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December 06, 2004

Supporting Our Troops?

Jeff McMahan: December 6, 2004

Vehicles in New Jersey are covered with decals representing little ribbons inscribed with the legend: “Support Our Troops.”  I have done a lot of driving recently and have noticed geographical disparities in the distribution of these symbols.  There are fewer in the Midwest and very few at all in the LA area.   They are also disproportionately displayed on SUVs and vans, which isn’t surprising given that the owners are disproportionately reliant on the oil supplies that our soldiers are in Iraq to protect (among their other purposes).

What is it exactly that these decals exhort us to do?  How can I, or anyone, support the troops themselves?  What can we possibly do for them?  It seems that the message is really an exhortation to support the war.  Why then don’t we ever see bumper stickers urging us more straightforwardly to support the war?  It seems dishonest, manipulative, and coercive to assert an equivalence between support for a war and support for the participants in the war.  The aim of such an effort is to make it seem that to criticize the war is to criticize our young soldiers and perhaps to increase their peril by weakening the war effort.

I recall that in the late stages of the presidential campaign Bush tried – successfully, it seems – to score points by claiming that to say the war in Iraq was wrong was tantamount to saying that those of our troops who had died there had died in vain.  And of course no one wanted to be accused of saying that.

But of course if the war is unjust they have died largely in vain and Bush is the person primarily responsible for that.  If they have been sent to die for a misconceived political agenda, that should be a source of remorse, not something to be exploited for further advantage in political debate.

If the war is unjust, as I believe it is, Bush’s remarks exploit the sacrifices of the dead while the ribbon decals further exploit those young soldiers still stationed in Iraq by invoking their peril to stifle opposition to a war in which they will remain embroiled.  The decals don’t support our troops but unnecessarily endanger them by seeking to prolong an unjust war.


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Posted by: David Velleman

The use of this slogan is especially sad, I think, for those of us who came of political age during the Vietnam War. (Jeff, I'm paying you the compliment of assuming that you're too young.) The "support the troops" fallacy featured prominently in the debate over Vietnam, and in my disappointment at seeing it resurface, I discover that I must have naively assumed it to have been put to rest by the anti-war movement of 35 years ago. The deja vu induced by its reappearance made Kerry's candidacy seem almost surreal, because he was at the center of that old controversy -- claiming that he, as a veteran of Vietnam, could support the troops precisely by opposing the war. Kerry tried to take the position of supporting the troops in his presidential campaign, but he never managed to make it convincing. Maybe that's another reason why his defeat was so depressing to some of us: it felt as if we had not just lost this presidential campaign but were losing the Vietnam debate all over again.

(I hope that Jeff won't mind if I add a link to his essay giving "The Moral Case Against the Iraq War", which has been posted on Brian Leiter's blog.)

Posted by: David Velleman | Dec 6, 2004 12:32:53 PM

Posted by: Matt Weiner

The blurring of "Support the troops" and "Support the war" also makes me uncomfortable. But I saw these stickers on an SUV with a "Veterans for Kerry" sticker (in Milwaukee), so perhaps some of the stickers don't mean to induce such blurring.

(I vaguely remember some anti-war demonstrators during the first Gulf War going out of their way to say that they "supported the troops," but that's only a vague memory.)

Posted by: Matt Weiner | Dec 6, 2004 9:35:29 PM

Posted by: Joe Katzman

Hmm. Just got an email from Left2Right. It included the following quote:

"In the aftermath of the 2004 Presidential election, many of us have come to believe that the Left must learn how to speak more effectively to ears attuned to the Right. How can we better express our values? Can we learn from conservative critiques of those values? Are there conservative values that we should be more forthright about sharing? "Left2Right" will be a discussion of these and related questions.

"Although we have chosen the subtitle 'How can the Left get through to the Right?', our view is that the way to get through to people is to listen to them and be willing to learn from them. Many of us identify ourselves with the Left, but others are moderates or independents. What we share is an interest in exploring how American political discourse can get beyond the usual talking points."

So of course, this is the first article I see. and my immediate reaction is "what the hell does anything in this piece have to do with the mission statement I just read?"

Answer: near as I can tell, none.

* Any assessment of the consistent reports that many of those serving troops beleive in what they are doing, and disagree with the author's assessment? No.

* Any discussion of non-partisan efforts like Spirit of America, which is active in projects that make a difference to Iraqis and work with the U.S. military at times - an organization that includes advisers from the Dean campaign among its supporters? No.

* Any attempt here to explore any common ground? No. Unless you're trying to explore it with Pat Buchanan, who is totally in sync with this thinking. Folks exploring common ground with Pat sure aren't exploring any with me. Or my team.

* Any references to actual organizations working to support the troops, so that people reading you could assess whether your statements were accurate in some, all, most, or no cases? No. (FYI, try this link if you're interested in seeing a diverse range of such groups)

* Any self-examination and consideration of the ways in which the Vietnam War's experiences and aftermath made similar kinds of open defeatism politically problematic this time around? No.

* Any thought in this article, even the remotest, for the welfare and fate of the Iraqis, either before or after this war? Not a scintilla.

"Disappointing" barely begins to describe my reaction to this. You know, the world doesn't need another Daily Kos. The right certainly isn't going to listen to one, and neither is the uncommitted middle.

Posted by: Joe Katzman | Dec 6, 2004 10:22:32 PM

Posted by: peBird

There is a deep psychological need in all of us to deal with this war. I think the "Support The Troops" magnetic decal (yes, mostly on SUV's) is a combination of misguided patrioism, repressed guilt, and a act against feeling entirely helpless. Of course, the message is ambigious - it would be perfectly legitimate to see one next to a Bush sticker as a Kerry sticker. Its power as a sign is in it's ambiguity.

Because the war is controversial, and no one wants to come out and say "I support this idiotic war", instead we "Support The Troops".

There are blue ribbons now available with a less ambigious, more confrontational message: "Bring The Troops Home", which would look nice paired with the "Support The Troops" yellow (on a drab green Hummer, maybe).

