On the semantics of “supporting the troops”

Around this time of year, the phrase “support the troops” is floated around as a way to honor the men and women who serve in the United States military. This saying’s aim and what it accomplishes are two completely different entities. It aims to, as stated above, show solidarity with our country’s armed forces. What it succeeds in doing, however, is shield the military from the scrutiny and criticism it deserves. That is not to say that the United States military is an entirely harmful organization. I would never make so broad of an assertion. But I recognize the failures and abuses, at home and overseas, of our nation’s armed forces. It is for these reasons that I cannot say I “support” “the troops.”

The phrase “support the troops” is strategically worded to avoid any discussion of policy and/or politics. “The troops,” after all, are not the ones making policy. The logic goes that, regardless of your political leanings, you can unite in supporting the selfless “heroes” who put their country above their own safety.

This scenario presents a few problems. Notably, it stigmatizes criticism of the military, a body that has found itself at odds with international law several times within the past decade for its invasion of Iraq and unchecked use of drones. It also assumes that “the troops” have no agency in any of this. The troops are not the ones executing these abuses; it’s the politicians.

Consider the case of Robert Bales, a former U.S. Army staff sergeant who recently pleaded guilty to killing 16 Afghani civilians, including nine children, as evidence to the contrary. I could also cite the culture of sexual assault in the military that results in alarmingly low prosecution rates (less than three percent), but that is a topic deserving of its own article.

I cannot in good conscience “support” either of those. Yet that ubiquitous phrase that is thrown around so liberally implicitly does just that. It may feel uncomfortable to think of the military in such callous terms, but it is a very basic truth that the U.S. military has some very serious flaws that need to be confronted.

The purpose of this article is not simply to castigate the military. It is vital to regularly examine our national institutions and offer corrections where they are due. The overuse of the phrase “support the troops” serves to hinder us from any objective criticism of the U.S. military and its practices. It has become a foregone conclusion that the military is a force for good with a sterling reputation, though the facts argue otherwise.  Correcting the way we talk about the military is one step on a long path to improving the institution.

I would never fault one for loving one’s country.  In fact, love of country seems to be the most visible commonality between conservatives and liberals; it simply manifests differently across the two groups. Anyone who loves his or her country, however, should hope to see that country’s institutions constantly improving and becoming more just. That is what I wish for the U.S. military.