Lindsay and Francesca Levy discuss the difficulties of "supporting the troops" with a clear conscience, and the problems in being an anti-war demonstrator during wartime.
This article was written as a collaboration and email exchange between two American friends, one living in London, the other in New York. We have watched and felt the smear campaign and police violence against those of us who still question this war. We have seen this pattern frequently, in the recent past targeting anti-capitalist protesters and against the feminist and civil rights activists before our time. What has frightened us most and compelled us to write is not only the overwhelming public complicity with this unjust portrayal but the active hatred of dissent and outright jingoism that has dominated the media representation of Americans (this is growing in the UK as well). As third wave feminists opposed to all forms of oppression who see this war as a perpetuation of racist patriarchal violence under the guise of liberation, we could not keep quiet.
I had to work on the 22nd of March, an obligation planned far in advance of the beginning of this war. At quitting time, I stood around with a group of female co-workers talking about how it was probably too late to make it to the demonstration. Out of nowhere, one of them said to me, “Well really I think this has gone far enough anyway, I have friends in the army who are there right now”. This is someone who is constantly witty, sarcastic and most important, critical. She works in an environment devoted to empowering young people and ensuring that their voices and issues are dealt with by decision makers. In other circumstances, I would have seen this comment as an anomaly. But this is different; this is war. The general consensus has become: you’ve had your fun protesting, now get in line. The previously dissident media, rebel MPs and individuals are rallying behind “our boys” and criticising those of us left in opposition for displaying those same indulgences effectively spat on by Blair when France threatened the UN with veto. Organisers and the government alike predicted the March 22nd demonstration would have a different tone and dwindled numbers, both of which would result from the simple fact that there were now soldiers in the Gulf. The idea being that it is less popular to be an anti-war demonstrator when there is actually a war.
Writing about the first Gulf war, Noam Chomsky compares the wartime cry “Support Our Troops” to someone demanding “Support Iowa” (UK translation: Support Kidderminster). He writes:
What does it mean if somebody asks you, Do you support the people in Iowa? Can you say, Yes, I support them, or No, I don’t support them? It’s not even a question… The issue was, do you support our policy? But you don’t want people to think about that issue. That’s the whole point of good propaganda. You want to create a slogan that nobody’s going to be against, and everybody’s going to be for. Nobody knows what it means, because it doesn’t mean anything. Its crucial value is that it diverts your attention from a question that does mean something.
To me, this slogan goes one step further, promoting far more deplorable ideas that are too easily masked by its external meaninglessness. Perhaps I am removed from any expectation to support my country, being an ex-pat and coming from a place where the man in charge’s presidency is about as legitimate as Saddam Hussain’s, always the first one in the conversation to criticise America. But beyond this, being expected to rally around another politician who was so willing to consistently ignore public opinion turns my stomach. Watching a high-ranking US military official addressing his troops on TV, stating that when Mr. Bush gives the green light, ‘It’s hammer time,’doesn’t inspire a shred of sympathy for those soldiers who immediately hooted and hollered, regardless of how many of them were from Iowa.
Expecting everyone to ‘support our troops’ obviously diminishes any credibility to being just plain anti-war. It erases the immediate past by ignoring the fact that demonstrators were always opposed to casualties and paints them as the ones guilty of displaying a lack of compassion. I’ve heard the argument that the British army, and of course the US army too, is largely comprised of poor and working class men and women who don’t have many other choices in life and that it can’t be simply deduced to the argument that these people chose to be in the army, get paid to kill, etc. In a country with an oppressive military regime and mandatory conscription, far more stricken with severe poverty, wouldn’t that be even more accurate? But what would happen to me if I went around claiming that I supported the Iraqi troops, even if that were my argument? So is it really about supporting human beings or does the expectation to sign up to that slogan explicitly force people to declare their patriotism?
This patriotism is meant to stem from a pride in the principles that our nations uphold. The main principle is democracy, the golden prize we are bringing to the soon-to-be-liberated Iraqis and the carrot dangled in front of American and British dissidents to help them justify their newfound support for war. Ordinary people in the US are quite busy burning their Dixie Chicks albums because the lead singer made an innocent comment about not being proud of George Bush. Here in the UK, local education authorities are threatening young people with school expulsion if they dare to exercise their democratic right to protest, a ridiculously harsh punishment that even a written blessing from their parents won’t prevent. After all, if youngsters are out being active and politicised they might miss their citizenship classes. Or there were the people standing opposite the demonstrators on the 22nd of March, shouting that they were traitors and informing them once again that ‘our boys’ are out there, some of them actually waving American flags.
