Friday, March 24, 2006

Supporting the Troops

“I support the troops” is almost a cliche’ in America these days, most frequently seen on magnetic yellow ribbons and bumper stickers. But without some sort of definition it is meaningless. Actually, all taxpaying Americans support the troops. Our federal tax dollars pay their salaries, provide equipment and transport them to wherever they are directed to go. That’s quite a bit of support. Virtually all Americans no doubt wish them a safe return, hoping that they somehow avoid the all too dangerous reality of war.

Where support becomes questionable, for me at least, is their mission. Why are the troops in harm’s way? What is the purpose of their mission? That’s where my support wavers. How can I support a war that I believe is wrong for America, wrong for Iraq and wrong for the world? I can’t. I can make a distinction between the troops and their mission, recognizing that the soldiers are not the ones who decided to go to war. They are following orders.

But there’s the rub. “Following orders” is not a defense for carrying out illegal orders. It did not save Nazi war criminals after World War II and even American military law requires soldiers to refuse illegal orders. Soldiers’ willingness to do what they are ordered is what allows world leaders to wage war. If no one accepted military service (either as a volunteer or conscript), war would cease. Leaders would have to fight it out themselves or, more likely, work out deals to settle their conflicts. To say that I support the troops in Iraq suggests that I support that mission when, in fact, I do not.

Several commentators have raised the issue of soldiers’ responsibility for war. Cartoonist/columnist Ted Rall wrote about this a few months ago. He said he does not support the troops in prosecuting an illegal war. His rationale is that soldiers choose to participate and can also choose not to participate. Where I differ is that I know how difficult that choice is and how few soldiers will make that choice. Rall cites the example of Darrell Anderson who deserted to Canada rather than fire on women and children. British Ranger Ben Griffith made a similar decision. These are courageous decisions that most soldiers will not make. I know that I was afraid to say no to my country when faced with Vietnam. I went even though I believed the war wrong. It’s not at all easy to say no. It’s even harder to say no when the vast majority of troops believe that they are in Iraq in response to Saddam Hussein’s role in the 9-11 attacks.

Like Rall, I believe that the Iraq war is illegal (sanctioned neither by a Congressional declaration of war nor a United Nations resolution) and a stain on America’s reputation. Like Vietnam, probably even less so, this war is not something about which this nation will be proud when all is said and done, despite what BushCheney says over and over and over. The men and women we send to Iraq will have to come to terms with their service as best they can. While I oppose the war they prosecute, I do not blame them for it. That responsibility lies with all Americans. Whether we support the war or not, our country is making war in our name. It belongs to all of us.

Supporting the troops has a distinct meaning for me since I was “a troop” in Vietnam. I know what it feels like to sacrifice for a meaningless cause (a very depressing, frightening experience that leaves great residual anger). As a veteran of that experience, supporting the troops means several things to me. First, I want them to return alive, whole in body and spirit. Second, I expect this nation to provide the medical and other care they need to make the transition from war back to civilian life. Third, I respect and honor those who follow their conscience and refuse to serve. At the same time, I do not fault the majority of soldiers who go war. And finally, I support ending their misbegotten mission as soon as possible.

All this doesn’t fit well on a bumper sticker but then simplistic slogans don’t really tell the entire story.


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