American Exceptionalism and the Military

Over the last four or five months I’ve tried to make a conscious effort to research how conservatives think and why they come to their conclusions on certain issues, and the election of Donald Trump has only reinforced this idea. Before I would write about what the Left needs to do in order to organise and be successful. Whilst this remains an important aspect of what I do, I feel that we now live in a time where people need to be understood and engaged with even if they have political views that one personally feels are repugnant.

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The US military has a special place in the hearts of many Americans. but are people only referring to perceived ideas about being kept safe? (Al Jazeera)
After putting it off for a number of weeks I finally got around to watching the prominent conservative Tomi Lahren interviewed on The Daily Show by Trevor Noah. What struck me about the interview was not the evasion of questions or even the outlandish statements, as unfortunately I have become desensitised to such things, but that all of Lahren’s answers came back to the same thing. In the interview Lahren put a lot of weight behind the American flag as a symbol of what the country stands for and this seemed to influence her thinking in relation to a lot of things. Every answer seemed to get back to the idea of American Exceptionalism, which I don’t want to really unpack now as there is a lot to critique and I don’t want to go off on a tangent, but there is one aspect of this idea that I want to address- political symbols.
As I mentioned above Lahren referred rather emotionally to Colin Kaepernick’s protest against police brutality. In her remarks to Noah, she said: “why would you take out your perceived oppression of black people out the national anthem and our flag? A country that you live in, a country you benefit from, a country that people of all races have died for?”. There’s a lot to unpack in just this one quotation but I think it’s worth doing because it helps to understand the mindset of those on the Right we disagree with. When Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem, in the eyes of Lahren he was protesting an object and a song that everyone holds dear, hence the use of the pronoun ‘our’, and essentially deriding the people who have been in the military.
However the point here is that the two people in question do not see the same thing. Lahren views the flag as the epitome of America, and so not saluting it or respecting it is essentially being disrespectful to your country. She has actually said that she supports his right to do this under the First Amendment so I won’t linger on this point, but the important thing to recognise is that Kaepernick doesn’t view the flag in this way. He views the flag as a symbol of a political and social superstructure that does not take into account the black community and actively oppresses them despite being citizens. In other words, it’s not his flag that he’s protesting but the flag of a systemically racist nation-state.
But we can have a sincere disagreement about the tactics of protests without getting as animated a Lahren did in the interview. The reason I believe that she reacted in this way, and has done on numerous other occasions, is that she has self-admitted that she knows people personally who are in the military and therefore when people are protesting the US flag or the national anthem she presumably equates that with people shitting on soldiers. This gets to the heart of what I want to actually talk about, and that is the idea of American Exceptionalism in the context of the US military.
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The flag represents the military and so disrespecting that is a big no no. (BBC)
Respecting the troops is as American as it gets and failure to do so is punished by civil society with shame and marginalisation. However I contend that this approach to the military is dangerous for a society for a number of reasons, namely: the suspension of critical thinking it requires; the susceptibility to arguments from authority; and the nature of the military itself.
From Lahren’s answers we can infer that she is a proud supporter of the US military. To be honest we don’t actually need to infer this at all as a simple gander through her social media posts reveals that she openly displays her admiration for those in the military. However the one thing that comes with this approach to the military is the presumption of justness and this is clearly ludicrous. The premise of every discussion about what the military do is that because American Exceptionalism says that the US is the greatest nation on Earth, military personnel are improving the world in everything that they do.
Throughout history we can see how this concept has manifest itself: Japanese internment was justified on the grounds of winning WWII and stopping fascism; the bombing of Cambodia was to stop the spread of communism; funding right-wing militias in South America would prevent the US national interest being harmed and so on. If any military action is seen through the lens of American Exceptionalism anything and everything becomes justifiable.
There is also a point here about institutions versus individuals. For example a lot of people who vigorously oppose war, myself included, don’t demonise people who were drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. In that case the blame lay with the politicians who sent them into that quagmire, not with the individual soldiers. Indeed in the case of the 2003 Invasion of Iraq the individual soldiers were doing what they were told, which is the point of militaries in the first place. But just because politicians send soldiers into morally questionable wars doesn’t mean that those on the battlefield are absolved of any wrongdoing.
