Friday, February 09, 2007

Supporting the troops…whatever that means

Does “supporting the troops,” mean endorsing President Bush’s Iraq policy? Or, does it mean keeping them out of harm’s way?

The answer to both is NO. Both are non-arguments. The duty of our professional armed forces is to pursue objectives, frequently in conflict and dangerous, of policies determined by an elected civilian government. Whether or not the policy is wise is a different question. Nor are our troops children in need of protection – this is a professional army of men and women who have volunteered for service that is potentially dangerous.

Rosa Brooks has these sensible comments in today’s L.A. Times:
…To some on the left, "supporting the troops" has come to mean "protecting the troops": keeping them out of harm's way, ensuring that they have the support services they need and generally avoiding sending them to places where they might get hurt — such as, well, Iraq.

But the military isn't a social welfare program, and the troops aren't children. Americans in uniform chose to join the military. Money and educational opportunities may have been added incentives, but it's patronizing to assume that the troops somehow got tricked into their dangerous jobs. If we support the troops, we need to respect their willingness to risk their lives on our behalf.

This means that "protecting" the troops should not be our top goal. We should never needlessly send them into harm's way, and we should give them the resources they need. But when force is necessary — and sometimes it is — we shouldn't shrink from calling on the troops to do the dangerous work they volunteered to do.

Meanwhile, for many on the right, "supporting" the troops has become synonymous with supporting the Bush administration's Iraq policies. It should go without saying that there is no necessary connection between supporting the troops and supporting the war, but let's say it anyway. Plenty of serious and patriotic people — some of whom are in the military — believe that the administration's Iraq policies undermine our national security interests. Sending U.S. troops to sacrifice their lives in pursuit of foolish policies isn't "supporting" them, and shifting course doesn't make lives already lost "wasted."

For the many Americans who simply don't know what to think about Iraq, "supporting the troops" often ends up meaning, by default, that we should just do "whatever the troops think we should do." But that's also silly. For one thing, "the troops" and their viewpoints are pretty diverse. For another, wearing a uniform doesn't magically transform a young American into an expert on geopolitics or national security.

But regardless of our views on Iraq, those of us in civilian life do have unique obligations to those who serve in the military. The troops aren't the only people who take risks in the public service, but police officers or firefighters who can't take the heat — or who disagree with their department's strategic priorities — can quit, while members of the military face prison if they exercise that option. U.S. troops aren't just "serving" their country; they're indentured servants to their country. And in a democracy, our votes sustain the system of laws that bind members of the military.

That's why civilians have a duty to support the troops in the most important way of all: by refusing to let them become pawns in a cynical political game.

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