Perhaps the most unremarked-upon aspect of the much-noted fourth anniversary of the Iraq debacle is the deeply confused way Americans talk about it.
Most egregious is the constant refrain from all sides that whatever they want is first and foremost about 'supporting the troops' - whether keeping them there forever, or bringing them home immediately.
While concern for American forces serving in Iraq is certainly well-intentioned, the rhetorical focus on 'the troops' is not just irrelevant, but dangerously misleading.
The most significant reason 'the troops' are not the central issue in Iraq is that they're all volunteers.
This is radically different from Vietnam, where almost all the soldiers, and certainly the grunts, were there because of a socio-economically unjust draft that allowed Bush and Cheney, for example, to avoid serving in a war they 'supported.'
As a result, the demand at that time to 'bring the troops home' had substance in both foreign and domestic realms, since the vast majority had not signed up for the armed forces, let alone guerrilla war in a tropical jungle.
But when applied to an all-volunteer military, the same slogan means almost nothing - which is why both Bush and his most determined opponents are able to invoke 'the troops' as their chief motivation with, at least seemingly, straight faces.
And the fact that 'the troops' can be used to justify completely contradictory positions indicates precisely why American discourse about Iraq is so radically off-course.
For Bush, 'supporting the troops' justifies the same policies he has promoted since 2002, whose chief beneficiaries have been political Islamists like Sunni Osama bin Laden and Shiite Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on the one hand, and, on the other, extortionate no-bid contractors like oil-logistical-services Halliburton and high-tech mercenaries Blackwater.
From this perspective, 'supporting the troops' means:
1) Congress has to approve any and all Iraq appropriations, because failing to do so is prima facie evidence of, you know, not 'supporting the troops'; and
2) the US has the right to go after anyone - Iran / Sunni insurgents / Moktada al-Sadr / whoever - it claims is 'hurting' the troops, because not to do so would mean failing to, you know, 'support the troops.'
At the same time, the focus of the 'anti-war' movement on 'bringing the troops home' is as wrong-headed as the Bush / Cheney / Rove mantra - completely unchallenged by intimidated Washington Democrats - of 'supporting the troops.'
To be sure, the reasons are different - but equally problematic.
A main one is nostalgia for the simplicities of anti-Vietnam war days, which you can see baby-boomers happily re-living and channeling into their own - and, by this point, grand - children.
But contrary to both domino and conspiracy theorists of the day, South East Asia in the 50s / 60s / 70s was just not very important either economically or strategically during the Cold War era.
That's why the US could just pack up and leave, albeit in undignified retreat, without any discernible adverse effects, at least for Americans.
Iraq, by contrast, lies at the heart of both the key oil-producing region of the world political economy and the volatile Arab / Islamic world.
Consequently, 'bring the troops home' is a visibly inadequate response to a highly complex and strategically crucial situation that cannot safely be abandoned, unlike mid-1970s South East Asia.
In this sense, 'bring the troops home' is an attempt to avoid the deeply unsettling fact that Iraq has destroyed 'politics as usual' - not just domestically, but, even more importantly, in America's now structurally disturbed relations with the rest of the world.
Put bluntly, no one is going to help the US clean up the disaster it unilaterally created in Iraq - over the objections of the entire world - without fundamental change in the entire American mind-set that 'supported' this insanity in the first place.
That's why the obsession with 'the troops' is not just irrelevant and - in view of the shocking medical neglect of the wounded - unseemly,
but a major impediment to any possibility of fixing the catastrophe in which major American elites - political / media / business / academic - have responsibility.
As a result, anyone who wants to do something constructive about Iraq should immediately stop talking about 'the troops' ...
and start thinking about how to begin the profound house-cleaning the US must undertake if it is going to have a prayer of getting anyone in the world to co-operate with it ... about anything ... ever again.
Grok Your World blogger David Caploe writes and speaks about global affairs in the San Francisco Bay Area.