Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Mixed martial arts, "supporting our troops" and US militarism - fuck all that shit

One of the things I dislike about sports in general, and MMA in specific, is the militarism.  WE SUPPORT OUR TROOPS.  Regardless of the promotion, America MMA has a theme of militarism.

"Supporting" our troops has become something we are required to do if we're going to be taken seriously as Americans.  Americans, we are told, support our troops.  Almost no one really bothers to define what that means, though.

As a taxpayer, I, like everyone else in America, obviously support our troops, in a completely literal, financial sense.  Troops get paid because I, among others, pay them.  Everything they do is public largesse.  Supporting our troops is a fundamental requirement of paying taxes.

I also "support" them in the sense that I wish them well.  I want them to be safe and happy (though since I feel this way for everyone on earth, take that as you will).  I have and have had a lot of friends who served or continue to serve in the military, furthermore, and on an immediate, selfish level I want them to be safe and do well for themselves.

However, the troops are uniquely engaged in a number of foreign policy decisions that I don't support.  I don't, and never have, supported military action in the Middle East.  I most definitely do not support the troops being anywhere except the United States - and I very much mean that in the sense that I think the US should close every foreign military base with a tiny number of exceptions.

It becomes sophistry of the highest order, then, to say that I support the troops while not supporting almost everything American troops do.  The deflection that people use is that they're "defending our freedom".  Nonsense.  Afghanistan does not, and never has had, the power to take away one dram of my freedom.  Doubly so for Iraq.  Troops in Western Europe have lost all meaning - there is no communist threat, anymore.  Russia is our ally and Eastern Europe is joining the EU as fast as they possibly can.  Likewise our East Asian bases.  China is also our ally.  Why do we need bases in Japan, Okinawa and Australia?   We do not.  The day-to-day actual service of almost everyone in the US military does absolutely nothing to defend my freedom because they defend against enemies that aren't there.

(This is not to say that I think we should abandon our military.  I do not.  But I very strongly feel that the role of the US military should be restructured for actual territorial defense, not the ability to project force - which is its current organizational model.  Not defense, but offense.  If you say the best defense is a good offense, you're just offering a meaningless platitude in lieu of something substantial.  It is superficially easy, in the course of history, to find countries that get themselves into it really, really deep because of aggressive militaristic foreign policies.  Using the military for foreign policy often seems like a good idea until it becomes a really, really bad one and a country finds itself surrounded by hostile foes it's own policies created.)

I believe it is also sophistry, and juvenilization ,to say that the troops bear no responsibility for their actions because they're part of the military.  The defense "just following orders" has been ruled, somewhat comprehensively, to be no defense.  Military service does not justify criminal behavior just because someone else ordered you to do it.  (Though it is almost universally ignored in the military, service people who are given illegal orders are obliged to refuse them.  However, the culture of the military does not permit questioning  orders, which makes the laws demanding soldiers question orders meaningless.  De facto always trumps de jure.)  I can't make myself believe that obedience and conformity to military authority clean the hands of soldiers - which would be a standard unique to them, additionally.

In those senses, then, I do not support the troops.  I don't support what they do as being part of a malicious foreign policy that even were it not immoral (and it is immoral) is also short-sighted, creating enemies out of thin air, wasting money and lives in a frankly Orientalist fantasy.  I do not think, furthermore, the facts of service miraculously purge the soldiers of their individual responsibility for the crimes they commit while in the service.

But almost no one talks about the intrigue inherent in any statement about supporting our troops.  "Support our troops" has become a completely hollow phrase, used by people with all manner of political convictions around US foreign policy, that is used to manipulate us into continuing those policies.  Anyone who criticizes, much less attacks, the present course of American foreign policy is accused of not supporting our troops and in the act of "supporting" them conflates the sincere desire for the physical and emotional well-being of those troops with the reactionary political causes of US foreign policy.

In short, saying, "I support our troops" creates a narrative space into which the hawks and warmongers can put an infinity of violence.  Any criticism of the policy of violence enacted by the military becomes transformed through rhetorical alchemy into a condemnation of the people in the military.  It's a giant conversation stopper, preventing Americans from discussing the consequences of the stark militarism of the United States since 9/11.

The second major reason why I have trouble saying I support our troops is I think that a lot of the rightward shift in the United States is due to the near ubiquity of military service among the working poor young men (and, increasingly, young women).  When I graduated high school - and I think this is commonplace for people who come from working class families - nearly all of my peers joined the military.

Only one had any actual desire to serve in the military as a conscious career decision.  The rest were simply at loose ends at the end of high school and having no real academic or employment opportunities, they choose to go into the military as a way to get a paycheck with a job with some social prestige and get out of the house, to be "grown up".  As I said, I think this is pretty normal for "the working class".

This has caused the working class to shift towards the right.  There's hardly a working class family in America that doesn't have several members currently serving, or having recently served, in the military.  For them, supporting the military is immediate - a vital pressing concern.  If they support candidates who wish to defund military adventurism, they are making their loved ones less safe.  What they want is more military, more body armor, more guns, more planes, more of everything that their loved ones say is needed to protect them from their enemies.

