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Reflections on July 4

By Stephen Shenfield July 3, 2019 No Comments 4 Min Read

As yet another July 4 approaches we are inundated with the usual flood of ‘patriotic’ (i.e., nationalist) songs and rhetoric. Perhaps the nastiest feature of the rhetoric is the emotional blackmail that it deploys. If we do not ‘support our troops’ – so we are given to understand – we are showing gross ingratitude to those who ‘put their lives on the line to keep us safe and free.’ The issue is framed in a way that forces us to choose between swallowing the propaganda whole and casting ourselves in the despicable role of thankless wretches.

There are several obvious responses to this emotional blackmail.

We can protest that we never asked ‘our troops’ to do these things for us. Should we be placed in a position of such deep moral indebtedness against our will?

We can point out that it is not only themselves that ‘our troops’ are sacrificing in whatever wars they happen to be currently waging. They also harm, injure, and kill many other people, very few of whom have ever threatened our safety and freedom, such as these are.

We can ask how safe and how free we really are. And how exactly all these wars are making us any safer or freer. 

For example, it may seem that American troops are protecting us from acts of terror by Islamist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS. But backing for such groups comes mainly from Saudi Arabia, which is an ally of the United States. One goal of the US in the region is to keep the House of Saud in power. 

However, there is a deeper criticism to be made of the claim that ‘our troops are putting their lives on the line to keep us safe and free.’ It implies that American soldiers are free to choose how and for what purposes to act. But soldiers are not free to choose. They must obey orders — or else face a court-martial. They are slaves

True, they were not always slaves. When they enlisted they voluntarily became slaves in the justified or unjustified expectation of compensating benefits (pay, acquisition of skills, citizenship). But as a result of that momentary decision, made under conditions of inadequate information and severely limited options, they now find themselves slaves.   

We socialists are not grateful to our troops, but that does not mean that we don’t care about them. It is simply that gratitude is not an appropriate response to acts that slaves perform under orders. We express our solicitude for enslaved people by working to release them from slavery.  

It is therefore misleading to say that soldiers sacrifice themselves. No, they are sacrificed by those who give them orders – for example, by the officers who order them to patrol on foot in areas known to be sown with hidden mines. They are sacrificed by the generals, by the presidents and other government officials whom the generals serve, and by the plutocrats whom the officials serve.

And the generals, officials, and plutocrats know very well that their soldiers are not sacrificed for the sake of the safety or freedom of ordinary people. 

When I was at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies I had the opportunity to visit the US Naval War College at Newport, Rhode Island, and meet some of the teaching staff. I learned a little about the course they hold for ‘high fliers’ – middle-level officers from all branches of the US armed forces, men considered to have the potential to rise to the very highest ranks (I doubt whether any are women, even now). As future generals they will have to interact with politicians and government officials and contribute to decision making on matters of war and peace. The course tries to prepare them for that role through a series of in-depth case studies of past US decision making. 

The course materials, which I was able to examine, are quite devoid of rhetoric about fighting for ‘freedom’ or other inspirational values. They focus mostly on access to and control over resources, communications, trade routes, and strategic points. Some of the students, I was told, are so disturbed by the inconsistency between this style of analysis and the naïve patriotism that has sustained them hitherto that they ask – and are permitted – to withdraw from the course. For them the need for comforting illusions outweighs ambition. 

Written By

I grew up in Muswell Hill, north London, and joined the Socialist Party of Great Britain at age 16. After studying mathematics and statistics, I worked as a government statistician in the 1970s before entering Soviet Studies at the University of Birmingham. I was active in the nuclear disarmament movement. In 1989 I moved with my family to Providence, Rhode Island, USA to take up a position on the faculty of Brown University, where I taught International Relations. After leaving Brown in 2000, I worked mainly as a translator from Russian. I rejoined the World Socialist Movement about 2005 and am currently general secretary of the World Socialist Party of the United States. I have written two books: The Nuclear Predicament: Explorations in Soviet Ideology (Routledge, 1987) and Russian Fascism: Traditions, Tendencies, Movements (M.E. Sharpe, 2001) and more articles, papers, and book chapters that I care to recall.

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