Lies, Damn Lies, and Patriotism:
Exposing the Hypocrisy of the Pro-War Movement

by Stella Jorgensen

Stella Jorgensen is a Scottish student activist and a supporter of the Scottish Socialist Party. If you wish to contact her by e-mail, click here.

In February 2005, the Scottish Socialist Party (the S.S.P.) were singled out for attack by the Rupert Murdoch owned right-wing tabloid The News of the World. The reason for this is that during their annual conference, party members debated how far their antiwar stance should extend. Specifically, they wondered if they should voice support for the Iraqi resistance.

This proposal followed on from their robust, thorough and sustained opposition to the military action in both Afghanistan and Iraq, a stance that reflected majority public opinion in Scotland, and indeed the wider UK. The question then, of where they should draw the line, was not an unreasonable one to ask.

Unable (or unwilling) to grasp the ideological and moral basis of the S.S.P. debate, the News of the World decided instead to splatter their front pages with emotive nonsense designed to titillate their scandal loving readership: “Sick! SSP’s barmy debate about supporting our boys’ killers in Iraq,” ran their headline. As it happens, the party members decided to vote against public support of the resistance, opting instead to express solidarity with Iraqi workers and their fledgling trade union movement. The fact that they debated the value of alternatives to the “support the troops” dogma, no matter how briefly, was enough in itself to attract populist bile.

However, the negative publicity the S.S.P. debate drew leads one to consider the uneasy position anti-war activists now find themselves in. Investment in the Iraq war, in terms of both finance and young lives, is high and creeping higher every day. In a textbook example of cognitive dissonance, politicians, press, and the general public force themselves to justify the high costs of this elective militarism. The simplest way to do this is to exhort themselves and others to accept war as a done deal and “support the troops.”

In the UK this position is typified by the Liberal Democrats, who achieved 23% of the vote in May’s general election, and who are not without influence. They strongly opposed going to war without a United Nations resolution authorising the use of force, and condemned the US/UK alliance for its unilateralism. When war began however, doubts were checked at the door and the party bowed to the predictable “support the troops” line, as if no other stance were conceivable.

If there exist any measurable standards by which a war can be just, or fought with any kind of honour, the Iraq war fails to meet them. Even if one avoids outright cynicism by accepting the official story that the intelligence concerning Saddam’s W.M.D. capabilities was accidentally flawed (as opposed to being entirely and deliberately fictitious), other examples of the propagandist’s dark art tainted the credibility of the Iraq war long before a single shot was fired.

The justification for war started with the dubious intelligence concerning W.M.D. which MI6 (the British secret service) cooked up to justify a course of action Tony Blair had already agreed to commit to. The intelligence was dutifully parroted by Colin Powell to a sceptical United Nations, and was accepted without question by compliant media on both sides of the Atlantic. The Bush administration then went on to make considerable effort to link Saddam Hussein with 9/11 in the minds of the American people. Despite Iraq’s total lack of involvement, the strategy was highly successful.

Given the example of the war’s ignoble inception, it is unsurprising that the actual conduct of coalition troops in Iraq has been so appalling. From high profile sexual abuse and torture in Abu Ghraib prison, to indiscriminate aerial bombardment and massacres of civilians, there is little to admire about the behaviour of our countrymen in Iraq.

We are asked to excuse these things. We are told that Abu Ghraib style abuse is the exception and not the rule. The plain fact is that the soldiers guilty of such terrible conduct found their actions routine enough to laugh and smile as they posed for relaxed looking photographs. We were told following the razing of Fallujah that there were very few civilian deaths, yet photos showed a city literally flattened. We are told that military targets are carefully chosen, and yet we see with our own eyes pictures of bombed hospitals and charred, skeletal mosques.

The lack of respect our military has for civilian lives goes far beyond what is demanded by their obscene profession. Seymour Hersh recently told the BBC’s Mark Lawson about an incident where soldiers were suspicious about the behaviour of a group of children. (The children were running towards a soccer game, it was later discovered.) They were all shot, and fearing disciplinary action, the soldiers planted grenades on the corpses so the children would be assumed to be terrorists.

