says so. Sure, ads might depict military life as little more than one big American Gladiator episode, but I think most who join are aware they may be asked to murder on behalf of their government in a war, even if they’re blinded by a naive, superficial notion of patriotism. And since no conflict the U.S. has fought over the last half a century could reasonably be construed as one of last resort in strict self-defense, the overwhelming odds are those who sign up for the military will be killing people in unjust, illegal wars — wars that, as John Caruso ably demonstrates, entail daily atrocities like those depicted in the WikiLeaks video making the rounds.
So yes, let us condemn the emperors first, but let us not forget that the we-were-just-following-orders defense has a rather sullied history and was rejected at Nuremberg for good reason. While most soldiers are probably good people who love their children — not unlike their commander-in-chief — they are willing participants in an immoral, vicious endeavor; let’s not pretend otherwise. As Herbert Spencer once remarked while detailing his own “anti-patriotic” feeling amid a previous Western conquest of Afghanistan, “When men hire themselves out to shoot other men to order, asking nothing about the justice of their cause, I don’t care if they are shot themselves.“
Henry David Thoreau, however, put it best and thus gets the last word:
Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice. A common and natural result of an undue respect for the law is, that you may see a file of soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates, powder-monkeys, and all, marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, ay, against their common sense and consciences, which makes it very steep marching indeed, and produces a palpitation of the heart. They have no doubt that it is a damnable business in which they are concerned; they are all peaceably inclined. Now, what are they? Men at all? or small movable forts and magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man in power? Visit the Navy Yard, and behold a marine, such a man as an American government can make, or such as it can make a man with its black arts — a mere shadow and reminiscence of humanity, a man laid out alive and standing, and already, as one may say, buried under arms with funeral accompaniment, though it may be,
“Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note,
As his corse to the rampart we hurried;
Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot
O’er the grave where our hero was buried.”
The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus, etc. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgement or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well. Such command no more respect than men of straw or a lump of dirt. They have the same sort of worth only as horses and dogs. Yet such as these even are commonly esteemed good citizens. Others–as most legislators, politicians, lawyers, ministers, and office-holders–serve the state chiefly with their heads; and, as they rarely make any moral distinctions, they are as likely to serve the devil, without intending it, as God.