Posted by: peBird | Dec 6, 2004 11:34:03 PM

Posted by: Jackmormon

The decal is being sported by both right and left, I think. My understanding is that left types wanted some symbol of their empathy with the guys and gals out in the field doing their best under perhaps not-so ideal circumstances, political and otherwise.

Personally, I'm split on the support-our-troops branding, but since I don't own a car, the question is moot.

In the larger scheme of things, I'm not sure that leftist brandishing of a yellow ribbon will actually work. It will take a lot of talking and time for conservatives to accept that liberals also mourn US military casualties.

The real problem is that leftist intellectuals-- heck, I'll include myself--tend to view these US casualties in a broader context, which is intolerable to the conservatives we're trying to reach. That, I don't know how to resolve without either dumbing down political discourse or being willing to advance really really unpopular views.

Posted by: Jackmormon | Dec 6, 2004 11:40:01 PM

Posted by: rd

This post seems wrong headed. Its possible, and probably inevitable, to reasonably disagree about a war's justness or advisability. But it should be a common principle that opinions on war don't bleed over into a general loathing or oppositional stance towards a nation's soldiers under arms. They protect all of us and have no say as to how they are used. Lots of rightwingers no doubt opposed Kosovo, but it would have been wrong for them not to support our military once it had been put into action, even if they continued to oppose their mission. Similarly, I don't see any conflict between opposing the current war and supporting the troops. It may put opponents at a disadvantage rhetorically, but not in principle.

Posted by: rd | Dec 7, 2004 12:28:21 AM

Posted by: old grizzly

I read those stick-on ribbons as a desperate attempt at expressing some sort of national pride in the wake of 9/11. The attacks on the WTC mark the first time that our national psyche has been violated so dramatically. America is a wounded beast, injured by an enemy it can't see and doesn't understand. At just $1.95 each, those little yellow ribbons afford some people a sense of patriotism and solidarity.

Posted by: old grizzly | Dec 7, 2004 12:29:22 AM

Posted by: Andy

I had a discussion with a half-dozen co-workers on this subject on a long drive recently (I'll add that the decals are very numerous in the upper Midwest - many vehicles also have the "God bless the USA" ribbon). Most hadn't given it a lot of thought, but wanted to know where they could get a decal. I think it's a "it's the least we can do" sort of thing, and one person noted that he'd heard part of the proceeds are given to troops' families. One guy understood "support our troops" to mean "don't criticize while we're at war."

I tried pressing a little harder, asking if anyone would support a tax increase (or oppose a tax cut) if it went toward purchasing better body armor and beefed-up Humvees. If soldiers don't have these things, I said, and if soldiers' families are in desperate need of donations, then the government isn't doing all it can to "support our troops," right? All I got were blank stares, so I let it drop. One person did say later that, thinking about it, giving money to some outfit selling magnets is kind of a stupid gesture.

Posted by: Andy | Dec 7, 2004 12:35:21 AM

Posted by: Ben H

I live in a rich suburban town in Westfield in NJ, and i've also noticed those "Support Our Troops" badges. I consider them stupid, since most are on SUVs, which need more oil, which then gives money to Saudi Arabi and terrorists.

Posted by: Ben H | Dec 7, 2004 1:10:00 AM

Posted by: Jessica Wilson

When Benj and I were working with Cian and Jess getting out the vote in Pittsburgh, we stood out on a street corner near a polling place with Kerry signs. It was really surprising for me to discover that many of the people driving by who were enthusiastically thumbs-up for Kerry also had those yellow stickers on their cars... I had assumed that those stickers were a weird right-ward initiative. I still have a seemingly innate resistance to supporting anything to do with war, both on grounds that war is almost never waged on anything even approximating justified grounds (and especially so, of course, for the war on Iraq), and because the conditions of war turn people into monsters practically beyond human comprehension. I support our troops in the sense that I feel deeply sorry that our society is such that many perfectly decent people are directed, for want of viable alternatives, towards means of livelihood that require the unthinkable of them. But this is an extremely hedged support... it's like feeling sorry for an executioner whose life, and the life of whose loved ones, is on the line. I maintain that all persons who have any influence whatsoever as regards setting up conditions under which people are slaughtering each other have to do better than they are currently doing---have to see their way clear to resisting inappropriate agendas, and insist upon the clear alternatives, in order to prevent both killings and killers.

Posted by: Jessica Wilson | Dec 7, 2004 1:13:09 AM

Posted by: Marinewife

This is your attempt to "... get through to people [by] listen[ing] to them and be willing to learn from them" ?

I thought I'd give your blog a read, in attempt to "listen" to your moderate ideas. The first thing I'm confronted with is your true ignorance on what supporting the troops means. First of all, if you have to ask, you don't. Secondly, you are right, supporting the troops (and all pleas through bumper stickers) means supporting their mission. Anything less is patronizing and insincere. If there's one thing a military professional can smell out, it's a fake, so don't bother. I realize it's quite perplexing to not want to appear to be against those good gentlemen (and women) who strap on a machine gun and pocket a few MRE's to "defend your freedom". You wouldn't want to insult them, lest they come in handy for a UN-endorsed (sure to be a failed) mission. So what's a brother to do?

I run through several (anger filled) responses to your query before I fall upon this profound notion. How about you join the Peace Corps? Or send badly needed schools supplies to schools that are being rebuilt by those gentlemen (yes, I know you think we tore them down in the first place) but you know what Jesus said, turn the other cheek. How about this, even if you think the war in Iraq is immoral, illegal, disgusting, isn't it the bigger man that can see beyond the hypocrisies and still support the people who may not have asked for this situation but are no doubt suffering from it?

I find in this question of yours more of an examination of "is this war good?" rather than "what do these bumper stickers mean?" I believe this war is right, although I didn't think we should go to Kosovo or Somalia, but I still sent money and aid to help my husband create positive encounters with the people there and to help those people in my own measly way.

