Support the troops: Support is the new service
26 Mar 2023
"Support the Troops: military obligation, gender and the making of political community". This is the topic Katharine Millar1, Kimberly Hutchings2, Maria Rashid3 and Chris Rossdale4 discussed at the latest London School of Economics and Political Science event5. About civil-military relations and idealized gender roles.
The global war on terrorism was highly contested from the start. As the war continued, fewer and fewer Americans endorsed the decision to use force.6 The war became unpopular. At the same time citizens were routinely thanking military personnel for their service. But why are people thanking military personnel for serving in wars they oppose?
The "liberal military contract" is what Millar calls the idea, that "[i]n exchange for civil and political rights, male/masculine citizens are expected to kill and die for the state".7 However, the vast majority of people don't serve in the armed forces anymore, nor do they directly experience the effects of war. This produces anxiety about what it means to be a good citizen, good subject, good man. Supporting the troops is a response to this: It reverses how we typically think about gendered civil-military relations: Instead of the troops protecting and supporting the vulnerable and dependent society, now civilians protect and support the vulnerable and dependent troops. "Solidaristic martiality" Millar calls it.
The troops are presented as
a) passive (they are not doing war, war is done to them) and
b) victims of the conflict in which they are fighting.
The conflict itself is presented as agentless: It's talked about like the weather, like a natural disaster. Not as the outcome of a political decision-making process.
Support for the troops has replaced military service: Support is the new service.
Are we supporting correctly?
Questions about the liberal empire are transferred into questions of military solidarity at home. Completely vanished from the "support the troops" discourse are questions about politics and violence. The discussion is eating the opposition: Anti-war protestors who want to bring troops home are seen as dangerous to the troops and democracy. The peace protestors and their debates are seen as inappropriately political. Not caring for and supporting the troops at all.
As per Millar, the discourse is working like this instead: Politics can be judged by on behalf of the troops, as long as you support the troops. Then you can engage in politics. You can call for the war to end, as long as you do so in the service of protecting and caring for the troops. There is a recursive return to the troops as the central moral referent of war. Activism of former military veterans, their families and loved ones is powerful and effective: They have earned the right to speak, because of their greater commitment to state and war.
A desire for the troops
The "support the troops" discourse manages the gendered-civilian anxiety, that we don't serve in the military anymore, but we can still play our role in the social contract by supporting the troops. In order to do so, troops can't be absent: There is a "desire" for troops, as per Rossdale. Society has an eroticized, fetishized relationship with the troops. Soldiers become sexy and desirable objects. This erotic survives the shift from individual to plural, from soldier to troops.
Only support for troops?
What about other agents and institutions of state authority? Why does no one feel a civilian obligation to recognition of other agents of state authority? They are absent in the support the troops discourse. "Blue lives matter" is a cousin of "Support the troops". But that's about it. No one is thanking the border police. Don't they deserve recognition for their service?
Politics of hate, politics of solidarity
Not only citizens solidarize with the troops, states also do. In "shared circumstances" (Rashid), when nation states are at war together, "[s]upport bounds the political".8 Former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage threatened to bomb Pakistan "back to the stone age" "if the country did not cooperate with America's war on Afghanistan".9 It was expected of Pakistan to join the transnational war effort.
Mourning the troops
What about the relation between supporting the troops vs. mourning the troops? The supporting the troops discourse creates a distance to the mourning the troops discourse. It draws away the attention from the consequences (Rashid). Dead body politics are a sensitive topic: Soldiers are not only dying in combat, but also from suicide.
While it's all about supporting the troops, it actually not all about supporting the troops. The dead bodies are just not there. They are invisible. (Hutchings)
The "support the troops" discourse is strengthened by pop culture, like movies. Masses are socialized to support the troops. Purple Hearts (2022), Dear John (2010), Pearl Harbour (2001) are just a few examples of movies that romanticize supporting the troops. Katy Perry's music video for "Part Of Me"10 was an emotional tribute to the US Army as the "the heart of America".11
What is the new media doing to the military? A military that has to recruit through TikTok seems to be a less sacred institution than a military that recruits through Hollywood. Is there a shift in the relationship between troops and civilians?
Social media gives the military control: They can embed journalism into what they do. Soldiers can tell their cute human interest stories on Facebook: They can tell for example, how they keep up on the bases. Returning home videos meanwhile became genre videos on social media: Soldiers being greeted by their wives, children and dogs. These videos also explain how desire comes into all this. Troops are beyond sexy, they are comforting. Caring families instead of dating app frustration.
Support the troops vs. criticism
Exploitation and inequalities in the military are issues that should be discussed. However, starting these discussions always ends in the accusation of not supporting the troops. Which makes the discussions impossible. But there are many topics that need to be discussed: For example the US military's problem with domestic violence12 and the suicide rates.13
There's also the problem, that labouring and soldiering are played off against each other. Soldiers are elevated: they are the super citizens. They are the one's who get special health care and special education. This investment in military personnel and veterans raises the question: Who is a deserving citizen? In a welfare state, shouldn't disabled and able-bodied people, women and men alike all have the same access to health and education? Since nobody is entitled to join the military, aren't the one's who don't meet the requirements to join the military in an unfair disadvantage?
The vast majority of people don’t serve in the military anymore. "Supporting the troops" is an attempt to grapple with what ‘good’ citizenship means. Support is the new service.
The LSE event took place March 23, 2023.
Dr Katharine Millar: https://twitter.com/DrKMillar
Professor Kimberly Hutchings: https://www.qmul.ac.uk/politics/staff/profiles/hutchingskimberly.html
Maria Rashid: https://www.lse.ac.uk/gender/people-profiles/faculty/maria-rashid
Chris Rossdale: https://twitter.com/crossdale
Jeff McMahan: The Morality of Participation in an Unjust War: https://academic.oup.com/book/32955/chapter-abstract/277904074?redirectedFrom=fulltext