Second Thought: Wednesday, September 28, 2005
War of Words

What the heck does ‘support the troops’ mean?


Over the weekend, the folks on both sides of the Iraq War debate gathered in Washington to shout out their pain in mass demonstrations. First the peaceniks protested in front of the White House and called President Bush “a liar, a criminal, or a fool” for pushing the war. Then a much smaller bunch of flag-wavers who think this war is needed to protect American freedom moved into action, referring to the anti-war folks as “traitors.”

Nothing in common between these two groups, right? Wrong. Those who support this war on the grounds that it continues the fight against terrorism and those who think it is morally indefensible share at least one thing: They both use the slogan “Support Our Troops.”

Bush and his Rovian strategists realized early on that as support for the war waned among the American public, one way to keep them at least partially on board was to urge Americans to support the troops even if they oppose the war. It was tactical propaganda — no good American would want bad things to happen to the rank and file who are waging this ugly, scary little military action. So those who are against the war put the ribbon magnets on their car and told their lefty friends that, despite their opposition to the conflict, they support the soldiers.

The longer this war goes on, the more it looks like Vietnam all over again. This time there’s no “baby killer” treatment of returning troops, no spitting on soldiers at the airport. Opponents say they “support the troops” as an anti-war message designed to bring them home.

When the pro-war folks use those same three words, however, they mean it as the classic tactic of “my country right or wrong, and if you disagree, you’re a traitor.”

Problem is, I don’t really know what “support our troops” means anymore. I don’t want soldiers to die needlessly over there, and I hope they get home safely very soon. But does supporting our troops mean I should be sending them toothpaste and moist towelettes? Hoping they get better weaponry? Cheering them at the airport? Does all this mean I’m in favor of what they are doing in Iraq? Because I’m not.

In the political world, innocents sometimes get caught in the crossfire of debate. That’s where the troops are right now. They are part of this needless war machine that has pressed the United States into a place where our country is worse off in the global arena than it was before the 9/11 attacks. There were no weapons of mass destruction. Iraq was not a terrorist haven. It was a country run by a tinhorn dictator who had lots of oil.

Opposing the war while supporting the troops requires some complex emotional and intellectual contortions. If people are opposed to a certain government policy, is it wise to express support for those implementing it? Americans who abhor abortion don’t go around expressing support for the doctors and nurses who perform the abortions. Those opposed to hazardous waste dumps in West Texas don’t absolve the dump operators. That would be morally contradictory and politically unsound.

The war issue isn’t about moral absolutes for me. I’m not a pacifist. I think some wars are horrible but needed, and some are horrible and unnecessary. I am not a peacenik on balance, but some wars — like this one — are criminally stupid.

Perhaps one thing that might get the United States out of Iraq more quickly would be for the troops to start expressing their own frustrations. And the troops might find it easier to weigh in if they know the American public doesn’t support the war, doesn’t support what the troops are doing, doesn’t support the wasteful spending by the neocon warrior class. If you knew that a whole lot of the people you’re supposed to be fighting for didn’t want the fight, wouldn’t that make you want out?

The fact is that about two-thirds of Americans now think this was a stupid idea and that the soldiers should start coming home. But if they continue to claim they are supporting those who are implementing the stupidity, it’s liable to keep the war machine going.

The difficulty of this debate is figuring out what “support our troops” really means. This is not a draft-based military like in Vietnam; these are soldiers who chose to serve, knowing war could be a part of their service. And the anti-war faction is fogging up its message by claiming to support the troops.

The lessons of the Vietnam War are appropriate here — in several ways. On the one hand, anti-war protesters this time around aren’t making American grunts the enemy. On the other hand, American soldiers in Vietnam who got mad at what was going on over there found, when they returned, that many other Americans were equally angry — including some who were angry with the troops themselves.

As in Vietnam, the troop card is being used by the pro-war faction to silence critics: “If you oppose the war, at least you support our troops, don’t you?” I guess I just don’t know the answer to that anymore. Don’t want to see people dying, but don’t like what the troops are doing either. The troops aren’t the bad guys here, but they are working for the bad guys by choice. That’s an issue that the anti-war people need to deal with.

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