We've heard it before from conservatives. We're hearing it now. The message they're spreading is loud and clear: only conservatives support the troops because only conservatives support doing what is necessary for victory in Iraq. We're told that "The Left" (an apparently monolithic and homogeneous mob) actually hates the troops, because they are critical of (a) the cause of the Iraq war, (b) troops in Iraq, and (c) the leaders who got us into Iraq. We're told that criticism is more than just unpatriotic: it's harmful. We're told that "The Right" (an equally uniform mob) is the truly patriotic path.
What this message lacks is three basic facts about the reality of warfare. First, it ignores human misery on both sides. Secondly, it seeks to portray American soldiers as incapable of error or malevolence. Third, it is founded on the assumption that America is invincible and, given time, omnipotent.
The message also ignores its own shrinking support, as more and more conservatives recognize the negligence, corruption, and indifference behind our war policy, and have begun to also demands reform.
Human Life Has Value
The chants of "Support The Troops" has echoed over one of the most violent armed conflicts since WWII. The risk levels in Iraq remain so high that the traditional methods of war journalism employed in conflicts like Vietnam and Bosnia are largely impossible. At least 140 journalists are known to have died violently in Iraq, four and a half times the deaths per year for journalists in Vietnam. Unsurprisingly, America has suffered fatalities as well: 3912 confirmed at the time of this writing, with an additional 28,661 soldiers wounded and around 300 allied soldiers dead as well. Over a thousand contractors working for the US-led coalition have died as of June 2007. The "Support Our Troops" crowd, however, tells us that supporting our troops means leaving them in Iraq for as long as the job takes, where "the job" is a flexible term that is changed at a moment's notice.
The death toll among coalition allies is small compared to the massive civilian suffering the war has caused. At the most conservative estimates, between 80 and 90 thousand Iraqi civilians have died, while the largest toll proposed is seven times as high. Additionally, the war has created almost four million Iraqi refugees (16% of the pre-war population), half of whom remain internally displaced in the country, at risk of becoming the latest casualties. The war led to the complete collapse of law enforcement in much of the country for extended periods, and widespread ethnic and religious violence has resulted. The "Support The Troops" crowd, however, is uninterested in the suffering and loss of life by Iraqis: they are the enemy, or savages, and thus the impact of "supporting the troops" on them is entirely inconsequential. Some have gone so far as to assert that this sort of inhumanity was inevitable anyway, because what else can you expect of savages?
American Soldiers Can Also Commit War Crimes
Not all American soldiers are saints. Nor are they all geniuses. Many soldiers are honorable, disciplined, and courageous. But not all. Sometimes, the exhaustion of long deployment and the stress of being under fire every day can take their toll on people, even good people, and they can make mistakes. They can become angry. They can read a situation wrong. Urban warfare, often, is chaos, and the fact is that American soldiers kill civilians. It's inevitable. Saying that Americans may present a great threat to some Iraqis is no exaggeration, because the soldiers in the field are exhausted, paranoid, and very well armed. But the "Support The Troops" crowd won't hear a word of it. They insist that anyone who doesn't portray soldiers as infallible heroes is "undermining" them, rather than merely portraying them as what they are: humans in extremely difficult circumstances.
Then, there's the bad apples. I don't believe America's "evil" soldiers represent more than a small minority, but they exist. Soldiers who rape civilians, who empower the enemy by buying drugs and alcohol from the black market, who kill for fun or out of resentment at Iraqis, who embezzled large amounts of American cash. They exist. Once again, it's inevitable. The military attracts all sorts of people, and some of them are the sort that want to be able to kill people without going to jail. Americans should insist on vigilance against these bad apples: they poison the military and spread hatred of America in the wake of their crimes. But the "Support the Troops" crowd don't want to hear about distinctions between honorable warfare and rapine pillage. According to them, you can't demand any accountability from anyone, because doing so always hurts America. As draconian as many are about murderers and rapists here at home, they won't hear of our criticizing them once they're hiding behind a uniform.
And then, there's America's policy of war from afar. To show our resolve, we'll bomb anyone, even people using innocent human shields. Our "precision air strikes" aren't magic bullets: they kill civilians and destroy infrastructure. The American military has spent the last ten years weakening the word "minimizing" as it regards civilian casualties. So we bomb with massive ordinance. We fire into civilian areas with white phosphorous. We invoke the shockwave clause and minigun buildings to rubble, consuming thousands of rounds of ammunition over the threat of a single sniper. But we're told anyone caught in the crossfire "should have known better," as if the military should be able to surprise the bad Iraqis with overwhelming force while the good Iraqis all magically know in advance where not to be. The American military, especially among its leaders back in Washington, has grown numb to these losses, and we at home pay them little attention.
