Lisa L. Ferrari
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.

Lisa L. Ferrari is an associate professor in the department of politics and government at the University of Puget Sound, Tacoma, Wash.

Comments

Jerome Morzinski | 4/6/2006 - 1:06am
The article "Visible Means of Support?" (March 27) contains many good points about our involvement in Iraq, e.g. about the terrible human costs of war and about the skillful way the war's supporters have framed discussion about the issue. The author bemoans the fact that the Bush administration has convinced us that being against the war means we are indifferent to the suffering of our troops. Unfortunately, the author has staked out a position that is logically equivalent: she claims that if you are for the troops, you must be for the war. (From the discipline of symbolic logic: let W = for the war, -W = against the war, T = for the troops, -T = against the troops. Then the (Bush) proposition -W implies -T is called the contrapositive of the (author's) proposition T implies W, and they are logically equivalent.)

Perhaps the author's confusion over the issue stems from her desire for a certitude that cannot be had - she says we should bring the troops home unless we are certain the loss of life is appropriate. There is ample room for doubt over that question, as well as doubt about what would happen if we simply pulled out. Given those uncertainties, I have no problem professing support for the troops while maintaining that the war was a bad idea.

John W. Davis | 3/30/2006 - 10:25pm
Lisa Ferrari argues powerfully against those who would 'support the troops', but not the war. To say this, she contends, is ethically lazy, and a 'car ribbon' philosophy which can be cynically manipulated by the Administration. Such ribbons give an illusion of false popular support for the war and delimit the parameters of debate. After all, if the war is a bad idea, what does supporting the troops then mean? Sadly, Ms. Ferrari underestimates Americans who, like Lincoln once observed, won't be fooled all the time. The Administration cried wolf. In our form of government, it is what people do with their letters, articles, and ultimately votes, that bring change. No Washington spin-doctors will change what Americans can now see for themselves. I have a ribbon to support the troops. They, just like the biblical centurion, have little real choice on where they are sent. We must pray, and act, for them to come home safely.

Jeffrey Petruska | 3/26/2006 - 9:49pm
I believe that Ms. Ferrari is simply echoing a sentiment voiced in other media outlets and is, as those pundits were, reading too much into those yellow "Support Our Troops" magnets. Without data to the contrary, she is simply projecting her own bias onto the intentions of others.

As she stated, the treatment of returning Vietnam vets by the anti-war factions in this country was appalling. I also agree that “...if this pledge [never again to treat each other with such hostility] 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?” I see disrespect every day where I live, and it does sadden me. It does not, however, make me believe that “Support Our Troops” is a pro-war statement.

I agree very much with the points of the previous respondent. I will add that Ms. Ferrari has missed another vital point. Supporting my proposition of her projecting her own bias onto those displaying the magnets is that the magnets read “Support Our Troops”, not “Support Our Troops in Iraq”. Has she forgotten that there are troops elsewhere, many stationed in places where the “world community” has agreed they should be? Though she may have, I can guarantee others have not.

I give great weight to her closing argument, though. She is correct that “...the men and women in Iraq need a great deal more support from us than a ribbon on the back of a car.” In my agreement with her I do not display that yellow ribbon, because I believe it does not go far enough. I display magnets supporting “Operation Gratitude”, “IraqiSchools.com”, and “Operation Uplink”, to which I regularly provide resources and treasure.

Jason LoMonaco | 3/20/2006 - 1:42pm
Visible Means of Support? By Lisa L. Ferrari

The continued support of our troops by those who either opposed the war in Iraq from the start or who's support has since waned is grounded in our fundamental faith in our military and how it relates to our nation as a whole. Our American system takes for granted that the military is a separate and distinct entity of our government that is under the direct and absolute authority and control of our civilian leadership. In short, “war making” is decided by our civilian leadership and then the military is commanded to carry it out.

While we must always give the utmost deference to the experience and expertise of our generals, war policy is always a decision of the civilian leadership. Our system requires that our military neither make war on its own nor refuse to fight a war determined to be necessary by the civilian leadership.

This understanding extends all the way to the boots on the ground. While we expect our soldiers to exercise varying degrees of discretion in carrying out their mission-- particularly in avoiding the killing of non-combatants-- we have never, and ought never, tolerated anything from our military that compromises the mission itself regardless of the political disagreements that may exist at home. In this context, those who support the troops understand that the troops are doing their duty and at the risk of life and limb. Such duty is honorable and praiseworthy even assuming a lack of justification for the war. Our system has made a more fundamental choice that we do not hold our military accountable for the missions defined by our civilian authorities. To neglect this distinction puts the system itself in jeopardy.

Having said that, this analysis only speaks to the larger question of war making and execution, it does not speak to instances that we would consider atrocities or war crimes. All soldiers are morally and legally obligated to refrain from such acts and even to disobey an order that requires such an act.

