The New Extreme of the American Left


As American soldiers returned from Vietnam in the late 1960’s and early 70’s, they were met with scorn, spat on in airports, and called “baby killers”. The anger directed towards them came from an enraged and educated opposition that had gradually become aware of the injustice and sheer criminality of the wars being waged.
In their passion, progressives in those times went too far in blaming the soldiers, yet were entirely right in insisting that the men and women who pulled the triggers, who opened the bay doors of the planes and dropped the napalm, were also responsible. Carnage doesn’t just happen by itself, and the criticisms and accusations back then were calls to awaken the conscience of the soldier and the nation- they were cries for justice, for humanity, and for an end to the cruelty and abomination of wars of aggression.
Many veterans themselves, aware that they had been deceived, turned into activists against the war. The picture that emerged over time was then one of a public, reunited with the foot soldiers, against the American empire that had used our resources and men and women’s lives for geopolitical ends, in immoral and unjustified wars. There was a period of grief and remorse for blaming the soldiers, for criticizing them so harshly when they too were among the manipulated. The administration didn’t care about their lives either. Looking back, we can say that those in the armed forces during that time were victims as well. These military men and women, however, were not held up then as heroes, or exalted for their sacrifice.
Fast forward to 2015. Since the end of the Vietnam War, the United States government has continued its role as the aggressor in one war after another, and there is now a new extreme in what remains of the American Left. Whereas before we had soldiers vilified for their actions – today there is no criticism of them at all. Instead, many of the leading voices of the public Left are either silent, or have nothing but reverence for the modern soldier. They praise their courage and sacrifice, as if these were virtues all by themselves. In the American Left, there is now a vast gulf between opposing modern wars and any sense that the military men and women are responsible for heinous, criminal acts. The pendulum has swung in the opposite direction –from condemnation of deceived victim-soldier all the way to praise and honor and deference being given them for their dedication, as separate from the particular wars we are now engaged in in the Middle East.

Look at Michael Moore, or listen to everyone from Cornel West to Rachel Maddow and Jon Stewart – the public voices of the Left. They extend unconditional respect to the people in the military while supposedly being against war. Things were clearer when Bush II was president, yet even then, there was little to no denunciation of soldiers or of the armed forces as a profession.
When wars are wrong, each action of the military is an extension of that injustice. It is possible to point to an action and say unequivocally that it is wrong, unjust, immoral, without condemning the person, and I think that is the lesson to be taken from the protests of the 60’s and 70’s. The American Left, as it is now, has lost its voice, its courage, and its moral clarity. It sees no connection between benighted foreign policy and the actions of the young men and women today who are in the armed forces. When we are not willing to speak out against their destructive acts, we have lost some part of our souls.
Educated or not, believing in American superiority, or remaining steadfast in allegiance, the men and women in the Marines and Navy, Air Force and Army today all have a moral responsibility for their actions. We must oppose the wars in which this country is now engaged, seeing them as unjust and barbarous and as extensions of empire. While our political leaders deserve the greater part of the blame, the manipulated and deceived of this generation have also earned their share.
The real danger in this new extreme of military praise is that another generation will find nothing wrong with this profession, and that it is in fact something to be celebrated. A new generation will follow and fall victim to the predator class we’ve always had with us. They will carry out acts of aggression as their predecessors did. They will proceed without knowledge, without conscience to their mission, and innocent men, women, and children will die and be maimed because of it.
American Sniper was the highest grossing film of 2014. This jingoistic tale of a psychopath was seen by millions of people with a radically different national history in their minds- one in which a killer such as Chris Kyle deserves to be celebrated. These same people either think Vietnam was justified, or they don’t think about it at all; they think all of our current wars on the people of the Middle East are righteous as well, and once you cross that line, then anything can be justified. Right here we can see that history is literally a matter of life and death. We forget history that isn’t told to each generation, and when we forget, we have no reference point for where we are now.

