“It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.” — Voltaire
Critics of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and of U.S. military escapades in general are often inconsistent. Although they may denounce warmongering politicians, senseless foreign wars, the warfare state, the military-industrial complex, U.S. foreign policy, foreign military bases, and the destruction of civil liberties during wartime, they usually forget one very important thing.
You can’t have a war without soldiers.
Even though it is U.S. soldiers who make all of these things possible, they are apparently immune from criticism. Seemingly oblivious to the very things they condemn, many critics of war and the warfare state still spout the same nonsense about the troops as the most diehard red-state conservative warmonger: “Support the troops,” “The troops defend our freedoms,” “God bless the troops,” “Pray for the troops in harm’s way,” “Thank the troops for their service,” “The American soldier and Jesus Christ, one gives his life for your freedom, the other for your soul.”
A case in point is an otherwise excellent article by a conservative, “War: What is it Good For?”
The author rightly points out that Iraq “had not and was not planning to attack us,” we squandered hundreds of billions in Afghanistan “building a nation for people who don’t see themselves as a nation,” the war in Afghanistan was not constitutionally declared, “there hasn’t been a declared war since World War II and yet our sons and daughters have fought and died in countless battles around the world,” Iran doesn’t have a nuclear weapons program, but has the right to “develop nuclear power for peaceful means,” “our worldwide military presence is not keeping us safe and in many ways it is provocative,” and that “the cost of war is often seen in the growth of government power and the loss of freedom at home.”
He criticizes intervening militarily in Syria and Iran, sanctions against Iran, arming the Syrian rebels, the idea that it is “acceptable for North Korea to have nuclear weapons but not Iran,” and the shadow war between Iran and Israel (with American support).
He calls for the end of foreign military bases, an interventionist foreign policy, and “entangling agreements that bind us to fight for others who should instead fight for themselves.”
But as a preface to his article, the author prints this statement from the second paragraph of the article:
I am a supporter of our troops. I believe they are patriots and America’s best. It is not the bravery or skill of our troops that I question; it is the imperial foreign policy which sends them as sacrifices on the altar of political ambition that I question.
But what is there to support about U.S. troops? Should we support them for voluntarily joining an evil institution? Should we support them for fighting unjust wars? Should we support them for blindly following orders? Should we support them for fighting foreign wars? Should we support them for perpetuating the myth that they defend our freedoms? Should we support them for fighting undeclared wars? Should we support them for helping to create more terrorists? Should we support them for helping to carry out an evil U.S. foreign policy? Should we support them for fighting unnecessary wars? Should we support them for invading and occupying foreign countries? Should we support them for fighting immoral wars? Should we support them for maiming and killing hundreds of thousands of people that were no threat to the United States?
Are U.S. soldiers patriots or just young men and women who were seeking benefits, couldn’t find a job, or simply wanted to join the military, travel the world, meet interesting people, and then kill them?
Are U.S. soldiers America’s best? The typical American worker in a factory or on a construction site will probably disagree. Soldiers certainly aren’t all America’s best. Some soldiers are downright dumb. There is no doubt that U.S. soldiers are America’s best when it comes to suicide, divorce, alcoholism, drug abuse, and sexual assault (13,900 men and 12,100 women in the military experienced “unwanted sexual contact” in 2012). And, of course, there are the infamous military values and standards of conduct.
I have prefaced this article, not with something I say in the article, but with a well-known statement from Voltaire about how soldiers are universally given a license to kill. This is the worst thing about soldiers. This idea that mass killing in war is acceptable but only the killing of one’s neighbor violates the Sixth Commandment is unfortunately a very prevalent idea among Christians as well.
But it is not just Voltaire who recognized this ghastly attitude.
Here is the famed Seneca, writing in the first century:
We are mad, not only individually, but nationally. We check manslaughter and isolated murders; but what of war and the much vaunted crime of slaughtering whole peoples? There are no limits to our greed, none to our cruelty. And as long as such crimes are committed by stealth and by individuals, they are less harmful and less portentous; but cruelties are practised in accordance with acts of senate and popular assembly, and the public is bidden to do that which is forbidden to the individual. Deeds that would be punished by loss of life when committed in secret, are praised by us because uniformed generals have carried them out.
The early Christian author Lactantius said of the Romans:
They despise indeed the excellence of the athlete, because there is no harm in it; but royal excellence, because it is wont to do harm extensively, they so admire that they think that brave and warlike generals are placed in the assembly of the gods, and that there is no other way to immortality than by leading armies, devastating foreign (countries), destroying cities, overthrowing towns, (and) either slaughtering or enslaving free peoples. Truly, the more men they have afflicted, despoiled, (and) slain, the more noble and renowned do they think themselves; and, captured by the appearance of empty glory, they give the name of excellence to their crimes. Now I would rather that they should make gods for themselves from the slaughter of wild beasts than that they should approve of an immortality so bloody. If any one has slain a single man, he is regarded as contaminated and wicked, nor do they think it right that he should be admitted to this earthly dwelling of the gods. But he who has slaughtered endless thousands of men, deluged the fields with blood, (and) infected rivers (with it), is admitted not only to a temple, but even to heaven.
Writing before Lactantius, Cyprian early in the third century speaks of the idea that “homicide is a crime when individuals commit it, (but) it is called a virtue, when it is carried on publicly.”
And then there is the reply given to Alexander the Great by a captured pirate that was recounted by Augustine sixteen hundred years ago in his famous work, The City of God:
Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, “What thou meanest by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, whilst thou who dost it with a great fleet art styled emperor.”
The celebrated Dutch humanist Erasmus addressed this idea as well in his work A Complaint of Peace:
Do you shudder at the idea of murder? You cannot require to be told, that to commit it with dispatch, and by wholesale, constitutes the celebrated art of war. If murder were not learned by this art, how could a man, who would shudder to kill one individual, even when provoked, go, in cold blood, and cut the throats of many for a little paltry pay, and under no better authority than a commission from a mortal as weak, wicked and wretched as himself.
And he wrote elsewhere: “If it is criminal for a man to attack another with the sword, how much more destructive it is, how much more criminal for the same deed to be done by so many thousands of men?”
The British Quaker Jonathan Dymond observed:
They who are shocked at a single murder on the highway, hear with indifference of the slaughter of a thousand on the field. They whom the idea of a single corpse would thrill with terror, contemplate that of heaps of human carcasses mangled by human hands, with frigid indifference.
And as the nineteenth-century Baptist Charles Spurgeon well said:
If there be anything which this book denounces and counts the hugest of all crimes, it is the crime of war. Put up thy sword into thy sheath, for hath not he said, “Thou shalt not kill,” and he meant not that it was a sin to kill one but a glory to kill a million, but he meant that bloodshed on the smallest or largest scale was sinful.
In his Thoughts of a Biologist (1939), Jean Rostand penned this trilogy: “Kill one man, and you are a murderer. Kill millions of men, and you are a conqueror. Kill them all, and you are a god.”
I don’t know who Vassilis Epaminondou and Ramman Kenoun are, or even if they actually exist, but the statements they are reported to have made are true nonetheless:
If you kill one person you are a murderer. If you kill ten people you are a monster. If you kill ten thousand you are a national hero. ~ Vassilis Epaminondou
A man who kills on his own is a murderer. A man who kills at his government’s request is a national hero. ~ Ramman Kenoun
Just as you can’t have a war on drugs without DEA agents, just as you can’t have invasive airline security procedures without TSA agents, and just as you can’t have a police state without police, so you can’t have a war without soldiers.
This mindset that exalts and excuses soldiers for doing things that ordinary Americans would be put in prison for must be destroyed.