Saturday, March 24, 2007

“Support the Troops”: the evolution of a lie

My wife and I were interviewed on the local news at an antiwar demonstration last weekend. All too typically, the story ended up focusing on a completely inconsequential incident in which three lone wolf demonstrators, dressed up as Guantanamo prisoners and their jailer, crossed the street and were jostled by the pro-war counter-demonstrators. The police jumped in and separated them, and no one was arrested, but if you watched the local news that evening you were given the impression that this was the big defining moment of the day, the top story, blah blah blah. In the snippet of my interview that was aired, I said, “We’re not here to demonstrate against our fellow citizens across the street. We’re here to protest against this illegal and immoral war.” Since it came after all the nonsense about the “confrontation” between demonstrators, this may (I can hope) have had some good effect on a viewer paying attention.

In general, local news programs are a sure indicator of how irrelevant and brain dead TV news has become. The stale phrases used are worthy of some study. This report was about the two sets of demonstrators, and more time was spent talking to the pro-war faction, even though we outnumbered them by at least two to one. “On one side, demonstrators supporting the troops;” said the announcer, “on the other, those who oppose the war.” Here we can see—even at this stage of the conflict, when around 70% of the population wants the troops out of Iraq—how the media has absorbed the words “support the troops” like a devotee memorizing his mantra. Its pervasive use as a code phrase loaded with unspoken meaning is in perfectly inverse proportion to its actual relationship to the facts.

“Support the troops” was invented by the rightists in the lead-up to the Gulf War in 1991. It was based on a revisionist version of the Vietnam experience: that antiwar demonstrators demeaned and betrayed the soldiers who fought in that war. The Vietnam veteran was thus set up as a victim of the antiwar left, in order to erase the fact that there was a sizable antiwar movement among Vietnam veterans at the time. The yellow ribbon motif came from a story (probably apocryphal) about a wife who put yellow ribbons on a tree to welcome her veteran husband home from the war, which was then turned into a song.

As a representative symptom of this deliberate revision of the past, we see how Jane Fonda was turned into a symbol of everything treasonous, but McGeorge Bundy, Walt Rostow, Henry Kissinger, Melvin Laird, and all the other powerful men who sent thousands of soldiers down the pipeline to their deaths for no good reason, are not reviled or condemned in the mainstream.

You never heard “support the troops” during Vietnam because it was generally assumed—and rightly so—that everyone outside of a lunatic fringe supported them, and that this support was a completely separate consideration from whether or not the war was right. But the radical nationalists, who want an empire instead of a republic and a king instead of a president, changed all that. It was a deliberate strategy to take war off the table as a legitimate topic of debate.

“Support the troops” simply means, “Don’t protest the war.” I must emphasize this point: that is all that it means. By identifying dissent against a war (any war that the government chooses to wage) as dishonoring soldiers, the rightists seek to taint protestors as anti-military, anti-American, and ultimately as treasonous. The central implication of this idea is that we do not have a right to protest a war, because it harms the war effort and demoralizes the soldiers. On what is arguably the most significant issue facing a country—the waging of war—the people should not speak, except, of course, in support. If we’re talking about taxes or health or education, we are presumably allowed to speak. But if we’re talking about the possible deaths of our sons and daughters, and the commitment of our resources to killing people for some stated cause, we should keep our lips buttoned.

It’s significant also that the phrase popped up prior to the commencement of hostilities in 1991. The same was true during the 2002-2003 buildup to the Iraq War. “Support the troops” was used to discredit protest before the war, just as it was after the war started. The argument based on national security, i.e. that once the war has started we should unite behind the cause, as flimsy and dangerous as it is, does not correspond to the right-wing strategy in fact. The war was not seriously debated in the government or the media prior to its launch in 2003. The millions of protestors around the world were not taken seriously. The 9/11 attacks were used as an automatic justification of all arguments, with a strong message that dissent from this justification was an act of support for terrorism. This is conveniently forgotten in the media, now that the war is unpopular. It should be vividly remembered.

By using “support the troops” as a rhetorical mainstay, the militarist right is essentially hiding behind the soldiers in order to avoid serious discussion of its ideas and aims. It’s an act of moral cowardice, pure and simple. William Kristol and his neo-con associates have no moral standing whatsoever, and their ideas and predictions would be thoroughly discredited and reviled in a sane political environment. Instead, they still command public attention and are given plenty of opportunities in the media to make their specious arguments. There is still no debate in the mainstream on the justice or morality, as opposed to the mere competence, of this war. The only real thought is occurring on the margins—but here we’re seeing an expansion of the margins to a width that is greater than what is supposed to be the mainstream. We are seeing conclusively that the mainstream consensus is an artificially created minority view sustained by economic and political elites.

It all filters down to the rote repetition of “support the troops” on the brainless local news. How long will “the troops” be used to hide the truth? It’s obvious that the militarists don’t really care about the troops. If they did, they wouldn’t be cutting their benefits, neglecting their health and well being at Walter Reed Hospital and other facilities, and sending them into harm’s way without proper training or equipment. You’d think by now that the blow-dry anchors and cardboard cut-out journalists would get this, but “support the troops” gets trotted out again and again, like an old lame cow disguised as a horse. For the sake of all that’s true and moral, for the sake of decency and conscience—for the sake of the troops, we need to stop saying “support the troops.”


Kevin Hayden said...

When I hear "support the troops" I hear "support my slaves."

Why would anyone ascribe foul motives to any but the plantation owner?

Oh sure, we can find a few rogues, as in all populations. But consider the few who stand up to the slaveowner, like Ehren Watada, certain to face incarceration for straying off the plantation.

You are exactly correct about the real meaning being the propaganda of warmongers. I support the work of making peace, which supports us all.

Chris Dashiell said...

An apt metaphor here. The slaveowner claims that the slaves are happy just as they are.

fiddler said...

It's a bit like the 1920s Germany all over again. Germany didn't lose WW I because of its leadership's incompetence, hubris, and frivolity - basically because it needed losing - no, "we" lost because "we" were stabbed in the back by the "enemies of the people", communists, Jews, etc.
Unfortunately one world war wasn't enough for Germany, just like one Vietnam doesn't seem to be enough for America.
Then as now, here as there, I think the root culprit is militarism, the view of the military as a good thing instead of a sometimes necessary evil.
The American military began its days as a people's army against colonial rule, in sharp contrast to Europe, where armies have historically been instruments of autocratic rulers. But while Europe has after the shock of WW II at least partly succeded in "democratisation" of its armies, the US military has gravitated toward serving particular interests not necessarily identical with those of the people, precisely as Eisenhower famously predicted.
A soldier, in chosing this profession, also assumes responsibility for what they may become in war, and even as conscripts they aren't entirely free of responsibility for their actions. We don't accept the chain-of-command excuse for Wehrmacht soldiers any longer (although, much to our discredit, we did for a long time), and we shouldn't do so for soldiers in Iraq either. As Tucholsky famously wrote, soldiers are murderers. "Supporting the troops" indeed amounts to nothing else than supporting the continued corruption of a generation.

whig said...

Turn it around: You cannot support the troops and support this war, because it's what's chewing the troops up and spitting them out like so much human debris that isn't even receiving proper care for their injuries, not to mention those who won't come back alive.

Support the troops by bringing them home.