Campus is aflutter with talk of English professor Steven Salaita‘s column at Salon, provocatively titled (and possibly not by him) “No, thanks: Stop saying ‘support the troops'”. Salaita preludes with an incident familiar to many of us, being asked at a gas station to “donate your change to the troops”. From the ambiguity of where the donation would go, Salaita proceeds to spotlight the ambiguity of the sentiment of “supporting our troops” itself. The article is worth a read, and i’ll assume visitors here have taken a moment to digest it.
I found Salaita’s article insightful in the suspicions it raised and helpful in the distinctions it made. For instance, Salaita calls corporations “the worst offenders” of perpetuating various myths associated with American exceptionalism through the use of what he calls “troop worship”:
I do not begrudge the troops for availing themselves of any benefits companies choose to offer, nor do I begrudge the companies for offering those benefits. Of greater interest is what the phenomenon of corporate charity for the troops tells us about commercial conduct in an era of compulsory patriotism.
Ever since McCarthyism, some quarters have reacted with an incensed incredulity at any resistance to public displays of patriotism, however carefully distinguished from criticism of the troops themselves. Salaita mentions the cover such slogans provide, in casual conversation or in the media, for what has been called the permanent militarization of America. He later outlines a mythic heroism that, he claims, underscores these slogans—and which any criticism of the slogans implicitly (in Salaita’s case, explicitly) attacks. And he goes even further in his criticism of multinational corporations, which he says “have a profound interest in cheerleading for war and in the deification of those sent to execute it.”
The money quote lies somewhere in this paragraph:
“Support the troops” is the most overused platitude in the United States, but still the most effective for anybody who seeks interpersonal or economic ingratiation. The platitude abounds with significance but lacks the burdens of substance and specificity. It says something apparently apolitical while patrolling for heresy to an inelastic logic. Its only concrete function is to situate users into normative spaces.
Salaita takes several more paragraphs to elaborate, but the gist is there: Calls to “support the troops” far too often take the form of cultural coercion than of genuine appreciation or specific action.
Salaita’s article—and, by association, Virginia Tech—has taken a fair bit of heat since its publication Sunday. A CT news story on the controversy cites, for one example, what struck me as a rather petty article in the Examiner by Victor Medina, in which the author decries Salaita’s “belief that America is an inherently evil entity that imposes its greed and violence on the less fortunate around the world”. No doubt individual tempers have flared across campus, and one hopes toward more constructive exchanges.
My own sense is that most of the criticism Salaita has received misconstrues his derision toward the slogan as derision toward its literal meaning—taking stock that, as Salaita emphasized, that meaning itself is nebulously defined and may vary from reader to reader, and from critic to critic.
For instance, when Larry Hinker, as quoted in the CT story, gives the impression that much of the criticism Virginia Tech has accrued has been of the sort that questions our own commitment. And when he asserts that “you will find few universities in the country that support the nation’s military and veterans as strongly as we do”, what, exactly, is his meaning? that we have a larger military presence on campus? that our campus community spends more time celebrating the contributions of cadets and soldiers? that our researchers are awarded more defense contracts? It may be appropriate for the vice-president of university relations to avoid statements likely to ruffle Hokies’ feathers, but a serious critique of Salaita’s point must address this ambiguity.
One such response comes from VT alum Kalyan Amara. When Salaita asks “Who are ‘the troops’?”, he moves from criticism of ideology to that of individuals, most notably “[t]he [troops] who murder people by remote control”. In their letter to the CT, Amara rebuffs this move:
Salatia is more than welcome to disagree with NSA privacy violations, the treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay and the questionable intentions of the Iraqi invasion. However, bemoaning the lionization of the military for the government’s follies places blame on the wrong agent.
In another critical response at Outside the Beltway, James Joyner, who shares a distaste for troop donation boxes, goes further, questioning Salaita’s denunciation of multinationals:
Aside from the defense industry itself, what possible corporate interest is served by the war in Afghanistan or the various largely untalked about mini wars in places like Yemen and Somalia? And, what, precisely, are Americans consuming more of in response to any of these conflicts?
Several years ago i was taking a class on social trends. It being 2003, the discussion had turned to the military and war, and the instructor and a cadet were exchanging arguments over civic responsibility. At one point the cadet explained (and i paraphrase), “We’re trained to follow orders. We have to think fast in action, but it’s not our job to decide what actions to take.” Joyner concludes his response similarly:
[L]et’s not replace an empty sentiment with its opposite–disdain for those who serve in the military because we dislike the policies of our elected leaders. “The troops” don’t set policy, they carry it out. And that’s a very good thing.
I don’t buy the easy criticism that Salaita is simply positioning himself at “the opposite extreme”, whatever that might mean. And i haven’t gotten the same impression as my classmate’s from other cadets i’ve known. But i do think that we need to be conscious of the differential responsibility our servicepersons (including cadets), our representatives, and our lobbyists bear in the military decisions we as a nation make.