NEW YORK--"Support the Troops, Oppose Their Actions," reads the oxymoronic headline of an April 2005 essay at antiwar.com. In a column titled, "Support Our Troops, Not Our President," liberal columnist Richard Reeves worries about Iraq war vets: "They will come home to be called 'torturers,' as Vietnam vets were called 'baby killers.'" To avoid repeating the supposed excesses of the '60s peace movement, today's antiwar groups praise the soldiers fighting the wars they abhor.
"What if they gave a war," a poster of the Vietnam era asked, "and nobody came?" If we are, as Jean-Paul Sartre posited, defined by our actions, most of the blame for the murder of more than 100,000 Iraqis belongs to our top government officials. But Bush's armchair warriors couldn't have invaded Iraq without a compliant and complicit United States military--one that, it should be noted, is all volunteer. These individuals, who enjoy free will, fire the guns and drop the bombs. If personal responsibility is to have any meaning, the men and women of our armed forces have to be held individually accountable for the carnage.
"Supporting our troops while opposing their actions may seem contradictory," argues Joshua Frank in the antiwar.com article. "The duties of U.S. soldiers in Iraq are wrong and many may be committing horrible crimes against humanity. True. But soldiers are mostly not bad people (though, of course, some are)." How is a person who voluntarily commits "horrible crimes against humanity" not a "bad person"?
Even if U.S. forces were not violating the rules of war in Iraq--torturing, maiming and murdering POWs, robbing and subjecting civilians to collective punishment, dropping white phosphorus and depleted uranium bombs on civilian targets--the war itself, based on false pretenses and opposed by the United Nations, would remain a gross violation of American and international law.
Soldiers, they say, must obey orders. However, "just following orders" wasn't an acceptable excuse at the Nuremberg trials, where the charges included waging a war of aggression. Do our government's poorly paid contract killers deserve our "support" for blindly following orders?
Not according to the military itself. The U.S. Army's "Law of Land Warfare," taught in basic training, says that U.S. troops must always refuse an unlawful order--one that violates the Constitution or other U.S. laws, is not reasonably linked to military necessity or is issued by someone without the proper authority.
Even passivity in the face of wrongdoing breaks military law. "If you are responsible for what's going on around you, and it is going unlawfully, and you know that [and] do nothing about it, I'm going to prosecute you," says Bill Eckhardt, a retired army colonel and professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law who prosecuted most of the perpetrators of the My Lai massacre. "So basically, you've gotta be a whistleblower."
Congress never declared war against Iraq. As an unelected imposter, George W. Bush did not enjoy authority under the War Powers Act to commit American forces abroad. Concentration camps at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere violate the Geneva Conventions, which as treaty obligations are binding under U.S. law. Iraq did not threaten the United States. Iraq is not the subject of a U.N.-led international police action. Thus, by several measures, the war is illegal. Every order to deploy a soldier, aviator or sailor to fight in Iraq is by definition an unlawful order, one that he or she is legally and morally bound to refuse.
What are members of the military to do? They should certainly refuse to applaud when Bush uses them as backdrops to his logo-ridden pro-death pep rallies. Moreover, just as Muslim leaders were pressured to speak out against Islamist extremists after 9/11, soldiers ought to step forward to condemn the atrocities at Bagram, Fallujah and Guantanamo in letters to newspapers and other public venues.
The military used to be an honorable calling. Not under Bush. Ethical Americans considering a military career should seek a civilian job until a lawful, elected government has been restored in Washington and we have withdrawn our forces from occupied Afghanistan and Iraq. Those who are already enlisted should refuse to re-enlist. Soldiers trapped by "stop loss" orders should apply for conscientious objector status (which is difficult to obtain) or refuse deployment based on the unlawful order principle. And if all else fails, there's always desertion.
"They set up a roadblock with a sign in Arabic that says 'Stop or you'll be shot,'" 22-year-old Darrell Anderson told PBS' NewsHour about his seven-month tour of duty in Iraq. "This is a third world country. How many people can read? And I was in that situation: The family didn't stop, stopped in front of me. I was ordered to fire. I refused and said, 'The window's rolled down.' And I said, 'Look, there's children in the back.' There's a family. I did the right thing. They said, 'No you didn't. Next time you will open fire or you'll be punished.' Should I go to prison because I can't kill women and children?"
Anderson fled to Canada, which is considering extraditing him back to the United States. Even if he ends up in a military prison, Anderson will have made the correct choice. Rather than running around shouting that they "support the troops," opponents of the Iraq war ought to tell soldiers that fighting an illegal war is wrong. Rather than feeding their guilt for the supposed sins of the '60s antiwar movement by wallowing in phony jingoism, they ought to encourage members of the military to make the same difficult decision as the 5,500 soldiers who have deserted or gone AWOL under Bush and the more than 250 who have applied for C.O. status.
By the way, as Jerry Lembcke found in his book The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam (1998), there's no reason for antiwar types to feel guilty over the treatment of Vietnam vets--there's no evidence of any kind that anyone ever spat on a Vietnam veteran or called one a "baby killer." Those stories only began appearing after the 1982 release of "Rambo: First Blood:" "It wasn't my war--you asked me, I didn't ask you ... and I did what I had to do to win," says Sylvester Stallone's character. "Then I came back to the world and I see all those maggots at the airport, protesting me, spitting on me, calling me a baby-killer."
Chris Clarke (full disclosure: Clarke served as editor for a defunct publication that ran my cartoons) recalls a different reality: "In the 1960s and '70s, antiwar activists opened coffeehouses near military bases to provide soldiers with troubled consciences places to spend a few off-duty hours in like-minded company. We harbored deserters and AWOLs. We wrote letters to GIs, sent them care packages, grieved over them when they joined the damnable body counts announced on the Five O'Clock Follies."
OK, lefties? You can drop the "support the troops" shtick now.