I usually stay pretty quiet on Memorial Day. I know that it’s one of the times people are least likely to be open to hearing my views on war and the military. They’re all pumped up and righteous about honoring their fallen heroes, about “remembering those who died to protect our freedom”, so why would they want to listen to someone trash their holiday and tell them their beliefs are a lie? I’ve also grown tired of losing friends over issues that have nothing to do with our friendship, and I know that an argument with me isn’t going to change most people’s minds. There just doesn’t seem to be much point in speaking out about it in my personal circles - especially on days like Memorial Day.
But something happened recently that has changed my mind. Our daughter has a developmental disability for which she receives a lot of therapy each week. One of her favorites is equine therapy - therapeutic horseback riding - and one of her favorite therapists is a 16-year-old girl who I’ll call Kate. Kate is one of the most beautiful, intelligent, kind and caring young women I have ever met. She is also very strong, generous and - for lack of a better word - good. She has all the spirit and energy and exuberance about the world that everyone should have at sixteen. Kate has been riding since she was a small child and has a real gift for the work she does with our daughter. She has an uncanny ability to connect with the horses and with nonverbal little girls like my own. It is as if she was born to do this work.
I was sitting with Kate’s mom one day a few months ago, watching my daughter have her session with another therapist while Kate rode her own horse at the other end of the arena. She told me that Kate had one more year of (homeschooling) high school and I asked what her plans were after that. She said that she was hoping to join the Air Force.
My heart fell into my stomach and I was sure Kate’s mom saw the look on my face. We talked some more. She told me that it seemed like the best option available, that the Air Force would pay for Kate’s college, and that it appealed to her adventurous spirit. When my daughter’s session was over I left, feeling shattered and powerless. I knew there was nothing I could say to Kate to get her to change her mind, just as there was nothing her mother could say. She was sixteen years old - she wasn’t going to let a couple of grown ups tell her what to do with her life. We could try gently offering her other alternatives, but that was about it. Her imagination had already been sparked by something over which we had no power.
Over the next few weeks I couldn’t get my mind off of my conversation with Kate’s mom. I was worried about Kate, I was afraid for her, I was baffled by her choice. And the more I thought about it, the more I found myself getting angry. This wasn’t just some choice that had appeared out of thin air. This was something Kate had been primed for since she was a small child. Billions of dollars had gone into a global PR campaign, and the military had exerted a great deal of influence over the media she saw, from the movies and television shows she watched, to an advertising campaign that puts Leni Riefenstahl to shame, all aimed at creating an image of the U.S. military as a benevolent organization and soldiers as heroes. What I realized was that the military PR machine had been preparing her for a very long time. And now it had her.
Just as powerful as that machine though, were the values held and expressed by the culture she has grown up in: The ubiquitous yellow flags reminding her to “support the troops”; the “Thank a soldier” bake sales and care-packages; the military discounts offered by everyone but the local meth dealer; and most of all the two constant refrains that must never, ever, be questioned: “The soldiers are fighting for our freedom”, and “you can disagree with the war, but you must support the soldier.”
Well no, they aren’t, and no, I don’t.
I’ll be blunt: If you believe that the U.S. military is in the business of protecting the freedoms of U.S. citizens, you have been sold a bill of goods. With the possible exception of the War for Independence, this country’s military has never fought a defensive war - much less a defensive war against an aggressor that intended to take our freedoms from us. And for anyone who hasn’t noticed, our freedom has only diminished with each military engagement.
I suppose that reasonable people can disagree about the merits of specific wars or military actions - although if you really understand what war is about, it becomes harder to defend any of them. It is certainly a difficult task to defend any of the U.S. military’s actions in the last fifty years. Most of the rest of the world recognizes it for the violent aggressor that it is.
Must I support the soldiers who go to war, even if I am against that war? No, I mustn’t. If anything, I believe that we have a moral obligation not to support soldiers who agree to fight in immoral wars. At some point, we have to hold people responsible for their own actions. (There was a time when I thought the Nuremberg trials had settled this issue, but I now see that I was naive to think that.)
In my experience, those who “support the troops” - whatever their position on the war of the day - do not tend to do so out of a reasoned position about what war is, or what the U.S. military really stands for. They do it more out of base tribalism and a lifetime of consuming propaganda and growing up in a culture that glorifies militarism.
This glorification of the military, and of soldiers, is a weapon. It is a weapon that was used to recruit a beautiful young girl into a life of killing - and possibly dying - to serve the interests of the state and its corporate cronies. It is a weapon that is now being aimed at my own children, my son in particular, and that is why I am no longer willing to maintain a polite silence around my “non-political” friends about this. If you actively support the glorification of the military, then I have a problem with you. If you own a business that offers discounts to members of the military, then I have a problem with you. If you put a “support the troops” bumper sticker on your car, I have a problem with you. Because all of these things contribute to the mindless glorification of killing and dying for the state. All of these things help to support a cultural machinery that exists for the purpose of turning my son - and maybe yours - into cannon fodder. And yes, I have a problem with that.
Can we still be friends? I hope we can. But know that I have a real problem with your support for an organization that I believe to be fundamentally immoral and a direct threat to my family.
Do I expect to change anyone’s mind by expressing my views? I don’t, really. Except in this one sense: By refusing to be one more silent bystander, I can ensure that those who cheer on the war machine will know that not everyone shares their view. And that the children and teenagers who are watching will also see that opinion on this is not monolithic, that not everyone “supports the troops” and that maybe they should think very carefully about what they support and what they don’t.
There is a massive PR war going on right now and it is a war for the hearts and minds of young people - including the heart and mind of my son. I’m no longer going to stand by and pretend that I don’t object to it.