The perceived goal of this war to all these people is the military imposition of our brand of freedom. Tony Blair is happy to point out that this is a privilege we should fight to bestow on Iraq despite the fact that demonstrating, and indeed voting in America, had absolutely no effect on whether or not this war proceeded. When Bush champions the humanitarian/moral high ground of a pre-emptive strike to save the Iraqis, there is no information about the American citizens bent on beating the UN sanctions for the past decade by bringing medicine and food directly to the Iraqi people. In case you’re wondering how they were rewarded, they were imprisoned by the US government.
Patriotic pride is one frightening thing, but supporting the military and all that it represents is something that I would struggle to do in any scenario. Rape and sexual harassment, racism, fat bashing and a practically overt no-homos policy are all sanctioned or covered up by the military on a daily basis. It is now the twenty-first century and there are women at every level of the military, yet the armed forces and our governments are still pumping out the same old sexist propaganda that ignores these women. In peacetime, the army gets its best PR people to dream up adverts that resemble those made by Doritos, multi-cultural groups, women on equal footing with men to attract the new recruits. But when there’s a war, those in charge rely on whipping gender stereotypes into a froth to hold society together in blind support of ‘bringing our boys home’. Women are supposed to weep for their sons/husbands/brothers and men are expected to gallantly send their sons off without ever confronting their own horrible experiences in the last military campaign or question whether it’s worth it. It could be any past war and it is exactly the same as when Iraqi officials highlight the US-caused deaths of women and children in public addresses. When officials talk about the inevitable coalition troops rolling into Baghdad to liberate the Iraqi people, when you close your eyes, do you imagine a woman hanging out of that tank picking up a little boy? If it actually were a female soldier, would you feel that a box on the feminist list of major world accomplishments had been ticked? Considering what this military force represents, flouting at every step on the way to war the same international laws that were developed to protect both women and other oppressed people, I wouldn’t.
Lest we forget, troops have been in the Gulf since before Operation Desert Storm in 1991. American troops have randomly bombed places like a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan and various targets in Iraq. More and more troops were sent during the build up to inevitable war but until the day our politicians told us that we were officially at war, nobody demanded that we support them and our dissent was celebrated. Where were these throngs of people, both governmental and ordinary citizens when the fire fighters needed public support? Here is a group of people who risk their lives daily with the intent to save other lives rather than killing and when they ask for our support they are accused of sabotaging the nation with self-interest because they want a living wage. Striking and collective bargaining are presumably two more democratic rights we will be bringing to the Iraqis. But with the fire fighters it was very concrete, they needed more money and as Chomsky writes, “‘Support our troops.’ Who can be against that? Or yellow ribbons. Who can be against that? Anything that’s totally vacuous.” No matter how insipid, supporting our boys, and all the baggage it carries, while being against this war signals a monumental compromise of principles that I am not willing to make, no matter who calls me a traitor.
Those who perpetuate the notion of ‘supporting our troops’ in order to quash dissent assign relative value to human lives. They labor to focus our attention on ‘our men’ versus Iraqi civilians. The spectacle of our military generals keeping up the same cartoonish, GI Joe rallying cries in daily briefings, even while we have bombed a market scene, nowhere near military targets, into oblivion, highlights the emptiness of the rhetoric even more.
The propaganda tries to assign humanity to some while stripping it away from others. It demands that to be patriotic, we divert our natural human compassion away from those hundreds dead and dying from American missiles, and toward the troops, far away from home and fighting the good fight. To have your sympathies fall on both sides, for a lump to rise in your throat both when you hear a scared 19 year old soldier say that being caught, immobilized and helpless in a desert sandstorm was the worst day of his life and when you see pictures of an entire family gruesomely wounded when a missile fell on their house, is simply unacceptable. The nature of propaganda is that it’s binary, it allows for no point of view more complex than ‘fer it or agins’ it’.
Also, the contrast between our president, who used family connections to get out of service in Vietnam, and the immigrant and minority families at home nervously waiting for their sons (and daughters) is almost too obvious to point out. A recent article in the New York Times about the families of the POWs that were shown on Arab TV – most of them maintenance workers, i.e. poor, minority, and some women highlights this difference with poignant descriptions of the missing and the current state of their families’ emotions.
I think it bears reminding who our ‘troops’ really are, and your question of what ‘supporting’ them really means is absolutely right.
 Noam Chomsky Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda.