by Kyle Szarzynski
Thursday, October 2, 2008
The corporate media informs us that American soldiers are mostly a
conservative bunch, intent on bravely carrying out orders in the
fight against the generic threat of the day. According to the
narrative, they are willing to sacrifice everything for "the American
way of life," and they comprise the one obstacle between our freedoms
and, currently, Islamo-fascism. Their courage and selflessness make
them unrivaled heroes in the American consciousness.
The national myth of the soldier a conspicuous feature in all
militaristic societies is so strong that it has become inseparable
from any policy discussion about the military, foreign policy or war.
Mainstream dialogue makes it impossible to discuss the merits of
occupying countries like Iraq and Afghanistan without first
addressing things like "abandoning the troops" and "leaving the
troops in harm's way."
During the first presidential debate, John McCain managed to almost
completely avoid a substantive discussion about the war in Iraq by
using exactly such rhetoric. He assured the audience that the troops
were doing a fine job defeating the terrorists and accused his
opponent of not letting them "finish the job." He also made it clear
that, if he were the next president, the several thousand military
deaths would not be in vain. As for the lack of democracy, corporate
conquest, stupendous bloodshed and violation of national sovereignty
well, he was a bit short on the details.
The intent and effect of the ideologically constructed American
soldier should be clear: It neutralizes moral concern with
imperialist wars by portraying it as an attack on the troops.
Obviously, this is nothing but untrue, and it seems to me that those
responsible for shipping the troops off to kill and die in a conflict
based on lies should be the ones on the defensive.
But the corporate media is a powerful force, so for many Americans,
the distinction between being anti-war and anti-soldier is not always
clear. Making it more lucid can best be done by the soldiers
themselves, and this is precisely what Winter Soldier, a national
touring event featuring testimony from Iraq veterans, accomplishes.
Hosted by the local chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War, a
courageous and resolute organization, Winter Soldier was held at the
Memorial Union Theater this past weekend. Inexplicably, the event
received no attention from The Badger Herald news section, even as
its rival felt it important enough to allot it front-page coverage.
The 1,200 IVAW members a group which favors immediate withdrawal,
reparations for the Iraqi people and full benefits for returning
veterans radically depart from the image constructed for them by
forces on the right. They know better than anyone that the talk about
bringing democracy to Iraq is bullshit, just as they know that those
eager to send them to war are the same ones eager to screw them once
they get home.
The dozen veterans who testified this past weekend spoke of the
military not as a force for good, but as an institution that preys on
the vulnerable and contorts them into fodder for conquest. Within the
army itself, bigotry is rampant. According to their testimony, sexual
assault is about as common as the use of the term "towelhead" and
"haji," while LGBT personnel endure viscous homophobia and the
constant threat of discharge.
The prejudice within the military serves as a launching pad for
occupying people against their will, which requires a thorough
process of racist indoctrination to justify. The veterans spoke of
the atrocities they witnessed in Iraq with heartfelt candor. One
testifier recounted his experience working at Abu Graib, where
prisoners ranging in age from 10 to 80 would routinely die from
malnutrition, lack of medicine, crossfire and torture. As he stated,
most the prisoners probably had nothing to do with the insurgency.
Military occupation is a dirty business.
For many veterans, returning home is just the beginning of
maltreatment from the military. Several veterans recounted their
ongoing struggles with substance abuse, anxiety, depression, panic
attacks and uncontrollable rage. Post-traumatic stress disorder has
wounded tens of thousands of returning veterans, often resulting in
broken social relationships, unemployment, violence and even suicide.
(The number of Iraq veteran suicides even exceeds combat deaths).
According to the testimonials, the Veterans Health Administration
offers woefully inadequate resources for mental health problems. Just
like health insurance companies, the VA will often refuse treatment
by deeming it a "pre-existing condition" or just label the disease
generically and dismiss it with a pill or two.
Anti-war veterans have reached the conclusion that, perhaps with the
exception of the Iraqis themselves, they have suffered more than
anyone from the war in Iraq. The invasion and occupation have not
been witness to idyllic valor for a righteous cause; they have used
the troops as a means to an end.
For the brave members of the IVAW, military service has nothing to do
with what is instilled in the popular consciousness. They have
exposed the truth of military service, including what World War I
soldier-poet Wilfred Owen called "The old Lie: [It is sweet and right
to fight and die for your country.]"
Kyle Szarzynski (email@example.com) is a senior majoring in history