Don’t hate the player, hate the game.
Kings of War has a very good post up about the meaning of a soldier’s sacrifice and the various interpretations thereof, which gets to some of the thorny issues about the political dimension of war. I’m not going to dive into all of that right now (you should definitely read it), but I want to riff a little on something the author mentioned. In the course of the argument the author references, “the U.S.where bumper sticker aphorisms such as ‘Hate the war, not the warrior’ abound.” The idea embodied by these bumper stickers is what I refer to as the ‘don’t hate the player, hate the game’ approach to supporting our troops. Essentially, this is the approach embraced by those individuals who don’t support the war(s), but don’t want to imply that they don’t support the individuals who fight them.
I’ve seen this differently over the years. To take it back to the start, going into Afghanistan made sense to me. Going into Iraq did not. I listened with a feeling of impotent horror to NPR’s broadcast of the Senate hearings on granting war powers to the President in the Fall of 2002, when the only two who said a word against the measure were my own Senator Ted Kennedy, and West Virginia’s Robert Byrd, who gave dire warnings to his fellows about the lasting dangers of ceding those powers the Constitution reserved for the Legislative Branch away to the Executive. They granted him those powers, of course, and we went into Iraq on what I was sure were trumped up pretenses. I washed my hands of it. I supported the troops, for sure, but not the war.
In the last few years, I have come to see that attitude as a cop-out, an easy way of absolving myself of responsibility for that war, and for the sacrifices made in that war, and I came to regret it. I am not saying that one has to support all of our country’s wars in order to support the men and women of our military, and I am certainly not saying that everyone who thinks this way about our wars and our service members has done so as cavalierly as I once did. However, I do think it is all too easy to use that stance – don’t hate the player, hate the game – to wash one’s hands of the whole thing, and I think that issues as big as war, defense, and the civil-military relationship warrant more depth and more nuance than that.
It comes down to this: what someone does as a member of our military, they do on our behalf, and what they do is our responsibility, as is how they are supported. If we don’t approve of what they are doing – the war they are fighting, the way it is being fought – then it is our responsibility to do what we can to change it, and to make our dissenting voices heard. And if we profess to ‘support our troops’ as so many magnetic yellow ribbons on our cars did in the early days of our long wars, then we should put our money where our mouth is. We should seek to understand what an ethical, responsible civil-military relationship looks like. We should try to grasp just what it is that the military owes to society, and what society owes to the military, and to ensure that that burden is met on both sides. It’s not an easy balance to understand, and there is no clear consensus. My own thinking on this is still a work in progress, but unlike a few years ago, I can at least say that now I am mindful, I do think about it, and I act on my thinking when I have the opportunity through the way I vote, the way I interact with my elected officials, and the volunteer work I do.
So by all means, hate the game, not the player, if that’s the way you feel, but don’t let it be just an empty statement: if you hate the game, try to change it; and if you support the player, act on it.
My own re-thinking of these issues began a couple of years ago when I read Nathaniel Fick’s One Bullet Away. That started me reading a long string of books about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, mostly memoirs with a few journalist’s stories thrown in. I read Buzzell. I read Exum. I read Rieckhoff and Campbell and Mullaney and Gallagher. I read Wright andFilkins and Finkel and Junger. By the time I finished my war-stories reading marathon, I was re-thinking my attitude toward the wars, and toward those serving in them.