There is no overestimating the popular reverence Americans have for their men and women in uniform. A direct translation of "squaddie", a term steeped in class contempt which betrays as much antipathy and ambivalence as it does admiration in the UK, simply does not exist in the US. Fighting for your country is generally regarded as the ultimate form of public service.
Flight attendants will announce the presence of an active service man or woman to cheers from the rest of the plane. At anti-war demonstrations, protesters wave banners proclaiming "Support the troops, oppose the war." The nation may be irrevocably split on the moral value of any war, but when it comes to backing the people who are executing it, they speak as one.
If such widespread veneration for the military in a democracy is problematic, the reasons underpinning it extend beyond hyper-patriotism. Thanks to the draft during the Korean and Vietnam wars, many Americans have a close relative who is a veteran. The suburban myth that liberals abused soldiers returning from Vietnam has made progressives anxious to be vocal in their support for the military. And, whatever its reputation abroad, since the second world war the US military has been viewed domestically as an instrument of progressive social change. It was one of the first American institutions to formally integrate. Thanks to the GI bill, which gave housing or an education to those returning from the second world war, it was instrumental in creating the postwar middle class.
Finally, in a nation with no safety net, the military is one of the few government-backed means of advancement for the poor. "I was living in a trailer with my grandmother," says Darrell Anderson, 25, who earned a purple heart in Iraq and later went awol. "I was broke and I needed education and healthcare, and if I had to go to war for them that was just what I had to do. Going to the military was my last chance. My last option." If all else fails, you can yomp and shoot your way to the American dream.
So America's support for its military is as deep as it is complex. While that support may coincide with the backing for a given war, it may at times also contradict it. This may be one of those times. The showdown between the Bush administration and the Democratic Congress over the war in Iraq currently hinges on which side can claim ownership of the troops' interests, and harness that public affection to bolster their position.
President Bush has requested more money from Congress for the war. Congress has passed a bill that gives him more than he requested so long as he sets a timetable for withdrawing the troops. Bush has vowed to veto the bill, effectively demanding a blank cheque for the war. The Democrats do not have enough votes to override the veto. Bush cannot get the money without Congressional approval. For as long as the stalemate continues no money can be earmarked for the war, and at some stage the cash will dry up. In these deliberations the plight of Iraqis, who are dying in their scores every day, is subordinated to more local concerns: which side can convince the public that they are standing their ground to protect the troops, and thereby force the other side to compromise before the money runs out.
You would think this would be a slam-dunk for the Democrats. With approval ratings in the 30s, Bush is deeply unpopular. So is his war. According to a Rasmussen poll last week, 57% of Americans support either an immediate withdrawal (37%) or a deadline for withdrawal (20%), while 60% believe that his "surge" has either made things worse in Iraq or has made no difference. As though that were not enough, he will most likely sign the veto tomorrow, on the fourth anniversary of his "mission accomplished" speech.
Not only is Bush weak, but so is his standing with the troops. Since he announced the surge, the US death toll has remained steady at around three a day, while the situation on the ground has deteriorated and the Iraqi government has disintegrated. Last month came the debacle at Walter Reed hospital, where wounded veterans testified to lying in rooms infested with mice and cockroaches, with mould on the walls.
Then last week came damaging testimony relating to two of the "war on terror's" greatest icons. The first, Jessica Lynch, was hailed as the plucky "Rambo from West Virginia" after she was captured in an ambush at Nassiriya early in the war and later rescued by US forces. "I am still confused as to why they chose to lie and tried to make me a legend when the real heroics of my fellow soldiers that day were, in fact, legendary," said Lynch at a Congressional hearing.
The other was the family of Pat Tillman, a football star, who forwent a $9m contract to volunteer for the military. According to the defence department Tillman was killed by enemy combatants in Afghanistan in 2004 while leading an attempt to rescue US troops. Five weeks later they admitted he was killed by friendly fire. "We believe this narrative was intended to deceive the family but more importantly the American public," said Kevin Tillman, Pat's brother. "Pat's death was clearly the result of fratricide [friendly fire] ... the truth needed to be suppressed."
And so the world Bush occupies - where the war is justified, conditions on the ground are improving, and democracy in the Middle East will flourish - keeps getting smaller. Even those he cast as heroes no longer wish to share the stage with him.
All of this provides ample space for the Democrats to establish an alternative narrative for both supporting the troops and stopping the war. One that says the best way to support them is to remove them from a war they cannot win, and return them home where they will be cared for. An opportunity to represent the people who elected them, implement their mandate, and in so doing fulfil their constitutional duty to check and then balance executive power.
Like most acts of principle, making this move carries significant political risk. But not making it carries the certainty of thousands more dead Iraqis and hundreds more dead soldiers. A CBS-New York Times poll shows only 36% back withholding funds if the president uses his veto. That is where leadership comes in: the Democrats have yet to prove their ability to win people over to a course of action they believe is both justified and necessary. Who knows how many people would support them if they made the case for it. Who knows how many would have opposed the war if they'd been asked. The war is over. To postpone withdrawal is simply to prolong the agony.
Yet it seems the Democrats are set to cave in on their demand of setting a timetable, agreeing instead to "non-binding benchmarks" on the Iraqi government, an impotent body that lacks authority and legitimacy. That would not be compromise but capitulation.
This is only the second time Bush has used his veto. The first was six months ago, to stop a bill on embryonic stem-cell research becoming law. The bill, he said, "would support the taking of innocent human life ... and crosses a moral boundary our decent society needs to respect". Would that he lavished so much care on human life that has evolved beyond a collection of cells. Would that his moral boundaries stretched beyond the green zone. Would that he had an opposition worthy of the name.
© 2007 The Guardian