Politicians used to kiss babies, but in these days of terrorism and war, babies have gone out of style. Today's most coveted political accessory? An active-duty member of the U.S. military. "Our troops" are the new babies.
True, it wouldn't do for politicians to actually kiss the troops. But on both sides of the political aisle, candidates, officeholders and pundits are eager to do the next best thing: constantly insist on their complete, utter and total dedication to "our troops."
With the Senate tied up in knots over various Iraq resolutions, we've seen far too much of this sort of posturing lately. Last Monday, for instance, Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., called on his colleagues to vote for his resolution in support of the administration's planned troop increase because "ours is a statement of support to our troops." John Warner, R-Va., responded by calling on senators to vote for his resolution opposing the administration plan: "I forcefully argue that ours is in support of the troops." Take it outside, boys! What a waste of everyone's time.
In this divisive environment, I'm not sure it's possible to get past the empty rhetoric and have a serious, nonpoliticized discussion about just what it means to "support" the troops. But why not try?
Let's start by stipulating that all serious people on all sides of the political spectrum "support" the troops in at least the most minimalist sense: The troops are human beings, and we all care about their welfare.
Are there people in this country who actively dislike U.S. troops and hope bad things happen to them? Sure, probably. But there are also people in this country who rob old ladies, molest little kids and believe in alien abduction. The far right loves to dredge up the occasional creep who thinks spitting on soldiers is cool and insists that this represents the "true" face of the anti-war movement. The rest of us should ignore this kind of idiocy.
Let's move on. 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.
- Rosa Brooks is a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.