Those who disagree with the war but support our troops rightly place responsibility on our civilian leadership while respecting and honoring those who carry out their duties to this country and the system that has served it so well.

Jerome Morzinski | 4/6/2006 - 1:06am
The article "Visible Means of Support?" (March 27) contains many good points about our involvement in Iraq, e.g. about the terrible human costs of war and about the skillful way the war's supporters have framed discussion about the issue. The author bemoans the fact that the Bush administration has convinced us that being against the war means we are indifferent to the suffering of our troops. Unfortunately, the author has staked out a position that is logically equivalent: she claims that if you are for the troops, you must be for the war. (From the discipline of symbolic logic: let W = for the war, -W = against the war, T = for the troops, -T = against the troops. Then the (Bush) proposition -W implies -T is called the contrapositive of the (author's) proposition T implies W, and they are logically equivalent.)

Perhaps the author's confusion over the issue stems from her desire for a certitude that cannot be had - she says we should bring the troops home unless we are certain the loss of life is appropriate. There is ample room for doubt over that question, as well as doubt about what would happen if we simply pulled out. Given those uncertainties, I have no problem professing support for the troops while maintaining that the war was a bad idea.

John W. Davis | 3/30/2006 - 10:25pm
Lisa Ferrari argues powerfully against those who would 'support the troops', but not the war. To say this, she contends, is ethically lazy, and a 'car ribbon' philosophy which can be cynically manipulated by the Administration. Such ribbons give an illusion of false popular support for the war and delimit the parameters of debate. After all, if the war is a bad idea, what does supporting the troops then mean? Sadly, Ms. Ferrari underestimates Americans who, like Lincoln once observed, won't be fooled all the time. The Administration cried wolf. In our form of government, it is what people do with their letters, articles, and ultimately votes, that bring change. No Washington spin-doctors will change what Americans can now see for themselves. I have a ribbon to support the troops. They, just like the biblical centurion, have little real choice on where they are sent. We must pray, and act, for them to come home safely.

Jeffrey Petruska | 3/26/2006 - 9:49pm
I believe that Ms. Ferrari is simply echoing a sentiment voiced in other media outlets and is, as those pundits were, reading too much into those yellow "Support Our Troops" magnets. Without data to the contrary, she is simply projecting her own bias onto the intentions of others.

As she stated, the treatment of returning Vietnam vets by the anti-war factions in this country was appalling. I also agree that “...if this pledge [never again to treat each other with such hostility] 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?” I see disrespect every day where I live, and it does sadden me. It does not, however, make me believe that “Support Our Troops” is a pro-war statement.

I agree very much with the points of the previous respondent. I will add that Ms. Ferrari has missed another vital point. Supporting my proposition of her projecting her own bias onto those displaying the magnets is that the magnets read “Support Our Troops”, not “Support Our Troops in Iraq”. Has she forgotten that there are troops elsewhere, many stationed in places where the “world community” has agreed they should be? Though she may have, I can guarantee others have not.

I give great weight to her closing argument, though. She is correct that “...the men and women in Iraq need a great deal more support from us than a ribbon on the back of a car.” In my agreement with her I do not display that yellow ribbon, because I believe it does not go far enough. I display magnets supporting “Operation Gratitude”, “IraqiSchools.com”, and “Operation Uplink”, to which I regularly provide resources and treasure.

Jason LoMonaco | 3/20/2006 - 1:42pm
Visible Means of Support? By Lisa L. Ferrari

The continued support of our troops by those who either opposed the war in Iraq from the start or who's support has since waned is grounded in our fundamental faith in our military and how it relates to our nation as a whole. Our American system takes for granted that the military is a separate and distinct entity of our government that is under the direct and absolute authority and control of our civilian leadership. In short, “war making” is decided by our civilian leadership and then the military is commanded to carry it out.

While we must always give the utmost deference to the experience and expertise of our generals, war policy is always a decision of the civilian leadership. Our system requires that our military neither make war on its own nor refuse to fight a war determined to be necessary by the civilian leadership.

This understanding extends all the way to the boots on the ground. While we expect our soldiers to exercise varying degrees of discretion in carrying out their mission-- particularly in avoiding the killing of non-combatants-- we have never, and ought never, tolerated anything from our military that compromises the mission itself regardless of the political disagreements that may exist at home. In this context, those who support the troops understand that the troops are doing their duty and at the risk of life and limb. Such duty is honorable and praiseworthy even assuming a lack of justification for the war. Our system has made a more fundamental choice that we do not hold our military accountable for the missions defined by our civilian authorities. To neglect this distinction puts the system itself in jeopardy.

Having said that, this analysis only speaks to the larger question of war making and execution, it does not speak to instances that we would consider atrocities or war crimes. All soldiers are morally and legally obligated to refrain from such acts and even to disobey an order that requires such an act.

Those who disagree with the war but support our troops rightly place responsibility on our civilian leadership while respecting and honoring those who carry out their duties to this country and the system that has served it so well.