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From Draft NOtices, May - June 2003

"Support the Troops"

— Mernie Aste and Molly Morgan


Waging empire abroad requires a propaganda war at home, and peace activists have been challenged by a powerful sound-bite blitz since 9-11. As Bush, Inc. moves from its war of conquest to occupation and exploitation, the rest of us can reframe our strategies and language, including unpacking one of the most vexing phrases —"support the troops."

For centuries a dominant feature of U.S. political culture has been dualism: framing all issues as black or white, good vs. evil, with no opportunity to be neither, both, or something else altogether. Framing debate in this way not only serves as a red herring to keep people from asking deeper questions, but is also part of a classic divide-and-conquer strategy that keeps the majority of people from making common cause against the oligarchy. Part of the brilliance of such jingoistic phrases as "united we stand," "these colors don't run," "freedom isn't free," and "support the troops" is that they are ambiguous, implying a political stance without being specific. They also allow a speaker to set a trap for responders.

"Support the troops" provides a sound bite for people conditioned to regurgitate the propaganda of the warmongers without having to think. It channels their emotions — fear, pride, sorrow, anger, concern for loved ones, rage — into something that serves the interests of the power-holders. Its intent is to put the responder on the defensive in the same way as asking, "When did you stop beating your wife?" For the person who's never beaten his wife, this is not an answerable question.

At countless gatherings across the country, peace activists have been struggling with how to respond to "Do you support the troops?" or the more aggressive version, "Don't you support the troops?" Our response depends on what our goal is in any given situation. At one end of the spectrum, you can answer "yes" or "no" and then define what you mean by supporting the troops, an approach employed by many peace activists (references to some good examples are listed at the end of this article).

In some situations, another approach is to ferret out the underlying emotions of the asker. For example, is the person afraid because s/he has a loved one in the military? What are those fears? That somehow the risks of life, limb, and health are not, after all, the noble gesture that would make this extreme sacrifice worthwhile? That the troops will be vilified for the hegemony of those in power? That if the troops in combat were distracted by the questioning of the morality of their actions, they might be at greater risk of being harmed themselves? After acknowledging the person's real concerns, one could deflect the conversation to the hypocrisy of a government that puts the troops in harm's way for the benefit of oil corporation executives and wonder why such an administration is also proposing cuts to veterans' benefits. What kind of support is that? This shifts away from sloganeering that invalidates one side of the debate and focuses instead on the reality of who is doing what to whom and why.

Meanwhile, the real questions aren't debated, like what are we trying to achieve, why, and what's the most effective way to do it? So considering the ambiguity of "do you support the troops," you could begin a conversation by asking what the person means. Then, if you have a chance to respond, you can simply state your opinions without ever addressing supporting the troops or not. This can help to thwart the dualism trap, at least momentarily, and dialogue can move people to a better understanding of each other, even if they disagree.

"Support the troops" can be quicksand for peace activists who haven't carefully thought through their own beliefs and how to express them respectfully and clearly. There can be a world of difference between a sign that says, "Support the Troops -- Bring Them Home!" and one that simply says, "Bring the Troops Home." As people opposed to militarism, we must continually struggle with our language -- saying no more and no less than what we mean and doing so on our own terms, not those of the militarists.

For many useful points to use in discussions of "support the troops," here are Web sites for two fine essays on this topic: "How to Support the Troops," by Kéllia Ramares (March 13, 2003),, and "Support Our Troops," by Michael Albert, (March 17, 2003).

This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (


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