NORMAL, IL.—The Illinois town of Normal is the typical American town for more than the suggestiveness of its name. Situated in the heart of central Illinois, it constitutes together with neighboring Bloomington a mid-sized metropolitan area. It is a mostly affluent community, thanks to the presence of insurance giant State Farm’s corporate headquarters. It is also largely conservative, despite the presence of two universities.
The area is also home to the National Guard’s 33rd Military Police Battalion. It was here that several thousand local residents lined Normal’s Main Street on September 27 to greet the 33rd Battalion as it returned from a year’s deployment in Iraq. The scene was festive as police squad cars and motorcycle contingents draped with large American flags led the procession of convertibles carrying members of the battalion. The cheering, flag-waving crowd included groups of local schoolchildren, State Farm employees and others given time off to attend the parade.
"It’s our way of honoring our heroes for all they’ve done for us," one man from a group of motorcycle escorts told the local Pantagraph newspaper. Others commented how grateful they were for the troops whose sacrifices "protect our freedoms." Several letter writers and posters to the newspaper’s online coverage of the event remarked how refreshing it was to see the troops honored now, unlike in Vietnam days when returning veterans were purportedly treated with widespread disdain.
The welcome home parade for the 33rd Battalion was ostensibly "non-political." But this was true only if you happen to believe the U.S. occupation of Iraq is just a larger version of a Peace Corps service project. Of course, the relief of family, friends, and the community that the volunteer guard members returned home safely was understandable. But relief at the return of loved ones and neighbors is one thing; pretending that their mission was somehow right and noble is another.
Ironically, the Bloomington-based 33rd Battalion was stationed at Camp Bucca, which is located in southern Iraq and is the U.S. military’s primary facility for holding "suspected insurgents." The Pentagon reports at least 24,500 Iraqi detainees are now held in Iraq, a figure that has increased by roughly 50 percent since the "troop surge" launched by the White House earlier this year. The 33rd Battalion provided security at the facility during their deployment.
Reportedly the average Iraqi is held at Camp Bucca for a year, the majority of whom are Sunni Arabs picked up often on specious grounds and never formally charged or issued a court warrant. For many their "crime" is simply that they are young Sunni men. It’s nice to throw an old-fashioned "welcome home" parade. But in light of their assignment, it also seems appropriate to ask: What exactly did the 33rd Battalion’s mission at Camp Bucca have to do with "protecting freedom?" Not American freedom, and certainly not Iraqi freedom.
When Patriotism Means "Shut Up"
The simplistic propaganda that equates "support for the troops" with support for the President’s war politics has always been cheap demagoguery, designed to shut down (or in the case of talk radio, out shout) reasoned political criticism of the war. Right-wing talk radio runs wild with such demagoguery, of course. "Patriotism is supporting our troops on the battlefield, not undermining the mission and morale," says Rush Limbaugh. Beyond giving us a window into Limbaugh’s inner totalitarian, what is the man really saying? Does he mean we should endorse bombing raids that rain death and sorrow on the Iraqi landscape? Does he mean we should cheer Marine snipers who pick off human targets in the dark of a Fallujah night? Or maybe he means we should salute those soldiers who under the corrosive influence of the occupation culture erode into heartless killing machines, delivering death to Iraqis with a shrug of indifference for their "raghead" lives?
Or, does supporting the troops mean telling the truth about the war? It should. The staggering human costs of the war, measured now in the over 1,000,000 Iraqis estimated to have died under its auspices, according to the latest estimations by British pollsters Opinion Research Business (ORB), represent a historic crime against humanity. No wonder 78 percent of Iraqis oppose the presence of U.S. and coalition troops in their country, as reported in a recent ABC News-USA Today poll. No wonder nearly half of all Iraqis support attacks on American troops.
Indeed, the bipartisan beltway bickering of our political leaders over the merits of the troop surge plays out like a tragic, corrupt farce when set against Iraq’s catastrophic reality. "The violence in Iraq is overshadowing a humanitarian crisis, with eight million Iraqis-nearly one in three-in need of emergency aid," concludes a July report from Oxfam International and a network of aid organizations working in Iraq. Currently, 70 percent of Iraqis are without adequate water supplies, up 20 percent from 2003. Twenty-eight percent of children are malnourished, up from 19 percent before the invasion. Fifteen percent of the population regularly cannot buy enough food. Fifty percent unemployment continues to stalk many areas of the country.
Among U.S. troops the casualties now number over 3,800 dead and 29,000 wounded. More than 185,000 returning veterans have sought medical and disability assistance for post-traumatic stress and other injuries. And the Bush Administration’s only answer is more of the same. No wonder also that like the public at large, many U.S. troops increasingly question the war. A Le Moyne College/Zogby Poll taken in 2006, for example, found 72 percent of U.S. troops serving in Iraq supported an exit from the country within a year. Only one in five favored the President’s "stay the course" rhetoric.
Support the Troops? Then End the War
The Iraq war proves that the world’s biggest military budget and imperialist hubris alone guarantee nothing, lest of all justice. But instead of tempering their course, the White House response now is to stoke the rhetorical fires for further lighting up the region with a possible military assault on Iran. Not for George Bush is any Thoreauean twaddle about the life of quiet desperation. The modus operandi of this administration is that it must always be someone else who goes to their graves with the song still in them.
"In public life today, paying homage to those in uniform has become obligatory and the one unforgivable sin is to be found guilty of failing to ‘support the troops,’" writes Boston University professor Andrew J. Bacevich in his 2005 book, "The New American Militarism." As the military power nonpareil, the United States under its current leaders is on a path that "invites endless war and the ever-deepening militarization of U.S. policy," warns the former career military officer from Normal, Illinois.
It’s a path that for the first time openly embraces the option of "preventive war" as policy. With this has come a revival of the mystifying nonsense that every troop deployment is driven by the goal of "protecting our freedom" as Americans. What better way to justify wars that don’t deserve justification than to elevate "the troops" onto some sanctified stage where critical thinking is sacrificed to a cartoon version of patriotism engineered by desperate, violent men.
As usual, it’s the rank and file soldiers who are the pawns in this deadly game.
Mark T. Harris has written cover articles and other features for Utne magazine, Chicago’s Conscious Choice, and other publications. He is a featured contributor to "The Flexible Writer: A Basic Guide," by Susanna L. Rich (Longman, 2002). You can write to him at [email protected]