Steven Salaita, an associate professor of English at Virginia Tech, recently has come under scrutiny for a commentary he wrote, “No, thanks: Stop saying ‘support the troops,’” published in Salon, an online magazine. Salaita argued that uncritically supporting the troops is not helping the men and women in the Armed Forces, but rather supporting the militaristic agenda of the corporate elite. In the heated debate following publication of Salaita’s essay, some commentors have suggested that he should be deported, fired, or even killed for expressing his thoughts. As a current doctoral student at Virginia Tech and a Marine Corps veteran, I would like to state unequivocally that I believe any such notions are extremely reckless, undemocratic, and offensive. I believe Salaita is genuinely concerned about the welfare of our troops, and I commend him for his stance. In a recent interview, Salaita observed, “I want us very much to support the human beings who comprise the military. I want us to question and challenge the platitude, “support the troops,” and think about who that platitude, whose interest that platitude actually serves.” However, Salaita has not served in the military, nor experienced the difficult transition back to society that follows such service. I have had that experience and I would like to share my perspective of how the notion of “supporting the troops” has helped me navigate the process.
Salaita began his critique by observing that the term “troops” in the phrase, “support the troops” spans “vast sociological, geographical, economic, and ideological categories,” and that “it does no good to romanticize them as a singular organism.” In essence, Salaita argued that the American military population is so diverse that the term troops is too broad to have any significance. In response to Salaita’s observation, I would point out that there is indeed one thread that unites those who serve, irrespective of their demographic or other characteristics, their commitment to public service. Since our nation has an all-volunteer force, every single serviceman or woman has at one point willingly committed him or herself to public service and defense of the Constitution of the United States. If these individuals did nothing else during their tour of duty, this single and singular act of commitment should be worthy of broad social support. Based on my experience, it is not an empty gesture to affirm those who have committed their lives to protect the American people, even if that support is, in fact, often uninformed, as Salaita observed.
When I completed my service in the Marine Corps and reentered civilian society, I suffered a major culture shock. Simply because I had served in the Corps, I quickly became known in my undergraduate classes as the “guy who could kill you with his pinky finger.” However, what allowed me to attend the University of Virginia and survive there was the support I received from society through the G.I. Bill and from the local community. I experienced an even stronger outpouring of assistance from Virginia Tech in the wake of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. President Charles Steger and the Virginia Tech administration have been extremely supportive of veterans on campus. Meanwhile, for its part, the Town of Blacksburg recently hosted a parade for veterans, during which Main Street was lined with local residents vigorously supporting the troops. I can say personally that these public expressions of thanks have been deeply appreciated by veterans at Virginia Tech.
Salaita also argued that by supporting the troops, citizens are actually supporting corporate elites who wage unjust wars to further their own economic agenda. This point is more difficult to address. When one examines our nation’s most recent wars and the socioeconomic disparity between those who undertook those conflicts and those who actually fought them, Salaita’s assessment merits serious consideration. However, the prevailing mindset in America, which has allowed corporate elites to exert such influence in our government’s policy-making and decision processes, is based on an unbridled individualism that promotes personal gain above all else. I contend that by affirming and supporting, even symbolically, those who have voluntarily committed to serve the public good (our troops), by making such statements and gestures, large and small, those individuals are validating an alternative discourse. Any narrative that does not merely champion individual gain, but rather celebrates service on behalf of the common good, may represent a small stride away from the individualism now otherwise so pervasive in our culture. While individual liberty is a pillar of American democracy, so too is a stated commitment to promoting the general welfare. In this sense, the current narrative of supporting the troops could more accurately reflect an enduring and equitable notion of democracy in America.
In sum, I agree with Salaita that the phrase “support the troops” requires more critical reflection from American citizens than it now often receives. Salaita’s observation that there are many paradoxes implied in this oft-used phrase in contemporary American society is apt and needs to be addressed. The current discourse surrounding those who serve in the U.S. Armed Forces is superficial, due in good part to the large disparity between those who have served in the military and those who have not. An overwhelming majority (93%) of Americans have little or no familiarity with military life or the men and women who comprise that world. How to remedy this lack of understanding is a larger question that Salaita does not address. Where I depart from Salaita’s argument is his contention that supporting the troops, even in an uninformed way, implies compulsory patriotism or simply represents an ultimately meaningless gesture. My personal experiences of transitioning from the military to civilian society, and those of many veterans I know, were greatly aided by such expressions of concern. Furthermore, I would suggest that this mentality of “supporting the troops” in the American psyche might validate, possibly even at a subconscious level, the notion of a common good, a narrative that opposes the self-serving and destructive forces Salaita rightly criticizes.
Eric Hodges is a Ph.D. student at Virginia Tech in its School of Public and International Affairs. Eric is also a former Marine, serving tours in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Beijing, China, and Oslo, Norway. Eric’s current research focuses on how veterans can benefit civil society.