Many more examples of incompetence (and malevolence) exist. We allowed lawlessness to prevail in the months following the invasion, and in so doing, we lost track of 380 tons of nuclear paraphernalia that could find its way onto the black market and be used by terrorists to manufacture real W.M.D. Thanks to the chaos caused by our invasion, ordinary Iraqis now have to contend with suicide bombers, kidnappers and religious fundamentalists who make the Taliban look positively pacifist. By every possible standard, this war has been a disaster, and no end is in sight. To suggest that the immense failure of military action in Iraq is mitigated by the introduction of a pathetic ersatz democracy is to downplay the huge and lasting damage we have inflicted on a desperate people.

In any case, the idea of trying to deny the antiwar movement the right of dissent seems even more pointed if one considers the rank hypocrisy of those who proclaim their support most fervently.

Donald Rumsfeld justifies sending men into battle with inadequate equipment by saying that “you have to go to war with the army you have, not the army you want.” He demands bodies of servicemen are flown home secretly. He signs letters of condolence with rubber stamps. His official policy towards funerals and grieving families is to pretend they don’t exist. The ostrich policy of sustained ignorance is extended also toward the question of civilian deaths — The Lancet estimates 100,000 have been killed thus far, and the actual figure may be considerably higher.

Many people who pursue military careers are working class or from economically depressed areas. Whilst lauding their “bravery” and telling the public to support them, US leaders are systematically ransacking military benefits packages and healthcare entitlement, even going so far as denying free abortion for raped female soldiers.

The UK leadership has a similarly two-faced attitude to the efforts of the troops. 2004’s most high-profile deployment was of 800 Scots soldiers from the historic Black Watch regiment. Even as they were fighting, and dying, in Iraq’s most dangerous areas, Geoff Hoon (Defence Secretary at the time) saw fit to announce that their regiment (and others) might be disbanded in future, which would mean hundreds of job losses. John Nicholl, a Black Watch veteran, told the Sunday Herald: “We have fought the enemies of the UK down the centuries. Now it seems we’re fighting our own government as well…”

Duplicitous treatment by our leaders, the erosion of benefits, and the lack of priority given to mental health counselling perhaps goes some way towards explaining the massively disproportionate number of homeless people who are army veterans — around one third in the US and one quarter in the UK. Plainly, military action exposes people to horrific events that can literally destroy their ability to function in society.

Our leaders (and indeed, the whole pro-war movement) need to explain how forcing men to fight an unnecessary war and then ignoring them as they fall—sometimes permanently—into nightmares of extreme financial, physical and mental privation constitutes “supporting our troops.” Until they can answer this question, they should not criticise those of us who prefer peace.

The argument for peace, like all arguments, demands logical consistency if it is to succeed. If it is right and proper to reject and oppose the very idea of going to war, then it follows that it must be essential to oppose the actuality of war. Thus, if anti-war protests are to be meaningful, the only support we should be prepared to offer the troops is hope for a speedy return. No one has the right to demand more. One cannot and should not absolve troops of individual responsibility for their actions or condone (tacitly or otherwise) their excessive behaviour.

The final problem with the idea of supporting war is that it implies patriotism is of greater value than peace. This is a view no sane nation can afford to endorse, since patriotism is a fiction based on ego.

Patriotism tells us to ignore the idea of our common humanity and collective responsibility. It tells us to embrace the lethal dogma of insurmountable difference. Patriotism is the tool states use to turn otherwise normal men into potential killers, which is what soldiers are, by definition. Patriotism is what makes it possible for the press and public to support the mass murder of their fellow human beings. Patriotism tells us that people who are culturally different to us are less than human, and therefore expendable. Patriotism is an immature lie treasured by those with a desperate need to believe they are special. It is not just a lie; it is the most dangerous lie we can tell ourselves.

Yes, there are cultural differences between nations. The world is, as poet Louis Macneice noted, “incorrigibly plural” but cultural differences pale into insignificance when weighed against our collective similarity. Peace requires diplomacy and mutual understanding to exist; war requires unchecked ego and patriotism.

The notion that one should be patriotic and “support the troops” without question is an insidious way to quell dissent and affirm the idea that violence is acceptable: the unspoken subtext of “support the troops” is “support militarism.” That one chooses to reject militarism does not mean one does not value the lives of the troops, rather it means one values all lives equally. Patriotism is not more valuable than peace, and the ideals of peace must not be sacrificed on patriotism’s gore-stained altar.