More than one way to support U.S.

? I am driving down the coast, E-Z Passing across borders from Maine to Massachusetts, when the radio begins the day’s news with a familiar bulletin: “There’s been another day of violence in Iraq today.”

A description of suicide bombers and victims follows. Slowly, I turn to another highway distraction, counting the cars that pass me wearing ribbon magnets and decals that display the same slogan: “Support Our Troops.”

From one exit to the next, I count a red Ford Explorer, a bronze Jeep, a white Dodge, a blue pickup truck and a silver Toyota.

I cannot interview the drivers at 70 miles an hour, so I do not know the complexity of their politics. But I automatically read “Support Our Troops” as a proxy statement for “Support Our Commander in Chief.” The yellow ribbons tied for soldiers fighting in Iraq seem to have morphed into a collective blue ribbon for the president handling this war.

If there is anything this White House is adept at, it is co-opting symbols. If there’s anything that makes this driver wince, it is having such powerful symbols wrenched away. These days those who do not support the president are easily dismissed as people who disparage the troops.

On Tuesday night, the president stood before a sea of soldiers and used prime time to defend a war that is not going well. Again and again, in a tactic for which the word “shameless” was invented, he linked September 11 with Iraq. He tied the terrorists of September 11 to the suicide bombers of Baghdad without ever acknowledging what had made Iraq the fetid center of the global war on terror.

I wondered how many more times he could go to the well of September 11 before it went dry. Last week, California Congressman Randy Cunningham used the victims to support the amendment against flag-burning. Justice Antonin Scalia even invoked September 11 in his blistering dissent from a Ten Commandments decision.

But there was another linkage in the Fort Bragg setting: the president and thousands of soldiers in green uniforms, one and indivisible. At one point, Bush said, “The best way to honor the lives that have been given in this struggle is to complete the mission.” In a single sentence, he defined his mission as the mission and his opponents as those who would trample the graves of soldiers.

This is not the first time a “war president” has conflated war and patriotism, or quietly tainted dissenters with disloyalty. It happens routinely, especially in unpopular wars.

The opponents of this president have struggled to separate criticism of the White House from criticism of the troops. They have talked about everything from missing weapons of mass destruction to ineffective armor. Even though 58 percent disapprove of the handling of Iraq, those symbolic ribbons of patriotism have produced a silenced majority.

I share that reticence even as one of millions drawn to the heartbreaking stories of this war. I can’t forget the father of a 22-year-old Louisiana corporal who described his late son as an honest and godly man. “As far as I know,” said the father, ” he didn’t have any enemies.” In war, the corporal had enemies.

Nor can I forget the New Hampshire wife who told a reporter querulously, “I have to respect the president. To not respect him would be to not respect, in some sense, the reasons why our husbands are over there.” Who among her neighbors wants to shake her faith?

Today, few Americans see either a clear way forward or a clean way out of Iraq. When a war begun on false premises slogs on without an exit strategy, when a war against terrorists becomes a terrorist training ground, when the body count rises – 1,700 American troops and counting – it’s time to give up the notion that dissenters are the dangerous ones.

The president invoked July 4 as well as September 11. He called it a day to celebrate freedom and offer thanks to the troops by flying a flag, writing a letter, helping a military family.

I will fly my flag this Fourth of July, as always, on a small island in Maine. I will fly it for the men and women in harm’s way. But I’ll fly it as well for the father who protests the military recruiters at his child’s high school and the 19-year-old widow who tells “Good Morning America,” “I just feel enough is enough.”

The silenced majority of Americans who believe we were misled into war have no reason to be tongue-tied by a yellow ribbon.