Solider in Vietnam War posing with weapons

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

What is this country about now? Where have we been these last decades, and have we been on the right side of history? The American war in Vietnam was sustained through a succession of lies to the American public. Eventually a collective opposition brought that tragic and criminal chapter to a close, but this is not how it is always taught.
Our country can learn from how South Africa has tried to reconcile with its past.  An American Truth and Reconciliation Commission would go a long way toward healing the divisions in this country over its past wars.  We can also learn from how Japan and Germany regarded their soldiers who fought in their wars of aggression- since the Second World War, both countries have turned away from Nationalism and uniformly renounced the extremism of that generation.
By comparison, time and again, America has not come to terms with its past.  Unbelievably, Columbus Day remains a national holiday.  Andrew Jackson is still on the twenty-dollar bill.  We still have memorials to Confederate soldiers and Confederate flags- “the American swastika”- all over the South, and there is still disagreement about the morality of what was done in Vietnam.  We remain a divided nation when it comes to that history, and it’s one reason men and women have been willing to fight in subsequent wars, still naively believing the United States to be a force for good.
In Japan stands a war memorial, the Yasukuni Shrine, and whenever a Japanese Prime Minister visits to pay his respects, there are protests from Singapore to Korea, Taiwan to China.  Not only are the soldiers who fought and committed atrocities on the aggressors’ side denied praise, but also those who would give them respect, such as media figures and politicians, are repudiated.
Wars are and have always been a descent into madness. Time and again, ordinary people become capable of great brutality. If violence is necessary, it should only proceed as a last resort when every other effort to secure peace has failed. That is the standard on which the entire spectrum from left to right agrees. Where we part ways now is in the struggle over telling our history. This is what brings us to where we see ourselves today, and to what we feel is either justified, or a grave violation of human rights.
One biography of the humanitarian photographer W. Eugene Smith is entitled Let Truth Be the Prejudice, and it is only if we can arrive there in our dialogue that all of our interests would be served. We do not have a venerable tradition of debate in this country of ours – instead we have the left and right each preaching to their committed choirs, so sure of themselves and having nothing but insults for the other side.
I’ve given up on trying to change anyone’s mind about anything politically. In all my years, I’ve never seen someone change his or her point of view because of an argument. Instead, what I continue to hope for is that people will make an effort to become educated and not just cling to their opinions or blindly believe what they have been told. In each generation, where there is disillusion about what the government sold us, we advance. There is anger first, yes, and there is grief, but there is finally redemption.
Praising the modern soldier faces in exactly the opposite direction; it faces away from justice, away from healing. By this action, the left has become the right in its support of war carried forward by innocent hands. This new extreme, well-intentioned but misguided, is a cataract, a moral blindness that serves neither the soldier nor his or her victims. It is the opiate of Nationalism that needs the radical cure of respect, love, and care for all humanity. Through this healing, true scales are set; we teach, and actions have consequences on every level, from president to private.

11 thoughts on “The New Extreme of the American Left

  1. What specifically is it about not criticizing soldiers that leads to more war? I agree that the fetishization of war is a huge problem, but I don’t see where a currently small, isolated left would gain peace through increased stridency.
    As a country we don’t care much about soldiers or veterans. Yes, we collectively love “American Sniper,” but this doesn’t mean that Republican-voting or swing-voters are reaching out across economic lines to support actual soldiers or veterans. I think that to the extent that we care about soldiers as people — especially 20-somethings who signed up as teens — it probably helps the peace movement while also being more true to ourselves.
    The peace movement I’ve spent time with spends a lot of time telling people what to believe, and trying to decide who we should praise or condemn. What if we switched tactics entirely. Ok, judge the war, and judge the politicians’ choices, but switch from judgement to questions when having conversations with people who you hope will be allies.
    The tactic I would like help with, something I haven’t had a lot of resources at my fingertips while I’ve watched younger friends think about joining the military, is not a diatribe, but questions. “What would you do if?” with potential quandaries soldiers have faced. If I know someone in high school considering the military, can I encourage them to write a paper about? Who looks out for veterans, who funds or doesn’t fund veterans health care? Or guide them to write a paper about the last century of history in Iran? It would be great to get a list of good questions to the fingertips of people working for peace. What are the best questions that would lead someone to see what’s going on for themselves?
    What are the topics that would cause people to reach the same conclusions we have, without us trying to force those conclusions because we discovered them first?

  2. I wonder how old Mr. Espada is.
    Sure, there were vets who came back to campuses as military recruiters who became targets of abuse. There were vets who came as part of pro-war counter-protests to demonstrations against the war, and usually these people said obnoxious things and had obnoxious things said to them. Those who went to Vietnam and those who didn’t is a great divide in a generation, there is another big divide, among those who went, between those who thought it justified or even glorious and those who came back against such foreign wars.
    Mostly the antiwar folks welcomed vets back and since them have never begrudged them their veterans’ benefits. But there is this chickenhawk legend about how the hippie radicals spat on vets and so on. It may have happened somewhere, but was not a common, let alone generalized, behavior. The veterans were a much lauded and appreciated antiwar contingent at the later protests against the Vietnam War.
    These are different times. For one thing, war is much more privatized, with “civilian contractor” mercenaries heavily involved and raising a lot of issues that need to be broached by progressive folks. Plus we have not been dealing with a conscript army for a long time and that situation really ought to be reviewed and discussed because it has not been an entirely positive experience. We have had soldiers and mercenaries who have followed orders to do disgraceful things, and soldiers, mercenaries and civilian politicians who have given such orders. We have had men and women sent into bad situations who have served as honorably as they could. And then we have all this creepy war propaganda. Can’t we show a bit of intelligence and humanity and draw reasonable distinctions? Can’t we understand things without embracing a right-wing distortion of history as if it were true? Can’t we, as citizen carrying out an unarmed struggle over the directions of US foreign policy, also serve honorably?

  3. This is an extremely thought-provoking article. What I take away from it is that while none of us should be blamed for acting in ignorance, neither should we be praised for harmful deeds done in ignorance (ignorance of which great advantage is so often taken by highly questionable interests).
    And the fundamental question remains: what responsibility does (or doesn’t?) each of us bear to follow the often difficult but ultimately rewarding path of truth, rather than the often easy but ultimately ruinous path of falsehood?

