In the mediocre Roman film yarn Centurion, about the often lionized and mythologized imperial Roman state and its army, for a quote that makes a nonetheless near perfect summation of the argument I endeavor to make about the attitudes that allow for the continued disrespect and disgust of the “grunt” i.e. worker class of the military:
In the chaos of battle, when the ground beneath your feet is a slurry of blood, puke, piss and the entrails of friends and enemies alike, it’s easy to turn to the gods for salvation. But it’s soldiers who do the fighting, and soldiers who do the dying, and the gods never get their feet wet.
Those left wing intellectuals and activists who shun the military and its members as a part of a capitalist power structure do so out of facile stupidity and a lack of perspective. Those who fight the wars and military actions undertaken by the United States and its corporate multi-national partners do so largely out of devotion to the ideal of a nation that would be admirable if actually extant; one devoted to individual liberty, communal safety and prosperity, democratic ideals and a respect for those aspects of our national political theory that serve to uphold the common good. There is nothing inherently inhumane or exploitative about this set of principles and the members of the military who fight and die for this ideal should not be ostracized or belittled. We must remember that 90% of our military is made up of those who if they did not live within the military system would be considered working class or even impoverished, though these categories are increasingly becoming one and the same. The military is a largely proletariat army fighting bourgeois wars. We should not punish those who do the fighting, dying and bleeding in national military actions for the crimes of the power structure that is made up of and beholden to the idea of capitalist imperial expansion.
Why do we as socialists treat the military as a part of the enemy structure? Well, because we have been conditioned to do so by our media and culture. In so many media and cultural depictions of the military there is a bias towards depicting the cataclysmic and orgiastic violence of war. This is not shown as a systemic aspect inherent to war, or the equally endemic corruption and cynicism of the management and leadership class, but as the unique failing of the “grunt”. The grunt is a macho, uneducated, uncouth and altogether lower class individual, a sort of hick army ant whose innate violent tendencies are revealed when he is unleashed upon the helpless hordes of the nation targeted for military punishment. When a massacre occurs in military context, be it a fictional depiction as in Full Metal Jacket or Platoon, or in the many media stories that proliferate during increasingly unpopular military endeavors, the focus is invariable and inevitably put on the individual soldier. This was one of the major failings of the Vietnam era protest movement. We focus on the torture-porn sensationalism of individual acts of depravity and fetishize the idea that the military grunt is inherently unstable and profane. Indeed why would we expect anything more from the poor, the uneducated and the un-bourgeois?
What goes unseen is the corrupting nature of the structures that govern the military and the civilian bureaucracies that govern its actions and activities. The officer class, the bureaucrat power structure and the management who represent capitalist business and power interests are largely to blame for the real evils of martial brutality. We seem to suffer under the delusion that our grunts appear where they are ‘needed’ almost by magical fiat, and once in theater they live within an anarchic society governed by the innate brutality of the lower classes. Mai Lai, Abu Gharaib, Gitmo, the excesses bombing of Axis occupied cities during the Second World War. All of these moral travesties are often looked at through the lens of “how could they?”, as though these actions were dreamed up by the depraved minds of individual grunts without any sort of input or tacit approval from the higer military/civilian command. Within the contemporary context when a grunt commits unacceptable military violence it is an “atrocity” and an example of “brutality”. However, when we do deign to look at the responsibility of the power structures and command figures we see the same incidents as “failures of policy” or “tactical blunders”. The soldier did the actual killing so we choose not to apportion blame to the command class or analyze their own culpability in the action committed. Do atrocities and crimes against humanity really only occur in a working class vacuum? Do the officers and the bureaucrats get to skate by without any blame at all?
When prisoners are mistreated we do not attack the inherent morality of Generals and Defense Secretaries as we do the soldiers who do the “wet work”; at worst we scold them for failing to keep control over the little savages in their control and at the best we praise them for doing the nations “dirty work”. We expect our Generals and Secretaries to appear pure, noble, and competent. We see them as the stopgap keeping the brutality of the grunt class at bay. What we do not realize is that the true responsibility for the wars, atrocities, and violence we see on a day to day basis lies with the command structure. These grunts do not send themselves overseas! They do not choose where they go or why and they do not pick what the overall aim of a mission is! They are paid enough to maintain themselves, fed, clothed, trained with particular pre-ordained skills, told that their cause is just and that violence is a sign of patriotic potency.
There is a reason that the military recruits most actively in areas that are economically depressed (often by the same powers and interests that dictate military policy) and in working class, immigrant and minority communities. These are areas where the lore of escape from oppression is reason enough to want a paycheck, a gun, a uniform and a cause to die and kill for. Why should we be surprised when the violence inherent to these situations is displaced and projected onto foreign communities with even less power and opportunity than the areas from which the grunts themselves have emerged? The unacceptable side-effects of free market created poverty and oppression are made palatable or at least plausibly deniable when transported into a foreign realm. The pitiable and sympathetic underclass becomes the reprehensible and brutal warriors unfit for civilized consumption. The officers, bureaucrats, and secretaries become the true heroes, the real best and brightest, the true essence of American nobility, even if they half-heartedly insist that we give applause and laurels to the “brave” military grunts they have already tainted forever through the missions they have mandated and the atrocities they have set in motion. The grunts are heroes when they go off to war, heroes when they do the sort of killing that we are told is acceptable, and heroes when the sacrifice their own lives for a cause that becomes more opaque the closer you look at it, but they are untouchable when they commit deeds outside of the standards of acceptability. Of course these standards are set by the Generals and the secretaries and the grunts can only go where they are told. This makes it all the easier to discard these displaced proletarians when they are brought back from the foreign killing fields and all the easier to think that this is just what happens when you let the underclass take power into their own hands.
Military action serves not just to expand capitalist and bourgeois power overseas and to create new free markets and dependencies but also as a way to turn potential sympathy for oppressed proletariat victims into antipathy towards and fear of brutal militarized victimizers. We turn the working class heroes of everyday life into monsters in a never ending charnel carnival where acts of patriotic violence are exhibited for our amusement and self-validation. Those at the top are never monsters and they are never to be feared. At the most they are “failures” who should be “punished” by being expelled from the public realm into permanent exile in the private sector. Of course now that the private sector largely controls the public realm, how is this in any way exile?