It's a funny world we live in. Colbert has an opinion on whether or not what is revealed in that video is murder. He's entitled to it. Strange to see him step out of character; this, I take it, was a bridge too far, a crime too great to ignore: calling soldiers who fired round after round onto people attempting to load the wounded into a van and get them medical attention "murderers," well, that's past irony and shtick. That requires open and unequivocal condemnation. It's funny-- I consulted older videos of Colbert, online. He has spoken to members of Congress who voted for the war in Iraq several times. He has interview many who were involved in the apparatus of enacting the Iraq war, or who lent their considerable influence to the war effort. He has interview, that is to say, the people who created the material conditions where the victims of this attack were placed in harms way, where the soldiers involved were placed in danger of losing both their lives and their moral integrity. That's war, I'm told; you shouldn't wage it without being willing to risk atrocity.
Yet despite the fact that Colbert has had ample opportunity to react to the people who are directly responsible for such devastation, he has never been so animated when confronting them. He's never broken character to attack those who threw this country and its soldiers headlong into war while enduring none of war's horrors. He's never gotten so visibly offended. He's never taken such an obvious stand, hiding instead behind irony, comedy, and a character. Those, apparently, are his priorities; a man who reveals footage of the terrible consequences of war (no matter how it is edited and editorialized) deserves, apparently, far greater condemnation than the people who are actually responsible for those consequences. In this, I believe, Colbert is perfectly of a piece with the rest of his country, a people who have long since decided to say that they oppose the war in opinion polls but who take that opposition no farther.
The moral culpability of soldiers in war is extremely complicated, and I pretend to no certain or simple understanding of those issues. When Sullivan says "the question of impugning the honor of American soldiers," though-- what a falling off, I think. Is it really the case that we can make no considerations of the behavior of our soldiers at all, without being accused of "impugning the honor of American soldiers"? Has it come to that, finally? Have we lost all right even to make judgments? Have we so abdicated our own responsibilities, as the members of a democracy, that we now will countenance no questioning of the ethics of military action whatsoever, so long as those ethics are couched in the language of supporting the troops? Colbert asserts, in the video, that only those who have served in the military have any right to judge whether such an incident amounts to murder. I cannot even begin to enumerate the vast moral and democratic consequences of this thinking. I am sure, though, that it is pleasing to Colbert, and anyone else who wants to stand outside of the shroud of responsibility, for foreign policy, that covers anyone who is part of a democracy.
Do I support the troops? It depends. I support most of the troops, because I support troops who conduct themselves appropriately, who do everything they can to minimize risk to civilians, who go out of their way to get medical attention for civilian casualties. who follow all of the rules of engagement and of war, who act ethically in a time of war. I firmly believe that this encompasses a large majority of our soldiers, and for that, I am deeply grateful. There are many who would and will tell me that this distinction is illusory, and that I am engaging in sophistry; they might be right. But from within my perspective, I have to have criteria for giving any person or group of people my blessing, and those are my criteria.
The soldiers in this video? No. No, I don't support them. No. I do not support them. Their conduct has revealed themselves, to me, to be unworthy of my support. That's just me, and the question of those soldiers and their conduct is far beyond me.
It has always seemed to me that for my support to mean anything at all, it must come with conditions. What can it possibly mean to say that I support the troops if I support them unconditionally and without discrimination? What possible value could such a thing have? I tell you, it seems clear to me that for many Americans, there is no possible behavior that could cause them to condemn individual troops. Stephen Colbert, it seems, has standards of what constitutes condonable behavior by soldiers that is so low, I can't imagine any actual incident earning his condemnation. So what does his support mean? What laurel is it? What philosophical value does it have? I will say again what I have said for a long time: the more that supporting the troops becomes some sort of American duty, the more that it is enforced, everywhere, by our culture, the less it means. Supporting the troops means actually considering them and their behavior. "Support the Troops" is a bumper sticker.
I have read, recently, some who make the essential point, that "soldier" is a term that covers a vast number of people, and that like all large groups of people, "soldier" contains the bad as well as the good, rapists as well as heroes, people who will commit atrocities as well as those who will do everything to prevent them. It is my understanding that the latter in each instance greatly outnumber the former, and thank the all for that. But every war in the history of mankind has had atrocity, rape, murder, and from all sides. Don't kid yourself that where a soldier was born or the uniform he wears makes it impossible that he will participate in such.
John Cook wrote, about this video,
It's horrible to watch, and the pilots' disdain for the lives they were destroying is awful. But we can't see how it constitutes murder. It's what happens when you send a bunch of young angry men with billions of dollars worth of lethal toys into a civilian city and tell them to kill the bad guys. It should certainly be watched, and we're glad Wikileaks is publishing it. But it speaks more to the inherent dangers of initiating wars, and covering them, than of the specific behavior of U.S. personnel on that particular day.This sounds good to me. I can't follow Cook, and others, to the point of saying that this couldn't be murder. What possible standing can we have to call anything a war crime then? I don't know. I do know that, as Cook says, the central, most real, most constructive form of supporting the troops is to keep them out of harms way-- harm to their physical lives, and harm to their moral legitimacy. That is the only way I can see to save them, civilians, and our country's moral legitimacy, to get out of the business of projecting our military power around the globe.
The truth is that I don't know quite what to think about all of this. I don't know how to thread the needle of recognizing the terrible position soldiers are put in everyday, while refusing to give up any judgment of them at all. I don't know how to recognize their courage and sacrifice while condemning them when they do wrong, how to support the average soldier who is doing his or her very best without lapsing into the empty, enforced platitudes of supporting the troops and putting a ribbon magnet on a car. It seems like Stephen Colbert does know. He seems quite sure about who is and isn't subject to special scrutiny and criticism. He seems to know exactly who is and isn't empowered to criticize the American military. Maybe he does. Good for him, if so.
Personally, I think this country has fallen too far in love with its ability to compartmentalize war, far too confident in its dividing opposition to the war with support for the troops, far too certain that there is an easy or obvious stance towards the moral legitimacy of this war, all wars, these soldiers, all soldiers. Sometimes people say that what must happen is that Americans must wake up to the inevitable atrocity and devastation of war before we commit to a war effort. And I wonder-- does this country have that in it? Do we have that, in ourselves?
Update: Please see commenter -p for a very different perspective on Colbert's reaction.