In June 2003 Amnesty International started voicing concerns about the treatment of prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, and the organisation later concluded that it was part of US policy to torture inmates in the most barbaric ways. Although all those involved were internally dealt with through existing military procedures, some military personnel were never put behind bars. This is obviously an extreme case but this is where the American Exceptionalism narrative breaks down. If it were true that all of the US actions were just, because they were being done by ‘the greatest nation on Earth’, the breaking of international law and the torture of prisoners would be justified.
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If a philosophical principle can seemingly justify torture because ‘the good guys did it’, I think that principle needs to be re-evaluated. (The LA Times)
I’m not suggesting that conservatives like Lahren would agree that torture should be legal if the US does it, but that if this is an example where soldiers don’t deserve respect the unwavering loyalty seems slightly odd. Nowhere on banners and t-shirts that talk about honouring those in uniform does it give a list of circumstances where they shouldn’t be supported. Blindly supporting the military and the people in the military presupposes that in order to be kept safe they mustn’t be questioned. I personally think that everyone should be questioned and no individual or organisation is deserving of unquestioning loyalty because this opens the door for authoritarianism.
A related point is about the argument from authority. By giving your unquestioning loyalty to the military because of an ideological foundation like American Exceptionalism, one risks backing oneself into a corner from which no argument can be won. For instance the President is the Commander-in-Chief of the US military, and this being the case should he be questioned? More specifically when it comes to wars and the like, should he be questioned or criticised? I would think that according to American Exceptionalists the answer is yes because he is not in the military. So far the logic holds up.
But what if a soldier disobeys his commanding officer because his instruction was blatantly immoral? Who, in this situation, should we take the side of? I think it would be the rank-and-file soldier and not the commanding officer, but by doing so you acknowledge that commanding officers should be questioned from time to time, which would undermine the functionality of a military. In the mind of the Exceptionalist something has got to give as one cannot truly support all the troops if there is dissension in the ranks. Again you could say that soldiers do a job that many wouldn’t want to do and people should bare this in mind, but if you unquestioningly support everyone in the military regardless of what they do I think you are intellectually lazy.
Another thing to consider is that American civil society respects what soldiers do on an emotional level, but this creates an environment where these people are held up as paragons of virtue. I contend that this is not the case. I would argue that fire-fighters, doctors, community volunteers etc. are examples of virtue in society because they do jobs that are self-sacrificing and make the world a better place. Although you could argue that the troops sacrifice themselves for the good of the country, there is nothing intrinsically moral in what they do. The government arms them to the teeth and teaches them how to kill, and they ‘make the world a better place’ by killing people whom the state has deemed as evil. This is clearly nothing like running into a burning house to save a baby or resuscitating someone moments from death.
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These guys get my respect because they have shown themselves to be selfless. Being weaponised and used as pieces in a game of geopolitical chess is not the same thing. (Getty)
Furthermore, military personnel shouldn’t be respected by virtue of being in the military. If I see a soldier walking down the street and he punches somebody, I’m going to help the person he punched not bow in deference to his experience as a pawn of the state. Feel free to disagree but people have to earn my respect through there thoughts, words, and actions. If you joined the military because you fetishise violence and wanted to go somewhere to legally kill brown people, I don’t have to respect you and I reserve the right to say how much of a horrible human being you are. For believers in American Exceptionalism this is not permitted as to do that would be to dishonour the greatest nation on Earth.
The military is supposedly above politics, which is why I find it amusing that this institution has become a political football. If you suggest cutting the military’s funding, even though nothing bad would happen, you’re a traitor. If you don’t want to send people into war every five seconds you don’t know what you’re doing. If you pursue diplomacy you’re weak. The military, like every other institution, needs to be held accountable for what is being done. Blindly supporting the ‘death-from-above’ wing of the US government doesn’t make you patriotic, it makes you a fool.
Lahren’s discussion with Noah was deeply interesting to me because we got a window into the mind of someone I vehemently disagree with, however that’s essentially it’s only value. In the eyes of right-wingers the military is a symbol of everything that is great about America and therefore any criticism is totally unjustified. The military shouldn’t be held up at an unattainable level of virtue because all those in it are fallible human beings. It is politically popular to make throwaway comments like ‘support the troops’ but the next time you hear somebody say that ask yourself if that’s what they are really asking. I wouldn’t be surprised if they attempt to sell you American Exceptionalism wrapped in a khaki uniform.
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