"Support the Troops, Oppose the War" (2005)
My sister, Jessie, is in the Army reserves and preparing to ship out to the war at the end of this summer. Since moving to Seattle a year ago, I have been participating in a couple of anti-war groups – most recently a core member the Seattle chapter of Code Pink. Last winter, when Jess visited, we had a heated discussion about the phrase “support the troops and oppose the war.” To me, it’s a phrase that holds a distinction between the soldiers who signed up to protect their country and the officers and bureaucrats who decide to what ends to risk their lives. To her, the phrase is an offensive logical inconsistency – how can you support the troops, fighting for a given position, if you undermine the position that they are fighting for?
At what level do Jess and I believe similarly? If I could perceive and articulate that, I think that I could hold the integrity of her perspective, my own, and the integrity of our friendship. Further, I want to identify some criteria for my anti-war efforts that conveys to my sister, and to other soldiers, my support even as I communicate my dissent to and disapproval to decision makers in the government.
A pair of propositions:
Support the troops & Oppose the war
What I think I mean:
Support the troops
Troops are the soldiers following orders of their commanders. They didn’t choose this war nor do they direct its strategies or get a say in the goals and intentions. In the course of being soldiers they are also comrades and their faith and obedience is as much about protecting each other as any technique or hierarchy they have trained to abide.
Support the troops
Support is seeing the person who has been trained to fight and follow orders more than we see the fighting and the orders. It is respecting their challenges, including extending the benefit of the doubt for the things that we don’t understand. I think it is even absolving the troops of some responsibility that society would assign to them as civilians as part of how we acknowledge a hierarchy of decision makers and penalties.
More than anything else, support is expressing a desire for the troops to be physically healthy and mentally sound. We advocate for policy to reflect that while holding the tension that the work of the troops puts them in physical, mental and emotional risk. We register dissent when the goals do not justify the risk to the troops.
Oppose the war
I think this is about the particulars of a given conflict, such as arguments that the current war was a preemptive invasion to maintain control of oil supplies. It would be harder to use this phrase more broadly to protest the use of war in any conflict and keep it married to “support the troops” since the maintaining to troops is largely in anticipation of martial conflict.
When this phrase is coupled with “support the troops” I think it is also:
Oppose the war-makers
The specific suffix points to the president, bureaucrats, military commanders, (and media?) who craft a social context where people can be convinced that war is necessary when perhaps alternatives remain. It also distinguishes those carrying out the orders from those giving them. It also notes a distinction between military authorities directing troops and statesmen calling for the involvement of the military to meet their goals.
Oppose the war
We register our dissent with the war and those in authority over the troops in different ways such as rallies, marches, demonstrations, teach-ins, letters to the editor, articles and blogs in independent media etc.
Opposing the war could be the best way that we support the troops – by speaking up as citizens to our elected leadership and requiring that they remove our troops from the region.
As an adult citizen of this country I am in a position to participate in its governance. Through the system of representation, I have a conduit and a right to articulate my views on our resources and policies including the use of troops. In this case, I want the decision makers held responsible. I recognize that soldiers are contracted to defend the nation as the commander in chief sees fit to use them, but I reject sending them needlessly into harm. I can “command” the commander with my participation in the process as a constituent. My loyalty is to my ideals, my individual freedom to act, and my role in the expression of the collective will.
What I think my sister means:
Support the troops
They are citizens who have volunteered to serve the country and the public good as its defenders, not knowing what the issues or conditions will be. They are the ones fighting the war by following the strategy and abiding by the chain of command. Their success, not to mention survival, depends on adherence to their training and loyalty to one another.
Support the troops
Support is unconditional agreement with what they are doing and why. Otherwise, their intelligence and integrity and undermined as if they are fighting, enduring losses and harm, for nothing. If we support them then we are resolved that their efforts are worth something and we assert and maintain the worth of their work as soldiers.
Oppose the war
The war is the reason why the soldiers are fighting, it is the cause for which they risk their lives. It is the source of the commands. If the reason is rejected, what is the significance of their function? By this logic, we make them fools and meaningless when we oppose the war. And that is not supportive.
