Steven Salaita was at a gas station when he was asked by the store clerk to donate his spare nickels and dimes to the ‘Support our Troops’ change jar sitting by the register.
This experience prompted the assistant professor of English to write a column for Salon.com, criticizing the adage and fundraising efforts to support the troops.
Salaita, who grew up in Bluefield, West Virginia, is the author of six books and specializes in research about Arab Americans, Palestine, Indigenous Peoples and decolonization.
The assistant professor’s article was published on Aug. 25, and currently has over 1,300 comments. Salaita’s column argued that Americans should analyze the meaning of ‘Support our Troops,’ and consider the ideology behind the military’s actions, as well as consider the people in power who are making decisions for the military.
“(The article) merely analyzes and critiques the platitude ‘Support your Troops’ and discusses how it’s actually inadequate when it comes to properly caring for and tending to our veterans when they come home, or folks who leave the military and need health care and employment,” Salaita said. “There’s nothing anti-troops or anti-military about the article at all. You could say the article is anti-imperialism; that it’s anti-corporate control.”
An opposing column by Victor Medina of the Examiner said, “Salaita's condescending tone with anything and everything pro-military is evident immediately.” The Examiner column has over 150 comments on it, and has been “liked” 18 thousand times.
In the article, Salaita says, “Such troop worship is trite and tiresome, but that’s not its primary danger. A nation that continuously publicizes appeals to ‘Support our Troops’ is explicitly asking its citizens not to think. It is the ideal slogan for suppressing the practice of democracy, presented to us in the guise of democratic preservation.”
While Salaita said his column was not trying to imply an anti-military sentiment, it hasn’t kept individuals from criticizing him for being unpatriotic.
"He wrote a thinly veiled, not too thoughtful, critique of American capitalism, dressed deceptively in the guise of a well-reasoned critique of what he called 'unthinking patriotism,'” said Buddy Howell, visiting assistant professor for the department of Communication. “It lacks intellectual rigor. It never defines "patriotism," which he seems to have a problem with. Yet he is critical of the phrase "Support Our Troops," which he claims is empty and inexplicable."
Howell has publicly invited Salaita, in a letter to the editor to the Collegiate Times, to an on-campus public debate regarding the topic of American imperialism and Jihadi fascism.
In his column, Salaita asked readers who should be included in the umbrella term “the troops.”
“Who, for instance, are “the troops”? Do they include those safely on bases in Hawaii and Germany?” Salaita’s column said. “Those guarding and torturing prisoners at Bagram and Guantánamo? The ones who murder people by remote control? The legions of mercenaries in Iraq? The ones I’ve seen many times in the Arab world acting like an Adam Sandler character?... It does neither military personnel nor their fans any good to romanticize them as a singular organism.”
Salaita used Twitter as a platform to address some of the negative comments he’s received since the article was published. “Read the f****** article—which never even suggests that troops deserve no support—and engage its ideas,” he tweeted on Aug. 26. He followed with, “That's, you know, how this freedom thing y'all love so much is supposed to work.”
However, the response from the column hasn’t only affected Salaita.
“Certainly, right now, we (Virginia Tech) are being negatively affected (by Salaita’s work),” said Larry Hincker, associate vice president of university relations. “That’s the strange thing about this. With 7,000 employees, why would anybody think that one junior English department faculty member somehow speaks for the rest of us?”
Hincker said that while Salaita’s view doesn't "reflect the collective psyche of the Virginia Tech community," the university does respect the free speech of its professors.
“We’re all supposed to adhere to the Principles of Community, common decency and certainly academic principles,” Hincker said. “And by that I’m talking about principles of good scholarship, research and things of that nature, but we don’t have a muzzle that says you can do this and you can’t do that.”
Hincker also said the university does not have a policy on what faculty members are allowed to post on social media sites.
While the university has dealt with backlash from the column, Salaita said the response has been “overwhelmingly positive.”
“I would say that of the negative messages I’ve been receiving, it’s very clear that the vast majority haven’t actually read the article,” he said. “But I’ve gotten a wonderful responses from active military personnel, combat veterans, former students and my colleagues, and then a whole bunch of folks I don’t even know.”
However, at a university with a large military presence, the impact of the column has been strong.
“The thing that really hurts the most for us is that you will find few universities in the country that support the nation’s military and veterans as strongly as we do,” Hincker said.
Major General Randy Fullhart, Commandant of the Corps of Cadets, agrees with the university.
“I understand and appreciate the expressions of concern raised as a result of a recent post on a commercial web site, of a single faculty member's opinion, not that of the university,” Fullhart said in an email to the Collegiate Times. “I begin by reminding myself that the oath I took nearly 40 years ago was to support and defend a constitution which guaranteed the right of free speech. That right is given to all, and though there may be times that speech can be hurtful, the alternative of regulated speech would be the greater folly.”
Though Salaita’s column has had mixed responses, both the university and Salaita agree that the column has sparked a campus-wide discussion.
“I’m aware that there’s a lot of conversation to take place between him and others,” Hincker said. “Some of the members of our Corps of Cadets and our veterans on campus, whom he called murderers, are really upset. That’s the purpose of the freedom of speech concept in our Constitution as well as on an academic campus: to generate that dialogue, so people don’t feel they can’t speak their mind. To the degree that there’s a meeting of minds, that’s a good thing."
Salaita also said the discussion can be beneficial for the Tech community and American society.
“It’s important for us to always examine our slogans and mythologies,” he said. “That’s what we’re supposed to do in college, and that’s what humanities professors are supposed to do. So, in a sense, I’m really doing my job."