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April 15, 2005

Support the Troops, Oppose Their Actions


Coming to terms with a complex reality

by Joshua Frank

On Saturday, Nov. 6, 2004, U.S. forces pounded Fallujah and razed a civilian hospital. "Witnesses said only a facade remained of a small emergency hospital in the center of the city," reported the BBC News on the day of the military blitz. "A nearby medical supplies storeroom and dozens of houses were also damaged as U.S. forces continued preparing the ground for [the upcoming] major assault."

The catastrophe happened only days after the U.S. presidential election, and the antiwar movement was still mourning the triumph of George W. Bush's War Party. Needless to say, the movement wasn't moved to action, even though U.S. troops had committed a blatant war crime. For the Geneva Conventions are quite clear that the bombing of hospitals constitutes a crime:

"Article 18: Civilian hospitals organized to give care to the wounded and sick, the infirm and maternity cases, may in no circumstances be the object of attack but shall at all times be respected and protected by the Parties to the conflict.

"Article 19: The protection to which civilian hospitals are entitled shall not cease unless they are used to commit, outside their humanitarian duties, acts harmful to the enemy. Protection may, however, cease only after due warning has been given, naming, in all appropriate cases, a reasonable time limit and after such warning has remained unheeded. The fact that sick or wounded members of the armed forces are nursed in these hospitals, or the presence of small arms and ammunition taken from such combatants and not yet been handed to the proper service, shall not be considered to be acts harmful to the enemy."

There was no warning put forth by the U.S. military prior to the bombing of this hospital where dozens of innocent civilians were reported dead and many more violently injured. Shortly after the incident, U.S. troops hit the ground running, and more war crimes were carried out in the name of "democracy." One such heartless act was notoriously captured on film.

You may remember the images reeled in by an NBC news crew embedded with U.S. soldiers fighting in Fallujah that showed the grotesque execution of an unarmed Iraqi prisoner. Sadly, this was likely not an isolated incident.

Writing for his Internet blog, ex-Navy SEAL Matthew Heidt, with his machismo fully inflated, explained the hateful rationale for killing an unarmed prisoner of war:

"The shots fired at the 'unarmed' terrorist in that mosque in Fallujah are called 'security rounds.' Its [sic] a safety issue pure and simple. After assaulting through a target, put a security round in everybody's head. …There's no time to dick around in the target, you clear the space, [and] dump the chumps…."

Amnesty International didn't necessarily buy the bloody rhetoric Heidt and others used when defending the murder of an unarmed prisoner (whom Heidt called a "terrorist"). In a statement released after the televised execution, Amnesty said they were "deeply concerned that the rules of war protecting civilians and combatants have been violated in … fighting between U.S. and Iraqi forces and insurgents" in Fallujah.

The Geneva Conventions also spell it out quite clearly in the opening paragraph. "Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat [out of combat] by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely," it notes.

"The following acts are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever with respect to the above-mentioned persons: Violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment, and torture. The passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples."

And, it adds, "the wounded and sick shall be collected and cared for."

So how then can the antiwar movement oppose war, and yet claim to "support our troops?" Indeed we must oppose our troops' actions. The aforementioned incidents are unfortunately only a fraction of the United States' misdeeds in Iraq. From the failure to protect Iraqi museums to torture, the U.S. has a laundry list of international and moral crimes to its name.

Does this mean we are obligated to support the "insurgents" in Iraq? Certainly their aims may be the same as our own: we both want U.S. troops out. But does supporting their right in principle mean we must support their methods – no matter what they may be? As Ian Miller argued in CounterPunch, this view "is fundamentally the same as the War Party's claim, shortly after the start of hostilities, that it was a patriotic duty to support the war once it had started."

For starters, supporting the troops, for those in the antiwar movement, involves a completely separate paradigm than that of the flag-waving right-wing fanatics who support the war. The fact is, the righties have hijacked the "support the troops" slogan. But it's just a ploy.

When the antiwar movement says "support the troops," what we are really saying is, "don't send our soldiers off to die for an unjust cause." Unlike the hawkish pro-war faction here in the U.S., our views are political and ethical in nature. They are also tactical. Supporting our troops while opposing their actions may seem contradictory. Even so, on a human level, the antiwar movement needs to deal with the fact that people are complex and contradictory beings, and that is why our support for the troops implies dealing with the soldiers as human beings.

Indeed soldiers have their own thoughts and feelings. The antiwar movement must respect that. And we must also be there for the soldiers when they begin to question and speak out. The Iraq war will not end until soldiers are supported when they dissent. We must embrace them and try to understand them as they come to terms with their past actions, no matter how horrible they may have been. We must try hard not to fall into the holier-than-thou dichotomy that could very well split the antiwar movement.

We must also continue to build a progressive force to confront the military here at home. The antiwar movement – which has a very humane ethic and does not place American lives above non-American lives – needs to be able to tolerate some more very serious ambiguities.

For one, the duties of U.S. soldiers in Iraq are wrong and many may be committing horrible crimes against humanity. True. But soldiers are mostly not bad people (though, of course, some are). There are many reasons these soldiers have signed up for the armed forces. Many come from poor and oppressed communities. Many have had troubled childhoods. Many are minorities. Of course, all of these soldiers are going to try to find meaning and justification in what they are carrying out in the name of "democracy."

Even a very antiwar soldier will shoot an Iraqi whom she believes could be a threat to her life. An individual soldier may also think her actions are wrong but not want to risk being ostracized by fellow troops whom she depends on for survival. Her fellow soldiers are enemies in one circumstance, allies in another.

The antiwar movement must try to understand these inconsistencies and contradictions. When natural human agency and behaviors are thrown into situations like that of U.S. soldiers fighting in Iraq – things get complicated. But as those situations worsen, and the antiwar movement gains strength, the inner feelings that so many U.S. soldiers have will be more prone to come out.

If and when they do, we must be here for them. That's what "supporting the troops" is all about.

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  • Joshua Frank is the author of Left Out!: How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush, just published by Common Courage Press. You can order a copy at a discounted through Josh's blog at www.brickburner.org. He can be reached at brickburner@gmail.com.

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