“Dear member of the U.S. military: Thank you for defending our freedom,” reads the message on the Department of Defense’s “Defend America” website (http://www.defendamerica.mil/). Fill in your name and hometown, and click to join the more than 2 1/2 million who have sent the message.
The sentiment seems hard to argue with. No matter what one thinks of the coming war against Iraq, can’t we all send such a message to those who serve?
Not if we want to be honest about U.S. war plans, for those troops will not be defending our freedom but defending America’s control over the strategically crucial energy resources of the Middle East. They will be in the service of the empire, fighting a war for the power and profits of the few, not freedom for the many.
To some that statement may seem disrespectful. But resistance to the coming war against Iraq does not signal a lack of respect for those who do the fighting. I have never served in the military but friends and family have, and I have empathy for people on the front lines who face the risks. I’m also aware that many of those who find themselves on those lines may have joined the military primarily for economic reasons. But if I am truly to respect them — as human beings and as fellow citizens — I should be willing to state clearly my objections to this war.
That requires distinguishing between the rhetoric and reality of U.S. foreign and military policy. Every great power claims noble motives for its wars, but such claims usually cover an uglier reality, and we are no different.
For most of the post-World War II era, the United States’ use of force against weaker nations was justified as necessary to stop Soviet plans for world conquest. The Soviet regime was authoritarian, brutal, and interventionist in its own sphere, and it eventually acquired the capacity to destroy us with nuclear weapons. But the claim that the Soviets were a global military threat to our existence was also a political weapon to frighten Americans into endorsing wars to suppress independent development in the Third World and accepting a permanent wartime economy.
With the Soviet Union gone, American planners needed a new justification for the military machine. International terrorism may prove more durable a rationale, for organizations such as al-Qaeda are a real threat, and we have a right to expect our government to take measures to protect us. But the question is, which measures are most effective?
U.S. intelligence officials have acknowledged that the U.S. attack on Afghanistan did little to reduce the threat and may have complicated counterterrorism efforts. But the war was effective at justifying an ongoing American military presence in Central Asia. A war against Iraq, being marketed as part of the war on terrorism, is even more obviously about U.S. control of the region’s oil.
So, we have to separate what may motivate people in the armed forces from the real role of the U.S. military. I have no doubt that many of the people who serve believe they are fighting for freedom, an honorable goal we should respect. But they are doing that for a government with a different objective — to shore up U.S. power and guarantee the profits of an elite — that we should not support.
There is no disrespect in asking fellow citizens who have joined the military to question, “What am I really fighting for?” and “Who really benefits from the risks I take?”
If we civilians truly care about the troops — as well as the innocent people of Iraq who will die in a war — we should make it clear to Washington that we will not support wars for power and instead demand a sane foreign policy that seeks real freedom and justice, not dominance and control.
My message to the troops would be: “Thank you for being willing to defend freedom, but please join the resistance to this unjust war.”
That is a message of support for the troops and a plea for solidarity among ordinary people who want to build a better world, not serve the empire. It is a reminder that, as John McCutcheon put it so eloquently in song: “the ones who call the shots won’t be among the dead and lame/And on each end of the rifle we’re the same.”
Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of “Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.