In the United States, being critical of certain uniforms means being critical of the people that inhabit them—there is a narrow, mutual exclusivity at work here. If I am openly opposed to certain police practices and I believe that there are systemic problems within our criminal justice system that need to be addressed, I am a cop hater. If I oppose specific military interventions and more broadly perpetual war, and I think that, quite often, our interventionist policies do more harm than good, I’m viewed as someone who doesn’t support the troops—an unpatriotic, flag-trampler.
The reality of this situation, however, is often much closer to the opposite, especially when it comes to the military. Opposing interventionist practices has more to do with supporting the soldiers than not supporting them. It’s about valuing their lives and the lives of civilians overseas; it’s about valuing life in general. There is a clear distinction that must be drawn here: there’s no reason why a person cannot be critical of the organization that pays for the uniforms, while still fully supporting and appreciating the service of those who wear the uniforms.
This line of thinking doesn’t extend across all uniforms, mostly only the ones that deal with life and death. Journalists and fans can heavily criticize organizations like the NCAA for being greedy and exploitative, and they’re never accused of disparaging the work-ethic of student athletes—it’s obvious that the two are separate, but connected entities. The players are directly impacted by how the NCAA operates, and they have no control over the mechanisms at work, so affixing the players to the organization wouldn’t make any sense. Unfortunately, there is not much gray area in criminal justice or the military, opinions are packaged deals.
There’s an “either you’re with us, or you’re against us” mentality, and it needs to stop.
This form of closed-off, black-and-white thinking kills all forms of dialogue before it can even begin. And it all extends from this notion that being pro-war is the only way to be patriotic in this country. But there’s an argument to be made that being anti-war is actually more patriotic, that it is more in line with the ideals that have pushed this country in the right direction.
As The Intercept pointed out, Martin Luther King was obliterated by the media following his anti-war, “Beyond Vietnam” speech in 1967. 168 newspapers from the right and the left excoriated MLK over his remarks. And yet now this speech is rarely mentioned, the American populace intentionally glosses over it because we don’t want to talk about our military in those terms—if it’s not positive, we denounce or ignore it. It was dangerous to be anti-war in the United States in the 60s, and it’s only slightly less dangerous today.
Toby Keith famously crooned “we’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way” in his song Courtesy of the Red White and Blue. The track is often played by hawkish lawmakers and Fox News hosts as images of missiles launching and landing in flashy, destructive bursts play on screen. Keith is not wrong. This is the way our country has operated for a long time, and after 9/11 we immersed ourselves in a state of perpetual war that shows no signs of abating. While the United States has not officially declared war since 1942, and likely never will again, we are always at war. The U.S. government likes to use this loophole of sorts to reclassify military interventions as actions separate from acts of war, but by any measure, we are at war, constantly, all over the place. And our rate of intervention has increased dramatically.
During the last year of Obama’s presidency, we dropped 26,171 bombs and ran special ops missions in 138 countries, which was an exponential increase over the Bush administration’s totals. War begets war, death begets death. We are now helplessly caught in a self-feeding cycle wherein which we turn to war to solve problems war has created. For each ISIL fighter who is taken down, more emerge from the collateral wreckage of our missions. The War on Terror has failed, and yet on and on it spins.
Conversations regarding the way our country operates militarily need to occur. There is no doubt that we need a well-equipped military, and there are certainly some bad people out there aiming to harm us and our allies, but war has not been a successful solution overall, and it’s very troubling that it has become our default setting.
We cannot continue to label all opposing voices as un-patriotic or anti-troop, it is not honest, or helpful. Patriotism as an ideal does not belong to anyone, or at least it shouldn’t. It should be malleable, and it certainly shouldn’t have to be stitched to violence.
by Jesse Mechanic
Jesse Mechanic is the editor in chief of The Overgrown.