PS Pacifists kill just as surely as warriors do. At least warriors take action.

Posted by: Marinewife | Dec 7, 2004 1:15:15 AM

Posted by: old grizzly

San Fransisco columnist Mark Morford made a good point recently. He observed that the most disturbing images from Iraq aren't being shown by the American media. We've got millions of people driving around in their bigass SUV's flaunting
"Support the Troops" emblems who would faint if they had to deal with the horrifying reality of what their tax dollars and their votes are supporting. Anybody who is willing to confront the ugliness of what is happening to our soldiers and the Iraqi people has to go to sites like http://fallujapictures.blogspot.com/

Something is seriously wrong with a nation that cannot muster the courage to face the consequences of its own actions.

Posted by: old grizzly | Dec 7, 2004 1:17:38 AM

Posted by: WW

Yes, Jeff. Those folks in New Jersey are certainly thinking, "You know what, I drive a big 'ol SUV. It sure uses lots of gas. I can't afford so much gas for my big 'ol SUV if the US doesn't have access to oil. So, boy am I glad that we invaded Iraq, which, as is certainly obvious to me, because I never miss an issue of The Nation, is about keeping the oil coming for my big 'ol SUV. So, hell yeah, Support the Troops!" Good start on the reaching out thing!

Posted by: WW | Dec 7, 2004 1:47:03 AM

Posted by: Clark Goble

I think a lot of these displays are to ensure that the troops don't feel the way they did in Viet Nam - like they were being blamed for the war. Even if people disagree with the war they surely can support the troops. As for how to support the troops, complement soldiers you see for their sacrifice. Often sending care packages can be very helpful as well. Contribute to some of the charities individuals have set up. Even sending letters can help.

I don't think the yellow ribbons necessarily imply support for the war. Further I think tying SUVs to support the troops is kind of cynical and typically wrong. I think most SUV drivers drive SUVs because they want the size. I drive offroad a lot and need a vehicle for that but also have a dog a kid, my wife and then all my gear. There is very little short of an SUV that would fit the need. Almost all SUV owners were excited hearing of Ford's hybrid that gets more than 30 mpg and would welcome SUVs that offered fuel savings. Don't blame SUV owners, blame the automakers who until recently ignored the whole issue. But I think many (not all for sure) SUV owners are rather pragmatic. Attacking them, as so many do, doesn't exactly accomplish much. (Except perhaps give the illusion of some kind of superiority as a psychological crutch)

Posted by: Clark Goble | Dec 7, 2004 1:51:47 AM

Posted by: Clark Goble

Just to add, if the point of the blog is to communicate to people voting Republicans why they should adopt progressive ideals, then insulting them probably isn't the best way to start...

Posted by: Clark Goble | Dec 7, 2004 1:52:52 AM

Posted by: Chris

I'm especially confused by David Velleman's comment. Velleman's right that we're still living in the shadow of Vietnam. But does anyone dispute that anti-troop sentiment (as opposed to mere anti-war sentiment) was a very real part of the visible and vocal opposition to the Vietnam war?

Now, the Iraq war hasn't generated the same kind of vitriol -- I haven't heard the term "babykiller" thrown around much lately. (And there is also no doubt that some American troops both in Vietnam and in Iraq deserve personal condemnation -- Abu Ghraib being the most notorious example in Iraq.) So there's a very good argument to be made that the "Support the Troops" rhetoric is misplaced. But if those on the left can't see why that kind of rhetoric exists, then they're never going to "get through" to those on the right who think it's necessary.

Posted by: Chris | Dec 7, 2004 2:13:25 AM

Posted by: Chris

Also: I really can't tell if the claim about SUV drivers supporting the war because of oil is supposed to be serious or a joke. If it's serious, it's just the kind of bizarrly misplaced criticism of motives that I thought Jeff McMahon was trying to criticize in this post.

It's wrong for those on the right to suggest that the vast majority of anti-war people don't "support the troops." It's also wrong for those on the left to suggest that the average person driving around with a "Support the Troops" bumper sticker is subordinating all moral reservations about the war to a pure regard for their own pocketbooks.

Seriously -- what's the mechanism of this correlation supposed to be? Your average American who prides himself on his patriotism, and admires the military who fight our wars, notices that his monthly gas bill has gone up fifty dollars and resolves to vanquish the infidel whatever it takes?

It's like arguing that you mostly see Confederate flags on pickup trucks because pickup trucks are better for transporting KKK paraphernalia to those midnight bonfire rallies.

Posted by: Chris | Dec 7, 2004 2:23:03 AM

Posted by: Brian

How can the left get through to the right? Damned if I know but, this certainly isn't going to make it. It's the same old same old that has been REJECTED.

Posted by: Brian | Dec 7, 2004 2:42:17 AM

Posted by: Dean Esmay

Over 70% of reserve and national guard troops voted for Bush.

There is a lesson in this: you're not "supporting" them by demanding that they abandon their mission and undo all the good they've done.

If you can't see that they're doing good, acknowledge the good they're doing, and express your reservations and criticisms primarily by NOT accusing them or their leaders of engaging in mass wanton slaughter purely for nefarious economic reasons, then you can't get through.

A distinction I see constantly on the left is a blurring of the use of words like "questioning" and "criticism." I'm sorry, when someone says that Bush sent us to war to make himself and his buddies rich and for racist, imperialist reasons, that is beyond "criticism" and into flat-out viciousness.

Now if you honestly believe that viciousness, that's fine, but really, the conversation simply ends at that point. Most of us who voted for Bush believe that's a bunch of crap, and a lot of us have spent endless time on our weblogs documenting why we think it's crap.

There was once a concept in this country called "patriotic dissent." You did not automatically demonize your opponents. If you thought the war was wrong you could say so but you did not demonize those who disagreed with you. You also took a fairly common position: "I thought it was a mistake to go, but I do want the troops to be successful and to find some way to withdraw without creating disaster in our wake."

