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War, racism and choice

by Tom Kertes Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2004 at 9:42 AM

The pain of war is so great that many Americans want to comfort those involved by supporting a form of collective denial about the choice that soldiers make when they kill in an illegal and immoral war, such as the current occupation of Iraq.

Part 1: Soldiers are victims, but have moral choice and have agency in war
The pain of war is so great that many Americans want to comfort those involved by supporting a form of collective denial about the choice that soldiers make will they kill in an illegal and immoral war, such as the current occupation of Iraq. The fact is that war is carried out not by the President and his generals and advisors, but by those who follow his command. In absolute truth, there would be no occupation of Iraq without the active participation of soldiers. While the war is constructed by those in power, it is executed by ordinary Americans. While the law says that this is okay - that it is okay to participate in war - the law does not determine what is moral.

The occupation of Iraq is totally immoral, and for this reason I do not participate in it directly. I would like others to come to this same conclusion. I understand that those who do not come my conclusion face a complex and difficult choice. Most don't even realize that there is choice. Most don't want there to be choice, as well. But the choice remains - although costly and difficult. Activists should love and support those who are exploited by the government to carry out an immoral and illegal occupation, without supporting collective denial. No activist should further the lie that there is no choice in war.

The best analogy I can think of is that of slavery. Most white Americans did not think of slavery as immoral. It was just the way things were. But there were Americans who believed that slavery was immoral, and they asserted this strongly. They also asserted that all slaves had the right to freedom, whether recognized by the government or not. The right was a moral right, and it did not matter that the government imposed costs on those who helped assert this right. While all white Americans had the choice to help free the slaves, by all means available, they were actually legally compelled to act otherwise. The choice of moral refusal in slavery was complex - since the costs of nonparticipation were high and the immoral aspects of slavery were not uniformly accepted.

1: Every American has the right of moral refusal to participate in immoral or illegal war (even if this right is not recognized by the government, the right exists nonetheless).

2: The right of moral refusal may be applied to all armed conflict, or to a specific military campaign.

3: The choice of participation in war is complex. Here are some reasons why a person might choose to participate in the current occupation:

  • Belief and value in the rule of law, in the role of a military and of soldiers in a democratic republic
  • Belief that the occupation is a just cause
  • Belief that the occupation is not immoral
  • Limited economic choices, being dependent on the military
  • Ignorance of choices, of the moral issues with the occupation
  • Fear, pressure from peers, propaganda, social conditions of the military
  • Age, immaturity, family expectations
4: There are compelling moral reasons to not participate:

  • The invasion and occupation is a crime against the peace, which is in violation of US law through treaty obligations
  • The invasion is not related to the defense of America
  • The invasion is oppressive, directed at the poor and motivated by command of resources
  • George Bush lied about the reasons for going to war
  • Over 100,000 Iraqis have been killed so far, and for an immoral, illegal and unjust cause at that
  • Civilians will be killed in war, not intentionally but killed nonetheless, and given that the war is one of choice no civilian should be killed
5: There are ways to exercise one's right to moral refusal in the occupation:

  • File for CO status
  • Refuse mission, most likely go to jail as a result
  • Go AWOL (there have been over 5,500 deserters so far, and only 1/3 of reservists in some units have reported to duty)
  • Go AWOL and the leave the US
  • Not enlist
  • Refuse the draft if it is called
6: The reason for asserting that war is a choice matters because it determines the frame of discussion. If there is no right of moral refusal, and if war is not a choice, then it is difficult to assert:
  • that the current US occupation of Iraq is morally wrong
  • and that people should exercise freedom from the draft or from military service for moral reasons

The current frame works this way:

It hurts the troops to say that they are bad.
Because it hurts the troops, those opposed to a war should not say that the troops are bad.
Therefore, the troops are said to be not bad because they do not have a choice and, it is also said that troops are not bad because war is a collective act
Without choice, individual moral judgments are not relevant in one's participation in war Because war is a collective act, to say that the war is bad is to say all involved (including the troops) are bad as well
Therefore, the person who does not participate is a coward (or possibly a pacifist) Therefore, don't say that a war is morally wrong

Asserting war as a moral choice opens up this frame:

Participating in war (as a soldier, etc.) is a choice involving moral and economic judgment within the context of a specific war. Each soldier has the ultimate choice of participation or nonparticipation, albeit with varying costs and benefits.
Individuals decide if a specific war merits their participation or not, and then act on this judgment and, individuals weigh the costs and benefits of action related to participation or nonparticipation in a specific war
Individuals have the "God-given" right to choose to participate or not in a specific war based on moral and economic factors

7: Soldiers are victims of war.  While they may have a choice, the government is exploiting them.  The choice made is in the context of propaganda, lies, cohesion, legal powers and acculturation.  War is hell for all involved.  Bush and the neocons are to blame for this hell.

