Those bright yellow magnets are everywhere: Support Our Troops. Tiny arms looped like an embrace or hands joined in prayer. It’s a simple image and such an appealing one, and yet whenever I see it I get angry.Each day I see the death toll as I read my online newspaper, and sometimes I visit the virtual cemetery of photographs of the deceased. Many are smiling. Most are young. None will come back. Perhaps the yellow ribbons are merely a sorrowful acknowledgment of this suffering and loss of life. As a statement by those who believe the war is just, this makes sense. The terrible human costs of war are, in their minds, necessary to achieving a greater good. But I am more troubled by the range of Americans (recent polling data suggest their numbers are growing) who share the view of a friend, the spouse of a reservist, who says that while the war may not be such a good idea, she definitely supports the troops.
I do not understand what this means.
Unless we are certain the loss of life is appropriate, I think the most meaningful support we can offer the troops is our pressure on our government to extract them from the deathtrap that Iraq has become. In the meantime, what are Americans like my friend saying with their magnets, if not that they support the war itself?
I was young when the Vietnam War ended, so have only others’ accounts of the abuse experienced by returning veterans. Even so, I understand the impulse of Americans to promise that they will never again treat each other with such hostility. This is both laudable and appropriate. But if this pledge is the primary meaning behind the yellow ribbons, I am saddened by what it says about us. Do we expect so little civility of one another that we need to advertise our willingness to treat each other with respect?
In fact, I suspect the yellow ribbons are much more than a signal that the troops need not fear a frosty welcome. For many, supporting the troops but not the war is a way of separating moral responsibility for the war into two parts:first, a part assigned to the Bush administration; second, a part assigned to the soldiers on the ground. I agree that the administration and the troops bear different moral responsibility for the fighting. However, I do not understand how we can unquestioningly assume the moral rectitude of one group, and therefore deem it worthy of the blanket support shown by magnet-buyers, while it takes part in a war that, in my friend’s terms, may not be such a good idea. In such a case, supporting the troops implies either moral complicity in the activities of the troops or a willingness to treat their mission as amoral. In other words, making an unqualified statement that we support the troops implies either that we accept the ethical implications of the troops’ actions or that we see no need to use ethical standards to decide whether to lend our support.
This confounds my conscience. Does having an opinion about the outbreak of the war somehow excuse us from asking questions of and about those who do the fighting?
There is good reason that questioning the morality of the war quickly leads to this sort of confusion. The war’s supporters have skillfully framed the way we talk about the issue, and thereby the war itself. Who wants to go on record as having been against the men and women who almost daily lose their lives under fearful circumstances? Somehow, the Bush administration has convinced us that being against the war must mean we are indifferent to the suffering of members of the armed forces.
Nothing could be further from the truth. I do not want to see these people die or suffer. But my outrage on their behalf stems from their humanity, not from their having enlisted in the U.S. armed forces. By encouraging us to think of our human and personal impulse to keep others from harm as support for our troops, the architects of the war and public opinion encourage us to conflate the duties owed to our fellow humans with the duties owed to citizens or government. Thus, they set the terms of public debate in a way that subtly, but certainly, discredits opponents of the war as inhumane.
In all likelihood, my friend means little more by her Support Our Troops magnet than that she has compassion for the situation of Americans deployed to Iraq. Even so, I find her choice problematic for two reasons. First, to any casual observer, her message is indistinguishable from one that is unequivocally pro-war. This promotes a false sense of popular consensus in favor of the war. Second, if, as my friend says, the war is a bad idea, then the people fighting in Iraq are risking their lives under terrifying circumstances for a bad idea.
Given that, the men and women in Iraq need a great deal more support from us than a ribbon on the back of a car.