November 2007
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Thou shalt not touch: The soldier as sacred

By Katharhynn Heidelberg

First, the disclaimer. I do not hate America. I’m perfectly aware that a Wahabbist nutjob brainwashed several disaffected men into murdering more than 3,000 innocent people. And, though I disagree with the ever-changing premises behind the (unrelated) Iraq War, I admire and appreciate the men and women who put their lives on the line to carry out the orders of our feckless leader. After all, these folks include my own brother, now on his second Iraq tour.

But when admiration strays across the line demarcating respect and deification, we’ve got a problem. And I shouldn’t have to adopt the cringing “don’t freak out on me; my brother’s a soldier and I love my country” pose in order to say so.

It seems people have, in a rush of rally-round-the-flag fervor, forgotten how to think clearly. I’m at a loss how to otherwise explain the e-mail that puts the “U.S. soldier” on equal footing with Jesus Christ.

“Only two people,” the missive informs, “ever died for you. (Alternately: ‘… ever offered to die for you’). One is Jesus. The other is the U.S. soldier.”

Come again? Since when are the senseless deaths of people from strife generated by the sins of others comparable with God coming to earth to save men from their sins?

Further, it’s hardly objectively true that “no one” other than soldiers has ever died for anyone else — not even those credulous enough to think this current conflict is somehow all about them (or their safety) in the first place should believe that.

The countless people who forward this drivel probably regard it as harmless, even poignant. To me, it’s proof of an almost willful refusal to engage in critical thought simply because we’re talking about soldiers!

Examples of the mythologizing of the U.S. soldier run the gamut. On the illogical-but-harmless side, we have Maj. Bruce Lovely’s 1993 “Soldier’s Night Before Christmas,” in which one glimpse of a stock figure (a soldier) by a legendary character (Santa Claus) triggers the latter’s night-long bout of weeping and sentimental hand-wringing.

There’s also the not-so-harmless. As everyone not living under a rock knows, the evil MoveOn.org vilified Gen. David Petraeus by suggesting, in a New York Times’ ad, he might better be named “General Betray Us.” A reasonable person would have carefully considered MoveOn’s various claims and subjected them to rigorous and independent investigation. Then he would’ve reacted.

True, we Average Joes and Janes do not do this often ourselves, but we do expect our leaders to take the time to be rational, even when they are offended. (We’re endearingly naïve that way).

The reception the ad received, though, proved this a pipe dream. Presidential candidates and other politicians tripped over one another in the hurry to denounce it. And Rudy Guiliani upped the ante, buying an ad that denounced Hillary Clinton for not sufficiently denouncing MoveOn! Specifically, he accused the Democrats of “orchestrating” an attack on Petraeus, and said Hillary “continued the character attack on General Petraeus and refused to denounce MoveOn.org’s ad.”

Hillary said Petraeus’ Iraq progress report demanded the “willing suspension of disbelief.” In other words, after four years, billions of misspent dollars and thousands of deaths, Hillary was skeptical. The nerve! Petraeus is a fourstar general, the ad foams. He’s won medals! So: “Who should America listen to…A decorated soldier’s commitment to defending America, or Hillary Clinton’s commitment to defending MoveOn.org?”

Did you see what Rudy was able to do? (Apart from also falsely claiming elsewhere the NYT gave MoveOn a deep discount on its ad, that is.) He was able to spin the whole flap into being all about his opponent’s fitness for command. All he had to do was invoke “a soldier.” Are we this pathetic?

Apparently, Congress is.

In late September, the Senate voted to condemn MoveOn’s ad.

“Who would have ever expected anybody to go after a general in the field at a time of war, launch a smear campaign against a man we’ve entrusted with our mission in Iraq?” Senate Minority Leader Mitch Mc- Connell whined to the AP.

I wish I were joking. Our Senate — which can’t find the stones to stop Bush’s ill-conceived war, or rein in executive power, or take a long, hard look at Gitmo — sprang into action to fight what amounts to free speech, and on our dime.

The Democrats had their turn next, heaping fury on talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, who had the audacity to call a man who’d pretended to be in the armed services a “phony soldier.” The Democratic leadership spun this into an assault on all soldiers, even though Rush’s gripe had in general to do with soldiers-turned-war-critics (in which case, labeling them “phony” is just vintage Rush) and specifically to do with a man convicted of fraudulent activities relating to his non-existent wartime service (which was perfectly accurate).

The majority of Limbaugh’s listeners, at least, had the common sense not to buy the spin — but that spin would not have been possible in a climate absent hysterical reverence centered on the soldier.

That no one seems to view all this as surreal indicates a collective obsession about the warrior during wartime: he’s sacred property, and don’t you forget it.

As if you could.

At every turn, we’re told soldiers are “dying for our freedom.” Which of course “is not free.” Thus, any question of the war — or its leadership — is seen as ingratitude, even treason, rather than an attempt at honest discourse.

Central to this mindset is yet another willing disregard, this time, for nuance. Thus, it becomes “soldiers gave us our rights” and not, “our rights are inalienable and we, the governed, require the government to uphold them.”

It’s perfectly reasonable to acknowledge and respect the role soldiers play in protecting our rights, but it’s critical to our republic’s very survival that we remember neither they nor any man “gave” us those rights. In any case, the greatest gratitude to the U.S. soldier is surely expressed in the exercise of those precious liberties — not in platitudes that enshrine fallible human beings as gods among us.

How did we lose sight of something so simple?

Katharhynn Heidelberg writes from Montrose, Colo.


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