Stuck behind a Hummer in a convoy of holiday shoppers, I found myself wondering what the driver had in mind when he put three of those now-ubiquitous support-our-troops vinyl ribbons on the billboard-sized tailgate of his gas hog.
Is he telling me to do something I don't already do? Is there a tinge of hostility in it, or a sort of patriotic superiority? Or is it simply a gesture; a way to feel connected to a disastrous gamble in a distant land?
Later that day, a gutsy soldier named Thomas Wilson asked Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld the question heard round the world about why some Guard units have to scrounge the dumps to find makeshift armor for their Humvees. And Rummy answered with the usual callous arrogance that he applies to any situation where his judgment is questioned or his ineptitude exposed.
His answer, along with his insistence that all's hunky-dory in Iraq -- even though the recently leaked CIA memo tells a very different story -- shows his utter lack of compassion for the lives of those he sends "into harm's way." (There's a doozy of a military euphemism.)
So what does it mean to support our troops when the secretary of defense doesn't?
Does it mean contributing to the legal expenses of the eight soldiers who are challenging the Army's stop-loss policy, which extends their service in Iraq well beyond the time that they agreed to serve -- without giving them any clue at the front end that this might happen? (See the Center for Constitutional Rights at www.ccr-ny.org.)
Certainly the Army should hold a Guard member responsible for completing a tour of duty after investing in his or her training, as the Texas Air National Guard did to the tune of nearly $1 million to train George W. Bush as a fighter pilot. They cannot allow that Guard member to walk off the job without fulfilling his part of the contract. Well ... usually they can't.
Unlike their commander-in-chief, these Guard members have willingly and courageously fulfilled their obligations in a war zone and have families depending on them back home. Being forced to stay beyond their contracted time is indeed a cruel form of conscription, a back-door draft.
Or does it mean visiting some of the 10,000 wounded and maimed soldiers in a veterans hospital near you? Only if you can. "Out of sight, out of mind" remains this administration's policy when it comes to our war carnage. We know there's a ban on photos of coffins coming home from Iraq, but visitors have reported being turned away from wards housing those trying to recover from the wounds received in Iraq -- young people with missing limbs, shattered skulls, sightless eyes and only a husk of the promise their lives once held.
Given that this administration chooses to wage this heinous war under a veil of secrecy and denial, and that we no longer collectively shoulder the burdens of war by growing victory gardens and rationing everything from butter to gasoline, how do we really show support for our troops? A good start is Operation Truth (www.optruth.com).
Among soldiers' reports and photos from Iraq you'll find a number of organizations that provide a range of services for these brave, beleaguered troops.
There's Operation Comfort, which provides mental health care, free of charge, to family members who have a loved one serving in the Middle East. Or Books for Soldiers, which ships books, DVDs and other supplies to deployed soldiers as well as those in VA hospitals. Or Salute America's Heroes, an organization created to help severely wounded and disabled veterans rebuild their lives.
If President Bush were to lead by example, he might put some of the $50 million he plans to raise for his inaugural bash into better equipment and better lives for our veterans.
For no money at all he could give our troops a new secretary of defense. One who levels with them, who acknowledges mistakes, and who will not send them to fight an enemy he can't find, in a country that didn't attack us, with support hardly more substantial than a few vinyl yellow ribbons on the sides of their Humvees.
Susan Lenfestey (SooLen@aol.com) is a Minneapolis writer.