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Support the Troops: Excerpt from Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity
Published on Wednesday, April 7, 2004 by
Support the Troops
Excerpt from Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity
by Robert Jensen

The demand during the Iraq war that -- whether for or against the war -- one must support the troops was the most effective type of rhetorical strategy: Simply by accepting that framing of the question, opponents of the war were guaranteed to lose the debate, and the chance for meaningful political dialogue would evaporate. So, when asked, I tried to refuse to answer the question of whether or not I supported the troops. Instead, I said that I don't support the "support the troops" framework. That doesn't mean I don't like the troops (of the troops I have known, I have liked some and disliked others, as is the case with every group of people I've ever run into). It doesn't mean I wish to see any of them harmed physically. But I don't support talking about whether I support them.

Here's a concrete example: The semester before the Iraq war I had in one of my classes a student, let's call her Jane, who often stopped by my office to talk about material from the course, especially concerning media and politics. We shared some views but differed on a number of issues, and I enjoyed the exchanges. Jane also was an officer in the Army Reserve, and she expected to be called up for the war. Late in the semester she stopped by to tell me she would not be back the next term.

Though she was conflicted about the war, Jane had legal obligations to the Reserve, and she intended to fulfill them. I understood the position she was in, and it was clear she did not intend to make a political statement by refusing active duty, nor did she intend to ask for conscientious objector status or alternative duty. She also knew that I opposed the war on moral, legal, and political grounds. So, there we sat. At that moment, if someone had told me that I must support the troops -- or in this case, support the one very specific troop who was in front of me -- what would that mean? Should I have told her that I supported her decision to go fight in a war I believed to be immoral, illegal, and unwise? Should I have supported Jane by denying my own conscience? What good would that do her or me, the country or the world? Certainly I could, and did, tell her that I understood the difficult position she was in. But if the critique of the coming war that I had been voicing for several months had been sincere, what would it mean for me to say to her, "I support your decision"? It would be a transparent lie. I couldn't support her decision, no matter how much I understood the reasons she was making her choice.

The implicit demand in the "support the troops" rhetoric was -- and likely will be in future wars -- that even if I am against the war, once troops are in the field I should shift my focus from opposition to the war to support for my fellow Americans who are doing the fighting. But to support the troops is, for all practical purposes, to support the war. Asking people who oppose a war to support the troops in that war is simply a way of asking people to drop their opposition. If I had believed this war would be wrong before it began, and if none of the conditions on which I based that assessment had changed, why should I change my view simply because the war had started?

In a democratic society, the question should not be whether one supports the troops. The relevant question is whether one supports the policy. The demand that war opponents must "support the troops" is nothing more than a way of demanding that we drop our opposition to the policy.

Attempts at rhetorical resistance

Many war opponents responded to the challenge by arguing that they were supporting the troops, first by trying to derail a war so that troops would not have to fight, and later by bringing the war to a close as quickly as possible. The sentiment behind that response is understandable, but I believe it is the wrong approach, in part because it implicitly accepts the legitimacy of the "support the troops" framework. But more importantly, it's a disingenuous answer because it doesn't take seriously the decisions made by the troops themselves.

An analogy: Let's say I have just joined a religious group that is led by a charismatic figure and seems to have all the markings of a cult. I am enthusiastic about this choice, and I am devoting all my available time and energy to the group. I discuss this with friends and tell them I would like their support. Fearing what will happen to me if I give my life over to a cult, they offer a critique of the group, its theology, and its mode of organization. I listen but am not persuaded, and I repeat my request for support. At that point, my friends tell me they support me, but they can't support my decision to join this group because they believe it to be a bad decision. In such a circumstance, I would argue to them that support for me as a person is an abstract concept that, while appreciated, doesn't mean much in the immediate situation. What I want, I would repeat, is support in this endeavor I have chosen.

My friends might tell me that their questioning of the wisdom of my choice is a kind of support. I would point out that it is not support but an assertion that their judgment is better than mine and that I should rethink my choice. There's nothing wrong with friends making such assertions; in fact, that is one important role friends play. But, I would conclude, it isn't the same thing as support. It is refusing to support my choice on the basis of an assessment that my friends believe to be superior to my own. Now, if I'm the only person affected by my decision, and I'm a generally competent adult capable of making my own decisions, my friends should accept my choice and drop the issue. From there, we may or may not remain friends, depending on how I behave and how my friends react. But if my allegiance to my new group had detrimental consequences for others -- let's say it led me to abandon support for my child, leaving him at risk -- then it would be appropriate for those friends, no matter what their desire to support me in some general sense, to take actions to prevent the harm to others in whatever way is appropriate and feasible.

The same points apply to the question of supporting the troops. First, my argument assumes that most people in the U.S. military believe they are serving in a morally sound institution. Of course they have their complaints about that institution, but that typically does not translate into fundamental questioning of the role and mission of the armed forces. The increasing dissension among the troops and their families during the occupation of Iraq, for example, seems to be rooted for most not in a deep critique of U.S. foreign and military policy but in exasperation about a confusing situation and difficult conditions on the ground. No doubt there are members of the military who have come to the conclusion that a specific war -- or perhaps even the fundamental nature of the contemporary U.S. armed forces -- cannot be justified, but that is a minority, and likely a tiny minority.

So, if I am to be sincere in my position and also respect the troops' capacity to make their own decisions, I can't support them. I can only say that as a fellow citizen, I believe their choice to be wrong, and that while I support them in some general sense -- that is, I don't wish to see harm come to them -- I do not, and cannot, support them in the choice they have made. I can point out that I realize the decision to pursue war was made by others far above them in the hierarchy. I can express solidarity with those in the military who joined out of economic necessity. But because I believe that the consequences of the war will be harmful to others, I am morally obligated to continue my opposition. I do that fully aware that an ongoing opposition movement in the United States will be taken by many in the military as a betrayal, especially as they risk their lives in combat. I could offer a stirring defense of dissent in democracy, but that is unlikely to be compelling to the troops, given their circumstances. Given that, it is particularly empty to tell troops who believe I am not supporting them that I really am but they just don't understand it.

If we are to use the words "support" and "oppose" with their common meanings, I did not support the troops in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. I opposed the troops. And I will continue to do so when I believe they are engaged in immoral, illegal, and unwise conflicts.

Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas and a founding member for the Nowar Collective. He can be reached at

"Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity" analyzes the current political landscape, critiques the current political rhetoric, and offers thoughts on a future course for progressive and anti-empire politics.


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