Oppose the war
Registering dissent with the commander in chief, disregarding and defying those who have more information as well as authority in the matter. Socially acting up in ways that are the privilege of citizens in the United States, governed by the leadership that the protesters are second-guessing, not to mention the soldiers whose skill and commitment guarantee the safety in the country in which to protest.
My concept of my sister’s context:
My sister is contracted to obey the orders of her commanding officers, by virtue of their position, regardless of the individual, the ideals, the strategy being mandated by the occupant of the position. Although she is also an adult citizen, her military training envelopes her personal views about the content of the leaders and decisions in the government. As a member of the armed services she also receives her information from their sources rather than public sources, this contributes to the cultivation of her personal views and expectations in ways that reinforce her training as a soldier.
A third meaning:
As I was tracking the interpretations and corresponding contexts for my sister and I, a professor suggested to me that if he had a sibling in the military he would rather that they were alive than that the two of them were friends. By this rationale, opposing the war is the singular means to support the physical existence of the human solider regardless of how they feel the opposition or what it says about their decision to take on the role and function of being a solider. I consider this the “collateral damage” proposition, such that in the same way that civilian casualties are collateral damage to the makers of war the hearts and minds of soldiers are collateral damage to protesters of war. I rejected this view because it gave less significance to the value of my relationship with my sister and it also offended my sense of my sister’s dignity.
I want a relationship with my sister. This requires my sister being alive and it’s a large part of why I participate in protesting this war. But Jessie also has choice. She chose to enter military service – even after growing up in the house of a Vietnam veteran, who didn’t want his children to be in the military, even after our brother served in the Marines. She knew that the armed services meant risk. She knew that sometimes troops are deployed where there is not an immediate “clear and present danger” to the US. While I oppose the war, and advocate for her life, I also want to honor who she is. Including her choice to serve. I make this a little more possible for myself by noting the choices that she has relinquished by nature of her context. She doesn’t choose the orders that she follows, they come from the war makers further up the hierarchy.
Jessie and I grew up in the post Vietnam era, children of a veteran who expressly blamed the government for the soldiers’ struggle in that conflict. Since Vietnam and the outrage over Jane Fonda, the phrase “baby-killer,” and the emergence of post-traumatic stress disorder, I think the American public is more keenly conscious of the impact it has on its soldiers as well as some hint of the challenges of a soldier’s role. My sister and I approach our appreciation of our different positions on this war from that shared base.
We also share a patriotism or love of country that we were raised with. We express this in very different ways due in part to different education while we were children, very different personalities and inclinations, and different relationships we had with our father. But we both recognize the dream of what this country could be, and we both partake of the benefits of living here, now.
We appreciate living in a secure country.
We appreciate the role and function of soldiers in that scenario given the current paradigm.
We respect the men and women of the armed services.
We respect the dignity of service people, including the choice to serve.
Regarding how we resolve our antithetical interpretations of “Support the troops, Oppose the war” the pivotal proposition we share is about the dignity of the troops.
A friend has proposed for me that honoring people’s dignity starts with learning from them about their lives, recognizing the fact that they know their environment, needs, and meaning making better than you do. If you want to do what is best for someone, and uphold their dignity, ask them what they want and need, don’t dictate it to them.
My sister’s position tells me that there is a lot to being one of the troops that I neither perceive nor comprehend. If I accept my friend’s proposition about how to honor another person’s dignity, than I have my first criterion for navigating the rift between my sister’s context and my own. I will learn from people in the service what they consider to be “support[ing] the troops.” Building onto this, if the service people that I talk with agree to it, I would like to bring their information into anti-war groups so that we can reflect on our language and actions with the potential to choose behavior that is felt as support.
Jessie and I diverge on “oppose the war” and that divergence represents the different ways that we express patriotism. If my proposition is about the role of a constituent in the decisions about military troops than I need to be consistently informed on relevant issues as well as identify and practice ways to participate in governance. This is a step up the propositional ladder from protesting a given conflict once it has started. This is reexamining the meaning and the means by which I engage in patriotic acts.
But designing the future effectively dodges questions about the present. Do I continue to protest this war, knowing that it challenges Jessie’s position and even dignity as a soldier? I think I will change my tactics to directly addressing the war-makers and their reasons for the war. I also expect that members of the armed services have different views on opposing war and that I might glean some suggestions there.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.