The presumption that I supported this war (and I do--it is NOT unjust, it is a very noble and progressive and humanist cause) because I want oil for my SUV? How offensive can you get? I don't even own an SUV and wanting oil never, ever was my justification for wanting to take out the brutal mass-murdering fascist Saddam.

One of the things that my war-supporting friends have long wondered, though, is how we get through to people like you on the left. It seems like you won't listen. It seems like facts just bounce off you. It seems like you're willing to embrace patent liars (e.g. Michael Moore) and not even consider the possibility that you could be WRONG about something. Indeed, it's a practically screaming frustration for most of us: THE LEFT JUST WON'T LISTEN!

So that being said: it's rather nice to see a group like you who's trying. Honestly it is.

Still, "support the troops" -- what's it mean? Okay, adopt a platoon and send them CARE packages. Make sure to tell people that even if you're skeptical of the war you don't hate the troops and you certainly don't support vicious irresponsible fascist propagandists like Michael Moore who tell horrible lies about them. Advocate for bringing them home, but in a fashion that doesn't undo the good things they've done--and if you can't think of anything good they've done then you just don't know what "Suppor the Troops" means.

You might also want to look into groups like Operation Give and Spirit of America. That's a good way to support them too.

Posted by: Dean Esmay | Dec 7, 2004 4:50:40 AM

Posted by: Dean Esmay

The real problem is that leftist intellectuals-- heck, I'll include myself--tend to view these US casualties in a broader context, which is intolerable to the conservatives we're trying to reach. That, I don't know how to resolve without either dumbing down political discourse or being willing to advance really really unpopular views.

My lord. You tend to view the casualties in a broader context, but those who don't share your view don't?

Good gracious. Talk about insular, prejudiced, and condescending. Do you guys really have any idea how elitist and silly you look issuing proclamations like this? Any idea at all?

I view those losses in a very broad, global, historical context. They are involved in a war to end fascist tyranny and begin the process of bringing human rights and democratic reform to a region full of thugs and theocrats and dictators. What they're doing is in my view in the interests of not just the United States but all of humanity.

The great liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill said, "He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that." It is so terribly obvious when I read so much of what passes for discussion among those on the left is that they know so little about th eother side's case they barely understand their own. Mill was dead on.

Here's a clue for you: I and many, many others I know view those of you who opposed taking out Saddam as having taken a rather selfish, even morally bankrupt, position.

You didn't know this? Or did you just assume when you heard it that we were lying? Or... something else?

The great liberal thinker John Stuart Mill said, "A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury." Our 12 years of leaving Saddam "in his box" resulted in mass graves containing hundreds of thousands of bodies. Can those of you who opposed this war not openly acknowledge that even as you try to move us with pictures of the casualties inflicted today--and acknowledge that they are smaller?

More Mill: "War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse."

When I look at those horrible pictures on Old Grizzly's site, I find myself wondering: where are his pictures of the mass graves, of Saddam's children's prison? WHere are the rape chambers? The people who had their ears or hands chopped off for criticizing Saddam's fascist regime? WHere is the acknowledgement that the casualties are tiny by comparison to the number of Iraqis who were dying on an annual basis under Saddam, or the acknowledgement that those sanctions were doing so much damage?

Where is the acknowledgement that says, "Yes, this is horrible, and I think it was foolish for us to do, but I understand why deeply thoughtful, well-informed, socially conscious, decent human beings might see that there are things much worse than this and might conclude that it was necessary even if it was horrible?"

I don't pretend at this point that I can talk anyone into thinking that the Iraq liberation was a just cause. It was a just cause so far as I'm concerned, but you don't have to agree. But if you think I or my fellows agree because we are fundamentally ignorant, bloodthirsty, racist, selfish, jingoistic, or stupid, then once again, there's no conversation to be had here.

But it's we who can't get through to you, not the other way around. Because we have already heard, loud and clear and a thousand times, all these stereotypes about ourselves. And we know them not to be true.

Posted by: Dean Esmay | Dec 7, 2004 6:00:31 AM

Posted by: Pablo Stafforini

The unfortunate equation between the war and the troops is actually another instance of a classic (and highly effective) propaganda strategy. Better known cases include equating American government with American society in talk of "anti-Americanism", and equating Jewish state with Jewish nation in talk of "anti-Semitism". The pattern is always the same: couch an immoral entity in a moral guise, and attack those who criticize the former as enemies of the latter. This is the kind of thing you do when you have no arguments on your side.

Posted by: Pablo Stafforini | Dec 7, 2004 6:35:45 AM

Posted by: Bernard

'What is it exactly that these decals exhort us to do? How can I, or anyone, support the troops themselves? What can we possibly do for them?'

It seems to me that you're (consciously or unconsciously) making the same play that some in the pro-war camp do, but from the opposite direction.

Their claim, as you correctly state, is 'if you don't support the war you are letting the troops down.' This is clearly erroneous, because one can easily acknowledge that the troops are professionals with a job to do while simultaneously believing that the job they've been given is wrong and that their orders should change.

Your claim appears to be 'there's no way to support the troops without supporting the war.' which is erroneous for the reasons given above.

In direct answer to your question on what can be done, the obvious point of comparison is with Vietnam. The way troops (and, in that case, conscripted troops) were treated by the general public once the war had become unpopular was nothing short of disgraceful. If American troops come back from Iraq and are villified by a large proportion of the anti-war camp simply for having been in Iraq, then that will be equally disgraceful.

I don't think that will happen, because the vast majority of anti-war folks (i'm not one, by the way) understand the chain of the command and assign blame to the decision makers.

Posted by: Bernard | Dec 7, 2004 7:08:44 AM

Posted by: Nick

Where is the acknowledgement that says, "Yes, this is horrible, and I think it was foolish for us to do, but I understand why deeply thoughtful, well-informed, socially conscious, decent human beings might see that there are things much worse than this and might conclude that it was necessary even if it was horrible?"

