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Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Support our "Support our troops" troops!

I am starting to hear more and more of my friends in the academy expressing suspicions and reservations about the exhortation emblemed on every bumper that they should support our troops. Their argument is something like this. The bumper sticker makes a moralistic appeal to all citizens to support our troops in Iraq. But that could only mean that we should support our troops doing what they are doing in Iraq. But we have conscientious objections to what our soldiers are doing in Iraq and we cannot conscientiously support them. We have arguably good reasons for our objections. Therefore posting the injunction to support our troops is just a way short circuit the debate and bring an unjustified and sophistic sense of disapprobation on dissenters of our Iraq policy. However, this conclusion is not necessary and uncharitable.

"You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good." This texts illustrates that there are level distinctions to be made when evaluating the acts of agents which are in behalf of other agents. In this case, Joseph's brothers intended something evil by selling Joseph into slavery, But while God intended that Joseph's brothers sell Joseph into slavery, His intention was for good and not evil. Jonathan Edwards distinguishes here between intending sin as sin and intending sin but not as sin.

By the same token, a soldier may intend his own actions for good but his king may intend the soldier's actions for evil. Therefore, faulting the king is compatible with praising the soldier. Consequently, treating the soldier as one who is blameless and worthy of praise is independent of the evaluation of the King's policy. If someone is worthy of praise and gratitude, we ought to support them, to encourage their morale and show them respect, especially since it helps them to act with integrity, prudence, and justice in the face of life threatening situations.

It is especially necessary of the office of soldier, that one put a strong basic faith in one's own command and place the burden of proof on making a case against the legitimacy of his orders, if the military is to function with sufficient efficiency, obtaining effective goals with the fewest casualties. Because this is true the command is especially responsible to not take advantage of the basic trust of the troops not just with their lives but also with the moral legitimacy of their combat. Soldiers cannot defer action until they are completely satisfied about the mission and this is understood as belonging to the necessary function of the military.

Therefore, being encouraged to support our troops does not entail being encouraged to support the president's Iraq policy. No one is being exhorted to Neoconservative Republicanism in virtue of being encouraged to support the troops. Of course, one could be a pacifist and think that nothing a soldier could do as a soldier in morally acceptable. In such a case, "support our troops" is objecting to pacifism necessarily. But no one has a problem with straightforwardly objecting both intellectually and morally to pacifism being basically illegitimate except unreasonable pacifists. At any rate, I don't assume that everyone who makes the original objection is a pacifist or against the use of the military per se.

If that is right, what is the point of so many bumper stickers? In a way, this question reminds me of the cold husband who complains that he doesn't understand why his wife insists on hearing him say "I love you" often when he told her that twenty years ago and she should just know it. The husband just assumes that there is nothing more to an assertion than whether or not its true but this is evidently false. While the distinction between levels of description of acts among different agents is clear to thought, life does not just follow the intellect and we are not merely logical processors. Seeing the distinction is intellectually smart but letting that be sufficient is emotionally stupid. Soldiers are effected by assurances of support, respect, and appreciation and this makes a big difference in there character and performance. Furthermore, humans show a distinct proclivity to judge themselves by their intentions while judging others by their actions. Being satisfied that they meant well and that they feel that they do respect a soldier's sacrifice will not encourage them to act to show their support and appreciation. But a soldier will take the absence of action as a sign that they are not appreciated after all. Consequently, as humans, we need to be exhorted to do the right thing in spite of already knowing what the right thing to do is and that applies with special urgency to supporting our troops who in harm's way need to know now that their fellow citizens are supporting them as far as their own work is concerned.

People who oppose our presence in Iraq on policy grounds are especially to be exhorted to support our troops since their is a bit of cognitive-like dissonance for them in their attitude toward the troops which may make it difficult for them to follow through. Even when this is not the case, the opponent of the policy who must necessarily raise objections to it must also be careful to make clear that raising such objections does not mean that they do not support the troops, precisely because it is likely that the troops and their families will misconstrue them in this and effectively be discouraged. The fact that it comes much more easily to those who do support the president's policy to exhort others to support the troops takes nothing away from the appropriateness of the exhortation itself. But in fact, given this one should actually be impressed that people generally have been careful not to identify supporting the troops with supporting Bush or his policies. It is just this absence that has provoked the suspicions of my colleagues that they are advocating support for the troops as a kind of cryptic way of raising doubts about ones lack of support for Bush. But why this instead of the more charitable and natural supposition that people are being careful not to identify supporting the troops with support for Bush.

But isn't there something to the perception that most people who do have a support our troops sign also elected Bush? We have to distinguish the policy wonking and sophisticated versions of Bush's neoconservative theoreticians from the run of the mill, non-reflective, commonsense intuition based conservatism of the the average voter. As an episode of "Law and Order" observed, the majority of those who respond to the call to jury duty, also respond to the call of active duty. The common conservative is such in part because he thinks that significant civil duties are not to be avoided but to be duly observed and appreciated. It is out of that basic appreciation and respect for national service that leads most ordinary conservatives to respect service persons and advocate public support for them. It is not really surprising that such grass roots conservatives prefer ed Bush to Kerry, in spite of the fact that Bush never served in action but Kerry did because while Bush never served he openly and convincingly communicated a positive attitude toward military service, while Kerry threw away "his" medals. In their eyes, when Kerry appeared saying he was reporting for duty, he was still breaking the "funny hat" rule.

Now of course such conservatives could be said to only support Bush naively, not really taking the time to consider his policies and no doubt this is likely to have been the case. It is also likely that they naively perceive criticism of the administration's Iraq policy as necessarily failing to support our troops. But what isn't surprising is that such a conservative who has a basic zeal for national duties would also prefer Bush and that this does not involve a conscious agreement with Bush's Iraq policy as such but does agree with a basic insistence on supporting our troops.

While suspicious motives are not absolutely ruled out, I think the cost of removing all those signs and bumper stickers is higher than letting people have them and use them. While it is a source of suspicion for the president's opponents, it means a lot to all of us and our troops who see it as being for them. It would be a kind of cruelty to take them down.

In conclusion, support our troops! Send them cookies. Send them letters. Pray for them and let them know it. Thank you, troops, for your labor and sacrifice on behalf of our country and Iraq.