On Supporting the Troops While Opposing War

A Complex Position


I was caught in a difficult paradox for many years. This paradox was, I believe, an intentional and ingenious discursive formation concocted during the first Persian Gulf War. It was the paradox of supporting our troops while opposing war. Exactly how could I, as a peace advocate and activist, claim that I support our soldiers while at the same time oppose their actions? How did I resolve this seeming contradiction? I’m afraid I’ve never had a particularly good answer. I may not have one still.

I felt compelled to address this paradox, however, after reading an article from Truthout. The author, Camillo Mac Bica, suggested that, from his perspective as a former marine with combat experience, being thanked for his service is “inappropriate.” Among his many reasons for this conclusion was, “it reminds me that many of those who feel the need to offer thanks were apathetic about – or even supportive of – the war, while they refused to participate themselves or did little or nothing to end it.”

Reading this article reminded me of Howard Zinn’s famous essay, The Greatest Generation, written for The Progressive Magazine in 2001. Zinn was responding to Tom Brokaw’s claim that those who fought World War II were, by virtue of their service, the Greatest Generation. In the essay, Zinn gave his own nominations for that honor, none of which supported the aims of war.

That these authors, Zinn and Bica, were combat veterans lends legitimacy to their claims. Their battlefield experiences tempered their peace activism. They were there. They knew what it was like. They earned the right to their position.

Folks like myself, or recently Chris Hayes, must tread more lightly on the subject of war. We’ve not born the burden of combat. It is incumbent upon us to qualify our anti-war positions with a sincere exultation of the troops who serve. This qualification complicates, one might even say “negates,” the anti-war/pro-peace position. When I rail against bombings, civilian casualties, even massacres such as Haditha, or other human rights violations such as those of Abu Ghraib, these events are conducted by our troops, the very soldiers I’m expected to laud as heroes. Yet how can I not stand against any perpetration of inhumanity?

I experienced this paradigm for the first time during protests and anti-war forums in which I participated during the First Gulf War. President H. W. Bush itched to be a wartime president, and Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iraq provided the opportunity. Bush in the late eighties and early nineties, however, still faced what was known as the Vietnam Syndrome, the unwillingness of Americans during the post-Vietnam Era to commit to a formal war. President Reagan before him, according to the book Drift, by Rachel Maddow, tried desperately to engage a war in Nicaragua, but met resistance in Congress due to this national “syndrome.”

President Bush, on the other hand, developed a brilliant propaganda machine justifying his war. Saddam Hussein was the contemporary equivalent to Hitler, and Kuwait was falsely presented as an ill-fated democracy and the victim of Iraqi atrocities. The Bush propaganda machine was well greased. In July of 1990 Saddam Hussein was assured by the US Ambassador, April Glaspie, that the United States had “no opinion” with regard to Iraq’s “border dispute with Kuwait.” She claimed that Secretary of State James Baker affirmed this “no opinion” policy. Thus, the door was open for the invasion of Kuwait. This story was hardly elaborated by the press. The Pentagon reported that Iraqi forces were amassed at the Saudi border, presenting an imminent threat to US interests. The St. Petersburg Times uncovered that this was a lie. General Colin Powell himself later confirmed this report, yet this duplicity never became the national scandal that it should have been. After all, the United States was at war, and one should never question a war-time president.

The propaganda machine insisted on “support your troops.” You don’t have to support the war, for that is your right, but you must support your troops. Any attempt to highlight the above-mentioned lies, or to point out that the Iraqi military at that time was largely supplied by US weapons, or to deny the merits of the nature of war itself, might destroy the resolve of our soldiers in the field. Protesting was equated with stories of Vietnam protestors spitting on returning veterans. Supporting the troops meant keeping one’s mouth shut regardless of legitimate arguments against US military intervention in Iraq.

It was a spectacularly successful discursive arrangement. There was relatively little protest against the Persian Gulf War. The protests that I took part in were often shouted down by “patriots” and presented by the media as disloyal. That being said, the prospect of protest was still a motivating factor for the Bush Administration. The fear of growing peace protests predicated a policy of a quick, well-defined war. Under the military leadership of General Colin Powell, the war ended within seven months. Once the Iraqi military was pushed from Kuwait, the Bush Administration declared victory and started the parades. A significant protest movement had no time momentum. Consequently, the Vietnam Syndrome was over.

