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June, 2003, Volume 10 Nr. 10, Issue 118

Vietnam Syndrome, Gulf War Syndrome 
and Supporting the Troops

by JeanneE Hand-Boniakowski

During the recent military action in Iraq, I watched and listened and asked questions of folks around me.  I observed in many people an overwhelming helplessness, an awareness that they are uninformed or misinformed, a desperate defense of the idea that there is still an ideal named “America”, a real love and concern for soldiers, a wishful belief that high tech war is fast and distant and rather benign.  These expressions are harder to observe in recent weeks, as fewer people are willing to talk about the war.  Demoralized, perhaps, that the “reasons” – make Iraqis happy and free, find weapons of mass destruction, kill Saddam – are unfulfilled, and look like a sham.  Or maybe just bored now that the “the Battle of Iraq is over” as G.W. Bush proclaimed. (Admittedly, I did not engage a comprehensive variety of opinions in my conversations about the war; strongly pro-war voices were more interested in yelling at me than conversing, a game I refuse to play.) 

“Support our troops.”  When this phrase was used to scold people who were openly against the Iraq war (about a third of the US population in many polls), or ambivalent (another third), it was wrapped in a particular context equating support of “our troops” with support of the United States and with support of this war.  Conversely, we were told that to be anti-war is to be anti-soldier, to despise the individuals who are “only doing their job.”

While a loud minority of hyperhawks (and the majority of the corporationist media) treated this war like the Superpower Superbowl, bellowing like the loutish spectators they are, other voices, from the tentatively anti-war liberals to the sleep-addled Democrats, fell all over themselves several weeks into the year with the parrot-like assertions, paraphrased: “While I may consider this war a bad idea, once it starts, of course I’ll support the troops…the American people will, of course, rally behind the troops…support our young people in harm’s way”, et cetera.  Countless times, with rare and minor variations, we heard that.  Claims of “they are only doing their job” and “no one wants war” and “they must know we stand united behind them, or they will become demoralized” were much more common than claims that “ they are defending us”.  Few people seriously claimed that this war was to defend our freedom; at best it was to prevent something waybadscary in the vague future (WMDs), or maybe to liberate the Iraqis.

The tenor of much of the “support our troops” talk on the streets, over dinner tables, in the employee lounge, reflected the great ambivalence folk had about this war. When I spoke to regular people, in conversations, the support of this war was thin and brittle, ambivalent and highly qualified.  If the war lasts too long, kills too many civilians, kills too many of “our troops”, et cetera, support will drop precipitously, so the supporters told pollsters for months before it began.  What “too many” or “too long” meant was unclear, but underscored the qualms of the hesitant hawks.

Yellow ribbons were first widely used to throttle dissent in the 1991 Gulf War.  Like all wars, it seemed, to those running it, a good idea at the time.  Like all wars, it was full of ugly surprises.  Like all wars, it was sold with lies and half-lies, and like all war, it was the working class of the world who paid for it, with their money, health and lives.  For the US people, whose physical geographic isolation is still a significant factor in this shrinking world, it was the first Superpower Superbowl.  War as a spectator sport has long been the American norm.  We “go to” war. War is not fought on our land, not for over a century.  Even the terrorist actions of “cold” or “civil” or “religious” wars - think Belfast, Beirut, Gujarat, Gaza - are rarely on US territory. When such attacks have occurred here they have been isolated incidents. 

These and other factors lent a sports event, video game air to the 1991 Gulf War, dubbed “Operation Desert Storm” (comic Bill Hicks called it “Operation Desert Distraction”).  Pentagon-gagged media obediently showed the Army’s home movies of “smart bombs” and other spectacular tech, and pointedly did not show burned, crushed or exploded humans.  Nearly everything the bombs hit was called a “legitimate military target” and viewers at home were reassured by the words “legitimate” and “smart”, forgetting that civilians have always been military targets.

In 1991, only about 300 of the allied troops died, and half of them from not-too-smart “friendly fire”.  Viewers weren’t clear how many Iraqis died, but it was a rout, we won big and had great parades when the troops came home.  It was like a movie.  All those yellow ribbons and flags.  The whole war and the triumphant return of the troops were just like a movie. Maybe a miniseries, but not too long like “Roots” or one of those BBC things.  Yeah, it was like made for TV special.  And so it was. 

The movie we were caught up in was a triumphalist, feel-good flick.  An old fashioned picture show with good guys, a Hitler guy, photogenic hardware, a few saintly dead soldiers and a united home front.  Since movies inform our notions of history more than, say, historical record, the invocation of WWII, the “Good War” is de rigeur propaganda today. 

The home front.  This is an odd term, very popular and emotional, even though there is no “front” at home.  In WWII, the iconographic noble war, France had a home front, and Russia and others, as have all European nations through much of the last bloody century.  But the US did not have a frontline, if such is defined as the line of international battle for sovereign control of nations. I do not know where the term “home front” began.  I can imagine some clever writer calling the worried folks on the North American continent, far away from the frontlines, the “home front”.  It is a term that indicates the real connection between people at home and their beloved in the war zone.  But it helped erase the very real distinction between the US and nearly every other nation involved in WWII, which actually suffered battles, or occupation or both.

