February 03, 2004

Do You Support the Troops?

Posted by shonk at 01:25 AM in Language, War | TrackBack

The other day, someone asked me if I support the US troops in Iraq. The question came after a friend of hers had attended a speech in which Michael Moore said that people who equate anti-war with anti-troop made him angry (Moore says something similar in this article). Now, my opinion of Moore isn’t real high, but the question itself got me to thinking. I’ve thought about it for a few days, and I still don’t know the answer.

My indecision isn’t based on mixed emotions about troops or the war, per se, but rather stems from the fact that I don’t really know what it means to “support the troops”. Sure, I’ve heard that phrase tossed around plenty in the last year or two, but, after thinking about it, I’m honestly unsure what it means.

A quick check at dictionary.com yields the following definition for “support” :

1. To bear the weight of, especially from below.
2. To hold in position so as to keep from falling, sinking, or slipping.
3. To be capable of bearing; withstand: “His flaw’d heart… too weak the conflict to support” (Shakespeare).
4. To keep from weakening or failing; strengthen: The letter supported him in his grief.
5. To provide for or maintain, by supplying with money or necessities.
6. To furnish corroborating evidence for: New facts supported her story.
a. To aid the cause, policy, or interests of: supported her in her election campaign.
b. To argue in favor of; advocate: supported lower taxes.
8. To endure; tolerate: “At supper there was such a conflux of company that I could scarcely support the tumult” (Samuel Johnson).
9. To act in a secondary or subordinate role to (a leading performer).

Definitions 1 & 2, I think, can be quickly dispensed with, since nobody is really, physically supporting the weight of “the troops” (though, in conjunction with 5, one might make a case for number 1). Number 3 is a bit of an archaic usage, number 9 doesn’t really fit (though it’s somewhat ironic that the biggest self-proclaimed “supporters” of the troops, namely politicians, have displaced the actual troops into a supporting role) and number 8, though appealing to those who’ve heard Jessica Lynch’s story quite enough, thank you, is surely not the relevant meaning. Number 6, of course, is the sort of support needed by those that started the war, not those fighting it. So I think we can safely eliminate all those possibilities.

We are left, then with the following three, which I’ll address one-by-one. I’ll start with the easiest one:

5. To provide for or maintain, by supplying with money or necessities.

Needless to say, I think pretty much everyone has this one covered. Whether you like it or not, if you’re an American, you’re giving monetary support to the troops. Even if you don’t pay income tax, the simple equation deficit spending = inflation means you’re footing part of the bill. While I suspect this isn’t really what people mean when they say they “support the troops”, the fact is that this constitutes a very real (though involuntary) form of support.

a. To aid the cause, policy, or interests of: supported her in her election campaign.
b. To argue in favor of; advocate: supported lower taxes.

Part b. seems to be more of an abstract principles type of thing: how do you argue in favor of “the troops”? I mean, I suppose you could argue in favor of increased pay and/or benefits for soldiers, the idea that it would be better if soldiers didn’t die, or the notion of the warrior as a superior personality type, but none of those options seem to really capture the meaning intended by someone who says they “support the troops”. Surely many who “support the troops” would argue some or all of these things, but, in context, it doesn’t seem essential to support any of these ideas (except, of course, the second, but that seems to be more a matter of simple human decency, rather than an active form of support).

We seem, however, to be getting closer with 7.a: “To aid the cause, policy, or interests of”. Certainly, someone who “supports the troops” has their interests in mind. However, this definition, especially with its use of the term “aid”, would seem to imply action rather than psychology, whereas most of those who claim to “support the troops” don’t take much action in that regard other than that of making the statement, perhaps accompanied by the ostentatious display of a flag, and the inertial paying of taxes that we’ve already addressed. I don’t necessarily mean to imply that those “I support our troops” bumper-stickers aren’t playing a key role in aiding the causes, policies and interests of the troops, but let’s just say that I’m a bit dubious.

None of these definitions seem to be entirely satisfactory and we’ve only got one left:

4. To keep from weakening or failing; strengthen: The letter supported him in his grief.

This seems to be the most compelling of the bunch, which is why I’ve saved it for last. Certainly, I think most would agree that anyone who sends favorable letters, care packages, etc. to the troops does indeed “support the troops”. Again, though, this seems to be more of a sufficient than a necessary condition, as many people who have done nothing of the sort claim to “support the troops” (without any irony or argument). Furthermore, the tone of the “support” espoused by most of these people doesn’t seem to be of the “keep from weakening or failing” variety. Or rather, the undercurrent that does exists seems to be of the bandwagon-jumping, self-congratulating variety.

That leaves us with this notion of “strengthen”. It seems consistent to suppose that someone who “supports the troops” would give them strength through their support, or at least to act in such a way that might strengthen the troops morale. I guess I still don’t really know what that means, but surely that’s what is implied by this notion of supporting the troops. However, under this definition, is it reasonable to say that one is opposed to war, but still supports the troops? What I mean is this: all the soldiers volunteered to join the armed forces and the polls seem to indicate that most are in favor of the war effort — would it give them strength to know that you’re against their being there in the first place, even if you claim to “support” them in spite of that fact? I don’t know. Can one be in support of one takes the Moe Szyslak attitude: “I’m a well-wisher…in that I don’t wish you any specific harm”? I don’t know. Is it strengthening to know that someone “supports” you even if they haven’t thought critically about the reason you’re doing what you’re doing? I don’t know.

I guess my point is, I still don’t know whether I “support the troops”. I hope they all make it back safely, that they have loving families who write them letters and send them pictures of home, that they’re able to live normal lives upon their return, but, on the other hand, I haven’t sent any letters or care packages (and I don’t plan to). As I said in the beginning, I’m not confused about how I stand in relation to the troops or the war, but this whole idea of supporting the troops is so over-used and so carelessly used that I think it has just lost all meaning for me. Even after going back to the very definition of “support” and writing at some length on the topic (it’s now been over an hour that I’ve been at this), the phrase “support the troops” still seems hollow to me, in spite of the fact that it seems to want to imply something important and meaningful.

But then, I have been accused of being cynical. On occasion.


Of course, Michael Moore has to rationalize his support of Wesley Clark, who is essentially running on that platform, which I translate as basically the following proposition: massive expenditure on the military good, actually using the military in any situation bad. One must perhaps admire the ability of the Nation-reading "progressives" to turn the issue of national defense into a statist job-protectionism issue.

Posted by: Curt at February 3, 2004 10:45 AM

I don't think the Nation-reading hordes have ever had any trouble turning any issue into a statist job-protection issue.

Posted by: shonk at February 3, 2004 10:58 AM

Shonk, how about the phrase "I commend the troops?" From the Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary: 1. to entrust for care or preservation 2. to recommend as worthy of confidence or notice 3. to mention with approbation

Posted by: John Venlet at February 3, 2004 01:21 PM

Perhaps I have slandered the Nation. Their pick for president was Dennis Kucinich, who proposed replacing the Dept. of Defense with the Dept. of Peace or something like that, which I suppose would be entrusted with the task of national defense and conducting wars and so forth. Wait, you don't think...? Nah. In any case, this may not have been the case in 1949, but today the English language is a maiden whose honor is hardly worth defending anymore.

Posted by: Curt at February 3, 2004 04:18 PM

I don't support the troops but I don't wish them any sort of harm.

Posted by: John T. Kennedy at February 6, 2004 02:51 AM