Editorial: Support the troops?

IssueNovember 2009
Comment by Milan Rai , Emily Johns

Do you support the troops? Are you proud of them? It would be a brave – or perhaps foolhardy – person in public life who said no.

Indeed, in a recent speech to mark the end of military operations in Iraq, archbishop Rowan Williams – the dangerous radical who once got himself arrested at an CND protest – declared the need for all of us to “speak our thanks for those who have taught us through their sacrifice the sheer worth of justice and peace.” He was talking about British soldiers.

And though a majority of people in Britain oppose the war (see PN 2514), 90% of the British public say that that they are “proud” of British soldiers in Afghanistan. Even the anti-war movement “supports the troops” by calling for them to be brought home.

We should be clear: to “support” British troops regardless of what they’re actually doing is either incoherent or immoral.

Imagine a British Muslim declaring that, while she doesn’t support their actions, she “supports” – and “is proud of” – the members of al-Qa’eda. If you think the analogy unfair, recall that in 2006 alone US/NATO forces in Afghanistan may have killed as many civilians as died in the twin towers – see PN 2513.

In reality, “support the troops” is a cynical ploy, endlessly wheeled out by governments around the world to divert attention from the brutal realities of their wars, and to undermine anti-war opposition. It’s hard to take effective action against a war if you’re waving a flag at a homecoming parade. None of which means that we should demonise members of the armed forces.

Lieutenant general sir Graeme Lamb recently noted that it is wrong to use simplistic labels such as “good” and “evil” to describe Taliban foot soldiers, many of whom are “young men who fight well for a bad cause… drawn in because they believe they are doing the right thing.”

Much the same could be said of soldiers in the British army.

But this isn’t really about individuals who have ended up in the army because of the limited life chances they’ve been given in this society. This is really about the political leaders who hide their wars of aggression behind flag-covered coffins, who boast about their pride in the young men and women they sacrifice in unjust wars, and who don’t even count the civilians killed to preserve their power.

Keep your eyes on the prize

There are no words to capture our astonishment at the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the man who was elected to the most powerful position in the world on the promise that he would escalate the war in Afghanistan, and who authorised two airstrikes on Pakistan within four days of assuming office, killing at least 18 civilians.

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