Support Our Troops! Or, 'Shut Up, Please'

Patriotism may not always be the "last refuge of a scoundrel," as Samuel Johnson claimed, but it is often the first substitute for thought. And mindless patriotism in our time is often expressed in the bumper sticker exhortation to "Support Our Troops!"

Consider, for example, a New Hampshire woman’s response to a Gold Star mother (Cindy Sheehan of Gold Star Families for Peace) who had written in an "op ed" piece that she considers our government’s dubious (at best) objectives in Iraq to be not worth the life of her son and other Americans and Iraqis who have died and will die there. In her rebuttal (New Hampshire Union Leader, July 15th), Shona Emery acknowledged she was fortunate that her husband had returned safely from his tour of duty in Iraq with the New Hampshire National Guard. But if he had not, "I would be promoting all the good he did in this world and not downsizing it and belittling the efforts he and his comrades made." She advised Ms. Sheehan that "by saying our soldiers are causing nothing but u2018chaos’ and that they must u2018come home now’ because they have not benefited Iraq, you are doing them a great disservice and calling them failures."

That’s funny. I had read Sheehan’s article and thought that if there were persons designated "failures" there (she, in fact, used stronger adjectives), they were Bush, Cheney and other architects of the Iraq war. Clearly, she was not blaming her own dead son and other brave Americans in Iraq for the failure to turn that war into the "cakewalk" predicted by certain wildly optimistic desktop warriors in Washington.

It is grossly unfair — but not, alas, uncommon — for supporters of the war to question the loyalty of even parents or spouses of those killed in battle if the bereaved dare to question or oppose our government’s self-appointed "mission" in another, far-off land.

What is seldom remarked upon is how thoroughly the deck has been stacked in any public debate about war. Those who unfailingly support any war our rulers choose to prosecute are always patriots.

Those who speak or write in opposition are always suspected, if not outright accused, of being disloyal to our troops. A willingness to send our young to war, however weak or illusory the reasons, becomes the litmus test of loyalty. Ms. Emery supports our soldiers in Iraq, "because I know I owe my freedoms to them and to all of the soldiers before them who also believed in the mission and followed it through."

The irony is that America at war is always defending our freedom — though how our freedom might have suffered if we had not invaded and occupied Iraq is not quite clear. I’m sure it is at least impolite, and probably unpatriotic, to even ask. But the freedom of a self-governing people surely includes the right to question and criticize the policies their government pursues and the decisions their leaders make. And no decision is of greater consequence than the decision to wage war. Yet the American public tends to come only reluctantly and belatedly to the point of questioning our government’s war plans.

"In the most patriotic state I can imagine," South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham recently told Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, "people are beginning to question." It would be more than refreshing, it would be downright patriotic, if Americans in all 50 states began to question military decisions of our leaders before we are two years into a war, with no way out.

Even now, many argue that that to question or criticize the "mission" is to break faith with the troops. In practice, "Support Our Troops" turns out to mean that we should always support the policies of our government at war, thereby providing that government with a powerful incentive for perpetual warfare. If you can’t do that, at least maintain a discreet silence on the subject. For as Mark Twain observed long ago, "It is by the goodness of God that we have in this country those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience and the prudence never to practise either of them."

Manchester, NH, resident Jack Kenny [send him mail] is a freelance writer.