By David Michael Green
One thing you can say about us Americans, we support our troops. Or do we?
It seems like we must, since there are magnetic ribbons saying so affixed to the back of every other SUV tooling down the highway. But what does it really mean - we might ask ourselves on this Fourth of July - to support our troops?
It doesn't seem to mean signing up to go fight along side them and relieving them of the burden they're carrying. Despite our saying that these 130,000-some Americans are fighting in Iraq for the freedom and security of our country, the remaining 300 million of us seem fairly content to let them do all the heavy lifting. Nor does the president dare institute a draft for his unpopular war, though doing so would spread out its costs far more equitably.
Supporting our troops also doesn't seem to mean making sure that they are well-supplied, well-armed, well-paid, well-treated, or deployed in sufficient numbers to minimize the risks to which they're exposed. None of those things are happening, and Americans remain mostly silent about this great shame. Scores, if not hundreds, of soldiers have died unnecessarily - to choose just one example - because of insufficient armor on their vehicles. It's been more than two years now since the war began, and more than four years since the administration began planning it, and still the proper protection has not arrived. Interestingly, however, when administration officials and members of Congress visit, they get the good stuff.
I don't think supporting the troops means signing up to pay more in taxes, either, though we are doing so, of course (or, more correctly, somebody will be). Again, the president doesn't dare ask for a tax increase to pay for the war he initiated, and is in fact busy cutting taxes every chance he gets (again, more correctly, shifting the tax burden from the wealthy to the middle class, and from this generation to the next). But the Iraq war has obligated each American taxpayer for over $2,000 already, and that doesn't include interest payments, since we're charging it to the national credit card. Supporting the troops would seem to be okay for our children who will inherit this fiscal burden, but not for us.
And of course that only counts what has been spent so far. Recently Condoleeza Rice informed us that this is a 'generation-long' obligation, much to the surprise of many Americans who listened to the administration's sales pitch for the war before it began. Then, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said it would "certainly" not last more than five months. Now he is saying it could go another twelve years.
So, in sum, 'supporting our troops' seems to include neither relieving them in the field, nor supplying them properly, nor paying for them. But most disconcertingly of all, I would argue that it has so far not even meant fulfilling our basic responsibilities to them as citizens in a democracy.
The troops don't ask much from us. While they're mired in the sweltering hell of Iraq, fighting the most daunting type of conflict - an insurgent war where they're often unable to tell innocent civilian from suicide bomber - they fight courageously, and they fight for us. And the only thing they ask for in return is some assurance that it isn't all for naught.
But while we so assiduously affix yellow ribbons to bumpers in order reassure ourselves of our fidelity to the troops, we actually fail them in this most essential form of support. The least we can do for them is to learn about the war and carefully consider its wisdom before asking them (or letting our government ask them) to fight and die in our name.
But, by and large, we haven't bothered to do even this. How many Americans have clicked off the television, or put down a magazine, or given up bowling night to spend a couple hours educating themselves about this war? Informed consent is the very minimal and most indispensable form of support we can provide the troops. But how many of us know, for instance...
* That according to former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, planning for the invasion of Iraq began from the very first days of the Bush administration, well before 9/11 occurred, without evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and at a time when the administration was actually ignoring ringing alarm bells concerning terrorism?
* That according to Bush's former top terrorism advisor, Richard Clarke, on the day after 9/11 the main actors in the president's war cabinet were talking about invading Iraq, even though they knew Saddam had nothing to do with the attacks? And that on that same day the president was forcefully pushing his team to look for links between Saddam and 9/11, even though it was al Qaeda which had attacked us, not Iraq?
* That according to the Downing Street Memo leaked from Tony Blair's cabinet, the administration actually knew its case for invading Iraq was "thin", so they "fixed" (twisted) the intelligence on WMD and terrorism to sell a war policy they had already decided upon?
* That Paul Wolfowitz, then-Deputy Secretary of Defense and according to many the architect of the Iraq war, admitted the WMD 'threat' was agreed upon for "bureaucratic" reasons, meaning a rationale that everyone in the administration could agree upon and could use for marketing the war? And that he later said the reason that we have attacked Iraq, which had no WMD, but not North Korea, which actually has been going nuclear, is that "economically, we just had no choice in Iraq. The country swims on a sea of oil"?
* That WMD scare tactics were employed because, as another of the memos states, "US scrambling to establish a link between Iraq and al-Qaida is so far frankly unconvincing. For Iraq, 'regime change' does not stack up. It sounds like a grudge between Bush and Saddam"?
* That the president and his team made important claims before the war - such as those about Saddam's supposed nuclear efforts, or about him supposedly refusing to cooperate with the UN - that they knew were false at the time they said them? And that they continue to do so today?
