11.17.2013

justin doolittle in salon: stop thanking the troops for your freedom. they didn't give it to you.

Justin Doolittle, writing in Salon, takes down the military lovefest currently enveloping professional sports in North America: "Stop thanking the troops for me: No, they don’t “protect our freedoms!”"

Doolittle makes the point - extremely important and almost always overlooked - that we do not owe our present "freedom" (whatever that word is taken to mean) to "the troops". (This is a point I recently quoted from Noah Richler's book What We Talk About When We Talk About War.) Doolittle writes:
Freedom has become one of those politically charged terms that means whatever people need it to mean. There is no coherent conception of freedom, though, in which it only exists at the pleasure of the U.S. military. It’s simply a non sequitur. The “freedoms” most Americans think of when they hear the term are enshrined in constitutional and statutory law. They are in no way dependent on the size, scope or even the existence of the U.S. military. If John Lennon’s ghost assumed dictatorial control of the U.S. government tomorrow and, as his first order of business, disbanded the entire military, Americans’ “freedoms” would not suddenly vanish.
Doolittle also speaks to another concept that critically thinking people should always bear in mind: anything emanating from the dominant culture is seen as neutral and apolitical, while anything challenging the master narrative is branded as "political". But everything has a point of view. Everything carries political perspective, even if that perspective is so commonplace that it is normally invisible. Thus Canadian right-wing MP Julian Fantino can call the white poppy "an offensive attempt to politicize Remembrance Day", but his own government's incessant exhortations of Canada's "sacrifice" at Vimy Ridge, and its re-telling of the War of 1812, are seen as uncontroversial facts.
Often, the spectacle of public gratitude to the troops reaches comically absurd proportions. During the 2013 World Series, Bank of America, that beacon of patriotism and benevolence, sponsored an initiative called “Express Your Thanks.” For each photo, message or video submitted that expressed thanks to the military, the bank donated $1 to nonprofits that support service members, veterans and their families. On the program’s website, several such expressions are highlighted, including, most prominently, a message from Melissa, who, on behalf of her family, offers thanks to the troops for “safeguarding our freedom.”

“Express Your Thanks” received considerable on-air attention during the World Series itself. Before Game 1 at Fenway Park, Red Sox great Carl Yastrzemski threw out the ceremonial first pitch. He was joined on the mound by three veterans, all of whom are Medal of Honor recipients. In an interview with MLB.com after the game, Yastrzemski contrasted the universal gratitude felt toward the military today with an earlier, less seemly time, when our heroes were subjected to an annoying diversity of opinion:

“In ’67, you had a very anti-war thing,” Yastrzemski told MLB.com after bringing the Fenway crowd to a roar. “Not right now where they’re supporting our troops and things of that nature. So it’s very different times.”

The undercurrent of all this is that “support” and “gratitude” for the military and those who serve in it is intrinsically apolitical. It’s just something that all decent Americans understand and respect. This approach serves a very important purpose, which is to further blur the lines between patriotism and support for the military. Americans of conscience who do not “support” the troops, particularly those who volunteer to fight in wars of aggression, are not allowed a seat at the table in this paradigm. Their existence is not even acknowledged, in fact. These are “very different times,” in the words of Yastrzemski, and our society has progressed to the point where such shrill voices are no longer relevant.

Supporting the military, though, and expressing gratitude for what the military is actually doing around the world, are nothing if not explicitly political sentiments. To suggest otherwise is fundamentally dishonest. It reduces sincere dissent on these matters of such tremendous consequence to our culture and our politics to nothingness.
I thank Justin Doolittle profoundly for this excellent piece! I hope you'll read it and share it: Stop thanking the troops for me: No, they don’t “protect our freedoms!”

2 comments:

M@ said...

More than once I've been in arguments with people about the rise of militarism in Remembrance Day observations. I usually bring that up if I'm explaining why I don't wear a poppy any more and almost always, I'm told that Remembrance Day isn't militaristic. (Proof: "Well I don't see any of that.")

So I've started putting together some rules of thumb for how to tell whether something is militaristic. Things like:

- The use of such words as bravery, valour, honour, democracy, or freedom

- Mention of supposed military successes, such as Vimy Ridge and the defeat of the Nazis

- Military achievements described as unequivocally positive

- No regrets about the horror or senselessness of war

- Mentions of veterans to the exclusion of the dead

Honestly, these days Remembrance Day ceremonies sound like readings of the Best of Rupert Brooke. I'm making it my mission to post more and more Wilfred Owen and such in early November.

laura k said...

I really appreciate hearing this from (a) a Canadian and (b) a Canadian who used to wear a red poppy for Remembrance Day.

Having grown up in the US, it was difficult for me to understand what the red poppy and Remembrance Day once meant in the UK, Canada, and other Commonwealth countries. I had to listen carefully, and dig beneath the current climate.

Now, it seems, Remembrance Day is the same in Canada as Veterans Day is in the US. Instead of "never again", or "oh, the horror, let's make sure we never do this for frivolous reasons again", it's "rah rah".