We see it on bumper stickers, yard signs, and lapel pins. "Support the troops!" But what on Earth does it mean? Do I support the troops? Well, financially I sure do--their room, board, and housing gets withheld from my paycheck every two weeks, and the bill for what I'm not paying now will go to my children and grandchildren, with interest. But I'm guessing that's not what the banner on the overpass means.
Does it mean I'm not supposed to spit on them, Vietnam-style, in airports? Fair enough, I don't do that--I think most of us are over the idea that every nineteen-year-old kid in a uniform is a baby killer with personal responsibility for Pentagon policy. (Interestingly, the military justice system doesn't seem quite so progressive--it hung the enlisted staff of Abu Ghraib out to dry with nary a stain on the epaulettes of commanders who authorized the same sexual and religious humiliation techniques across multiple facilities.)
Perhaps "support" is meant in the sense one "supports" English football teams, as in "I support Manchester City, he supports Arsenal"? Are we meant to rush out and buy a new Army "kit" every time they change the camouflage design, then get into pub fights with insurgency supporters and slash their tires every time we lose a street battle?
Seriously, though... I "support" the troops in the sense that I don't want them to get killed. I want them to get letters from home and Xboxes and dental care. I don't want them to come home missing arms and legs--living two miles from Walter Reed Army Medical Center, I've seen enough limbless soldiers in the supermarket these past few years for any one lifetime.
But wanting to see your fellow human comfortable and alive is something quite different from blind support of whatever fool errand the government happens to have sent him on. At least, that's the way I see it. Others argue that one can't "support" the troops without "supporting" their mission, and since the failure of a military mission typically involves a lot of soldiers getting killed, I suppose they have a point.
In truth, so long as "support the troops" remains on church signs and baseball caps, it doesn't much matter what meaning we ascribe to it. I can think it means "don't spit on soldiers," you can think it means "don't question the government," military families can be happy to read it, and we all can go home and watch our all-Anna-Nicole-all-the-time cable news.
But when the slogan infects a Congressional debate--and worse yet, hogties a coequal branch of government from exercising its constitutional function as a check on the executive--we've exited the realm of feel-good virtue. The notion of "supporting our troops" has made any serious proposal to cut off funding for the war a political non-starter. Americans believe--or so Congress seems to think--that our soldiers would view being sent home as a personal betrayal. Worse yet, the war's backers insinuate that a halt in funding would not bring the troops home, but rather leave them in the field without supplies or reinforcements. And so the resolution focuses on the sideshow of the President's "surge" of 20,000 troops, while pandering shamelessly to those who so "support" the 140,000 already in Iraq that they will not question the reasons for their presence.