* That they presented the case for war as if they had air-tight, unassailable evidence of an imminent and frightening threat, when in fact Saddam not only had no weapons of mass destruction and hadn't even had a WMD program since 1993, but the intelligence they were getting was infinitely more ambiguous than they told us? And that much of what they relied upon came from a single source, an Iraqi spy appropriately code-named 'Curveball', whose German handlers had told the US was a useless drunkard and a pathological liar?
* That the president demanded the UN weapons inspections with the real intention of getting Saddam to reject them, so there would be a pretext for war?
* That when Saddam unexpectedly foiled this plan by allowing inspectors in and giving them full cooperation, the president claimed an urgent need to start the war anyhow, thus forcing the inspectors out before they could finish their job? And that, since no weapons existed in Iraq, had he just waited another month or two, tens of thousands of people would still be alive today, including over 1,700 American soldiers?
* That the president insisted he would demand an up-or-down vote of the UN Security Council to authorize war, but when the US could garner only four out of fifteen votes there, he withdrew the resolution rather than lose the vote? And that he instead claimed that previous resolutions authorized an invasion, and that it was up to each country in the world to decide when to 'enforce' UN 'decisions', an opinion not shared by the Security Council or any single other country in the world, including Britain?
* That the US and Britain actually began attacking Iraq in the summer of 2002 - not March 2003 - again, in order to bait a military response from Saddam which would justify war?
* That there is widespread expert agreement that many of the problems in Iraq were directly caused by deploying insufficient troop levels for the task, which occurred because the administration insisted on testing its pet theory of using a smaller force to wage 21st century warfare? And that when Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki testified that more troops would be needed, they fired him and ended his career in the military? And that the same thing happened for the same reason to three-star General John Riggs, whose distinguished 39-year Army career ended with a demotion and 24 hours to clear his desk, no parades, speeches or ceremonies?
* That the administration had an extensive invasion plan, but almost no preparations for the aftermath of the invasion, the period in which almost all American casualties have occurred?
* That the president thought the war was over, and - wearing his pilot's flight-suit - announced "mission accomplished", before the fight had really begun?
* That Vice-President Cheney believes the enemy in Iraq is now in its "last throes" even as recent violence there has escalated, and America's top general in charge of the region is saying that the insurgency is just as strong as it was six months ago? And that all of this has caused a conservative Republican senator (and Vietnam veteran) to say "the White House is completely disconnected from reality. It's like they're just making it up as they go along"?
* That far from enhancing American security, Iraq - complete with the Abu Ghraib scandal - has now become a massive recruiting ground for newly-enraged and newly-minted anti-American terrorists? And that Osama bin Laden, who - unlike Saddam - actually did attack us four years ago, remains free while the president says he doesn't really think about him anymore? And that while Iran and North Korea genuinely are acquiring nuclear weapons, the Bush administration has done next to nothing about it, and demonstrate none of the urgency which preceded the invasion of Iraq, which didn't have such weapons? And that almost nothing has been done to protect American ports and nuclear and chemical facilities in the years since 9/11? And that almost all of our country's land forces are bogged down in Iraq, while the military is under enormous strain and recruitment is plummeting?
A fair question to ask, given all of the above, is why did George Bush launch an invasion of Iraq? He and his team said it was because Saddam represented an urgent threat to American security, but we know now that they knew at the time that wasn't true. Besides, even if Iraq had indeed possessed WMD stockpiles, so do 30 or 40 other countries. Given that Saddam had never attacked nor threatened the United States, what made him more of a threat than, say, Pakistan, which has been giving away nuclear weapons technology around the world, or the Soviet Union during the Cold War? Surely not the fact that he had used chemical weapons before. At the time he did so, the same players now in the Bush administration knowingly looked the other way and actually supplied his war effort.
Was it to create a model of democracy in the Middle East? If so, that would be a strange rationale for the guy who said in 2000 that the US military should not be used for 'nation-building' purposes. It would also be bizarre given that Turkey has long existed as an example of a Muslim, Middle-Eastern, democracy.
Was it to liberate Iraq from a sadistic dictator, as the administration began saying when their WMD and terrorism rationales crumbled? If so, why wasn't the war originally presented in these terms? Perhaps because Americans would never have agreed to the costs involved for this purpose. And not only US costs - by one credible estimate from a year ago, 100,000 Iraqis are now dead because of this war. Besides, if the president is so motivated by humanitarianism, why has he done next to nothing (and it would require little) to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of Sudanese in Darfur who are perishing through genocide there?