The great American dissident, Noam Chomsky, once said, “…the point of public relations slogans like ‘Support Our Troops’ is that they don’t mean anything […] that’s the whole point of good propaganda. You want to create a slogan that nobody is going to be against and I suppose everybody will be for, because nobody knows what it means, because it doesn’t mean anything. But its crucial value is that it diverts your attention from a question that does mean something, do you support our policy? And that’s the one you’re not allowed to talk about.” And we weren’t allowed in any real way to debate the merits of war on a national stage.

This orthodoxy remains, even after our disastrous military experiences of the last decade. Indeed, the insinuations of the propaganda machine are even more insidious. After 9/11, and the consequent fear and doubt instilled by the attack, our leadership engaged in medieval definitions of good vs. evil, with-us-or-against-us, rhetoric feeding on and reinforcing a state of national paranoia. Fear is the default paradigm of tyranny. Fearful subjects are not thinking subjects, are not independent subjects. Fearful subjects hate and are willing to abandon their own interests to the fulfillment of their hate.

According to the new machinations, the only thing protecting us from evil and securing our liberties is our troops. To suggest otherwise, or to suggest that there might be other factors involved, is not only un-American, but it is aid and comfort to the terrorists. Because of this, we must support our troops at all cost lest our very freedoms be lost to terrorism.

On March 16, 1968, Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson and his helicopter crew were flying over My Lai hamlet in Vietnam. There they witnessed US soldiers of Charlie Company, under the command of Lt. William Calley, slaughtering unarmed peasants. Thompson intervened in the massacre, even to the point of ordering his crew to fire on Charlie Company if necessary. He saved over fifteen Vietnamese that day.¹

How does the juxtaposition of Calley’s and Thompson’s stories as soldiers complicate the “support the troops” paradigm? On one hand we have Lt. Calley’s actions. Certainly, Calley is far from a hero, but sociologically his actions cannot be isolated from the insane realities in which he and Charlie Company acted. On the ground, they suffered casualties from a virtually invisible enemy. They lived in constant fear and stress from combat. Charlie Company developed cohesion within a matrix of the inhuman complexities of war. Under any other circumstances, Calley and the soldiers of Charlie Company would have been our neighbors, perhaps not heroes, but certainly not villains. Many of the same constructs that shaped the lives and influenced the actions of Charlie Company, however, also shaped WO. Thompson and his crew. Yet Charlie Company committed atrocities, while Thompson’s crew demonstrated profound valor. It’s impossible to understand the subtle variables at play that manifest such different outcomes. Yet, it is impossible to explore such stories when the only acceptable avenue is “support your troops.”

This is further complicated by the stories of Haditha, or Corporal Bradley Manning or any of a number of Medal of Honor winners? Are they all worthy of support? The same support? What do we mean by support? Should “support” imply blanket approval of Calley and Thompson? Do we support all of the troops by default under the assumption that all soldiers are potential Thompsons, only to withdraw our support from the inevitable Calleys who arise from any combat experience?

How do we demonstrate that support? Is it “support” to sit back silently while our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, husbands and wives are put in harm’s way for a cause that we don’t believe in; or worse, for a cause that we know to be a lie? This is, of course, what our elite establishment means by the phrase. On the other hand, might those of us in the peace movement make the claim that true support for our troops means honoring them enough to ensure that their lives are only put on the line when it is absolutely necessary?

“Support our troops” is, as expressed by Chomsky, a meaningless phrase with horribly meaningful consequences. Refrain from dissent is not “supporting the troops” any more than is silently allowing our troops to die or to kill for a lie. Of course we support “the troops”, our friends and family, even if we disdain the work for which they are tasked. We support the troops as we support any man or woman who endeavors to uphold their humanity in the face of inhuman conditions. At the same time, we abhor the conditions that task their humanity. There is no contradiction. Also, there is no contradiction in abhorring the atrocities committed by those who lose hold of their humanity while at the same time holding out our hands to those same people in order help them regain their human consciousness.

Our feelings regarding war and those who serve are impossibly complex. Any attempt to simplify the discourse is a limitation on our ability to comprehend the reality of what is being done in our name. In short, it is the perpetuation of a lie. That is the point of propaganda. The best propaganda minimizes the complexity of the human drama and packages it in such a way that the intricacies become invisible, imponderable. That way, we no longer have to think. All we have to do is blindly support the whims of the elite…to our own destruction.


¹For his efforts, Thompson received the Distinguished Flying Cross. However, the citation for this medal included a lie about saving a girl in the midst of “crossfire,” thus falsely insinuating that the victims of Mai Ly were armed. Because of this lie, Thompson threw his medal away.

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