The article originally appeared on TomDispatch.com.
“Support our troops” is an unconditional American mantra. We’re told to celebrate them as warrior-liberators, as heroes, as the finest fighters the world has ever known. They’re to be put on a pedestal or plinth, holding a rifle and a flag, icons to American toughness and goodness.
What we’re not told to do is listen to them.
Today, I’d like to suggest six vows we should make when it comes to those troops:
Vow #1: Let’s start listening to them. And when we do—when we begin to recognize them in all their frailty and complexity, their vulnerabilities and imperfections—we’ll realize that they’re as restless and conflicted about our wars as many of us are.
How do I know? I’ve had the privilege of reading hundreds of e-mails from today’s (and yesterday’s) troops sent to me in response to articles I’ve written for TomDispatch.com. From these I’ve selected a handful of passages to share with you: voices that resonated with me, words that often got me right in the gut.
Consider this passage from an Army national guardsman, a non-commissioned officer who answered his country’s call and deployed to Iraq:
“I am…on my second tour of Iraq. My unit…has been plagued by suicides and psychiatric problems. Our guards-men even prior to deployment come from compromised social and economic environments, leaving them very susceptible [to military recruiters]. Many of our soldiers are almost forced into volunteering for multiple tours due to the lack of economic opportunity and the cold fact that there is no other way to support their families…
“I have seen blatant corruption among the [private] contractors [in Iraq] and even cases of outright human trafficking and forced prostitution among female third country nationals.… My hope is that the U.S. can withdraw from this senseless war.… This war has bankrupted the U.S. and caused untold suffering among U.S. Forces and women.”
When we praise our troops as volunteers in our “All-Volunteer Military,” how many of us consider that significant numbers of them are not truly volunteers? Rarely do we face the fact that our country has been running a poverty draft, sweeping up the disenfranchised and disadvantaged, with an emphasis on the rural working class, and sending them halfway across the world into harm’s way.
Which leads to my second vow:
Vow #2: Let’s stop consoling ourselves with the myth that all our troops are volunteers—a myth which leads most Americans to pay remarkably little attention to and take no responsibility for the wars our “volunteers” are fighting.
The second part of this sergeant’s letter calls for yet another vow. It reminds us that war, by its nature, breeds corruption and gives free rein to abuses of all sorts. Indeed, as a historian of past wars, the harsh realities of psychological casualties, of forced prostitution, of rampant corruption should hardly surprise me—but I confess that they still do. As one officer who specializes in contracting wrote me from Baghdad, he found the amount of war profiteering by private contractors in Iraq “mind-blowing, but nonetheless eye-opening.”