Why You Should Not "Support the Troops"

In the 2008 movie Pontypool, the inhabitants of a small Canadian town are infected by a virus spread though certain corrupted words in the English language. Over the course of the film, it is revealed that hearing an infected word is not sufficient to cause the disease; the victim must understand the word in order to become infected. As a result, the immune system of these unfortunate souls forces them to repeat over and over the last phrase they heard in an attempt to separate the sound of the words from their intended meaning or else face a gruesome demise. 

The endless repetition of a corrupt phrase seems to have infested the American cultural discourse; everyone from advertisers to politicians feel compelled to endlessly repeat the almost meaningless idiom “Support the Troops” unless they face a grisly “death” at the hands of their more zealous brethren. Continous repetition of an adage such as this discourages critical thought and soon ‘supporting the troops’ becomes a catchphrase which can be used to justify almost any behavior.

The phrase itself is almost entirely bereft of meaning. What does it mean to “Support the Troops?” Surely, an adjective as vague as “support” must suggest a variety of different activities to a broad range of people. As an immigrant to the U.S., I have been struck by the ubiquitous nature of this platitude, and I have struggled to devise some meaning from this entirely content-free phrase. As best as I can ascertain, there are two possible meanings:

First: The individual repeating the mantra is expressing his/her desire that no individual serving in the U.S. Armed Forces should come to any harm in the fulfilment of whichever unpleasant tasks he/she has been commanded to undertake.

Second: The utterer is demonstrating his/her support for the activities of the U.S. military and its associated private sector organizations in the mission to spread the American ideology of liberal-capitalism.

The first possible meaning I can whole-heartedly agree with; military service sounds like one of the most unpleasant professions I can imagine and I certainly would not want to see anyone injured or killed in any line of work, especially one which involves deliberately participating in armed combat.

However, the second meaning is one that I cannot endorse. While I am happy to “support” the welfare of those individuals who have to suffer the dehumanizing activity of war, I cannot support the activity. The U.S. does not undertake war out of defense, but for political gain. Defence policy is a matter of party politics, not security. The invasion of Iraq was driven by the need of a saturated domestic U.S. economy to find new markets which could absorb its products and provide raw materials to fuel production. Iraq, as an authoritarian country, a former enemy and state previously closed to U.S. industry by a variety of United Nations sanctions and embargos, was an ideal target. Even the current removal of American forces from Iraq has not been undertaken out of any strategic necessity, but rather to boost support for the president ahead of his impending re-election. The U.S., even today, maintains military bases across Europe and East Asia following World War II and yet it feels the need to remove its forces from Iraq?

“Support the Troops” is a handy PR phrase which simultaneously manages to mean nothing and everything and cannot be questioned or criticized. So, like the cursed residents of Pontypool, we are doomed to repeat these three words over and over until we are inexorably overcome by the noxious infection consuming our ability to think critically about the American military.

Photo Credit: The National Guard

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Matthew Hutchinson

Matthew Hutchinson is a recent graduate of Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs having previously earned a Master’s degree in European Studies at the University of Westminster. In the spring of 2010 Matthew won the University of Toronto’s Silvia Ostry Prize in Public Policy. His work has also appeared in Public Policy and Governance Review, The Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, The Indiana Business Review and Incontext magazine.

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