Where is the acknowledgement, one wonders, that there might be a point at which something that is now 'necessary even if it [is] horrible' becomes something that is no longer necessary? There was a posting on another blog which cited poll numbers from the start of 2003 which showed a large drop-off in support for military action if 1000 American troops were to die. (Of course, the deaths of 'liberated' Iraqis didn't figure in that poll.) But eighteen months on, we're in a self-perpetuating situation, whereby past sacrifices seem to be invoked, above all other reasons, to justify future ones.

Can Dean and others who agree with him at least confirm that there exists a point at which they are prepared to say, 'enough, no more'? We've seen all sorts of disturbing moral elisions this past year, particularly in relation to Abu Ghraib, along the lines of 'well, Saddam was worse'. If you take that to its logical conclusion -- and I don't think it's necessarily an argument ad absurdum, given the invocation of Mill and utilitarianism here -- then the standard for supporting the war (and, in this case, for the troops) descends, asymptotically, towards 'Saddam' on the scale.

Is that acceptable? Is 0.99 Saddams on the scale better than 1.0? I now get the sense that Dean Esmay would say so.

As for the silly magnets -- I saw one SUV in South Carolina with three in a row, one yellow, one stars-and-stripes, one camouflage -- I believe that 'Support The Guy In China Who Made This Sticker' is a fairly accurate response. Although the Onion's post-9/11 'Not Knowing What Else To Do, Woman Bakes American-Flag Cake' is perhaps closer to the truth, and in a more affecting, gentle way. For some, it's gung-ho. For others, it may well be because they don't know what else to do, in a situation out of their personal control.

Posted by: Nick | Dec 7, 2004 7:44:43 AM

Posted by: Avedon

I see the myth that despising the troops was a central part of the Vietnam anti-war movement is alive and well. Where were those war-supporters when the troops came home and let them get the crazy-in-the-attic treatment? (Except it was more like crazy-street-person treatment.) The way the Nixon administration behaved toward the troops was shameful, but no one ever held them to account for it.

I've been aggravated at the way anti-invasion people have completely failed to provide cohesive troop-support messages beyond "Support our troops - bring them home" this time around, though. It would have been smart to have something like "Support our troops - www.optruth.com" or similar. And there are a number of groups organized specifically for writing to solidiers and sending them resources, but somehow the message isn't getting out very well and it would have been good to have those yellow stickers include their addresses.

Although, I have to say, I hate the yellow ribbon business. The troops are not criminals serving a term in jail who we are willing to forgive when they come home, so why are we still "honoring" them with a reference to this stupid song?

Posted by: Avedon | Dec 7, 2004 7:45:18 AM

Posted by: Rob Perelli-Minetti

In my experience in the New York metropolitan area, where as the poster pointed out the "Support Our Troops" magnetic decals are common (especially, but not exclusively on SUVs), "Support Our Troops" is a sentiment primarily of the left, not the right. It is far more common in my experience to see the yellow "Support Our Troops" decal on cars with Kerry-Edwards stickers than on cars with "W 04" stickers. As the previous commentator noted, the yellow ribbons were used for our hostages and pows, so there is a subtle (well, not so subtle) suggestion they are captive in Iraq and ought to be brought home as fast as the planes could be found to load them up and fly them here.

Many people with whom I've spoken who sport "Support Our Troops decals disliked Bush and the Republicans, but do not consider themselves hard core 'leftists' -- think investment bankers who supported Clinton, Gore and Kerry) -- are conflicted: they oppose the war, but are sensitive to the charge (dating to Vietnam) that the opponents of the war are anti-American and unpatriotic. "Supporting the Troops" allows these people (in their own minds at least, which is all that matters to them) to reconcile the conflict. The right, however, knows very well what these people intend with the decals.

Posted by: Rob Perelli-Minetti | Dec 7, 2004 8:08:15 AM

Posted by: wren

My beef with the "Support our Troops" stickers is that there is no evidence that paying $2 at a convenience store is going to really "support our troops". What's needed is a truly non-political way that allows both rightwingers, leftists and moderates to demonstrate that they recognize the needs of the troops and their families today and five years from now.

It is estimated that 30% of those serving in Iraq will suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome sometime in the next five years. Bush will be gone. The VA will be as maladroit as usual. The vets will need financial help and more importantly patience and understanding from the rest of us. Support for the troops when they get home and adjust over the next ten years is something we can all do. Actions not symbols.

Posted by: wren | Dec 7, 2004 9:01:00 AM

Posted by: Steve

The "support the troops" stickers indicate that the owner of the vehicle supports the troops, the war, and the administration. The reason you are seeing so many stickers is because alot of people support the war, the troops, and the administration. The reason Bush won, the reason the Senate is Republican, the reason the House is Republican, the reason most Governors are Republican, is because most people in this country support the war, the troops, and this administration. Quit trying to split hairs-you're dodging the issue.


Posted by: Steve | Dec 7, 2004 9:10:00 AM

Posted by: Rocky

I thought this blog was supposed to be about "getting through to the right".

Questioning the motives or reasoning of the simple, patriotic, hardworking stiffs who want to make some small, visible sign of support for the men and women wearing the uniform of the USA in very dangerous places strikes me as, um, pretty dumb.

Anyway, if want you really want to do is get through to the right, you're off to a decidedly poor start. If (as appears more likely) you've really set out to engage in some lefty navel gazing, you're doing just fine.

Posted by: Rocky | Dec 7, 2004 9:48:32 AM

Posted by: Matt F

'What is it exactly that these decals exhort us to do? How can I, or anyone, support the troops themselves? What can we possibly do for them?'

Hmm. If that question requires some deep thought, you're probably already too far gone. But if it helps, I was told by one Marine's mother that beef jerky, multivitamins, and powdered Gatorade mix are in demand (Oops- i realize that Whole Foods doesn't carry Gatorade mix - can't have everything).

