What Does It Mean: ‘Support Our Troops’?
Copyright © 2007 by Stephen W. Potts. All rights reserved.
In the mid-twentieth century, French semiotician Roland Barthes defined political myth as corrupted language; that is, by stripping the nuances of meaning from words, myth turns even the most questionable idea into a simple given, one that seems “natural and [that] goes without saying . . . . In passing from history to nature, myth acts economically: it abolishes the complexity of human acts, it gives them the simplicity of essences, it does away with all dialectics, . . . it organizes a world which is without contradictions because it is without depth, a world wide open and wallowing in the evident, it establishes a blissful clarity: things appear to mean something by themselves.”
For an example close to home, contemplate the oft-heard statement “God Bless America.” We can see that it links religion and patriotism — God + America — but what function does the verb “bless” actually have? It is not in the past tense, so it does not assume that God has blessed America already, though undoubtedly the purveyors of this adage think so. The verb form actually expresses an imperative or subjunctive mood, commanding or requesting God’s blessing, which in fact would be redundant and unnecessary if God had already granted it. The saying could mean, in fact, that America is desperately in need of blessing because of its many sins.
That would put it alongside the linguistically similar “God bless you” that many Americans hiccup when someone in their vicinity sneezes, unaware that the custom goes back centuries to the belief that the Devil was attempting to jerk the sneezer’s soul out through his/her mouth; thus, God’s blessing was invoked to ward off the Horned One. Whenever I hear “God Bless America,” therefore, I imagine the Devil’s hand down the nation’s throat, tugging at its soul.
Something similarly mythic and unreflective transpires when Americans — across the political spectrum, it must be noted — repeat another ubiquitous saw: “Support Our Troops.” First popularized in the Reagan era as a response to the contemptuous treatment, real or imagined, of Vietnam-era troops by war opponents, it has theoretically come to mean separating one’s attitude to war from those who fight it. Antiwar politicians and street protestors alike affirm their support for the troops, and in fact use it as an argument for their cause: they support the troops by seeking to bring them out of harm’s way and back to their families. Prowarriors, on the other hand, argue that one can only support the troops by withholding all criticism, not only of the war itself but of the Commander-in-Chief, on the grounds that such opposition “undermines morale.” For these militants, “Support Our Troops” means only one thing: “Support Our War.”
Nowhere is this more tellingly apparent than in the response of both the militants and the military to certain troops who themselves oppose the war. If you support the troops, you support them unconditionally, right? Wrong, as it turns out. Recall the case of Pablo Paredes, the young naval enlistee who did not report for duty in May 2005 when his ship took off for the Persian Gulf, on the grounds that he had joined the military to defend his country, not to invade others. And how did the prowarriors support this troop? With charges of cowardice and treason, even death threats. Of course, the Navy — far from supporting its own — hauled Paredes up for court martial.
Currently under consideration is the similar case of First Lieutenant Ehren Watada, U.S. Army, who refused deployment to Iraq in June 2006, citing the illegality of his orders due to the illegality of the war under international treaty. Once again the military court-martialed him for disobeying direct orders, and has furthermore ordered the tribunal to ignore his constitutionally-based arguments. So what kind of support has this troop received? He has the backing of the Iraq Veterans Against the War and Veterans for Peace, but he has been singled out for cudgels and brickbats by an organization that prides itself on “supporting our troops” — the Military Families’ Voice of Victory. Cofounder and spokeswoman Rachel Davis charges that Watada’s acts will “encourage al Qaeda and allied terrorist forces around the globe to wage war against American and Western civilization” and that he “is not standing on principle, nor is his stand valiant. He is a coward and a traitor.” So when such groups hurl the “Support Our Troops” mantra, they riddle it with exceptions.
Of course, such militants part with the military itself when it comes to troops charged with war crimes. They asserted that punishing Ms. England and friends for the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib abused troop morale; in fact, the bad guys were the men in uniform who had passed along the photos and facts, because they had betrayed their fellow troops. Likewise, Marines who have been tried or are currently being tried for atrocities committed at Samarra, Hamdaniya, and Haditha have clearly lost the support of the military but not the militants, who seem to believe that no one in uniform can possibly do wrong as long as he is killing someone.
