It appears that any expression of disapproval for the war in Iraq has to be accompanied, if not preceded, by a declaration of support for the troops. The specific inclusion of troops who are no longer in harm's way shows how empty and rhetorical this declaration of support has become. It's not that anybody around here doesn't "support the troops" whatever that means. It's that the only reason this gets said is to block the accusation that, by opposing the war, you somehow oppose the troops once again, whatever that means.
Sen. Barack Obama has apologized several times over for what would seem to anyone unfamiliar with the rituals and requirements of American politics to be a fairly touching tribute to "over three thousand lives of the bravest young Americans wasted" in Iraq. Unlike many, Obama has opposed this war since the beginning. "Wasted" is a strong word, but not an inaccurate one if you believe the war was wrong. (In fact, the verb "to waste" became a synonym for killing during Vietnam.) But Obama, like every other politician, has to watch his words, and must temper any sincere expression of horror and dismay, or he will be accused of not "supporting the troops."
There is something backward here. Congressional opponents of the Iraq war are "supporting the troops" in the best possible way: by trying to bring them home to safety and their families. It is those those few, apart from President Bush who want to send even more troops to Iraq who should feel defensive about their support for the troops. Some of those troops are on their third tour of duty in Iraq, and few of them are pleased to be there. Maybe, as Bush and his advisers no doubt sincerely believe, the drip drip drip of young American blood is worth it. Maybe the critics underestimate the peril of pulling out. Maybe the "surge" will turn out to be a huge success and vindicate Bush's strategy. But please let's not pretend that staying the course is a favor to the troops.
Criticism of the war surely is dispiriting to the soldiers who are engaged in it. If you're killing and risking death in a miserable faraway desert, you ought to be able to believe that your sacrifice is in a worthy cause. But whose fault is it if that belief is hard to sustain? Is it the fault of people who note that the cause is not worthy? Or is it the fault of the people who sent American soldiers into this distant desert in an unworthy cause?
The cause actually was worthy in purpose: to liberate a country from a dictator, perhaps to find and destroy some dangerous weapons, and more recently to stop the chaos and slaughter that we have unbottled in Iraq. Some war critics don't wish to give Bush this much credit. But none of the ulterior motives sometimes attributed to the President make any sense. His intentions were noble, however na´ve and pigheaded. But the war was a horrible mistake. And as everyone comes to realize it was a mistake, continuing it becomes something much worse than a mistake.
How can you make this point which is surely a legitimate one in a democracy, whether you agree with it or not if any form of words that might undermine the morale of American soldiers is not allowed because it fails to "support the troops"? Even Bush's defenders in Congress do not, presumably, support in advance any conceivable use of American military power. Many of them, for example, who were in Congress at the time, opposed President Clinton's initiatives in the Balkans. Maybe there were those who bit their tongues, in order to "support the troops." But many spoke out, and bitterly. As they should have: to keep quiet as American soldiers died in what these politicians saw as a misuse of American power and American blood would have been a strange way to show support.
Then there is the question of money. Bush has established a virtually dictatorial right to send this country into war. The Administration's professed indifference to anything Congress might do about the "surge" is a case in point. The one power members of Congress still might have is the power of the purse. Why don't they use it? Supporters of the war dare them to try, but stand ready to accuse them of abandoning the troops if they shut off funds as if ending the war meant leaving American soldiers shivering in Baghdad without bus fare home.
This all goes back to Vietnam, of course. There were some Vietnam-era antiwar protesters few who disparaged the troops along with the war. (A lively debate continues about whether any returning American soldiers were actually spat upon.) Vietnam also saw the first appearance of the ridiculous argument that we couldn't stop the war until our POWs were freed as if stopping the war wasn't the quickest way to free them. This, too, fed a myth that opposition to a war was somehow a betrayal of the soldiers. Ultimately, in the case of Vietnam, the antiwar movement included a majority of the country, and it saved the lives of untold thousands of Americans by getting us out of that war not quickly, but eventually.
If opponents of today's war in Iraq manage to do the same, it will be surprising if many American soldiers object.