Soldiers, etc: Honoured at half-time, screwed in real life

On Canada Day and US Independence Day, we're bound to hear/suffer through a lot of salutes to our "heroes," our military members and veterans. Knees will jerk, huzzahs all around.

Canada's sneaking, lying-speaking Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, started it off on Canada Day on just the right note. After some blah-blah-blah about the "threats" we face, he said, “But we have faced great threats many times before, and we have overcome them. And we shall overcome them once more. So, let’s hear it for the brave men and women of the Canadian Armed Forces.” In other words, "we" face "threats," but, fortunately, we've got these soldiers/sailors to do our dirty work for us.

In real life, two months ago Harper's government cut 44 positions at Veterans Affairs, and kicked the services they rendered our veterans out the door. Some variant of "Blue Cross" was there to pick up the slack. Harper spokspuppets call giving the private sector opportunities to siphon profits out of veterans' needs "veteran-centric." (Not making this up. See, for example, here). They weren't the first Harper cuts to our "heroes." Most veterans are livid.

To set out the contradictions involved, I know no better essay than the following few paragraphs by William Blum. They're a terrific corrective for the constant torrent of "honour the heroes" verbiage that's a mainstay of internet commentary.

I know it's pretty cheeky, putting this on my weblog when I've written so little of it, but what could I add? It's on.the.money.

(I've been told in certain forums that I'd better not criticize the military. I always observe that that stricture leaves me with less free speech than the common soldier. You see, I remember being in the military quite well, and we had little but contempt for most of what went on in the service. Apparently, once I got out I lost the right to use the free speech I was supposedly defending.)

* * * * *

Let’s have a short look at some modern American history, which may be instructive....

A report of the US Congress in 1994 informed us that Approximately 60,000 military personnel were used as human subjects in the 1940s to test two chemical agents, mustard gas and lewisite [blister gas]. Most of these subjects were not informed of the nature of the experiments and never received medical followup after their participation in the research. Additionally, some of these human subjects were threatened with imprisonment at Fort Leavenworth if they discussed these experiments with anyone, including their wives, parents, and family doctors. For decades, the Pentagon denied that the research had taken place, resulting in decades of suffering for many veterans who became ill after the secret testing.

In the decades between the 1940s and 1990s, we find a remarkable variety of government programs, either formally, or in effect, using soldiers as guinea pigs: marched to nuclear explosion sites, with pilots sent through the mushroom clouds; subjected to chemical and biological weapons experiments; radiation experiments; behavior modification experiments that washed their brains with LSD; widespread exposure to the highly toxic dioxin of Agent Orange in Korea and Vietnam … literally millions of experimental subjects, seldom given a choice or adequate information, often with disastrous effects to their physical and/or mental health, rarely with proper medical care or even monitoring.

In the 1990s, many thousands of American soldiers came home from the Gulf War with unusual, debilitating ailments. Exposure to harmful chemical or biological agents was suspected, but the Pentagon denied that this had occurred. Years went by while the veterans suffered terribly: neurological problems, chronic fatigue, skin problems, scarred lungs, memory loss, muscle and joint pain, severe headaches, personality changes, passing out, and much more. Eventually, the Pentagon, inch by inch, was forced to move away from its denials and admit that, yes, chemical weapon depots had been bombed; then, yes, there probably were releases of deadly poisons; then, yes, American soldiers were indeed in the vicinity of these poisonous releases, 400 soldiers; then, it might have been 5,000; then, ‘a very large number’, probably more than 15,000; then, finally, a precise number – 20,867; then, ‘The Pentagon announced that a long-awaited computer model estimates that nearly 100,000 US soldiers could have been exposed to trace amounts of sarin gas.’

If the Pentagon had been much more forthcoming from the outset about what it knew all along about these various substances and weapons, the soldiers might have had a proper diagnosis early on and received appropriate care sooner. The cost in terms of human suffering is incalculable.

Soldiers have also been forced to take vaccines against anthrax and nerve gas not approved by the US Food and Drug Administration as safe and effective; and punished, sometimes treated like criminals, if they refused. (During World War II, soldiers were forced to take a yellow fever vaccine, with the result that some 330,000 of them were infected with the hepatitis B virus.)

And through all the recent wars, countless American soldiers have been put in close proximity to the radioactive dust of exploded depleted uranium-tipped shells and missiles on the battlefield; depleted uranium has been associated with a long list of rare and terrible illnesses and birth defects. The widespread dissemination of depleted uranium by American warfare – from Serbia to Afghanistan to Iraq – should be an international scandal and crisis, like AIDS, and would be in a world not so intimidated by the United States.

The catalog of Pentagon abuses of American soldiers goes on. Troops serving in Iraq or their families have reported purchasing with their own funds bullet-proof vests, better armor for their vehicles, medical supplies, and global positioning devices, all for their own safety, which were not provided by the army… Continuous complaints by servicewomen of sexual assault and rape at the hands of their male counterparts are routinely played down or ignored by the military brass… Numerous injured and disabled vets from all wars have to engage in an ongoing struggle to get the medical care they were promised… Read ‘Army Acts to Curb Abuses of Injured Recruits’ (New York Times, May 12, 2006) for accounts of the callous, bordering on sadistic, treatment of soldiers in bases in the United States… repeated tours of duty, which fracture family life and increase the chance not only of death or injury but of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, on December 4, 2006 and other days, ran a series on army mistreatment of soldiers home from Iraq and suffering serious PTSD. At Colorado’s Fort Carson these afflicted soldiers are receiving a variety of abuse and punishment much more than the help they need, as officers harass and punish them for being emotionally ‘weak.’

Keep the above in mind the next time you hear a president or a general speaking on Memorial Day about ‘honor’ and ‘duty’ and about how much we ‘owe to the brave young men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the cause of freedom and democracy. These officials have scarcely any more concern for the hapless American servicemen than they do for the foreigners they kill as in a video game.

-from Blum, William. America's Deadliest Export: Democracy, pp. 143-145.

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