The Pentagon Spin

07/14/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Rick Ayers Asst. Professor in Teacher Education at the University of San Francisco

Somehow we are all operating in a fog, a fuzzy Lethe of assumptions we are supposed to have agreed upon -- but we didn't. Our public discourse has edged so far to the right that we cannot even name what is in front of us.

Having endured the longest war in U.S. history, a dead-end attempt at western hegemony, we still repeat the myths of the war-makers. During the US war against Vietnam, protests targeted the president and the policy-makers. But they also, emphatically, named the Pentagon and the military brass as the key danger, the war makers, the bloodthirsty. Demonstrations swarmed the Pentagon, oversized puppets of snarling generals adorned marches, songs and editorials and speeches returned again and again to the blind, murderous monomania of these people.

Somehow -- and this has been a conscious public relations campaign of the last 40 years -- the Pentagon has removed itself from the public discourse as the perpetrators of war. No, they are simply managers, simply technicians who carry out the will of the president, at whose pleasure they serve. It is all about service, altruism, rationality. They are not planning and carrying out the slaughter of tens of thousands of human beings in the Middle East, they are not throwing our children into meat-grinders while they achieve fame and fortune. These people, who are in the business of mass murder, have positioned themselves as innocent -- and we have bought it. And if policies go wrong, the Pentagon assumes no blame -- they duck and let the president take the heat. No one, even liberal commentators, even radical organizers, has taken it to the center of the problem.

Secondly, there is the issue of how we think about, how we talk about, how we talk to GI's, those on the ground, in the shit. Somehow here, too, we have gutted our language to the point where we can't even name what is in front of us. Our current rhetoric has American soldiers as always well-meaning, always just good kids, often in danger and in harm's way. Never do we challenge soldiers to examine their own ethical responsibility; never do we criticize the horrendous acts they perpetrate. No, this would be awful, this would risk . . . . what? Hurting someone's feelings? Even the left, even the critics of this vicious war, put on the softest of kid gloves when talking about the GI's.

Why? Well, there are a lot of reasons. A lot of it has to do with the rehabilitation job the Pentagon did after the Vietnam War. They not only wanted the top brass characterized as simple managers, but they insisted that any criticism of the troops was unpatriotic, unethical, the lowest of the low. Even though international law and our own law have adopted the Nuremburg Principles, that soldiers are responsible for their own actions and they are not exempt from criticism if they declare they are only following orders, our discourse demands that there be no criticism of the GI's.

Don't get me wrong. I understand the many ways they are victims, how they are recruited through an economic draft - lured with hard-sell promises of education, of job training, and if they are from another country, of citizenship. I understand that the main criticism properly goes to Bush, Cheney, the chief war-makers. And yes these young people are sent over as cannon fodder, they are in many ways powerless. But thousands of acts of terror, of civilian massacre, of war crimes are committed by regular troops and, at least in order to name the problem, we have to be willing to say what is going on. Instead, the actual acts of GI's become another piece of reality elided from the picture, the grisly business of war euphemistically called "service."

Who finally names this truth? The GI's themselves. It is the GI's, trying to understand and come to terms with the very acts they have committed, who condemn the cowardice and cruelty of the acts of US soldiers. This happened during the Vietnam War. No, it was not the civilian anti-war activists spitting on soldiers - that never happened. It was, in fact, the GI's themselves, who became the heart and soul of the anti-war movement, who forced us to face the painful moral truth, that war makes people bad and imperialist war makes them their very worst. Recent testimony by Iraq veterans, in their own Winter Soldier hearings, has finally begun to bring this truth to the debate.

The third and final way our language is corrupted, our eyes are blinded, in discussing the Iraq war is the way that Americans manage to bind their loyalty to the war even more strongly when their children are killed there. This is a curiosity of war that goes back to its very earliest recorded history. Once the old generals send the young soldiers out to fight and die, they then claim that the war must continue in order to honor, to consecrate, their memory. They don't even appeal to the political goal of the war; they are not rallying the population to the neo-con strategy of conquest. No, they can simply rely on our very human desire to have the greatest sacrifice we have made, the death of our own children, mean something. It must mean something, so other children's parents must send their children. It must mean something, so carry on the fight. How much more difficult it is to say, "My son (or daughter) was killed in Iraq for nothing, for a stupid, greedy, ugly set of rich old men." The generals have learned, however, that after they have slaughtered your children they don't have to run for cover, they don't face your fury. Curiously, they have made a fierce ally of you - you who are seeking meaning, and solace, in this death.

Yes, the Pentagon and their generals, those in the business of destruction and murder, have gotten off easy. When we finally pierce this veil of respectable lies, when our discourse can begin to wrestle with the truth, then the war will be over.