Part 2: Racist Military, Racist War
If the military did its job of defending America from foreign invasion, and nothing else, then the opportunities provided by the military for American youth of color and working class families would be just. And if the military did its job, and nothing else, then the military would be much smaller, and would take up a much smaller chunk of the nation's wealth. Then the opportunities provided to American soldiers would not only provide a leg up for those who serve, but would not be at the expense of domestic programs such as welfare, social security, universal health care, public education, parks and community centers, transportation systems, community colleges, pell grants, youth camps, universal child care, housing programs, etc.

I work with a coalition of poor people's organizations that are committed to organizing a poor people's movement to end poverty. This movement is committed to ending poverty, not just managing it. We believe that poverty is a political choice, and that the existence of poverty reflects the values of those currently in power. One of the reasons why poverty persists is because of the money to be made from the making of weapons and from war. Another reason that poverty persists is because of racist attitudes about those who are poor. While there are more white Americans in poverty than there are Americans of color in poverty, the perception of many white middle and upper class Americans is that poverty is not a white problem. Race and poverty intersect - with race separating whites and non-whites from organizing together and race creating an underclass determined by race.

The military has a role in poverty and racism. First, the military benefits from poverty because the choice between poverty and working for the military leads many to join the military. The military actively recruits working class youth through promises of educational and job training benefits, spending billions of dollars each year to attract high achieving young Americans from poor families into the military. Despite the limited level of educational assistance actually provided, and despite the few job skills that can be transferred from the military to civilian work, the Army makes promises that it doesn't deliver.

"Too many governments are making informed, deliberate choices that actually hurt childhood. Poverty doesn't come from nowhere; war doesn't emerge from nothing, AIDS doesn't spread by choice of its own. These are our choices," UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy said in London as she launched the State of the World's Children 2005: Childhood under Threat. Overspending on military short-changes children, UNICEF says

Almost 30% of the Army soldiers in the first Gulf War were African American, despite the fact that 12% of Americans are African American. This is the result of aggressive recruitment and the lack of opportunities for many African Americans. The US territory of Puerto Rico enlists four times more recruits per recruitment office than in offices in other locations. Puerto Rico also faces the highest unemployment in the United States, making the military one of the few options available. While the military may be a way out for young people facing dismal economic options, it comes at a huge risk. Rich Americans do not face these choices - and therefore have more freedom when it comes to joining the military.

It matters that the military is used to fight wars not related to the defense of America when many of our soldiers must choose between poverty and fighting in immoral wars. It also matters that the military is not doing its job of defending America. The military could be an economic opportunity for Americans of color and facing poverty. We see this in positive examples of the military as a force for affirmative action and integration - providing leadership opportunities for those shut of other parts of society. But when the role of the military is to fight wars of conquest, then those who serve in the military are being exploited for immoral ends. When the military exceeds its republican mandate of defending the democratic government, then no American should be offered the choice of poverty or participation in immoral and illegal war.

Currently the military takes advantage of the limited opportunities provided to many Americans. It takes advantage of the fact that for many Americans the military is their only option to earn a decent living. This is wrong, because we live in the richest country in the richest period of human history. American can be poverty-free. And in a poverty free America, the military would be choice for Americans.

The military does more than take advantage of the poor in the United States. It is used to exploit the world's poor. The current role of the military is to carry out immoral and illegal invasions of other foreign countries. The United States overwhelms the military power of most other nations, and as such when the US government invades another country hundreds of thousands of the world's poorest perish. Already over 100,000 Iraqis have died from the current invasion and occupation of Iraq. The US government turns the labor of its poor citizens into a fist against the world's poor.

By the Pentagon's own estimate, thousands of military families live in poverty. Despite recent salary increases, many enlisted men and women say they can't afford food and other basic needs. Thousands of US Military Families Live in Poverty

More information:
Spit and polish: It was the myth of the spat-upon Vietnam veteran that galvanized the sentiments of the American people sufficiently to discredit peace activists and give George Bush [Sr.] his war." Jerry Lembcke, The Spitting Image

Updates on the fight for freedom from the draft.

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