Excerpt pages 71-78
American Exceptionalism, Military Service, and the Value of Sacrifice in War
“We are a special people with a providential mission . . . a responsibility to the world, (that) has translated into a sense of empowerment or prerogative to determine the way the world is supposed to work, what it’s supposed to look like, and also, over the last twenty years or so, an increasing willingness to use military force to cause the world to look the way we want it to look.”
This is the axiom of American Exceptionalism that sadly and tragically informs much of the thinking, foreign policy, and “diplomacy” of our political and military leaders. As a consequence of this mindset, the moral, legal, even practical value of an act or policy is determined not by whether it conforms to or violates domestic, International, or moral law, but by the national identity of the actor or policy maker. When the United States or one of its surrogates’ torture, bomb, invade, occupy sovereign nations, or covertly instigate or support coups to overthrow democratically elected leaders, these crimes are ignored, denied, or deemed humanitarian interventions, done with the best of intentions, to satisfy a providential patriarchal responsibility, and achieve some greater good. As such, despite violations of law, morality, convention, and treaty, such actions are deemed acceptable, even celebrated, as necessary and right. Should non- allied nations or sub national groups, however, employ similar tactics, perhaps to ensure their religious autonomy, territorial integrity, political sovereignty, and national security, or should they attempt to develop a nuclear weapons capability as a deterrent, it is deemed “terrorism,” indicative of their barbarism, and a threat to the United States and its allies. In response, our political leaders bribe, intimidate, and coerce others in the international community into a coalition of support for sanctions, embargo, bombing, drone missile assassinations, invasion, occupation, and regime change. Even as the illegality, immorality, brutality, and futility of the wars/interventions in such places as Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan, Somalia, Libya, Yemen and elsewhere, have become apparent, the cost in lives, treasure, and reputation have been made palatable to a compliant and vulnerable citizenry made fearful by dire predictions of catastrophe and cataclysm, imagery of mushroom clouds over American cities, and by reference to the mythology of American Exceptionalism.
Sometimes, however, war is a myth breaker. Many veterans who have experienced the horror and insanity of the battlefield have realized the deception and treachery prosecuted upon the American people and the world by our political leaders. Some of the more courageous among them henceforth referred to as “Veteran Activists,” have recognized their moral and civic responsibility to speak out regarding their experiences, the realities of war, and the hypocrisy, arrogance, and mythology of American Exceptionalism and the militaristic foreign policy it inspires and sanctions.
The “Patriot’s “Argument: The Honor of Military Service
Not everyone, however, views such truth telling, candor, and forthrightness as admirable or acceptable. Whether from an avid nationalism, a blind patriotism, or because they take comfort in or benefit from this mythology, some self-proclaimed “patriots” choose never to question American Exceptionalism and militarism. Rather, they celebrate it and demand that others do so as well. As may be expected, perhaps, they have responded to the Veteran Activists’ public criticism and dissent with intolerance, contempt, and ad hominem attacks, questioning their patriotism, courage, honor, strength of character, understanding of and appreciation for the nature of military service, war, and the realities of the world in which we live.
While all would prefer, of course, to peacefully coexist, the “patriot” reminds us that the world is a violent and dangerous place inhabited by nations, sub-national groups, and individuals intent upon doing us harm. To meet this threat, the military is charged with the difficult and daunting task of maintaining order, furthering our personal and national interest, and defending the freedom, lives, and well being of the citizens of our nation and of the world. Consequently, enlistees into the military, upon undergoing basic training, are conditioned to understand and accept some basic realities regarding the nature of military service. First, waging war inevitably involves the use of violence, even deadly force. Second, in the performance of their duties, it may be necessary to injure, even kill, other human beings deemed the enemy. Third, war is such that they, their comrades, and on occasion, innocent civilians, may be injured or killed, the latter accidentally and unintentionally – collateral damage. This is the “patriot’s” view of the world and of military service, and soldiers should not be surprised by what they are asked to do, nor feel guilt, shame, or remorse for their actions – suffer moral injury.
While the “patriot” may regard Veteran Activists as misguided, unpatriotic, even treasonous, he is not insensitive to the effects of war. He recognizes that despite the intense and sophisticated operant conditioning techniques utilized during basic training, not all soldiers
adjust equally well to the intensity of the war environment and, in his view, due to personal weakness or inadequacy, some may be troubled by the experience. As a consequence, they may suffer “internal conflict,” become disenchanted with military service and the war, entertain doubts regarding its legality and morality, believe they had been lied to regarding its purpose and necessity, and become skeptical that their sacrifices benefit only the few, primarily the wealthy war profiteers. While the “patriot” may sympathize with the plight of these “troubled” individuals and encourage them to seek medical and psychological services offered by the Veterans Administration, he is adamant that they remain silent and respectful and avoid criticizing the war effort and denigrating their comrades who continue to serve and sacrifice with honor, dedication, nobility, and pride. In most cases, the “patriot” alleges support not only for members of the military but for American Exceptionalism and the war itself. One notable exception is Andrew Bacevich.