The use of Hollywood’s noble war, the appropriation of all its icons - from the newsreel to the newscrawl to the ticker tape parade to the patriotic “journalist” to the shaming of dissenters to the glorification of death-dealing technology – these were a cultural coup for Bush and Son and their band of merry militarionnaires.  Good Old Hollywood would trump Bad New Hollywood and Vietnam Syndrome would be cured.  Here is how Hollywood, that handy villain in the pretend front of the culture wars, has redeemed itself.  Bad New Hollywood, in the 70’s and 80’s, released those horrific, feel-bad movies like Platoon and Apocalypse Now.  And Vietnam, we were reminded, was a dreadful, endless, pointless mess.  Messy and confusing and long.  And “we” did not “win”.  Vietnam Syndrome is a social disease we learned about from Bush 41 (Poppy), who claimed to have administered the cure: Gulf War/Good War. 

I think Vietnam Syndrome was a gift from history, a gift from the Vietnamese people, not a disease, but a symptom of maturity.  Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement brought the US into the late 20th century with a population ready to join – not lead – modern western civilization, that maturing collection of social democracies who at least try to acknowledge and learn from their own checkered histories and look to the future with human values, including a primary value of cooperation and international law.  The promise of Vietnam Syndrome was to decrease US hubris, to grant the painful, necessary, humbling baptism into the possible United Nations.   I am not naïve, and know that between Vietnam and Desert Storm the ruling warriors were using US money and military to murder poor people from El Salvador to East Timor and other lands.  These were secretive dirty little wars.  The Kissinger-Kennan Klones, the realpolitik executives, knew Americans would be appalled if they were aware of this thug-propping, drug-dropping, terror-breeding, minefield-seeding diplomacy. It was our exhaustion and disgust with war and politics, the shamed pains of Vietnam and Watergate that made the warmongers continue their dirty work more quietly.  This is also when the mega-media consolidation was accelerating, and investigative journalism was slashed.  Too costly, annoys sponsors, too cerebral, not sexy…why bother?  Such policies helped cloak the daggers of the hidden wars.

Bit by bit, the propagandists were chipping away at memory, a malleable function in any case, and inserting myths which became conventional wisdom by the usual brute method: incessant repetition.  Thus, by the time of the invasion of Grenada (1983) the “support our troops” mantra was effectively silencing even those legislators who opposed it.  It was openly speculated that stomping on this tiny island was a distraction that Reagan persecuted to draw attention away from his Beirut disaster, which cost the lives of 300 US Marines.  Those deaths were topped off with 19 more US deaths in Grenada.  Meanwhile, soldiers’ incomes fell further behind.  Yes, the White House fell all over itself with “support”. 

And here came Good Old Hollywood again with a stack of new war movies in the last decade.  By far the most popular were about the noble American cowboys-in-khaki, the Greatest Generation, WWII.  The timing of Pearl Harbor was perfect for George W. Bush, Jerry Bruckheimer and their many rich symbiotes. Pearl Harbor is conceived to reinforce a story Americans like to think they know.  It is as smooth as milk and as good for you, which is to say not very.  Designed to make you feel noble and proud and it doesn’t ask you to think.  At all.  The stories are round and complete, tied up in red, white and blue ribbons of stirring music and handsome actors.  This movie demands nothing of one and it gives nothing, grandly.  This mirrors the expensive sterility of US television news, where most Americans get their political knowledge. 

Democracy was dealt a severe blow in 2001.  Not the September 11th attacks, which tragedies democracy could survive, but the aftermath, in which a carefully trained public had their grief cynically manipulated by enemies domestic.  Indefinite detentions, USA PATRIOT Act, appalling self-censorship.  Everyone dancing in lockstep to “God Bless America.”  A weird choice of anthem for a secular democratic republic, weirder still because Americans cannot agree on the definitions of any of those words, “God”, “bless” or “America”.  United we misunderstand?  No, just diversity, democracy.  But it requires curiosity, (or annoying essayists like me), to ask questions.  And more questions.  Good questions are critical to good democracy. The pretense of questions, such as the pseudo-debates and shouting matches that pass for critical analysis on TV, continued, as did the epithets framed as questions yelled at dissenters, but these are forms that stop productive discussions.   Questions were frightened out of a lot of folks after 9-11.  And when Bush sent bombs and mines (cluster bombs) and food packets (that looked a lot like the unexploded mines, oops) all over Afghanistan, good Americans were reminded that their proper role was to cheer.  That is, “support the troops.”

Whatever disagreement you have with a US military action, you must shut up and “support our troops” once the action begins.  This is a recipe for unchecked imperialist adventuring.  This is a recipe for killing the conscience of the citizen.  This is the paradox of the “good German”.  This is self-censoring in the face of cognitive dissonance that can only be allayed by integrating the values of the empire - loving Big Brother.  Many people who are ambivalent about the present war are using the mantra “support our troops” as the lever to their troubled consciences.  These folks say, “Let’s just hope they do their job well and don’t get hurt and come home soon.”  As if examining “their job”, which is, after all, massive destruction of people and property, is uncouth.  As if we are so worried about the cognitive dissonance the soldiers may be experiencing that we must pretend we have no doubts about their mission, lest they doubt themselves and suffer useless pangs of conscience.  There is a distinctive combination of arguments that are held, however loosely examined, by many in the US: the coalition troops are at once skilled professionals who volunteered for the job and feckless children who need to be protected from their conscience.

I shall continue to ask annoying questions, of the rulers and of the ruled, with the ultimate question underlying all of them: how may we be free?  I shall continue to remind my fellow workers that we are the troops that that secure and defend our liberties.  Soldiers overseas have rarely, if ever, been the troops who have gained or guaranteed our rights.  As is to be expected in a constitutional republic, the troops who have defended me have been in the courtrooms and on the picket lines.

© 2003 JeanneE Hand-Boniakowski, RN

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