Domestically, the United States military is very well-respected as illustrated by the annual observation of Veterans’ Day and the everyday norm of thanking Veterans ‘for their service’. In the opinions of some, this is admirable. The Sun even bemoaned the lack of equivalent respect felt by British veterans relative to their US counterparts.
However, rather than blindly admiring an American culture of military glorification, one should instead consider its deeply problematic ethical implications. With the US having participated in increasingly brutal interventions since WWII, should veterans of these wars really be considered inarguably heroic?
For many it appears that the answer should be unwaveringly in the affirmative. US memorials for both the Korean War and the Vietnam War refer to sacrifice and commemorate veterans with slogans such as ‘freedom is not free’. In doing so, calculating warmongers are exploiting the deaths of US soldiers to drum up support for the war machine.
The public is encouraged to believe that the supposed bravery and positive intentions of soldiers, as well as the ultimate sacrifice many of them made at the altar of war, necessarily justifies the wars in which they fought. This approach dehumanises the countless victims of US wars in both Southeast Asia and the Middle East by focusing solely on the suffering of US soldiers and not on the millions whom they directly victimised.
In his book Soldier, Lt Col. Anthony Herbert quotes Gen. Curtis LeMay as saying ‘We [the US] killed off over a million civilian Koreans’. The No Gun Ri massacre, where hundreds of escaping refugees were killed, is one of the most notable examples of democide committed by the US.
Additionally, in Final Solutions, Benjamin Valentino estimates between tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed as a result of US-led operations in Vietnam. Ultimately, the suggestion that US veterans were heroic liberators becomes very difficult to justify.
Progressing in the same vein, the US Navy’s shootdown of an Iranian passenger plane in 1988, the 500,000 civilians killed in the Iraq War, and the thousands killed in recent offensives against ISIS illustrate the continuously brutal nature of US military action.
This does not, however, prevent our ability to acknowledge the heroism of individual soldiers, especially considering the examples of people such as Hugh Thompson Jr who turned on fellow US soldiers and ordered his men to prepare to attack the perpetrators of the My Lai massacre if they continued to rape, mutilate and murder civilians.
In the opposing of imperial brutality that was described as having ‘no reason’, Thompson showed true heroism in his attempts to preserve a level of basic humanity rather than engage in the brutality exhibited by many soldiers.
Taking this into consideration, rather than sweepingly praising all veterans, one should instead acknowledge that many veterans were simply agents of a brutal neo-colonialist attitude that justified violence against Southeast Asians and those in the Middle East on the basis that they were fundamentally inferior and indebted to their military saviours.
Highlighting the evils of veterans’ complicity in atrocities is particularly important at a time when far-right figures such as President Trump are attacked by liberals for allegedly draft-dodging (as if draft-dodging is significant relative to the numerous proto-fascist tendencies that Trump has exhibited).
Although there is little reason to believe that Trump acted out of any kind of conscientious objection, the idea that (for any reason) refusing to participate in a brutal and inhumane war should be a source of shame is a deeply disturbing consequence of whitewashing veterans’ complicity in brutality.
What is certainly condemnable are the actions of veterans involved in the attacks on civilians, the dropping of napalm, and the use of chemicals which have victimised Vietnamese civilians generationally. Despite this, criticism ought to be focused on politicians and officials who encourage these brutal wars and provide the overriding structure for these atrocities.
An attitude of neo-imperialistic brutality was present in the Vietnam War with General LeMay’s crude metaphor justifying blanket bombing in rolling thunder where he stated that they ‘should stop swatting flies’ and ‘go after the manure pile’.
It was also present in then Vice President George HW Bush’s refusal to apologise for the shootdown of an Iranian passenger plane. To add fuel to the flame, President Clinton’s former Secretary of State, Madeline Albright, suggested that 500,000 dead Iraqi children (killed by US sanctions) was a price worth paying to oppose Saddam Hussein.
President George W Bush continued this attitude with his declaration that the US would be ‘freeing the people’ of Iraq in a war that would kill at least 500,000 civilians. Under President Obama, the dead father of innocent American-born Abdulrahman al-Awlaki was blamed for his son’s death after Abdulrahman was killed in a US drone strike. Even today this attitude rings true with President Trump’s orders having killed Abdulrahman’s 8-year-old sister.
There is a dire need for US politicians to be held to account for this barbarism.
However, with the US military budget reaching a record level of $700 billion, this fiscally and morally outrageous military-industrial complex can only be brought to a halt through a revolution in cultural attitude towards veterans, the military, and the impact of interventionist wars.
Therefore, for the sake of truth, moral integrity and financial sense, the glorification and exploitation of veterans for US imperial propaganda must be replaced by an honest acknowledgement of American brutality and its victims.
For real change to occur, the Overton window must be moved to a point where romantic apologetics for past and present American imperial brutality is simply unacceptable.