So amidst all the hand-wringing, perhaps you could throw a few extra items in your reusable hemp grocery tote and mail them to Iraq with a note explaining why you don't support the war.

Expressing that sentiment to our soldiers in the same package as some well-intended material comforts might advance your cause much better than posting another agonized and condescending blog post.

Posted by: Matt F | Dec 7, 2004 10:32:55 AM

Posted by: Ripper

"I recall that in the late stages of the presidential campaign Bush tried – successfully, it seems – to score points by claiming that to say the war in Iraq was wrong was tantamount to saying that those of our troops who had died there had died in vain."

Quote? Link?

You are not a blogger, you supply no links and your give us a skewed paraphrase where a quite belongs. Resign from the blog before you ignorance and rude ignorance of conventions become more obvious.

Posted by: Ripper | Dec 7, 2004 10:50:43 AM

Posted by: saint-exupery

Think of yourself as a mother, or a father, or a friend of somebody who is now fighting in Iraq. You are undecided whether the war is just or not (after all, not all have the information or ability to assess its moral salience) but you see a lot of people who oppose the war around you. You think this opposition will translate at worst into a strong aversion of your son/daughter and the soldiers who are there. At best, it will result in funding cuts that will affect their ability to survive. Do you put a sticker on your car? I think you just might.
It does not have anything to do with supporting the war outright, driving big cars that need more oil (that's really a cheap shot!) or supporting Bush.
This seems to me to be a likely position, although not the only one. And maybe some who display the sticker do support the war, or Bush. But we would be wrong to assume that this is all there is to it. Oversimplifications will not be too helpful to understand why people do what they do.
One thing I hope the authors on this blog have learned from this post and comments is that they need to be more careful in how they frame the issues. Those on the right are going to come to this blog with a prejudice against it and they need to be comforted that they are not going to find the same superficial rhetoric against them that they usually come across. Maybe no amount of careful engagement is going to satisfy all, but this post is certainly far from reaching even to those on the right more open-minded.

Posted by: saint-exupery | Dec 7, 2004 10:58:43 AM

Posted by: Steve

Jesus! (oops-is that allowed on this blog?)

When I was in graduate school several years ago there was the whole 'pink triangles' trend-post a pink triangle to declare to the world that you support homosexual rights. You all understand what its all about, you all understand the purpose, you don't have to deconstruct the meaning of the triangle, the pink, the statement by pink triangle displayers, etc etc.
Quit being intentionally obtuse. People have the stickers because they support the troops and they support the war.


Posted by: Steve | Dec 7, 2004 11:09:13 AM

Posted by: Dom Eggert

What I'm seeing here (in this website and within this particular comment thread) is repetition of the same problem that this site is purportedly seeking to overcome: a refusal of each side to understand the other. I'm not by any means a voice of authority, but I am a leftist graduate student in philosophy who recently started his own blog and ran into problems of a similar sort.

It is a mistake to think that a number of intellectuals on the left can just come together and figure out how to "get through to the right," simply by talking amongst themselves. Thus, it is good to see that some individuals with different points of view are chiming in here.

However, it does seem that a number of them are taking a rather hostile stance here that is counter-productive. They feel like they're seeing the same condescension and misunderstanding that they've seen before, and naturally they find it frustrating.

Now, here is my point, offered by way of example. I have had the good fortune of having a conservative friend (although neither a Bush-style Republican nor a libertarian) who is always willing to point out when my opinions, after months of being cloistered among other liberal academics, are overly one-sided. As friends, we are sympathetic to each other's positions, always believing the other to be reasonable (but a little misguided).

He has been good enough to offer comments on my blog when I discuss political issues and keeps me from making certain assumptions that conservatives find contentious. Even better, he provides arguments supporting positions that you almost never see coming from academics, which are extremely helpful for understanding some aspects of conservatism.

My suggestion is to seek out, if you can, thinking, articulate individuals on the right who are similarly interested in bridging the gap. (These need not be academics, but it might be helpful to find some, since they are most likely used to dealing with colleagues on the left.) If we really want to understand each other, we need to establish communities of interlocuters who are not eager to demonize or insult the intelligence of those who hold radically divergent positions.

This may be easier said than done, I know. My friend is the only articulate, thoughtful conservative that I, or many of my liberal colleagues, have ever encountered within academia-- or outside of it. But I can't believe that he's the only one. I think it's clear that if you want to build a bridge from left to right, it's much easier to meet in the middle if you're coordinating your efforts with people on the other side of the gap.

Posted by: Dom Eggert | Dec 7, 2004 11:13:00 AM

Posted by: enzo rossi

Let me rephrase the argument of the post in these terms: it is despicable to exploit the (in itself very praiseworthy) sacrifice of the soldiers in order to gather public support for the (in itself highly objectionable) war. Support for the troops is uncontroversial. Support for the war is very controversial. Clearly there has been an attempt, on the part of the warmongers, to make support for the war a necessary condition for support for the trops. Now the problem is that it clearly isn't a necessary condition. Do you like it better now, 'marinewife' et al.?

Posted by: enzo rossi | Dec 7, 2004 11:16:23 AM

Posted by: Will

Reading the comments on this post two things are clear to me:

1) You can support our troops without supporting the war. The stickers are one way of doing that, although their effectiveness is debatable.

2) No you can't, you dirty hippie paso-facist! Go back to Berkely! You lost! Get over it! And stop speaking down to me! If you support the troops then you support the war! End of story!

So which is it? This is the problem for those who don't support the war. They've got no beef with the troops, but beef with the mission. So how can they express that without someone accusing them of spitting on the troops?

Posted by: Will | Dec 7, 2004 11:18:56 AM

Posted by: tristero

"Support our troops" is just "pro-life," "tax relief," and "social security reform" all over again.

Posted by: tristero | Dec 7, 2004 11:33:40 AM

Posted by: Randy

Well, this is certainly not going to win the hearts of the right. I thought Left2Right was about being able to find messages that would appeal to people who voted for Bush. This ain't going to do it, and it doesn't even look like you're trying.

