Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
These days our men and women in uniform are usually treated with kindness and respect. Nobody begrudges someone in uniform getting to board a flight first, or getting comped a first-class seat. Even those on the left who think that people in military service are misguided dupes of evil militarists no longer indulge the open scorn and calumny prevalent in the Vietnam War era, when a uniform was a target for spittle and charges of “baby-killer,” when in 1971 John Kerry appeared before the Senate and accused U.S. troops of rape, torture, and mutilation. Yet under the surface of progressives’ seeming respect and sympathy there still lurks a subtle contempt for the virtues and values that make our warriors worthy of our gratitude and admiration.
American leftists have long indulged a stealth pacifism that naturally conditions their attitudes toward the military. After all, the U.S. is the source of global disorder caused by its corporate hegemons, who use the military to protect their access to the global resources and markets they plunder for profit. Better to appease an enemy than to unleash these capitalist legions. Remember the “no blood for oil” slogans during the protests against the Iraq War in 2003? Or the exaggerated coverage given to civilian casualties or the occasional brutality typical of every war ever fought? Or the national media attention given to anti-war protestors like Cindy Sheehan, while the numerous heroes who won Silver Stars and Navy Crosses were usually ignored?
But such martial heroism does not fit the leftist narrative. To the left, the U.S. is a neo-imperialist aggressor responsible for global disorder, and Republicans are trigger-happy cowboys drunk on John Wayne westerns. Our military forces are in reality part of the “military-industrial complex,” a corrupt alliance of arms manufacturers––the “merchants of death,” as progressive John Dewey called them nearly a century ago––and the politicians who funnel taxpayer money to them at the expense of social welfare programs and schools. The ever-shrewd Osama bin Laden exploited this leftist bromide in his 2003 letter to American soldiers, who were “spilling [their] blood to swell the bank accounts of the White House gang and their fellow arms dealers and the proprietors of great companies.”
During the 60s and 70s, these left-wing beliefs turned our veterans into the mercenary enforcers of this brutal oppression, excepting, of course, the minorities and hippies drafted against their will into this unjust war. But those attitudes didn’t sit well with the majority of the American people, who traditionally have admired and supported our military. After the election of Ronald Reagan repudiated that left-wing slander of U.S. soldiers as brutal mercenaries of rapacious capitalists, progressives had to become more careful with their rhetoric, and devise more subtle ways to display their contempt.
Today, the liberal media show their “respect” for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan by highlighting their suffering and that of their families much more often than their bravery and martial achievements. During the Iraq War, every day saw another heart-rending story about a dead or wounded soldier and the suffering of his family. Front-page photos of coffins returning to the U.S. and profiles of PTSD victims were common, less so the exploits of heroes like Navy Cross winner Sergeant Marco Martinez, who in 2004 took command after the squad leader was wounded, charged a building where enemy fire was originating, and killed four of the enemy.
For the liberal media, it was ideologically preferable to highlight casualties and weeping families. That coverage dovetailed nicely with the Democrats’ narrative that the “unjust” war was started because of a “lie” about Saddam Hussein’s WMDs, and that those soldiers were dying just to secure access to the world’s 5th largest oil reserves and give lucrative contracts to companies like Halliburton. Now the soldiers fighting and dying in Iraq were not the mercenary villains of the Vietnam era, but the pitiful dupes of an “illegal war,” whose quaint but delusional ideals of duty and honor had been exploited by capitalist fatcats. Soldiers were to be pitied, not scorned or insulted.
But as Christopher Lasch wrote, this sort of condescending pity is “the human face of contempt.” It turns our warriors into another class of victims that progressives can use to attack “heartless” conservatives for their exploitation of misguided idealists who aren’t as intellectually sophisticated as the progressive pundits and professors who know what corporate skullduggery is really going on under the patriotic rhetoric of military service and sacrifice.
Such pity is not a sign of respect for veterans. Of course, we should devote resources and give recognition to the price many of our soldiers have paid in our nation’s wars. But most combat veterans accept that cost as the eternal, non-negotiable reality of war. Of course they want the benefits they have earned with their blood, sweat, and tears, but most do not want to be pitied or looked down upon as hapless victims or the “collateral damage” of some political cabal’s greed.
Genuine respect for our veterans celebrates the virtues of warriors: duty, bravery, self-sacrifice, and loyalty to their comrades, or more accurately their brothers, for as Shakespeare memorably has Henry V say on the eve of Agincourt, “he that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.” We should acknowledge that while for us civilians war is only a horrible catastrophe, for the warrior it is more than just death and suffering: it is an arena for displaying the highest of human virtues, and “the stimulator of glorious individual achievements,” as combat veteran Winston Churchill said to the astonished pacifist and World War I hero Siegfried Sassoon.
Finally, we should honor our warriors today because war is an eternal constant of human history, but political freedom is not, and is always one generation away from disappearing. This means freedom must continually be defended with violence inflicted on its enemies. And most wars, even those fought today with high-tech weaponry, require flesh and blood men and women willing to put themselves into mortal danger and risk their lives to defend the freedom we take for granted every day. So this Veterans Day, let’s not pity our soldiers as victims, but celebrate and honor their commitment to the warrior’s code of honor, duty, and loyalty, one of the most noble set of ideals that humans have ever devised, one that can bring out the worst in people, but more importantly brings out the best that they can be.