Something potentially ugly.
Back when the storm clouds gathered in late 2002 and early 2003, heads attached to graying pony tails, heads filled with grandiose memories from 1970′s street demonstrations remembered the pride of their youth and once again took to the protest ramparts, augmented this time by the organizational power of committed paleo-reds from International ANSWER, side-by-side with bored housewives who believed in a woolly-headed way that “war is wrong, and we really oughtn’t have any” and an assortment of “activist” college students looking for a little whiff of the tear gas perhaps to lend them an aura of jaded euro-gravitas.
Oh, and other people joined the marches too of course, folks who honestly thought it was a bad idea, this pre-emption thing, that the ends wouldn’t justify the means, that it was folly trying to impose democracy on brown people, that the President somehow lacked legitimacy to act as anything but a caretaker due to the contested electoral results in Florida. Talking amongst themselves, the ANSWER types might have labeled these latter as no more than idiots – or, using a conjunction attributed to their heroic avatar from an earlier time – useful idiots. These representatives of the comfortable bourgeoisie were and are themselves class enemies to the hard, committed left. They are the people who will be gobbled up last, come the revolution, when it all gets torn down and built up again in a more perfect form, with the right people in charge, willing to do whatever takes to maintain power. All, of course, in name of the greater good.
At least one of the things separating the hard left from the merely anti-war muddle around the middle was the realization that things had gone a bit too far, last time around – that the soldiers returning from the war in Vietnam had been treated unfairly in the fresh flush of anti-establishment victory. Mistakes had been made – all of that language about baby-killing: a bit excessive in retrospect.
They would do it better this time. Argue against the pols, scream about the horror of war itself until blue in the face, but hands off the soldiers. Even those of us who disagreed with the rest of it found this an honorable position, worthy of recognition, even a kind of deference. After all, soldiers don’t choose which wars to fight in – at least, most of them don’t – the elected politicians choose for them. In return for this humane recognition, I think most of us tacitly agreed to challenge the anti-war agenda’s assumptions, rather than their motivations. To argue against their points, not their people in other words.
But none of us have done a very good job at maintaining this compact, and the fabric has gotten very thin in places. There are several reasons why this has happened, and a couple reasons why it is important, especially with troops still in the field, the fighting continuing.
It was probably always going to be harder for the anti-war base to hold the soldiers of an all-volunteer force blameless for the war they fought, especially as contrasted to the many patriots who were drafted and served back in the 60′s and 70′s. Especially now, since most of the young men in today’s infantry have enlisted since 9/11, when the outlines of the President’s military strategy in the GWOT were manifestly clear, it’s hard to plausibly label them somehow as victims or dupes, much harder still when the fighters themselves stolidly and often eloquently deny that this is so.
For those of us that supported the war, it was hard to square the circle of those who would claim to support the troops but not their mission. Many lives have been sacrificed among the flower of our youth, many more healthy young people maimed in the pursuit of what they believed to be the noblest of causes. Service people tend to take it hard that their sacrifices might have been made in a losing cause. They would take it especially hard that a successful outcome had been undermined, not by the efforts of those committed to the fight in the field, nor yet by those they fight, but by those at home who had always disagreed with the war’s politics or provenance and were therefore personally invested in seeing the effort fail.
That these are not necessarily the flip sides of the same argument does not change the fact that this is how such strident opposition is perceived by those actually asked to make the sacrifice. It’s personal, rather than entirely rational.
Too, it has been an awfully easy intellectual shortcut for many of us who supported the war to highlight the kooks and loonies on the fringes of the other side of the argument, by implication extending an illegitimacy of thought, un-seriousness of purpose and worse – ill-intention to our adversaries. This goes towards motivation, and it’s important for all of us to realize that there are many, many passionate patriots on the other side of the argument who are not fools, and deeply resent being grouped among them. To do so is to fall gracelessly into the weak habit of thought we all-too-often attribute to the sneering and contemptuous political left: That our opponents are not just mistaken, but evil.
Bad enough then, but as another political season approaches things seemed poised to take a turn for the worse. Worse still in that the war has become a left vs right issue, ever more so now that principled Democratic war supporters have been placed in the stocks for their unwillingness to recant their wrong-think. Meanwhile, graying veterans of the Vietnam generation wax nostalgic on the glory days of burnt bras, and burnt draft cards, while moaning about a declining spirit of anti-war activism in college campuses – young people with no personal “skin in the game” since the demise of the draft. But while the students lie quiescent in their intellectual enclaves, resolutely ignoring the impassioned calls to action from their professoriate, the partisans smell the blood in the water. A matter of national historical import wobbles on the precipice of politics, ugly partisan politics – with soldiers still in the field.
Soldiers and Marines are tried and convicted in Congressional offices and newspapers rather than in courts martial. Heads are called for, served up on plates, for crimes that have been alleged but not yet substantiated – an ancient formula for propitiation of assumed guilt. Their morality is slyly challenged by the framing – sometimes the literal framing - of the imagery attending to the field of endeavor. Uniformed soldiers are beaten on the streets – of America!
This is, I suppose, inevitable. But it is also much to be bewailed: Only the dead have seen the end of war, and only nations that no longer exist have no need of good people to defend them. Blame the troops for the decisions of their superiors, tar all of them with a broad brush for the crimes of the few, bring them home with the job unfinished and label that a defeat because it fits a political frame, barrack a volunteer force that has never lost a battle in the field, leaving them to feel like they have been “stabbed in the back,” their sacrifices unappreciated if you will, but stand ready afterwards to reap the whirlwind in these oh-so-interesting times.
Eyes wide open.
Update: For those who haven’t got the time to run through comments, I should have made clear that the “whirlwind” being sown – and eventually reaped – would not result in a military style coup, but rather in an increasing unwillingness for young people to serve a body politic so fickle and unserious so as to squander both their lives and their sacrifices. We live in dangerous times, and we will still need strong young men and women to stand up for us. If we abandon the compact of grateful honor we attribute to their service in support of political gain, much may well be lost.