The bumper sticker in front of me was troubling on so many levels. I haven’t been able to shake either the contradictory emotions I felt or my need to respond somehow.
“My son is a soldier in Iraq. Enjoy your freedom”
How frightening it must be to know that your child is in a nightmarish war and may lose his life at any moment. I can’t imagine the fear of anticipating a military vehicle paused in front of my house, two officers approaching my front door with their heads bowed. I felt a good deal of empathy when I first saw the message in front of me. Yet at the same time the particular phrasing led me to believe that the bearer of the sticker wanted me to feel guilt as well.
The empathy came easily, but I’m not sure what it is I have to feel guilty about. Is it the fact that my basic needs have been met and that I am living in a land in which I can exercise both personal and political freedom? In reality, there are thousands of people to thank for that – people whose wisdom and courage have enabled us to pursue happiness. Soldiers are among them. But they do not serve alone. There are just as many teachers, police, politicians, writers, and citizen-activists whose wisdom and courage across two centuries have helped preserve freedom in America. With this historical perspective, I have come to prefer gratitude to guilt when it comes to acknowledging my freedom.
But maybe the slogan was not written to elicit guilt at all. If that’s the case, why am I aware of its presence? After all, I did not encourage those young people to choose enlistment, nor did I believe that the Commander-in-Chief had a credible or convincing argument for reducing our presence in Afghanistan and invading Iraq in the first place. What I truly feel is sadness for those whose lives have been lost or forever fractured. And I feel outrage toward those whose wealth has been multiplied by this war without their sacrificing their own or their friends’ children.
Further, I am unable to discern with any certainty how my freedom was endangered by the leaders and people of Iraq. Religious radicals from Saudi Arabia, trained in Afghanistan, attacked America and they continue to terrorize us and millions around the world. But outside the Oval Office and the ExecutiveOfficeBuilding, no serious observer thinks Iraq ever posed such a threat. Anyone who still believes that either doesn’t read or cannot face the reality of our leaders’ complicity in a historically unprecedented debacle. Sadly, when historians begin to dig, they are most likely going to discover the documents that prove the current occupants themselves didn’t even believe the Iraqis were a threat to our liberty. Unfortunately, we’re not likely to ever discover the truth of why they did it anyway.
I am sorry that the driver’s son is in Iraq. He shouldn’t be. But I also wonder what led him there. Was it a reasoned choice, made dispassionately and objectively? Or was there something else in the mix that he couldn’t identify? When I think these thoughts I am always reminded of a quote by Nazi second-in-command Hermann Goering. It is both horrible and true:
“Why, of course, the people don’t want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally the common people don’t want war … That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship … Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them that they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”
Assumptions like this can be held in Washington as easily as they can in Berlin.
I can’t blame parents for hoping that their sons and daughters are risking their lives for an ideal such as freedom. How else could they live with the horrible reality in which they find themselves? But because I am not the father of this soldier, I am also able to consider the very real and deplorable likelihood that this single, American soldier is actually just defending Exxon Mobil’s corporate right to maximize profits by all means necessary. What parent could face this dreadful probability?
How can a sympathetic neighbor support parents and their soldier-children while at the same time preserving some semblance of truth? How are we to support our troops when in our hearts we believe they have been exploited by a wealthy ruling class who pay no price themselves?
We can begin by shining a bright light on any elected official or bureaucrat who conspires to provide anything less than the finest in protective equipment for troops while in combat, and impeccable medical, economic, or educational support when they return. In short, the finest care we can provide for as long as it is necessary.
Finally, we can perhaps avoid future conflicts when we as a people recognize that endless war is a tactic and not a political necessity. The tactic of non-stop war is driven by predatory transnational corporations to the end that the whole world is a free-market economy. Sadly, it has come to pass that the role of the U.S. military is to remove any obstacle to this process. Unless people recognize this and dissuade our young from participation in contrived wars through education, political awareness, and moral guidance, we can expect to be sacrificing them in regional wars for the rest of this century.