And then, there's the mercenaries. We've all heard about Blackwater, just one of the private armies making boatloads of money off of American taxpayers in Iraq. There are others. There are currently more military contractors in Iraq than there are American soldiers. The majority are Iraqi, but over sixty thousand aren't. These contractors are not subject to military law, and their activities are notoriously unsupervised. Several scandals have suggested that some mercenaries in Iraq are out of control, acting without any regard to the military code of conduct, the interests of America, or the interests of the Iraqi people. But when criticism are made of these mercenaries, who are evidently unaccountable for gross crimes against civilians, the "Support The Troops" crowd accuses us of undermining the war effort. When we question our leadership for letting these hired guns off the leash, we are called "unpatriotic" for expressing dissent in a time of war.
America Is Not Invincible, Nor Is It Omnipotent
There's a truth to be faced: America has not had a track record of success when occupying foreign countries. No country can beat America's capacity to overthrow a sitting government, but we have never come to terms with the costs and the strategies required in the aftermath. Our leadership began this war under the false impression that America's power was unstoppable, and that removing Saddam would "recalibrate" Iraq into a democratic country. It went forward with this vision ignoring the history of divisive ethnic and religious strife in the region. The difficulty of the occupation was predicted both by critics and by members of the military establishment before the war began - it only came as a surprise to those who were never interested in hearing about those difficulties in the first place. But today, as some of us try to hold the powers that be responsible for the gross negligence and deceptive manipulations required to sell this war, the "Support The Troops" crowd responds with jeering invectives, as if anyone who calls out a clearly incompetent leadership is somehow complicit in its failures.
Since the war began, many proposals exist for how to make the best of our situation. Some call for total withdrawal, while others have proposed a variety of "phased withdrawal" plans. Reasoned and articulate arguments have been made that the morale of our forces in Iraq is low, our soldiers are exhausted, and our military recruitment efforts are failing to draw fresh faces. The billions of dollars of equipment we have in the field is being worn away by the harsh desert elements, and billions more will be needed to maintain it, a cost some argue America can't support without going into recession. As a result, many people have proposed a wide variety of solutions (some good, some bad), and asked the American people to weight the costs and benefits of each. But the "Support Out Troops" crowd dismisses any plan to reduce America's exposure in Iraq. Nuance is invisible to them, as is cost. Money, it seems, is not an object. Neither, it seems, are our troops actually people to them. The minority of Americans who actively support the war seem to see our troops as gears in the great American war machine, who must be left to do their duty until worn smooth by constant withering violence.
Stop Supporting The Myth
The myth that "supporting the troops" can only be synonymous with a continuation of our current strategy is absurd, and anyone who takes that view makes a gross oversimplification that ignores the way this conflict has unfolded. "Supporting The Troops" should mean engaging in our democracy to tell our leaders, in the most coherent language possible, what our objectives in Iraq should be, and then pressuring our leaders to achieve those objectives quickly and without making the situation worse. Instead, the opposite has occurred: we were told from day 1 by our leaders what the objectives were, and we've since been told not to apply any pressure at all.
This is not to say progress isn't being made in Iraq. A new ingredient has been added to our efforts there, in the last six months: diplomacy. The American military has begun talking to armed groups in Iraq and trying to bring them together under the common banner of "Awakening councils", rather than exclusively communicating with armed groups via munitions. It seems to be working, at least compared to the total chaos that was 2006 and early 2007. It may not be the best strategy, but it is a better one. We, as Americans should continue to challenge the strategies of our leadership, and push them to make improvements in other areas. But from day 1, the "Support Our Troops" crowd has stood in opposition to any change in strategy. "Stay the course," we heard, and wondered what possible course could the speaker imagine we were on. America's most fervent supporters of the war don't want us to remember that they didn't want diplomacy - they merely wanted more explosions and more gunfire.
Now, with a campaign year ahead of us, the Republican leadership face a harsh deadline: if things don't improve in Iraq over the course of the year, Democrats risk sweeping Congress and taking the White House. Among the most controversial pledges Democrats have made in recent weeks was Obama's pledge to enter into diplomatic relations with Iraq's neighbors, including the vilified Iran. And the cry from the "Support Our Troops" crowd came right on cue. There can be no discussion, no compromise, and no quarter, we are told by this shrinking crowd. There can be only war.
This is their real message: "Support War." The crowd that demands that we support the troops now are the same ones who argued strongly to invade in the first place. America, according to this mindset, has massive power and is somehow wasting it if it isn't using it to waste someone else. And so the myth lives on: a small but vocal minority remains dedicated to seeing Americans at risk, because doing otherwise fails to "support our troops."