The US Army is holding Specialist Bradley Manning incommunicado in Kuwait on charges of leaking to WikiLeaks video of Apache helicopter pilots gunning down two Reuters cameramen and a number of Iraqis in a Baghdad neighborhood. The video is devastating in what it reveals about cold-blooded hi-technology warfare in a place like Baghdad. See it at: http://www.collateralmurder.com/ 
WikiLeaks has arranged for three pro-bono lawyers to assist Manning in his case. However, Manning must request they be allowed to see him. Since the Army will not inform Manning of their existence, he cannot ask for them to see him. Joseph Heller would love it, a perfect Catch 22.
For me, Manning is an American hero, part of a strong tradition of soldiers who conclude in their conscience that they cannot morally remain silent on the nature of the war they have been sent to fight. One Iraq vet told me recently he lost confidence in the war he was fighting when he realized in his attitudes and behavior toward the Iraqi people he was becoming the monster he thought he was sent there to fight.
As there is a tradition of antiwar soldiers, there is also a tradition that seeks to damn people like Manning and keep their views far from the American consciousness.
In recent memory, this tradition starts with the image of antiwar protesters spitting on returning soldiers from Vietnam, a right wing myth that arose during the Gulf War as part of the effort what George Bush Senior called “getting beyond the Vietnam Syndrome.” That’s the conclusion of Jerry Lembcke in The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam.
Lembcke looked and could find no evidence at all of spitting. Instead, he says, the image was part of a concerted effort to demonize the antiwar movement and, especially, to distract national attention away from the many instances of returning soldiers and veterans who sympathized with the antiwar movement during the Vietnam War.
No one was actually spitting on our soldiers. Instead, pro war elements allowed their metaphoric imaginations to express their feelings about the antiwar movement with the spitting image. So it is not surprising to see someone like Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal dredging up the spitting image in his recent fraudulent posing as a Vietnam veteran.
Look up the documentary Sir! No Sir! to understand the fear the antiwar soldiers’ movement sent into the hearts of our leaders as the Vietnam War derailed. The fact this significant movement is little known shows how effective things like the spitting myth have been.
Ever since the rise of the spitting image, and especially with the Iraq War beginning in 2003, the antiwar movement in America has walked on eggshells when it came to distinguishing the war it opposed from the soldiers sent to fight it.
“Support the troops, not the war” became the mantra. Sometimes the word “troops” is exchanged for “warrior,” a term that calls up images of men hacking away at each other with swords and pikes.
In the film 300, the Spartans live a code of "Come back with your shield or on it." When wars begin to fail, this kind of classic Warrior Myth feeds into the first cousin of the Spitting Myth, the Stab In The Back Myth, which suggests that those questioning wars are, somehow, the reason for their failures.
The Stab In The Back Myth tends to appear as wars fall in popularity and begin to make no sense to many at home who pay for them and many who fight them. We are living in one of those times.
Senator John McCain now likes to say, at times like this “we cannot sound an uncertain trumpet.” You can see it forming: Those whose trumpet is not certain in the months and years ahead will be blamed for the disaster that is our policy in Afghanistan.
Who carries the war’s moral burden?
Moving from the mythic to the real, is it time to ask whether the antiwar movement should stop using the slogan “Support the troops, not the war”? More to the point, if our current wars amount to misguided policy helping to bankrupt the country in economic hard times, at what point does the moral burden of this fall on the soldiers who volunteer to do the fighting?
In Vietnam, there was a draft and much higher rates of casualties than in Iraq and Afghanistan. One thing the military and militarists learned from Vietnam is that US citizens don’t like the idea of their sons and daughters being killed in a war that doesn’t make sense.
At the end of the Vietnam War, as troops were pulled out, the use of mechanized killing methods was expanded, an equation that now rules our military in war. In fact, this phenomenon is so advanced that the Obama administration relies even more than its predecessor on a burgeoning drone war in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
It is remotely directed, lethal robot warfare in which body bags of American boys and girls are a diminished burden for war makers. The only negative is the fury the policy creates among Afghans and Pakistanis, including people like the Times Square bomber.
