The Folly of Soldier Worship
State doctrine holds that soldiers are intrinsically honorable. It is a conviction held by most of the public that those who wear a military uniform are to receive automatic society-wide praise for their service, irrespective of who they are or what they’ve done. If one dissents from the blind nationalist approval for America’s wars, it is fine to criticize the politicians, but soldiers generally can’t be at fault.
There has been plenty of commentary on the political and media treatment afforded to Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, the U.S. soldier who massacred 17 Afghan men, women, and children in cold blood. As far as criminal acts by military men, Bales is among the worst. But even for him there has been an excited effort to rationalize his unprovoked slaughter of innocents and to paint him as the victim. This is really just an illustration of the sickly dogma of this country to valorize its soldiers: merely by virtue of their military service, soldiers are held to be courageous, noble, heroic.
Like most aspects of state doctrine, this precept contradicts basic truisms and abundant facts. For example, numerous studies have concluded that violent sexual assault is rampant in the U.S. military. In 2008, an estimated 41 percent of all the women serving in the military were victims of sexual assault, a problem Rep. Jane Harman called “an epidemic.” In a January 2012 Pentagon report on “rape, sexual assault, and forcible sodomy” in the military, it was found that these crimes have increased 64 percent since 2006. The vast majority of cases go unreported though, and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta estimated the number of cases was close to 19,000 in 2011. Rape and other forms of sexual assault are among the most derided and abhorred crimes in society, but their high occurrence within the military is ignored so that anyone in a uniform can be indiscriminately praised for their “service.”
Similarly, there is apparently a significant street gang representation in the U.S. military. Recent FBI investigations found that “Gang members have been reported in every branch of the U.S. military,” constituting “a significant criminal threat.” As of April 2011, the FBI has “identified members of at least 53 gangs whose members have served in or are affiliated with U.S. military,” including the Asian Boyz, Bloods, Crips, Gangster Disciples, Latin Kings, MS-13, Sureños, the Aryan Brotherhood, the Hells Angels, and many more. Hard statistics were not released in the FBI report, and this is not to say that all or even most of the U.S. military are or were a part of street gangs – of course not. But these findings are curiously absent in the public dialogue because people serving in the military lose their individuality to be arbitrarily elevated to hero-status regardless of their actual behavior.
But the society-wide inclination towards soldier-worship is a rot that runs much deeper than that. What does it say about a culture that idolizes and fetishizes a commitment to kill on the orders of politicians in Washington? Even setting aside what soldiers actually do throughout the American empire, that is an odd thing to admire. Politics is often ridiculed by the public as a fickle, foolish enterprise, but that criticism vanishes once the issue is war and those paid to carry it out. Then, state policy is the divine manifestation of goodness and freedom and honor. Nationalist themes uphold this system of belief, as I’ve written.
It is even more striking, like in the case of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, when soldiers commit plainly savage atrocities and still receive the benefit of esteemed status resulting from the fact that they wear fatigues. The fate of Bales remains to be seen, but as I wrote immediately following the news of his crimes, U.S. soldiers have got off easy in the recent past for comparable acts.
To take just the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as examples, soldier worship breaks down on the most cursory analysis. Every single Bush administration justification for invading Iraq in 2003 has been discredited and very few people, civilian or military, can articulate why we’re waging a war and occupying Afghanistan. Together, these two wars caused the death of many hundreds of thousands of civilians in addition to all the unspoken horror and suffering for which there are no statistics. How can it be that politicians are the only ones to blame for this and not those who actually carried it out?
In the famous funeral oration delivered around 490 BCE for fallen soldiers in the Peloponnesian War, the ancient Greek politician Pericles unwittingly revealed how completely senseless is the uncritical glorification of the military. He said, “even those who come short in other ways may justly plead the valor with which they have fought for their country; they have blotted out the evil with the good, and have benefited the state more by their public services than they have injured her by their private actions.”