Published on Thursday, March 15, 2007
The 'Support our Troops' Myths
by Ira Chernus
ARE YOU HOPING THOSE spineless Democrats in Congress will cut off the money for the war? Well don’t hold your breath. Even a stalwart liberal like Barney Frank demurs, explaining that “it’s a high-risk thing” -- a high risk to the Dems’ chances of winning next year’s election, because most voters clearly do not want war funds cut now. That includes a surprisingly big chunk of voters who oppose the war. They say openly that it’s a disastrous mistake, but they don’t want Congress to best thing it can do to end the war.
Though the Bush administration can’t figure out how to win in Iraq, it is scoring a big victory on the public relations battlefield with its favorite myth: If you cut funding for the war you are not “supporting our troops.” If you support the troops you have to keep on paying billions for a failed war.
To believe that one, you’ve got to believe several other myths.
Myth one: The Bush administration does support the troops. In fact, of course, they’ve shorted the troops on everything from body armor to medical care for four years now.
Myth two: The only way to support the troops is to put them at risk of death or grievous injury and leave them there, for no good reason. If that’s “support,” then I’m glad I’m not being supported.
Myth three: Either we keep war funding at its present astronomical level or we won’t be supporting the troops at all. In fact, there is plenty of room to find a middle ground, to cut the funding by some amount yet still give the troops what they need to stay safe.
These are myths that are out and out falsehoods. Why would so many people buy into them? As a historian of religions, I suspect that it has a lot to do with other powerful myths that have always been woven around soldiers and the military.
Here I don’t use the word “myth” to mean a lie, but rather the way we use it in my field of study: A myth is a story that is widely believed because it expresses people’s basic worldview and values . People who live by a myth don’t care whether it is factually true or logically consistent, as long as it gives them a way to make sense out of their world and find meaning in their lives.
In an age when it’s hard to believe in heroes, the mythic “GI” of the American media is someone people want to identify with and emulate. When you can imagine yourself as the main character in the myth, that’s when the myth really grabs hold of you.
I suspect that is what’s happening to a lot of people who oppose the war but insist on “supporting our troops.” They see their soldiers as uniquely admirable role models. In the popular imagination, these soldiers are ordinary youngsters (thus easy to identify with) who have extraordinary character. They are “just plain kids” who have the kind of heroic virtues that most kids don’t seem to have anymore -- unless they go into uniform.
The mythic soldier’s virtues are all about caring for others -- buddies, the outfit, the service, the nation -- more than self. After all, no one forces them to serve. They volunteered. (The myth conveniently ignores the economic pressures that drive people into the military.) And the news media give us an endless parade of these uniformed heroes, all looking noble and handsome, telling us that it doesn’t matter whether or not they approve of the war. “I made a commitment. I have an obligation to serve. I have to do my duty,” is their constant refrain.
Identifying with such selfless heroes lets ordinary civilians imagine that they, too, might someday somehow rise to that higher level of virtue. It lets them believe that in a world so saturated with selfishness, selfless devotion to duty is still a possibility.
It also lets them believe that somewhere in this chaotic world, there is at least one institution where order still prevails -- where orders are given and carried out, where someone is in control and everyone knows it, where the concept of authority still means something. To people who feel that their own world is spinning out of control, it can be awfully comforting to have these uniformed, duty-bound heroes to identify with.
To people who feel that their nation is saturated with selfishness and spinning out of control, it can be equally comforting to see noble young people willing to sacrifice themselves for their nation. “Our troops” seem to care more about America than anyone else. So they send a reassuring message that somehow (even if we don’t know quite how) “America” is still worth serving, sacrificing, and even dying for.
Of course that’s the strange thing about this myth: It is most powerful when we identify with heroes who are dead. It is usually displayed (especially in local news media) when a soldier has died. So it asks us to imagine ourselves as dead, too.
Death gets to the heart of the military myth. The absolute finality of death can easily give the myth an aura of absolute significance, making its messages seem like the absolute, final truth. In a predominantly Christian country, the story of a sacrifice of the innocent to save the rest of us (who don’t deserve it) makes the virtuous cause for which they died seem sacred, too.
Indeed, there is one theory that every war is a form of ritual sacrifice: We choose some victims from among us to be sent to their deaths, so that the rest of us can reap the psychological benefits. Just what those benefits are will vary from one society to another (and from one theory to another).
My hunch is that the crucial swing vote—the millions who know the war is wrong but want to keep paying for it—are getting a psychological payoff from all those media reports of heroes, especially the dead ones. By identifying with “our (dead) troops,” the millions can believe that the messages of the myth, which they want so desperately to believe in, are undoubtedly true.
Of course everyone knows, at some unconscious level at least, that it’s wrong to send others to their deaths to make us feel good. We owe the dead a debt. But those who benefit psychologically from those deaths don’t want to stop the cycle of sacrifice. So they have a simple solution: Let’s repay our debt to the already dead by sending others to their death.
When George W. Bush insists that we have to keep fighting -- sending more of “our troops” to their death -- so that those who have already died won’t have died in vain, the logic seems totally twisted to many of us. But within the myth, it actually makes sense. "Our troops" have to be funded, and sent into the jaws of death, so that we can go on believing in our own, and America’s, virtue.
This all dovetails nicely with that other myth: We are so virtuous that we send our troops to Iraq to help save the Iraqis from themselves. According to one recent poll, 77% of Americans want to bring our troops home “if Iraq’s leaders fail to meet promises to reduce violence there” -- as if the Iraqis are creating all the violence; as if they are a bunch of ungrateful natives who could turn off the violence but just won’t; as if U.S. troops have no role in creating and perpetuating the violence.
Here on the homefront, it’s easy to believe such a myth -- and to see the whole war as myth -- because the stories about “our troops” are typically detached from any political context, as if Iraq were merely a stage on which "our troops" continuously perform their mythic deeds. It’s easy to let it all happen in our imaginations, where we can “die” heroically and still be perfectly safe.
Sadly, this explanation can be just as true, or more true, for the millions who know no safety because they have loved ones serving in battle zones. Many cling to the myth to give meaning to their sacrifice of emotional security, which might otherwise be intolerable.
Understanding the mythic meaning of “our troops” does not in any way excuse the irrationality of funding a war that most Americans no longer want to fight. But it helps us understand why the public clings to such an irrational stance. It reminds us that, when it comes to war, political decisions are shaped as much or more by irrational myth than by thoughtful logic.
And it challenges us to think about how all Americans might be able to find a sense of virtue, order, security, and national pride without sending anyone off to die -- or to kill. If we could create a society that could manage that feat, or even strive toward it, we would have a nation we could really be proud of.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin. firstname.lastname@example.org