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.