Supporting our troops

I’m re-posting a few of the things I originally published on my now-defunct Geocities site, from what I like to think of as Via Negativa’s 11-month gestation period. Here’s one from March 23, 2003. The invasion of Iraq had begun three days before.

cardboard Dubya
Cardboard effigy of a chicken hawk
Exhortations to Support Our Troops have always made me a bit queasy. How come? Sure, I’m anti-war, but that shouldn’t matter, should it? Because if I value human life so highly as to oppose war on principle, surely I must join in empathizing with the men and women on the front lines?

Well, of course. And if that’s all this little slogan means, can we also agree to support their troops? But that sounds so… disloyal. Which leads me to think that if support our troops means anything at all, we ought to be honest and admit that one of its primary meanings is go team! And I feel bad about saying this, especially to anyone with family members or lovers on the front lines, but I’m not in the cheering section. Not for either team.

But that’s not the only reason this slogan makes me so queasy. How come you never hear “Support our soldiers“? Is it because we’re all maybe a little anxious about what it is they do?

But of course in modern warfare soldiers do all kinds of things besides simply killing. Some of the stateside soldiers, according to web sources, are joining in street demonstrations when they go off duty. I can support that! And a few soldiers — several dozen, so far — have demonstrated another kind of bravery: they’ve become conscientious objectors. Can we agree that these soldiers, at least, who have chosen to risk their futures and even their freedom for a moral scruple almost no one understands, are very much in need of tangible support?

“Support our troops.” What is a troop? It’s still a plurality, even without the s. Does this notion of troops have anything to do with actual human beings? What is it we’re supporting here? It reminds me very much of the old communist slogans about the masses — another plural of pluralities. When we deploy this phrase support our troops, aren’t we in some way supporting the dissolution of individual men and women into a nameless, faceless machine?

O.K., Mr. Intellectual. But what about all those masked demonstrators? They are, literally, effacing themselves too, aren’t they? Not to mention the tens of thousands of marchers chanting and cheering in unison. Go team!

That argument sounds a little too facile to me. Donning a mask to protect one’s identity — or project a new one — is actually an assertion of individuality, and a freedom that the authorities often seek to deny. Further, the voluntary solidarity of diverse interest groups with differing agendas is a far cry from unquestioning uniformity imposed by leaders.

But the demonstrators — masked and otherwise — are indeed soldiers of a sort. Their actions may not always inspire much sympathy, but as far as I’m concerned, they are truly standing in the gap for all of us. For one thing, they are probably doing a lot more to protect our freedom than anyone in uniform, given that in reality no one is threatening the existence of the United States, and the supposed WMD are as transparent a fabrication as the Gulf of Tonkin incident. No, it’s the demonstrators who are safeguarding our freedom, because freedoms are like limbs: fail to exercise them regularly, and they tend to atrophy.

A more overlooked possibility, however, is that these anti-war soldiers may be helping to protect Americans from terrorist retaliation. A senior cleric, described as a leader of ultra-orthodox Islamists in Saudi Arabia, told an interviewer on NPR that he and his fellow clerics would try and take all extenuating circumstances into consideration before any declaration of jihad against the United States. Such a jihad, he explained, would of course enjoin the targeting of any and all U.S. civilians as knowing accomplices in crime. So it seems reasonable to hope that enough TV images of large masses of Americans demonstrating and getting arrested for their passionate opposition to this war might make a big difference to those who would help legitimize another 9/11.

You don’t have to accept that the US-led invasion of Iraq is a crime to recognize that the majority of Muslims, fundamentalist or otherwise, believe it to be so. Further, whether or not you agree with senior American intelligence officials that Gulf War II will lead to an escalation of attacks against domestic targets in the US, it is an undeniable fact that funds and personnel have been diverted from the War on Terror to this new War on Weapons of Mass Destruction.

So collectively, as troops, the soldiers in uniform may actually be endangering us, while the soldiers on the streets may be helping to protect us. Makes one a little queasy just to think about it, eh? Support our troops!

10 Replies to “Supporting our troops”

  1. …Just in time for Veterans Day. Yikes! How insensitive of me.

    Veterans do deserve support, and that is because they are doing dangerous, unpleasant work on our behalf, whether or not you support their mission politically. This is the one big oversight in my essay: I failed to consider how and to what extent they are our troops, and what responsibilities we might still bear for them now that we have a professional, all-volunteer military. It seems to me that because we put soldiers in harm’s way and ask them to sign away their freedom and give up their lives if need be, we are obligated to do all we can to take of them after they’re discharged. I only wish we felt the same sense of obligation to other of our citizens who have suffered as a result of government policies, past or on-going. What about all the people who lost their jobs as a result of “free trade” agreements? What about people who lost their houses because of financial deregulation? What about all the people whose health has been ruined as a result of our on-going war against the earth? And so forth.

    1. Actually, Dave, I think this post is perfect for Veterans Day. I think what you say about supporting the lives of individual soldiers versus supporting “the troops” as a faceless mass is spot-on. I have several students whose fiances are currently deployed, and their feelings about war are ambivalent. But they “support their soldiers” completely, wanting them to come home safely while admiring the dedication it takes to fight in a war you don’t really believe in. I think this mix of feelings–condemning a war, but supporting the soldiers who find themselves fighting in that war–is one of the things that Veterans Day is all about.

      1. Thanks for commenting, Lorianne. I hope you’re right. And yeah, soldiers do sign up for a number of reasons, the desire to escape poverty or get socialized medicine or citizenship chief among them. Idealism often plays a role, too, however misguided it may be, and I think we need to honor that — the fact that some people are putting their lives on the line out of a strong desire to be of service. I also feel sufficiently complicit in the evil of the military-industrial complex myself to want to avoid stridency on these kinds of issues.

    1. Thanks, Dick. I hardly think your post is po-faced (though I admit to some uncertainty about the precise meaning of the term). It’s a difficult subject to write about, for sure.

  2. As an Army “retiree” with a son on his 3rd combat tour I sincerely thank you for this, Dave. These issues are (perhaps I should say, can be) quite complex for many of us. Some small explanation of what I mean can be found in my post here:

    As for “troop,” it is a dehumanizing term but “soldier” can be also. I think that in general, troop is used as a collective noun for any grouping of soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines. Not every one is a solider as it is service specific. Troop is therefore similar to “service member,” although service member (speaking of the uniformed services) includes the Coast Guard, Public Health Service and NOAA. The last two would generally not be referred to as troops. Of course, most people don’t realize that they are uniformed service personnel either. Troop(s) is sometimes used when referring to members of one service but that is much like using “thing” when a more descriptive noun would be better.

    Let me end by saying that the phrase “We support our troops” was one of the hardest things for me to deal with during my son’s first deployment (he was in the initial invasion) because it meant so many things and generally meant nothing. For most it was the equivalent of posting a cartoon image for one’s facebook profile at the moment and doing nothing else. Slacktivism in the face of war.

    Sorry for rambling here, Dave. And “Thank you!”

    1. Steve, thank you for the very informative and thoughtful comment, which I think just doubled the value of the post. It’s especially interesting to hear how a veteran and father of a soldier hears this language. (And “slacktivism” is such a great term!) Peace out.

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