Support the troops? Sometimes. Maybe.

By guest blogger Nicole Walyshyn

As the Royal 22nd Regiment — the Van Doos — marched off to Afghanistan, we heard the usual enjoinders that, whether or not we supported the war, we should “support the troops.” Similarly, 10 days before, as the bodies of six Canadian soldiers were returned home, Prime Minister Harper advised us that it was a day to show appreciation for the soldiers’ work, not question it, and a senior military commander echoed him. “The families are well aware that there is debate on this mission,” said Col. John Vance. “Nonetheless, in this particular point in time, the most sensitive and I think mature approach would be to show to them an absolute clarion call of love and support as these soldiers died in a mission that they believe in, and see progress occurring.”

Support the families in their time of grief? Certainly. We can conduct ourselves with more grace and simple decency than has the the author of the Canadian Cynic blog, who had these consoling words for one of the mothers: “Fuck you and the politically-motivated, neo-con propaganda train you rode in on.” Note to Mr. CC: that’s not being cynical, that’s being a dip-shit.

But can we please lose this mindless “support the troops” mantra, which has arrived in Canada via the US, and which suggests soldiers are either unearthly heroes or stupid as Forrest Gump, take your pick.

The “support our troops” trope began in the late 1970s in the US, sometime around the release of the movie Coming Home, I’d say. That movie’s sympathetic portrayal of a paralyzed, disaffected Vietnam war veteran (played by Jon Voight), combined with early, possibly apocryphal accounts of returning veterans having been spit on, served to guilt Americans into, for the first time, drawing a distinction between their soldiers and the wars they fought; even if the war sucked, the soldiers should be “supported.” (Before Vietnam, of course, it had never occurred to them that a war waged by Americans could suck.)

The problem is, Americans’ first instinct was right: when soldiers have prosecuted an unnecessary, unjust war, well, spitting on them’s just plain yucky, but there’s nothing wrong with letting them know it’s left a sour taste. That way, they (and their sons and daughters) might show some resistance to the glory-making war machine, the next time it revs up.

As it has. Of course, most of the soldiers in Vietnam had been drafted and so, for all practical purposes, had no choice but to go. (Hightailing it to Canada was not exactly a universal option.) But our current crop of soldiers are voluntary enlistees. And while you might make the argument that economics compel many poor, young Americans to sign-up — an argument I’m not entirely sure I buy — we have nowhere near the same level of coercion here in the Michael Moore wet-dream known as Canada, however frayed our safety net has become. When you sign up here, you’re making a choice. And for over five years now, would-be soldiers have known that choice very possibly entails going off to Afghanistan.

The fact that they might get maimed or killed there is their business. The question of whether or not it’s a just war is for all of us. Opinion on that varies, of course — including
here at backofthebook.ca
. And it’s probably fair to say that, whatever their misgivings about the mounting body-count, most Canadians still think it’s a noble venture. But if, like me, you believe we’re there under the same false pretenses that led to the war in Iraq — namely, the myth of 9/11 — then it’s no good saying “but I support the troops.” If the war’s a giant false front, they’re the guys in back holding it up.

And you don’t even have to go down the conspiracy hole with me to believe that we should always examine, ruthlessly, our reasons for going to war — soldiers included. They’re big boys and girls — certainly big enough to think through what they’re doing. But as long as we pat them on the head and say “Don’t you worry about the big questions, kid, we’re behind you no matter what,” they have precisely no reason to do so. Which, besides teaching them at an early age that moral obliviousness is fine so long as you’re getting paid for it, makes them even more likely to end up as fodder for profiteering corporations and opportunistic politicians.

Does anyone really think that’s “supporting” them?

Eleanor Claire will return in August.

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