Was it oil? Military bases? Avenging his father? Besting his father? I suspect, as Wolfowitz noted, different actors within the administration had different reasons for agreeing on the same policy of invasion. But consider the testimony of Bush family friend (still) Mickey Herskowitz, who interviewed George Bush and his team extensively in 1999 to assist in writing Bush's (auto)biography, until he was pulled from the project for being too forthright and his notes were confiscated. Herskowitz says "Bush and his advisers were sold on the idea that it was difficult for a president to accomplish an electoral agenda without the record-high approval numbers that accompany successful if modest wars". Dick Cheney's advice was "Start a small war. Pick a country where there is justification you can jump on, go ahead and invade."
These facts matter, and Americans at home should ask themselves whether they themselves would be willing to go fight this war, or have their children do so, knowing this information. And if the answer to that question is that knowing these facts make us skeptical about risking our lives for this cause, what does that mean in terms of supporting troops already stuck there doing just that?
Of course, friends of the administration will have other views on all these matters, which is fine - that's just as it should be in a democracy. A genuine dialogue and debate on Iraq is long overdue in this country. It should have occurred before we went in, but neither the Democratic Party nor the media had the courage to stand up to the administration's strong-arm tactics and make that happen.
Such a discussion is precisely where we come in, fulfilling our basic responsibility as American citizens, and thereby supporting our troops in a way which gives far greater meaning to that phrase than any bumper-sticker slogan ever could. In the name of the young (and not so young) men and women serving us, Americans at home must spend the time necessary to investigate and learn about this war, and then make informed decisions about its wisdom.
It is clear that the Bush administration cannot be the only source for information about Iraq in any self-education process of this sort. Unfortunately, one also has to search beyond the mainstream media, as well. The New York Times (supposedly a bastion of liberalism) and the Washington Post have both printed apologies for their failures during the run-up to war to adequately fulfill their responsibilities - as the Founders envisioned them - to serve as government watchdogs. But unfortunately they, and other mainstream outlets who did equally poorly then, are continuing these lapses today. More and more Americans are finding that learning about the world and even the country they live in requires accessing credible foreign and alternative media, especially on the Internet.
Some people say that it is unpatriotic to question the war, or that it undermines the troops in the field. Those who make this claim understand neither history, democracy, patriotism, nor the deepest meaning of supporting our troops. Europeans historically came to refer to war as 'the sport of kings' because of the capriciousness with which monarchs engaged in it, seeking its spoils and its glory while risking millions of other people's lives in that pursuit.
Mindful of that history, America's Founders sought to introduce a system of checks and balances against such concentrated power. They wanted the people and their representatives to ask tough questions and choose for themselves whether to support or reject a president's policies, including those concerning war and peace. Americans who habitually revere the Founders would do well to remember that Jefferson said "Dissent is the highest form of patriotism".
Moreover, the ugly and unfortunate truth is that American presidents have lied about wars in the past. We now know that the battleship Maine, whose explosion became the justification for the Spanish-American War, was not torpedoed, but blew-up internally. We now know that the Lusitania, whose sinking helped get us into World War I, was not simply an innocent passenger ship, but was also carrying munitions in its hold. We now know that the US government green-lighted the assassination of the South Vietnamese president we were supposedly supporting in the name of democracy, that President Johnson completely fabricated or at least wildly exaggerated the Gulf of Tonkin incident leading to massive US escalation of the war, and that President Nixon secretly invaded two countries neighboring Vietnam.
Today we have before us, as cataloged above, compelling evidence that the Bush administration has not been honest about Iraq or about its motives there. This is especially true in the aggregate. What jury would not convict Mr. Bush of lying to launch this war given the above evidence, much of it documented in top-secret government memos? There are myriad other examples of government deceit, as well, with the Pat Tillman and Jessica Lynch stories representing only two of the more prominent. Tillman's parents have been devastated by the lies told to them about the death of their son, and about the abuse of his memory for military recruiting purposes.
And so I ask, if we really support the troops as we claim to, what does that mean? What is our obligation to them? What are we willing to do for them while they sacrifice everything for us?
In a democracy, we the people ultimately are the government. What we owe the troops is the diligence and concern of a responsible government, guaranteeing that not a single one of their lives is ever squandered. But many relatives of soldiers slain in Iraq believe that just this compounded tragedy has already occurred, that their loved ones perished in pursuit of a lie.
In the name of those fighting there and potentially yet to die on our behalf, the very least we can do - the very least - is to educate ourselves about the war and then make an informed decision about whether these fine American men and women belong in Baghdad, Falluja or Mosul, or instead safe at home.
If we can't do that small bit to support those who, too often and for our benefit, truly do offer the last full measure of their devotion on this earth, then we certainly don't deserve the brave and unselfish support they provide us every day.
And we need to take the ribbons down off our cars. They exist far more for the purpose of comforting ourselves than for supporting our troops.
David Michael Green (firstname.lastname@example.org ) is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. It is the author's desire that this article be forwarded as broadly as possible amongst those Americans who support the war in Iraq.