People who have family members in Iraq, even those who might oppose or at least question the war, have a hard time with what to do with their subjectivity. How do they find a place to feel comfortable in the arguments available - antiwar and jingoism? Support the troops, for them, is something they can feel good about. It's not only families, of course, it's friends of families and extended families - people who are trying to feel some solidarity with those who are in danger. Veterans, because they have some of the same difficulties about how to align their own positions with those of the state, even when they are critical.

A left that doesn't give those people a place to stand beside us isn't going to win.

Posted by: Randy | Dec 7, 2004 11:53:10 AM

Posted by: Will

Randy sez: "A left that doesn't give those people a place to stand beside us isn't going to win."

Yes, but if you go read through the comments I thought that Steve, Brian, and Marine wife made it quite clear that from their perspective support for the troops IS support for the war.

Thus, the problem...

Posted by: Will | Dec 7, 2004 12:00:40 PM

Posted by: Steve

I'll respond to your points-you made a reasonable (for the left-mocking us in 2), below isn't reasonable, but again, for the Left, you didn't do a bad job) attempt to define the issue.

"Reading the comments on this post two things are clear to me:

1) You can support our troops without supporting the war. The stickers are one way of doing that, although their effectiveness is debatable.

Actually, not. The original question was "what do the stickers say or represent?" Not "what would a sticker that I would put on my own car say or represent?" Because very broadly, people who have the stickers on their cars do support the troops and do support the war. Very broadly, people like this country, think the war in Iraq is a noble cause, think their soldiers are doing noble work, and hope they succeed. They think Saddam was a bad guy, and got what he had coming to him. Saddam is a bad guy in the same way Aristide (I think Aristide-the Haitian that we just 'encouraged into retirement' a few months ago) was a bad guy, and the same way Milosevic was a bad guy-two other dudes that the US urged into forced retirement in spite of the fact that they didn't do anything to us.
You may disagree with this-you may think there were geopolitical justifications for arresting Milosevic that didn't exist in arresting Saddam, that international legitimacy existed and justified the Balkans adventure that didnt' exist to justify Iraq. But the people out there who have stickers on their cars think: US good, US soldiers good, Saddam bad. And they hope things work out.

2) No you can't, you dirty hippie paso-facist! Go back to Berkely! You lost! Get over it! And stop speaking down to me! If you support the troops then you support the war! End of story!

I've already pointed out-this is an attempt for the left to talk to the right?

So which is it? This is the problem for those who don't support the war. They've got no beef with the troops, but beef with the mission. So how can they express that without someone accusing them of spitting on the troops?"

Just put a sticker on your car saying "I support the troops but don't support the war." pretty easy.

So easy, in fact, that its clear that that's not REALLY the problem. The real problem (though none of you want to admit it or address it) is that lots of people do support the war and disagree with you. That being the case, why not just say so "The real problem is that lots of people support the war that I don't support, and they put stickers on their cars that say so. How can I change their minds?"


Posted by: Steve | Dec 7, 2004 12:15:52 PM

Posted by: Bernard

Will, here's the thing.

There are two real positions here, and they have both been offered by pro and anti-war folk.

The first position is 'support for the war is indistinguishable from support for the troops. Therefore you can't support one without the other.'

The second is 'support for troops can be seperated from support for the war. People who oppose the war can still support the troops.'

Now, as Randy has pointed out, anyone who supports the troops is going to have significant problems empathising with anyone who says that support for the troops is an indication of an immoral warmongering attitude. Likewise, anyone who doesn't support the war is going to have a great deal of trouble with the idea that the only way they can show solidarity with American troops is with uncritical support for the war.

Fortunately, all these positions are faulty, and tend to be held by a small but (as usual) vocal minority.

My position can easily be summarised as a respect for those who oppose the war on (what I consider to be) well reasoned grounds, and a severe lack of respect for anyone who holds position 1 above (whether pro or anti-war).

Oh, and I'm in favour of the war (though with strong reservations about the planning and management of the aftermath).

Posted by: Bernard | Dec 7, 2004 12:19:40 PM

Posted by: nick danger

Well why does this have to be a litmus test? You can't call someone a brother who disagrees with your stance on the war?

Posted by: nick danger | Dec 7, 2004 12:25:25 PM

Posted by: Mike L.

If you want to support the troops directly you could try giving to some of the military charities or since you have a blog now join the Spirit of America (www.spiritofamerica.net) blog campaign.


Posted by: Mike L. | Dec 7, 2004 12:50:32 PM

Posted by: BenA

What I'm seeing here (in this website and within this particular comment thread) is repetition of the same problem that this site is purportedly seeking to overcome: a refusal of each side to understand the other.

I'm not sure I agree with this. As I see it, the situation is not that the two sides don't understand each other, but that each understands the other fairly well but rejects the other's reasoning. Or to put it more directly, the challenge for the left (of which I am a part) is not to get the right to understand us, but rather to defeat the right. In this regard, I think the right tends to be more clear headed.

Posted by: BenA | Dec 7, 2004 12:50:37 PM

Posted by: Will

Steve said, "Just put a sticker on your car saying 'I support the troops but don't support the war.' pretty easy."


I apologize for the inadequacies in my attempt to talk to the right. I was attempting to paraphrase the message I get when I read right-wing posts and comments - it's not a very friendly message. It's good to know though that (for the left) I didn't do a bad job of attempting to define the issue.

In my first comment I wasn't so much responding on the original post, but rather on what I had learned from the comments left by others. Namely, it is clear to me that there is not consensus on what it means to "support of troops". I don't think MarineWife would approve of your sticker idea at all. I think she would say that it's impossible.

But yes, I am asking (in a roundabout sort of way) 'how do I convince other people that my position on the war is right and theirs is wrong?' More importantly, how do I explain my position without being accused of "hating America"? How do I change the discussion so that 'being against the war' doesn't necessarily imply 'hating the troops'?

