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Thursday, April 05, 2007
(1:45 PM) | Stephen:
Supporting The Troops

Shakes has a post up about a soldier, Salvatore Ross Jr., who came home from Iraq deaf in one ear, blinded and missing his left leg below the knee. He was one of the vets who have fallen through the cracks, with untreated PTSD, a lump-sum injury settlement and extremely little real-world experience on how to handle himself. While Ross was self-medicating with alcohol and narcotics - a common practice whether a vet or not - his father murdered his stepmother.

Ross hit bottom, hard. He's broke, he's facing numerous criminal charges and he now has serious problems with alcohol and drugs. He's in a psychiatric hospital, and is happy to be there.

A persistent left/right divide is how conservatives insist upon accusing liberals of not "supporting the troops." The left counters that the stories of people such as Mr. Ross are hardly indicative of a Republican administration that "supports the troops," and that people who really value our soldiers wouldn't be so willing to send them into combat.

Like many issues, both sides are talking past each other. The problem is not that one side values the troops and the other doesn't, but that each side has radically different ideas of what supporting the troops actually means. Ezra explored this issue a while back, in his post Support The Imaginary Soldier:

I loathe the tendency -- by politicians and pundits, liberals and conservatives -- to dreamily speak of the great sacrifice, magnificent courage, inspiring intellect, and extraordinary characters of our troops. It's bullshit. And it's bullshit designed to make us feel better, so we don't have to face what we've done to these children, and don't have to imagine the toll a warzone takes on real humans, rather than imagined supermen.

They're not doing a magnificent job. They're not approaching each day with stoic courage and endless optimism. They're doing their best. These are kids. I knew them in high school. They entered the military because they sought discipline, or loans, or redemption, or very occasionally, honor. They were not a wiser breed, or a braver strain -- they were just kids, they made a decision that seemed right at the time, and now they're doing their damndest to survive. It comforts us to speak of them all as Rhode Scholars, automatons who run on courage and faith and perform with grace and cheer. It comforts us to speak of them like that because it allows us to deny the image of twentysomethings lying terrified in the desert, straining to make it through that day, and the next, and the one after it. By so lavishly honoring them, we transform our mental picture of who fights in this war, and we allow their imagined stoicism to ease our onrushing guilt.

While liberals and conservatives are both guilty of this, it's particularly illustrative of the conservative movement's attitude toward our soldiers. Conservatives support our troops as troops, as soldiers. They support them in their function and identity as the means by which the United States wages war. Within this context - using almost sacramental imagery to describe the way our soldiers selflessly volunteer to sacrifice themselves for our sakes - it's very easy to overlook cases such as that of Salvatore Ross, Jr. Certainly when confronted with his story, people of any political stripe will be moved to compassion and hopefully action. But this is not the type of story that conservatives will look for, because it goes against the ideas of what our soldiers are and what it means to support them.

Liberals, on the other hand, are more likely to focus upon these stories because we believe that supporting the troops entails supporting them as human beings first and always. We do not see them as near-mythical heroes who righteously sacrifice their time and lives for our sakes. Rather, we see them exactly as Ezra describe - and, given the anti-war stance of many liberals, we are prone to seeing them in an even worse light, as inhuman, bloodthirsty monsters. The above story, for liberals, means that we need to not only provide more support and services for our soldiers returning from combat zones, but we also need to reconsider the use of our military. Liberal politicians, seeking to dispel the "weak on foreign policy" stigma, have been just as willing as conservatives to view American foreign policy as best promulgated by military force. But most rank-and-file liberals, while not completely opposed to having and using the military, want it to be the absolute last resort.

Really, if all of us could see our soldiers as they really are, men and women just like the rest of the country, no better and certainly no worse, it would be much easier for liberals and conservatives to work together to improve the lot of people like Salvatore Ross, Jr. And helping people like him should be the bedrock foundation of "supporting the troops."

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