A drone “pilot” sits in an air conditioned cubicle somewhere in New Mexico with a Diet Pepsi on the console as he kills people 12,000 miles away seen only on a video screen that looks identical to the video screen of games he was weaned on as a kid in the mall. Then he goes home to his family.
This individual is not a “warrior.”
Of course, we still have men, and maybe women, in real killing professions. The cashiered General Stanley McChrystal was famous for managing hunter/killer teams with real blood on their hands. These individuals are highly trained and as tough and ruthless as one could ask. They operate in total secrecy.
There are also standard infantry units that still do humping and patrolling. Lately, their lives are being put in greater danger due to new rules of engagement that often preclude air support, which tends to kill lots of civilians. And, finally, under the Petraeus counterinsurgency doctrine, there are many soldiers in support and development roles.
I’m a veteran of the Vietnam War. I was a 19-year-old volunteer and my job was as a radio direction finder in the Central Highlands tasked to locate Vietnamese radio operators so they and their comrades could be killed by F4s, 175mm howitzers or infantry units. Forty years on and lots of reading and thinking later, I see those I targeted as soldiers fighting for the liberation of their country. I was the bad guy.
Young men and women today in Iraq and Afghanistan and veterans back home no doubt also see their war shifting in meaning before their eyes.
So should the antiwar movement continue to let our soldiers off the hook so completely? Or should we encourage greater moral engagement? Do the wars really make sense to our soldiers, or are they simply trapped and fighting to protect themselves and their comrades? Are they there just because they needed a job?
I came home from Vietnam with a whopping case of survival guilt and a major dose of mistrust for my government. I was not in combat and was lucky not to be wounded or burdened with traumatic stress. I can’t say that for many of my combat veteran friends.
What we owe our soldiers
These days we hear a lot about how the military is concerned about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in its ranks. But too often the military’s concern is to get a soldier back up to fighting shape – to essentially get him or her back on the line. Certain critical matters involved in trauma are avoided.
From the vantage point of the anti-war movement, PTSD counseling is seen very differently. The goal is for soldiers to fully understand their actions and the traumatic issues they are dealing with – no matter where that might lead in relation to the war itself. In other words, self-knowledge and a greater wisdom are the goals, not re-adjusting to the military’s mission.
If certain aspects of the war itself are causing the trauma, then that should be faced head on. The fact his actions in the war may be morally troubling for a soldier is often because the war is morally troubling as an historic reality.
The antiwar movement owes our soldiers respect for their suffering and their sacrifices. We need to make sure they get the care and support they need once they are home. But the antiwar movement should no longer give our troops a moral pass, especially when it comes to the continued use of al Qaeda and 9/11 as a “Remember the Alamo!” battle cry to explain our military presence in places like Afghanistan.
Our reasons for being in Afghanistan and Iraq make less and less sense and the skyrocketing costs of these military occupations are preventing us from addressing a long list of overdue domestic needs. Al Qaeda has moved on from Afghanistan, and it has been effectively argued that tough regional diplomacy can check their return.
It is nothing short of absurd when we are told Americans are needed to teach Afghans, one of the world’s most warlike people, how to fight. As Thomas Friedman points out, nothing in Afghanistan “resonates” anywhere. We are there now to save face after a host of bad decisions got us bogged down there.
We need less secrecy and more accountability in our military ranks, and we need to encourage more of our young soldiers to share this view. Right now, all thinking, caring Americans need to contact their congress members and fight for soldiers like Bradley Manning, an American hero hidden away in a Kuwait jail. The military hopes you forget about him.
Manning’s action follows precisely the arc Joseph Campbell describes in his famous book Hero With a Thousand Faces of the young warrior who leaves home to descend into Hell, where he learns something and then returns to impart that knowledge to his people.
The military understands this arc very well, which is why it is so harsh with someone like Manning. It is why our leaders so feared the antiwar soldiers movement back in the days of the Vietnam War.
America is not its national security apparatus. First and foremost, our soldiers need to protect themselves and their comrades, but they also need to understand they serve more than just our generals.