"Let life enchant you again." - Fernando Gros
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Blog // Thoughts
November 20, 2007

Why Talking About Supporting The Troops Is Potentially Very Unhelpful

One of the slogans of our times is “support the troops,” with the variations “I support the troops,” or “they don’t support the troops” never far behind. Whilst this is mostly a debate that dominates US news it filters through international conversations and discussions on many levels. And, it is very unhelpful. Within a properly […]

One of the slogans of our times is “support the troops,” with the variations “I support the troops,” or “they don’t support the troops” never far behind. Whilst this is mostly a debate that dominates US news it filters through international conversations and discussions on many levels.

And, it is very unhelpful.

Within a properly functioning civil (and free) society, the role of the military can be framed in three distinct conceptual structures. Being able to debate clearly, with attention to the substantive points of disagreement, requires us to hold these three frameworks in tension as we look at the practical ethical and policy issues involving military intervention.

First, is the question of respecting the military. As I would hope to make clear in this essay, respecting the military is a more helpful way of framing the social relationship between the armed forces and civil society. The military, like the police, the fire brigades and the emergency medical services are institutions of society that exist to protect persons and property. As such, they are part of why allow governments to be formed and collective income (taxes)to be gathered.

Of course, within this framework there is a debate about whether we should have a military and what their role, in principle, could be. But, assuming that we do endorse the idea, then respect for the role, the work involved and the sacrifices made (past, present and future) comes not from an idolisation of this vocation, but from a sense of the value of order in civil society; from the social contract.

Second, there is a more detailed question about the specific function, preparation and funding of the military. This is really the debate about how large the military should be, how well armed, but more importantly, about their disposition and outlook. Should the mindset be defensive, or expeditionary; what kinds of combat operations should attention be given to; how should the military be resourced in terms of technology, recruits, education, supplies and so on.

This is huge area of debate today. It’s not just size of budgets and numbers of recruits that count here, it’s a deeper question about the philosophy that underpins the armed forces. Heavy ground combat is not the same as supporting humanitarian work for example. There are big ethical questions around the role of military intelligence, the prevalence of mercenary forces and the type of soldier (education, skills, attitude) we need for the future. There is also the massive question of how large military budgets should be in relation to the other functions of government.

Third, we get to the specific question of foreign policy. This is not just the case by case analysis of whether military intervention is appropriate. It is also about the relationship between foreign policy and military policy – a line that has been blurred since 9/11.

In fact, the biggest weakness of the so-called “war on terror” may well be that so much foreign policy is being primary implemented by the military, even when it is not specifically the role of the military.

The problem with talking about “supporting the troops,” is that it blurs these three areas. You could have someone who is opposed to the war in Iraq because they reject all forms of military activity and someone else who is in favour of a well-funded military, might have supported the initial invasion of Iraq, but it unhappy with waging of the war and putting so much of the “policing and nation-building” in the hands of the military – yet both end up in the same bucket labelled “doesn’t support the troops.” That is absurd!

Afghanistan is, for me, a case in point. I was a strong advocate for the invasion of Afghanistan to depose the Taliban and break the relationship with Al Qaeda. In fact, I was speaking about this well before 9/11 (and prior to that I had been stunned when the world stood back and watched the country collapse into Civil War after the Soviet withdrawal). However, I was neither a supporter of the over-the-top arial bombardment, nor the relations with Pakistan that have allowed the Taliban leadership to remain mostly in tact (and able to regroup and reinvade) nor the patchy and incoherent rebuilding of the country (complete with a US-supported return to warlordism). It’s far from the case that I lack respect for the military or the people serving in Afghanistan.

In the end, when we hear potent slogans like “support the troops,” we have to step back and ask – what does that really mean and how does it frame the debate.

Toni 17 years ago

It’s just another phrase that goes along with all the other assumptions about what people believe etc. For us at least

But the point you made about it blurring the distinction – I’d suggest that in American society, probably uniquely, there is a very real blurring of all these distinctions. It seems to me that their military and civilian life are not as totally discrete as they are for most other nations, at least in their wishful thinking.

But at the end of the day these phrases are used deliberately to frame the debate into “are you with me or an enemy?”. Their purpose is to remove thought and discussion, lest anyone might consider their path and wander from the party line.

Fernando Gros 17 years ago

The blurring seems to have become more prevalent since 9/11. Certainly bother Eisenhower and Kennedy spoke openly about the danger of the distinctions being blurred.

Moreover, although the point is missed by many of his current fans, Reagan seemed to understand it as well. Whilst he ramped up the military and spent silly money whilst underfunding many arms of goverment – his foreign policy was marked far more by diplomacy than by military intervention.

M. Simon 17 years ago

To believe that the military is not an instrument of foreign policy is to parade your ignorance.

The military has always been an instrument of foreign policy everywhere and for all time.

What is unusual about the USA is that it is not an instrument of domestic policy.

Fernando Gros 17 years ago

Did anyone claim that the military is not an instrument of foreign policy? Are you making an accusation at a particular person, or just making a random confrontational statement.

The point here is not whether the military serve a foreign policy, but what their role is within a mix of foreign policy approaches, including diplomacy, trade and so on.

Moreover, I would say that in the US, the military are a major instrument of domestic policy. Is not the national guard part of the military? They are regularly involved in domestic situations.

Toni 17 years ago

I think when referring to the military not being an instrument of domestic policy, M.Simon is suggesting that the US army is not being used to actively oppress and control the population.

I’d very much suggest they ARE being used, but in a psychological fashion, as I described. Historically speaking they have certainly been used, and it is very credible to believe they could be used in a similar fashion again.

Fernando Gros 17 years ago

It would be an interesting study to look in detail at the deployment of the National Guard in civil matters, like Katrina, student protests, riots and so on.

I remember when tanks appeared around Heathrow in the wake of 9/11 it was really shocking.

In Delhi one thing that made travelling near the US embassy plainly different from being near other embassies was the sense of fortification and clear projection of military power. Of course embassies are always highly policed and guarded, but few western embassies give an overt military image to visitors.

And it seems to me deeply correct to say that the US military has a lot of symbolic sway on domestic matters and domestic attitudes.

roy donkin 17 years ago

I think there are other more subtle ways that the military is a part of domestic policy in the US. One example – over $190 billion is requested for military expeditures in Iraq. If that amount is spent on the military then certainly that affects other spending on domestic needs. The costs of Iraq will have implications for years it what gets funded or not across the US. The economics of the military industrial complex are also used to bully policies through and to reward or break communities as they relate to the structures of power. For example, the current administration is threatening to lay off civilian workers at military bases in the US if Iraq is not funded as they desire.

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