When the 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division rolled out of Iraq last week, the colonel commanding the brigade told a reporter that his soldiers were "leaving as heroes."
While we can understand the pride of professional soldiers and the emotion behind that statement, it's time for Americans -- military and civilian -- to face a difficult reality: In seven years of the deceptively named "Operation Iraqi Freedom" and nine years of "Operation Enduring Freedom" in Afghanistan, no member of the U.S. has been a hero.
The legal case is straightforward: Neither invasion had the necessary approval of the United Nations Security Council, and neither was a response to an imminent attack. In both cases, U.S. officials pretended to engage in diplomacy but demanded war. Under international law and the U.S. Constitution (Article 6 is clear that "all Treaties made," such as the UN Charter, are "the supreme Law of the Land"), both invasions were illegal.
The moral case is also clear: U.S. officials' claims that the invasions were necessary to protect us from terrorism or locate weapons of mass destruction were never plausible and have been exposed as lies. The world is a more dangerous place today than it was in 2001, when sensible changes in U.S. foreign policy and vigorous law enforcement in collaboration with other nations could have made us safer.
The people who bear the greatest legal and moral responsibility for these crimes are the politicians who send the military to war and the generals who plan the actions, and it may seem unfair to deny the front-line service personnel the label of "hero" when they did their duty as they understood it. But this talk of heroism is part of the way we avoid politics and deny the unpleasant fact that these are imperial wars. U.S. military forces are in the Middle East and Central Asia not to bring freedom but to extend and deepen U.S. power in a region home to the world's most important energy resources. The nation exercising control there increases its influence over the global economy, and despite all the U.S. propaganda, the world realizes we have tens of thousands of troops on the ground because of those oil and gas reserves.
Individuals can act with courage and compassion serving in imperial armies. There no doubt were soldiers among the British forces in colonial India who acted heroically, and Soviet soldiers stationed in Eastern Europe were capable of bravery. But they were serving in imperial armies engaged in indefensible attempts to dominate and control. They were fighting not for freedom but to advance the interests of elites in their home countries.
I recognize the complexity of the choices the men and women serving in our military face. I am aware that economic realities and the false promises of recruiters lure many of them into service. I am not judging or condemning them. Judgments and condemnations should be aimed at the powerful, who typically avoid their responsibility. For example, a journalist recently asked Ryan Crocker, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, to reflect on U.S. culpability for the current state of Iraqi politics. Crocker was reluctant to go there, and then refused even to consider the United States' moral responsibility: "You can ask the question, was the whole bloody thing a mistake?" he said. "I don't spend a lot of time on that."
It's not surprising U.S. policymakers don't want to reflect on the invasions, but the public must. Until we can tell the truth about U.S. foreign policy, and how the military is used to advance that policy in illegal and immoral ways, we will remain easy marks for the politicians and their propagandists.
Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas
at Austin and board member of the Third
in Austin. He
is the author of All My Bones Shake: Seeking
a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, (Soft Skull Press, 2009);Getting Off: Pornography and the End of
Masculinity (South End Press, 2007); The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege
(City Lights, 2005); Citizens of the Empire:
The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (City Lights, 2004); and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the
Margins to the Mainstream (Peter Lang, 2002). Jensen is also
co-producer of the documentary film "Abe Osheroff: One Foot in the Grave,
the Other Still Dancing," which chronicles the life and philosophy of the
longtime radical activist. Information about the film, distributed by the Media
Education Foundation, and an extended interview Jensen conducted with Osheroff
are online at http://thirdcoastactivist.org/
and his articles can be found online at http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~