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"Support Our Troops": What It Means

03/06/2011 04:54 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"Support Our Troops" is a popular slogan, and one that many people slap on their cars, trucks, and SUVs in the form of a magnetic ribbon. For a few people, sadly, this is where their "support" both begins and ends: With a ribbon that costs a few bucks. Indeed, such "support" may descend to a form of narcissism, a sort of "Look at me, and look at how patriotic I am."

For other people, of course, "Support Our Troops" is highly personal. It means: "Support my husband, or wife, or my father, or mother, or my sister, or brother" who's in the military, who may be deployed far away from home to places of great danger, ostensibly to defend this country and our Constitution against its enemies.

Such sacrifices are not to be taken lightly; indeed, they are to be commended.

But "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.

We as Americans are uncomfortable with dissent, especially once troops are committed to the field. But that's exactly when we need to express (or to tolerate) dissent the most. Verily, such dissent -- expressed civilly, and with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right -- is one of those essential and even sacred rights our troops have sworn to support and defend.

Freedom 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.

On this difficult and emotional issue, we as Americans should also remember how the U.S. military fights today. Put bluntly: We often rely on withering firepower as our "equalizer" against an often elusive enemy. Yet, despite talk of "precision" munitions and "slam dunk" actionable intelligence, we make deadly mistakes, as recently occurred in Afghanistan with the deaths of innocent children gathering firewood.

Such awful accidents may not weaken our support for our troops (they're only human, after all, and they will make deadly errors), but they should cause us to question our tactics and the very reason for our wars. Afghan children, after all, are no less precious than American children.

So my message is this: 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.

Those who argue that all Americans must march in lockstep in support of governmental policies in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere so as to not weaken our troops remind me of Germany in 1914. As German troops marched into France and Belgium, the Kaiser declared a "truce within the castle walls" -- a call for conformity and "support" in the name of the troops that neutered political opponents and squelched dissent to the Kaiser's policies. Two years later, the Kaiser himself was neutered as his military leaders, Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff, essentially took over Germany in the name of military efficiency and ultimate victory. But their mindless pursuit of total victory ended with 1.7 million German soldiers dead and total defeat, a shattering experience that sowed the seeds of despair, fatalism -- and Nazism.

We need no "truce within the castle walls" in our country today. If anything, we need more critical debate of our wars and the roughly one trillion dollars a year we dedicate to national/homeland security.

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.

Our national ideals are (or should be) our greatest strength. If our military is being used in ways that compromise those ideals, we (and they) are weakened. And if our government persists in unwise or immoral policies, it is our job to change it, as well as its policies, peacefully by the ballot box, aided by organized action and non-violent protest.

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.

Professor Astore writes regularly for TomDispatch.com and can be reached at wjastore@gmail.com.