There's a disconnect on this issue between war supporters like Bernard and people like MarineWife. One that the left needs to resolve in its favor.

Posted by: Will | Dec 7, 2004 1:04:24 PM

Posted by: Steve

You got it.


Posted by: Steve | Dec 7, 2004 1:05:21 PM

Posted by: Jeff Licquia

FWIW, I don't see "leftists" (what is that, anyway?) as anti-American without positive evidence. I drive a van, have no troop stickers on it, and voted for Bush this year.

It seems that people here are focused on two things: that the war in Iraq was wrong, and Abu Ghraib. Neither of those are issues we can do anything about now. The war happened. Abu Ghraib happened. You can be bitter about that if you want to, but don't be surprised if most of the rest of us ignore you.

It would be certainly more interesting if we could learn some things about what we should do now. And I know that some of you are doing that, and I don't begrudge you the "lessons learned from Abu Ghraib/Fallujah/Najaf/Sadr City/whatever" posts.

But one of those things is "support the troops". No, I don't mean "support Abu Ghraib". But ask yourself: is Abu Ghraib really the sum and total of all we've done in Iraq? Do you think you could bring yourself to support some of our other efforts there? Certainly, by all means, don't send CARE packages to troops if you think they're just baby killers. But what about, say, buying school supplies for Iraqi schools? Is that evil too? Is it evil because American troops are involved?

If you think the above link is contemptible, too, then perhaps our perception of you as being anti-American (as opposed to just anti-war) is correct.

Posted by: Jeff Licquia | Dec 7, 2004 1:14:27 PM

Posted by: BenA

This is the problem for those who don't support the war. They've got no beef with the troops, but beef with the mission. So how can they express that without someone accusing them of spitting on the troops?

I don't think this quite reflects the measure of the challenge for us on the anti-war side. While we certainly have no beef with the troops as such, as far as anyone can tell, the vast majority of the troops in fact actively support the mission. The vast majority of the troops who voted appear to have cast their ballots for Bush. Thus, if we're being honest, we are as (politically) opposed to them as we are to pro-war folks at home.

Now of course how we express that opposition is a delicate matter. But I think we do ourselves no favors by speaking about the troops in absolutely blanket terms. Like the American public, our troops are a diverse bunch. The majority of them try to do their job professional and ethically. Some of them commit atrocities and warcrimes. While most of them actively support the policies of this president, a sizeable minority oppose them (which, it must be added, is a psychologically difficult thing to do, as it must be very hard to prosecute a war that you believe to be unjust).

Both the pro- and anti-war side seem to want to use the troops as a powerful political symbol. As this thread indicates, both sides say "We Support the Troops," though they mean different things. The pro-war crowd means: "Support the troops...so you must support the war." The anti-war crowd means: "Despite our opposition to the war, we support the troops."

But however convenient such sentiments may be, they're morally and politically lazy at best. I don't know how to turn this into effective politics (perhaps it can't and shouldn't be), but those of us opposed to this war need to view the troops in complicated and multivalent ways: as fellow Americans, as people in incredibly difficult circumstances not of their choosing, as political actors the majority of whom actively disagree with us and support a policy that is hurting America and the world. And we always need to distinguish -- just as we do at home -- between political allies and political opponents, between the innocent and the guilty, and so forth. Such sentiments can't easily fit on a car sticker.

Final point: isn't it time we put to rest the old canard that those who protested the Vietnam War always (or even often) spat on veterans or called them baby killers? Like so many other rightwing myths from the '60s (bra-burning feminists is another one), the left's fear of reawakening this false memory interferes with the clarity of our message. Whatever we do, the right will accuse us of being traitors. As the situation in Iraq continues to deteriorate, those who continue to support the war will just as inevitably blaim its failure on a leftist Dolchstoss (stab in the back). You're already seeing that in some of the posts on this thread. The pro-war side will relentlessly attack those who oppose any war as being unfit to enter further public discussions (even pro-war Democrats will do this, as Kevin Drum, Peter Beinart, and Matt Yglesias have recently shown). So rather than worrying what the pro-war folks think of us, let's focus on speaking truthfully about the good and the bad that our troops do in Iraq and elsewhere, and, while realizing the limited scope of the choices they face, holding them accountable for both.

Posted by: BenA | Dec 7, 2004 1:17:36 PM

Posted by: pedro

David--second post from the beginning--is right. In blue-collar Decatur, Illinois, the Support our Troops bumper stickers are a dime a dozen, but there's plenty of cars that bear them right next to an Obama bumper sticker, or a Kerry one.

Posted by: pedro | Dec 7, 2004 1:18:50 PM

Posted by: dred

"How can I support the troops?"

Here's an idea. Send a carepackage to Iraq or Afghanistan, and tell them thanks for their service.

Or try this site:
and help out the people in Iraq. Helping the people in Iraq will in turn help our soldiers.

It's not that difficult, or expensive.

dred (from a red county in a red state in the south)

good luck with your understanding of red states, ya'll.

Posted by: dred | Dec 7, 2004 1:19:59 PM

Posted by: Iconic Midwesterner

I think there is a major disconnect here. Part of this has to do with the fact that most (not all obviously) liberal urban academics will come from and live in a background that has little or no contact with people who are actually serving in the military. I've recently moved to small town Minnesota from St. Louis, and yes, lots of people here have these types of stickers. (Mostly its on pick-ups, not SUV's -the horror!) But they have local National Guard units from here deployed, people they know & work with, family members, etc. While I'm sure there are those who are using "Support the Troops" as some sort of political message, I see no evidence from talking to the people in rural Minnesota that this is a primary or even common motivation.

If doesn't take a great sense of imagination to come up for a good reason that someone might want to display these messages. If people on the left really want to talking to people on the right, a good start would be to stop automatically thinking the worst of them.

Posted by: Iconic Midwesterner | Dec 7, 2004 1:24:10 PM

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