Additionally, those loved ones are made part of a system.  Their first political consciousness free from their parents is shaped by their involvement with the military.  To a certain extent, all of their lives they'll identify themselves as being a member of the branch of service where they served - this is particular marked, of course, in the Marines, but is present to some extent in all branches of service.

When young servicepeople get out of the military, there is a great deal of immediacy for them, too.  If they were to act to defund the military, they would be leaving people they know in the lurch.

This drags the working class to the right.  They have a vested interest in US military adventurism!  Funding a large, well-trained, well-equipped military is of vital, immediate importance not only to the servicepeople, themselves, but also to their families and friends who aren't in the service.  The servicepeople are likely to remain supporters of the military their whole lives, too.

I very much believe that a large peacetime, voluntary military is one of the key ways in which the right-wing branch of American politics has subverted the leftist leanings of the working class.  Young people are told that rather than agitated for better access to education and better employment opportunities out of high school, they should just join the military which provides those educational and employment opportunities.  An inherently right-wing organization, the military, becomes the first place of real employment for many millions of working class Americans.

(There is some indication that this is changing, I admit.  Between the privatization of the military and the mechanization of the military, the number of people in the service has declined substantially in the past ten years.  But it's still quite strong.  75% of Americans 50 years or older have an immediate family member in the military.  57% of people 30 to 49 have an immediate family member in service, and 33% of those between 18 and 29 have family in service.  All of these numbers are heavily slanted towards the working class.

(Note I did not say "poor", but working class.  There is a popular Heritage Foundation report out there that conflates middle income with "middle class", saying that almost all soldiers come from families of median income.  I will just assume that people reading my blog know the difference between the middle class and middle income.)

I think what bothers me most, though, is the extent to which - otherwise - sports organizations, including MMA ones, avoid taking a political stand.  Because support of the troops carries with it specific foreign policy implications - it is childish to imagine you can support the troops apart from what the troops actually do, so to support the troops is to support the deeds of the troops, clearly - it becomes boosterism for war.  In almost all other ways, professional sports seeks an apolitical stance.  They never support one position over another except with our mystical, automatically heroic troops.

As I've said, the view is that supporting the troops is somehow apolitical, itself.  That you can somehow support the troops separate from their deeds - but as a stand that's so utterly untrue that I don't know why I need to say it!  Apropos of MMA, if you support a fighter, you support that fighter's fights - you're saying, "Hey, I like that dude, I like the way he fights and generally approve of his behavior and persona."  While it might not be universally true about every bit a given fighter - perhaps you appreciate Anderson Silva's fights but find the man's persona remote and inaccessible; I, myself, appreciate a number of fighters but dislike their overt religion, like cage fighting is a holy mission, like Jesus Christ came down from Heaven and told them to beat people's heads in for money and glory - supporting a fighter at least means supporting their fights.  But with soldiers?  Nope.  Supporting them, absurdly, foolishly, has been divorced from their actual deeds.

This is more or less unprecedented.  Even the police don't receive this kind of unconsidered praise.  I think it's a point of interesting comparison.  First, we don't divorce police officers from their work - if a department is corrupt, it is permissible to speak about that corruption without accusations that you're somehow fostering crime.  Our thinking about police work is nuanced enough to recognize that a corrupt and/or inefficient police department works against the goals of policing - a safe and crime-free community.  Second, we don't talk about police officers as if they have no control over their actions.  They aren't infantilized.  If a police officer commits an act of brutality, even if that brutality is structural in nature, even if their bosses ordered it, it doesn't let them off the hook - we all recognize that cops are grown-ups and that assaulting and torturing prisoners is something that the individual who commits the crime must be held accountable.

Which is all that bothers me about this - that sports organizations, among others, have been duped into support of war under the facile arguments demanding that everyone in the public give homage to "the troops".  That no one in any of these organizations goes, "Hey, wait a second, this is an overt political message and we avoid overt political messages organizationally."  That public support of the troops empowers the politicians who send them into foreign wars to keep doing it, so long as the troops are supported, the United States will have a large, standing army that itches to be used.  That, by its existence, almost demands to be used and is, in fact, being used - destructively, to the harm of us all (though, let's also be fair, moreso to the people being invaded).

The upshot is that we need to become more nuanced with the public discourse around supporting our troops.  We need to be more frank in acknowledging the actions of those troops, divorced from lore and hagiography.  We need to stop treating them like children incapable of making moral judgments about their orders and somehow, inexplicably, free from the moral, legal and ethical burdens carried by following those orders.

Doing so will, I think, among other things, give us a better military - one that more accurately reflects the actual values of the country, one that commits far fewer crimes, one that is used in far fewer wars.  In turn, I think that's a pretty good way of supporting our troops - to put them into fewer situations where they become murderers because of "orders" or because they participate in illegal foreign wars.

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