  4. It’s my understanding that many lower income youths volunteer for the armed forces for steady, decent pay, the chance to gain a skill, see the world and/or otherwise advance their life prospects. My sense is that the Peace Core and Americore often are not known about or don’t equally appeal to many of these youths. If so, why, and what might be done to rectify this, and how might we- as a nation- supply other, private sector openings that might equal or exceed the appeal of the military?.

    • Why don’t Peace Corps Americoprs have same appeal? Look at the pay and GI Bill, CHAMPUS and other benefits that come with armed services duty. Many seek the discipline and frankly benefit from it. Look at educational requirements for entry.Say what you will about the armed services, they have promoted minorities and now women.Told to integrate gays they have. What’s the Hispanic and African American cohort and leadership of Peace Corps and Americorps?
      There is also, for many, the spirit of self sacrifice and camraderie that come from combat brigades.Peace Corps people tend to serve solo. While they are making sacrifices, there is a difference between being trained to be in a situation where you may have to lay down your life for others.
      (Liberals including the author of the article who can’t get away from sneering at troops may want to think how readily they would risk their lives for others. Were Dachau, the Serbian concentration camps liberated by Peace activists? At some point, when confronted with sociopaths, it is troops and armed resistants that push back. If Ghandi had faces Stalin in India passive resistance would not have been a lasting tactic. Before so glibly labeling Chris Kyle a killer, recognize the brutal truths of war–whether you kill the enemy with a bullet or a bomb, killing is what war is about. That is why we–including all of you dear commenters–through our elected representatives send these young men and women to do jobs you don’t want to do. Which is the way of faith–to snigger and sneer–as the author does with his little asides?
      Or to feel compassion for the nasty job we have them do. They are, like it or not, OUR triggermen. Own it. They do.

  5. I have yet to see one — JUst One — empirical, evidence-verified, fact-checked, double-sourced episode of crazed antiwar protesters or busy distracted airport crowds doing ANYTHING like this AT ALL EVER. Lots of urban myths here and for Tikkun to blindly pass them on WITHOUT PROPER DUE DILIGENCE is despicable. Despicable journalism and Just Plain Charlie Hebdo despicable.
    RE: “As American soldiers returned from Vietnam in the late 1960’s and early 70’s, they were met with scorn, spat on in airports, and called “baby killers”. The anger directed towards them came from an enraged and educated opposition that had gradually become aware of the injustice and sheer criminality of the wars being waged.”

    • It is a MYTH that peace activist vilified Vietnam veterans—a myth concocted in the 1980s in order to counter the so-called “Vietnam Effect” of a majority of Americans who were skeptical of U.S. militarism. Read the investigative work THE SPITTING IMAGE by VIETNAM VETERAN Jerry Lembcke, that exposes how this smear was created & propagated. The current near-WORSHIP of veterans (WITHOUT concrete support of them when they return from war wounded in body and mind) is NOT about veterans at all–it’s about CENSORING DEBATE about whether or not to bomb yet another ocuntry or continue the seemingly endless so-called “war on terrorism”–which has proven to be so PROFITABLE for weapons-makers & military contracting corporations.

  6. Mr. Espada, I have yet to hear of one case of ‘spitting on returning soldiers’ that has been verified. As a veteran of the antiwar movement of the sixties and seventies, I was also proud to have served veterans via the Veterans Administration. Reliance on anecdotes wears thin after forty years, but the same nonsense seems to be repeated ad nauseam, year after year.

  7. Tikkun’s space would be better used than on this exploration of how to feel about soldiering and whom to blame for wars and for not having stopped wars.
    I propose Tikkun make amends by inviting Project YANO (Youth and Non-military Opportunities), see to describe its 31 years of activities in schools and with youth. It’s slogan: “Young people don’t have to join the military to learn valuable skills, find adventure, pay for college, or serve others.”

  8. As a veteran of the antiwar movement of the 1960’s and early 1970’s, and a former member of a real left group that played a key role in organizing mass antiwar demonstrations of the period I want to confirm those who are challenging the claim that antiwar people in that period were (generally) hostile to returning soldiers. It is, I recognize, impossible to prove that no antiwar person of the period treated any returning soldier badly. (The antiwar population at its height numbered in the tens of millions and it is easy to imagine some unthoughtful latecomers blaming the soldiers for military atrocities that by then were well-known.) Most characteristic of the antiwar movement’s attitude toward the soldiers was its encouragement of antiwar GI’s who were organizing in the military, often at considerable personal risk, against the war and for bringing all the troops home.
    The oft-repeated story that the antiwar movement encouraged hostile treatment of returning soldiers reflects the concerted later attempt by pro-war factions influential in mainstream political parties and media to counteract the bad taste the Vietnam war and militarism had left in the mouths of a large percentage of the population. They wanted to defeat the “Vietnam War syndrome” that made many citizens resistant to further overseas interventions. I believe it was President G. Bush senior who announced, after the “successful” Gulf War of the early 1990’s that “[finally], we have licked the Vietnam War syndrome.” Many Vietnam war veterans were treated less than admirably by bureaucrats in the U.S. government, perhaps because they blamed the vets for their inability to win the war. But those bureaucrats were hardly representative of the antiwar movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s.

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