But the most ingenious excuse ever made for St. Bernard is to be found in his life by Geoffroi de Clairvaux, where he pertinaciously insists that the Crusade was not unfortunate. St. Bernard, he says, had prophesied a happy result, and that result could not be considered other than happy which had peopled heaven with so glorious an army of martyrs.
—Charles Mackay, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds
The justice and wisdom of a war cannot be questioned once that war is entered into for in so doing we demoralize and dishonor those we’ve tasked with its execution. New information revealing the original casus belli as fraudulent or mistaken cannot be allowed to affect the war's continuing prosecution. The war must not be revealed as a mistake or a fraud, and it should not be publicly asserted that the war is failing, much less hopeless, because to do this undermines the effort by demoralizing its soldiers. Once a war has been engaged, its purpose becomes the celebration of its warriors; all else fades toward irrelevance.
This is the essence of the endlessly repeated “support the troops” admonition. Its circular logic, its crass appeal to emotionalism, its bullying of dissent by the suggestion of disloyalty, all combine with its practical effect of suppressing debate to reveal a dishonesty and irrationality that will lead us to ruin. Again.
"Support the troops", with its seductive appeal to the romance of martial heroism and the debate constricting rhetorical genuflection it requires, by its tendency to force public opinion in one direction, is a death spiral. It is the nuclear option of debate, the napalming of one's own position, the burning of the village in order to save it. It would not be deployed if not for the hopeless logical and factual position of those who use it. Aside from an unsophisticated public whose understandable love of country is being manipulated, war supporters who pull the rip-cord of "support the troops" are a desperate and cowardly lot, ironically beating a retreat by a path that seeks to put those very same troops between them and harm's way. Wars of necessity do not require such desperate measures.
In the modern era, people do not propose entering into a war in order to honor those who fight it (at least not openly); but they can always be counted on to insist on continuing a war, no matter how pointless, unjust, or hopeless it is revealed to be, for this very reason.
If you haven't come to this conclusion already, allow me the heresy: the troops, their morale, and their "support" have no bearing whatsoever on the question of whether or not a war should be entered into, continued or ended (other than as a practical matter of capability, such as our current demoralized and overextended forces lending urgency to the need for bringing them home). No number of acts of heroism and sacrifice, no matter how pure, noble, or inspiring, no number of worthy young men bravely answering the nation's call, can make a war any more just, sensible, or necessary; this does not become less true once a war has begun. The noblest bravery is as readily employed on behalf of a lie as in the defense of innocence.
"Support the troops" has become a straightjacket we willingly put ourselves into. If more plainly stated for what it is, for the sentiment it truly represents, it would be stated thusly: once entered into a war must be won for the sake of winning, regardless of all else.
This is natural; and as with most things "natural", it isn't sensible thereby. In fact, its primal nature makes it all the more perilous. Our instinctual reverence for heroism in war is profoundly human. It is humanity's most dangerous intoxicant, necessitated by our violent prehistory and naturally produced like adrenaline, dulling our sense of order, justice, and morality (which, as mere social constructs, late-comers with no pedigree, work against it at a distinct disadvantage).
It should never be a purpose of war, in theory or practice, to “support the troops”, but this is precisely what this cheap debating trick effects; the support of soldiers at war is a matter of course, the least expected of the political leadership whatever the reason for their deployment (and notably, many who use this device turn apologist when actual instances of insufficient material support of soldiers impugn the governing class; to say nothing of the heinous crime of sending the young to war unnecessarily in the first place). The public, the media, even opposition politicians, are not bound by any requirement to give their support to a military endeavor with which they disagree; military action enjoys no special privilege as sacrosanct because young men are put in harm's way. Of course, for this reason it should require justification before skeptics all the more. The perverse effect of "support the troops" has been to sacrifice, quite literally, those troops to their glorification.
Indeed, the very deployment of these troops, is the real issue, obscured as it is: is the war just, but above all is it necessary? The profligate use of human life to advance aggressive and adventurous foreign policy goals, not out of necessity but from ambition, is the ultimate betrayal of "the troops."
But the obfuscation of reality through the arousal of emotion is the real point. To those it is used against, “support the troops” has taken on a talismanic power to sow doubt, provoke conflicting emotions, and cow into submission; it seizes the mind, stops inquiry and reason in their tracks, as all must genuflect before "the troops", who begin to exist as a mythical representation of the actual troops being maimed and killed every day.
For those who invoke the slogan, it circulates as a sort of cure-all snake oil, dispelling doubt, routing feelings of impotence, instilling the illusion of virtue. It has drug-like properties, giving rise to a euphoria and sense of well-being; above all, it cures doubt and inhibits introspection.
It is the "conservative" equivalent of the common "liberal" valuation of sentiment above reason--and reality. It becomes more important to feel the right way about something, and the more deeply felt the better. Correctly assessing reality, the consequences or fairness of one's actions, the preservation of order and law, all are tawdry practical concerns that pale next to the purity of emotion and conviction. One is expected to be on the right side of sentiment, not perception. This is natural, and belies an innate human logic adapted to primitive society, borne of the need to gauge the character and loyalties of an individual; a predictive assessment of his dependability. This makes it no less disastrous when applied to modern society and war.
It's time to become conscientious objectors refusing the call of "support the troops." No one, after all, is "against the troops" (and if they are, somehow, I should like to hear their argument all the same). The sentiment is a content-less redundancy, obscuring more than revealing. It's time for a discharge. Call it a reduction in forces. These words have lost all meaning, one more casualty of our new culture of war. They have been left on the front lines of a meaningless war, sacrificed for the goals of the corrupt and cowardly, just like their real world counteparts.
Here's one more heresy for you: our greater obligation is to the truth, not the troops. They, and the rest of us, will be just fine if we can only honor this.
Memorial Day, 2007.