Saturday, February 5, 2011

Is it right to revere our troops?

My grandfather fought in WWII. My father served in Vietnam. Many people don't know this, but I attempted to enlist in the army when I was 17 to take advantage of the Montgomery G.I. Bill and finance my college education. I was, however, refused for medical reasons.

It makes sense to honor and respect someone who sacrifices on your behalf. We do this for police and firefighters, and it would make sense on its face to do this for our armed forces as well.

But if you look at it closer the similarity ends. We are allowed to talk about corruption in our police force, but never in our military. We can talk about immorality and financial misdeeds in our firefighters, but our military is above reproach. There is only one allowed attitude: "Support our troops." This extremely vague statement generally means we cannot criticize anyone who serves in our military unless they single themselves out by being caught by the media (see the Navy commander booted for his raunchy video, or the Army private responsible for the WikiLeaks scandal).

This exception aside, our military is, in public debate, immune from criticism. Their funerals are given special awards and pomp and circumstance. They are enshrined beneath our flag. They are one of the few occupations seen regularly as heroes in the 21st century.

And something about this mythic status bothers me. Respect and honor, OK. But I keep thinking about a scene in a movie where a barbarian clan is hunkering about a huge man who boasts that he is a "mighty warrior." We would laugh at that thought - "mighty warrior" indeed, we chuckle. Who is this ridiculous person wielding a club or an axe while people swoon at his muscles? And the we have shots of him cleaving people in half, which is OK, but then we see raping and pillaging, which are always part and parcel with war, and our adoration ends. We think, "The savages. Thank God things are better today."

Today, our warriors receive the same adoration. War, both in our legends and our history, always seems to straddle the line between occasional necessity and excessive debauchery. Rape and violence and crime always surround it at the edges, and are unavoidable. So shouldn't we view our warriors today as tragic figures? People who do the tough work even though bad things often come of it, and who often destroy themselves in the process? I guess we need that myth and respect to continue to encourage people to fight for us. It's a lie we all believe to get the job done.


shesthesheriff said...

Interesting post. I don't know a lot of soldiers so I find it hard to comment on the true character of today's marines/officers.

The problem for me has always been the media and the political class lumping the bravery of the soldiers in with the flawed and dangerous policies of the Pentagon.

I can respect the commitment to serve a cause greater than yourself and to put your life on the line for a set of values and beliefs, but at the same time I think many do not attempt to examine said beliefs outside of a pre programmed viewpoint that America is the light of the world. I think there is a difference between fighting for a deeply held belief supported by one's education and experience, and blindly following orders. After all suicide bombers put their lives on the line for 'their beliefs' as well.

But you're absolutely right--if when a soldier was killed in action, we gave them a normal burial, and there was an honest debate in the media about whether that soldier really needed to die, enlistment would probably be affected. So we do need that myth for sure.

Pam said...

YES!!! Have you seen those commercials they show at the movies to get kids to enlist in the military? They are all sexy and they make it look SO glamorous and cool.