At the same time, we have no reason to doubt family and friends who maintain that Marines like Pfc. Corey Clagett, Lt. Nathan Phan, and Sgt. Sanick Dela Cruz — who are facing long military prison terms and, theoretically, even death sentences — were good, polite, dutiful young men. It is entirely credible that as civilians they would never have felt the urge to take a human life, and certainly not to drag innocents out of homes and cars and shoot them. But this is always the risk we take when we train young people to kill and send them to a war zone. In Iraq, as in the bloody chaos of Vietnam, some eventually stop making distinctions. Responsibility for their misdeeds travels all the way up the chain of command to the Commander-in-Chief and, through constitutional seepage, to all Americans who supported him and his war.
If anything, war critics are on an even slipperier slope. Bending over backwards to “Support Our Troops,” some have contorted themselves into unsustainable positions. Air America host Al Franken confessed his own inner conflict at the beginning of the Iraq War: he thought Saddam Hussein deserved to be taken out, just not so recklessly and foresightlessly. Despite his open contempt for Bush’s handling of the war, however, he also regularly tours the battlefields of Iraq as a comedian with the USO. His praise of the basic decency and humanity of the servicepeople he meets adds useful perspective for his left-leaning listeners. But when he occasionally thanks the troops on air for their duty in the war zone, what exactly is he thanking them for? For following orders? For being willing to kill or be killed in a cause he disapproves of?
Most likely such gratitude takes for granted the myth that our military’s chief function has been to protect American borders and freedoms. However, the only occasions when the U.S. responded to actual attack were the War of 1812, World War II, and the war on the Taliban after 9/11. Alas, for most of U.S. history our military has in fact fought to extend our borders, and the chief freedom our troops have defended is the freedom to invade other countries. If American troops were genuinely fighting now to protect our freedoms, they would be surrounding the White House.
At best one might thank those in service for their self-sacrificial intent, since many of these young men and women entered service for well-meaning and even lofty goals, such as spreading democracy and defending the lives of others. But bear in mind that in his way W. thinks he is doing the same. How can Franken or his fellows escoriate the Warlord in Washington, as he vigorously and incessantly does, while praising those who carry out his will? Don’t misunderstand: it is nice to be nice to young people who find themselves embroiled in mission impossible, willingly or not. But isn’t there a huge leftie disconnect here?
Carried to its illogical conclusion, sundering the warriors from the war means that no one who fights can be held morally responsible for his or her actions — not our troops, not the Iraqi suicide bomber who kills and dies for God and country, not the thirteen-year-old Congolese draftee hacking limbs off with a machete. And Der Gipper was correct to honor the Nazi dead at Bitberg cemetery, who were just following orders.
Warfare is generally mythologized as the most heroic of human endeavors precisely because it is, in fact, the most barbaric. As an honorable thirty-year veteran of my intimate acquaintance expressed it, beneath all the banners and rituals the primary function of the military is “to kill people and break things.” Some in uniform do so enthusiastically while some change their minds; some carry out their duty and come back as walking wounded, either mutilated for life or haunted with the horror and PTSD. Many merit our sympathy. Many deserve our respect for individual acts of heroism; my favorite example in modern times is the late Hugh C. Thompson, Jr., the Vietnam vet who had interrupted the massacre at My Lai by dropping his helicopter into the middle of it.
One cannot literally Support the Troops — independent of the war — unless one does so without exception. For prowarriors, that means venerating everyone in uniform, even any who criticize this war or refuse to serve, and it means opposing a Commander-in-Chief who throws their lives away for lies and politics while slashing not only their time with their loved ones but their benefit support system as well. For war opponents, it means encouraging the overwhelming majority of troops who continue to follow orders or even exceed them, to give your blessing to those tens of thousands who still believe in the Mission, even the many who fight under the persistent delusion that killing Iraqis is payback for 9/11.
If you don’t, then you don’t really mean it when you claim unconditionally to “Support Our Troops.” You are simply echoing a Bumper Sticker — and that’s B.S.