Opposing a War and Supporting the Troops: An Oxymoron?

03/10/2011 07:15 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

After recalling both the horrors and the heroism of 9/11---and how "American patriotism soared" that day----the Marine General praised "America's civilian and military protectors both here at home and overseas [who] have for nearly nine years fought this enemy to a standstill and have never for a second 'wondered why.'"

Rightly so, the General ranked high among the "military protectors" those "wearing the Eagle, Globe and Anchor," our U.S. Marines.

But then the tone changed.

Referring to those "protectors," he said:

They hold in disdain those who claim to support them but not the cause that takes their innocence, their limbs, and even their lives...if anyone thinks you can somehow thank them for their service, and not support the cause for which they fight-America's survival-then they are lying to themselves and rationalizing away something in their lives, but, more importantly, they are slighting our warriors and mocking their commitment to the nation.

As one of those who supports our troops---one who has served himself---but who did not and does not support "the cause" of the Iraq war, how can I reply to these words, especially when they are spoken by a true American hero, one of the Marines' most decorated and distinguished generals?

What can I say to Lieutenant General John F. Kelly who spoke those heartfelt words just four days after his own son, Marine 2nd Lt. Robert M. Kelly, had been killed in combat in Afghanistan, on his third combat deployment since 9/11?

What can I say to a Marine who in spite of such a crushing personal tragedy kept a commitment to speak to a gathering that included many former Marines in honor of Veterans Day 2010?

Prior to reading the General's passionate words, I have had plenty to say on this issue.

For example, on the occasion of Memorial Day 2008, as we were entering our sixth year of the Iraq war, I mentioned how on that day a lot would be said and written in honor of those who have fallen in previous wars and about our newest heroes, those who have given their lives in the Iraq-Afghanistan war theaters, but also how a lot would be said and written about "supporting the troops" and, sadly, how some would use this solemn occasion to try to equate not supporting the war in Iraq with not supporting the troops.

The accusations of "you cannot support the troops if you do not support the cause or the war" and the explanations---which, sadly, have become defenses---have continued.

However, none of the "explanations" have been as eloquent as one offered by another veteran, retired Lt. Col. William Astore, in a recent Huffington Post article.

Astore says:

"Support Our Troops," in this veteran's opinion, does not mean unquestioned support of our government's decisions and its wars. Considered and measured dissent from official governmental decisions to deploy troops and prolong wars can also be patriotic, even self-sacrificing in the sense that dissent from our wars is rarely popular, even in cases where a majority of Americans oppose a particular war, as with Afghanistan today.

Emphasizing that "[F]reedom of speech is the lifeblood of democracy, even when (especially when) that speech is critical of governmental decisions to put young Americans into harm's way in the people's name," Astore continues:

Going to war, and prolonging war, are perhaps the most vexing decisions this country makes. These decisions deserve to be revisited, fought over, and even reversed, precisely because they involve matters of life-and-death, and not only for Americans.

He recalls the "truce within the castle walls" call for conformity and "support" in the name of the troops by the German Kaiser in 1914 and the disastrous consequences.

Astore concludes:

Anything less than critical debate by concerned citizens about this country's wars does a disservice to our troops. In a perfect world, they fight to defend us; we must also fight to defend them if we as concerned citizens believe they are being misused or sent on missions that are incommensurate with American ideals...

We only do our troops a disservice if in the name of "supporting" them, we issue ourselves gag orders, even if the gag is red-white-and-blue.

I support the Afghanistan war. I assume that Astore opposes it. However, I will never assume that he does not support the troops.

But back to General Kelly's words.

There is not much I can say to a patriot for saying that our protectors hold me in disdain for claiming to "support them but not the cause that takes their innocence, their limbs, and even their lives..."

You see, as a young, Air Force officer during the Vietnam War, I was a gung-ho supporter of and believer in that war.

I remember accusing those who opposed the war of being insincere and hypocritical; of being unpatriotic, treacherous and even of aiding and abetting the enemy.

How in heaven's name could they claim that they supported the troops when they opposed the mission, the cause, the war, and our own government that only wanted to stop communism, spread democracy, and keep the homeland safe.

And so it goes today. Another time, another war, but the same questions about the judgments and policies that take our nation to war; the same disenchantment with the strategies and the conduct of the war; the same brave troops fighting our battles; and, yes, the same debate-at times accusations-about not supporting the troops.

While I am convinced that Americans have always supported our troops, unless and until our national debate genuinely focuses on what is truly a threat to our national security, opposing a war and supporting the troops will continue to be an oxymoron in the eyes of so many decent Americans.