Honoring American troops who died in combat, and caring for those who return home, should not be a divisive issue. But like so many other aspects of the war in Iraq, "supporting the troops" has become hijacked and its meaning diluted.
Last week, presidential candidate John Edwards took a page from the Bush Administration's playbook. In an ill-conceived and tactless move, the Edwards campaign suggested that its supporters make signs reading, "Support the Troops -- End the War" and bring them to their local Memorial Day parades. By pinning support for the troops to ending the war, the Edwards campaign detracted from an otherwise powerful, positive Memorial Day campaign -- one that encourages supporters to send care packages to servicemembers overseas and to volunteer with military charities. Mr. Edwards' poorly timed initiative urged supporters to interrupt a sacred day designated to honor the American troops who have died in combat.
While I agree with many of Mr. Edwards' critiques of the war, and I understand that people have the right, and even the obligation, to speak out against a war they oppose, doing so on this day is disrespectful and shortsighted. Tying a political agenda to day of reverence is unacceptable regardless of the position being propagated. It would be equally offensive if a major Republican candidate for president encouraged supporters to go to local Memorial Day parades and hold signs reading, "Support the Troops -- Stay the Course." Memorial Day is about honoring the dead, not using them as a prop for a political argument about the Iraq war.
Exploiting the troops for political gain is a troublesome and growing trend in America. Memorial Day wouldn't be the first time our men and women in uniform were roped into the politics of this divisive war. Anti-war activists have recently sparked outrage by protesting at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, military bases and even funerals. Since September 11th, President Bush has consistently used a backdrop of silent, uniformed troops to press his case for war in Iraq, to celebrate a "Mission Accomplished" and to deflect criticism for the war's egregious mismanagement. And although I wish I could say that my fellow veteran has shown greater sensitivity, Senator John McCain's recent (heavily armored) walking tour in Baghdad reeked of political opportunism at the expense of the troops charged with guarding him. Baghdad markets and Arlington Cemetery may soon join Iowa and New Hampshire as key primary stops for Presidential candidates.
Thankfully, many Americans are resisting the exploitation of our men and women in uniform. National veterans groups, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars, have criticized the Edwards campaign for calling on people to protest the war in Iraq on Memorial Day. At a local level, community pressure propelled new legislation in Oklahoma, Louisiana, Texas, and Florida banning the commercial use of the names and photos of fallen troops. 29 states have outlawed protests at military funerals. A generation after the Vietnam War, Americans are finally learning to separate the war from the warriors.
It is time for the presidential contenders, and President Bush, to learn this lesson. Anti-war displays on Memorial Day, like speeches before rows of silent soldiers in uniform, will convince no one to change his or her position on Iraq. And even worse, they will resurrect terrible memories of Vietnam, and could alienate a new generation of veterans from adding their invaluable perspectives to the most important debate of our time.
Political grandstanding at the expense of our troops cheapens and polarizes the Iraq debate and denies honor to all Americans, especially the 3,800 men and women killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan. Whether anti-war or pro-war, Democrat or Republican, all Americans have a moral obligation to respectfully care for and honor those who have served. That is something we should all remember, not just on Memorial Day.