"Support the troops." Particularly since 9/11/2001 and the U.S.'s involvement in two major military conflicts, that mantra has been widely adopted, at least at a superficial level: yellow ribbons, preferential airline boarding for uniformed personnel, spotlighting veterans during sporting events. Those are all nice gestures of support for the thousands of hard-working men and women in the armed forces making sacrifices on behalf of our country. Even anti-war critics have largely separated their feelings about military conflict from the troops themselves, something that has not always been the case -- during the Vietnam War for example, in a conflict which featured a compulsory draft, many soldiers were unfairly maligned by protesters.
As a college student back in 2008, I spent a semester volunteering at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center helping wounded soldiers and their families. It was a humbling and deeply moving experience1, and it first opened my eyes to the potentially harmful effects of just paying lip-service to the troops. After all, I had always found it strange that the level of societal acclaim military personnel receive is rarely bestowed upon police officers and firefighters (who also risk their lives), teachers (who also often make financial or other sacrifices to better our country), or Peace Corps volunteers and aid workers (who also represent the U.S. abroad and bolster America's reputation). I came to realize that a blanket fetishization of the military can be used as a cover for bad policy that harms our national interests and specifically hurts the very men and women in the armed forces it claims to support.
When our only conversations about military engagements are uncritical and everyone involved are "heroes", we lose the ability to have constructive conversations on our decisions. A couple years ago, MSNBC host Chris Hayes was pilloried for correctly pointing out that "we marshal this word [hero] in a way that is problematic," since it implicitly provides moral/ethical cover for any action. This idea was recently affirmed in a brilliant column by Army Capt. Benjamin Summers, who wrote "Applying the label 'hero' to those of us who haven’t earned it diminishes the service and sacrifice of those who did. It also gets in the way of constructive debate and policymaking." We've lived through the consequences of that in the past decade, from more war and a newfound acceptance of torture to "blank check" military spending at a time we cannot afford it. Says Capt. Summers:
Too often, policymakers frame discussion of whether to cut the military budget as being for or against the troops; the political battle over the military portion of the sequester is an example of this black-or-white mind-set. But any bureaucracy — particularly one that doesn’t function with a profit-and-loss mentality — can innovate and gain efficiencies when it’s forced to do more with less. If we’re not searching for opportunities to fix, clean and trim our organizations, we’re not being good stewards of them. When we can’t have political discussions that dig beneath the blanket of “for or against the troops,” palatability wins over stewardship. And one of our nation’s most precious resources suffers the long-term consequences.Why don't the same principles in private-sector business apply to our government's military spending? For while there are many valid criticisms of how corporate America functions, there exists a ruthless demand for better performance at same or lower cost, increased productivity, and more innovation to differentiate from competition. Apple's original iPhone launched at $499, and its latest, infinitely more advanced iPhone 5S model debuted at $199 -- a principle that holds true for almost every other product on the market from electronic gadgets to yogurt. Not so in the defense industry, continually propped up by fat government contracts. This week the Pentagon grounded the entire F-35 Joint Strike Fighter fleet due to engine problems. Even compared to innumerable other overpriced, inefficient military expenditures, the F-35 stands out as a horrifying-flawed, staggeringly expensive program that may not even be necessary; of course its costs have "risen 70 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars since design started in 2001".
The only reason such blatant wastefulness is tolerated is because it is done on behalf our exceptional military. That's no reason to not demand smarter, more cost-effective use of our tax dollars. Similarly, "supporting the troops" isn't a blanket excuse to not think critically about the necessity or effectiveness of each American military intervention; if we really want to honor the commitment that members of the armed forces make to this country, we owe them much more.
1. For those so inclined, I encourage you to support the work of the Fisher House Foundation, which provides housing and support for the families of injured troops receiving treatment.