On Tuesday evening, around fifty students gathered inside Grand Valley State University’s (GVSU) Kirkhof Center to listen to speakers at a “Support the Troops Rally” organized by the GVSU College Republicans and the group Red Fridays. The rally featured a slate of five speakers who had served in the military (all of whom were white males) who argued the importance of “supporting the troops” and defended some of the more controversial aspects of the war, including the abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib. It was the second such rally organized by the College Republicans, with the first held almost a year ago.
The whole concept of “support the troops” is based on the idea that somehow that antiwar movement is “anti-troop.” This idea seems rooted in the popular mythology of the Vietnam War, with many believing that the movement against the Vietnam War was “anti-troop,” an argument that has been heavily promoted by the political right through widespread claims of soldiers being spat on. A book by Jerry Lembcke titled The Spitting Image argues that no case of this spitting has ever been convincingly documented, yet the image has persisted and continued to serve an important ideological function. Moreover, in the more recent movement, claims of soldiers being spat on are rare and those that have surfaced have been associated with organized right-wing forces to discredit antiwar protests. Writing in Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda, scholar Noam Chomsky identifies another critical function of the “support the troops” slogan. Chomsky argues that it is a public relations success as it is essentially a meaningless slogan that diverts attention away from the discussion of the policy responsible for the war. Chomsky writes:
What does it mean if somebody asks you, Do you support the people in Iowa? Can you say, Yes, I support them, or No, I don’t support them? It’s not even a question. It doesn’t mean anything. That’s the point. The point of public relations slogans like “Support our troops” is that they don’t mean anything. They mean as much as whether you support the people in Iowa. Of course, there was an issue. The issue was, Do you support our policy? But you don’t want people to think about the issue.
That’s the whole point of good propaganda. You want to create a slogan that nobody’s going to be against, and everybody’s going to be fore. Nobody knows what it means, because it doesn’t mean anything. Its crucial value is that it diverts your attention from a question that does mean something: Do you support our policy? That’s the one you’re not allowed to talk about. So you have people arguing about support for the troops. “Of course I don’t not support them.” Then you’ve won… we’re all together, empty slogans, let’s join in…
Such an assessment is relevant to the rally at GVSU. While the majority of the speakers defended the war, they did not do so in any systematic way and instead chose to focus on the idea that people must “support the troops” “regardless of how they feel about the war.” Such a perspective effectively neutralizes debate and indeed there was no debate over the war at the rally.
The first speaker was a former Air Force member that spent 25 years in the Air Force and 18 years in logistics. He said that the US military has “absolutely awesome logistics capability” and that as a result you should not believe it when you hear that troops on the ground are not being supported. He enlisted in the Army in October of 2004 as a Contracting Officer and spoke about what he saw in the country during his time there. He began by stating that when an Iraqi is taken prisoner by the United States that their standard of living immediately goes up due to their treatment by US soldiers and the conditions in which they are held, although he offered no information to support his claim. He said that the central question is “do the Iraqis have enough courage to be a democracy,” a question puts responsibility for the current situation in Iraq on Iraqis rather than on the United States. He shared two stories of successful reconstruction projects conducted by Iraqis who were attacked by “terrorists” yet persisted, arguing that thanks to the United States’ reconstruction efforts Iraq was being improved greatly. Of course, he did not mention that reconstruction efforts are winding down and that funding for reconstruction was eliminated in the 2007 Fiscal Year budget. Similarly, the effort was mismanaged and money was wasted on a variety of projects that did little to help the Iraqis.
David Agema, a first term representative in the Michigan House of Representatives spoke second. Agema, a former fighter pilot in Vietnam and commercial airline pilot who represents the Grandville and surrounding areas in West Michigan’s 74th District, began by telling the audience “thank you for supporting the troops.” More than any other speaker, Agema made a number of questionable statements about how the war should be conducted. He told the audience that the military is the “armed wing” doing the job of politicians and that a soldier’s job is “not to die for their country but to make the enemy die for their country.” He emphasized the importance of letting the military fight the war, bemoaning what he said were unclear “Rules of Engagement” and restrictions on when US soldiers can shoot back if they are shot at. As an example, he said that if a soldier is shot at they need to be able to “shoot where they [the enemy] are, if they are shooting from a mosque, destroy the mosque–they were hiding weapons in there anyway.” He followed up by arguing that the treatment at Abu Ghraib was “not inhumane;” and that he learned those techniques in POW school because they work. He claimed that because the detainees at Abu Ghraib had access to their hands and because their heads were covered and not chopped off it was not inhumane. Agema asserted that these rallies are important because the “last thing troops want to hear is that people are against the war.” He offered up a limited analysis of the global political situation, arguing that the European Union and countries such as China are jockeying for power and that in several years China will be willing to fight for oil in the Middle East. He also said that if there is a democracy in Iraq, Iran and Syria will fall, although no evidence was given to back up his claim. He concluded by explaining that he was a commercial airplane pilot during 9/11 and that he volunteered to fly when many pilots were afraid because he was willing to take on terrorist hijackers, asserting in a macho manner that “nobody is getting in my cockpit.”
A representative of the co-sponsoring organization, Red Fridays, spoke following Representative Agema. Red Fridays–a national organization that calls for people to wear red on Fridays to show support for soldiers–has a recently formed chapter at GVSU that promotes the “active” support of the troops. According to their speaker, they welcome a variety of opinions because the opinions can be expressed because the military “protects freedom.” He said that he was frustrated by seeing stories about how bad the war is going in the media and that positive things–such as soldiers giving out stuffed animals or shaking hands with local clerics–are ignored. Of course, absent from this analysis was the fact that Iraq is an incredibly dangerous place for journalists and that as a result, many journalists remain inside the fortified Green Zone in Baghdad and consequently have a limited range of topics that they can address. According to the Red Fridays spokesperson, soldiers put their life on the line for freedom and embody the slogan “freedom isn’t free.” At the present time, Red Fridays is selling t-shirts and raising money to send care packages to Iraq and next year will be collecting money to give to organizations that provide healthcare to veterans. While the speaker touched on the overcrowding in VA hospitals and refusal of treatment that many veterans are subject to, there was no examination of the government’s role in failing to provide adequate healthcare to veterans and what that says about the government’s commitment to “supporting the troops.”
Next was a former Navy soldier and current student at Western Michigan University, AJ Keech, who spoke about what it means to “support the troops.” Keech criticized the idea that you can just make the statement without doing something and being proactive. He suggested that sending letters and care packages are a part of it, as soldiers frequently go for long periods without receiving mail. He mentioned that in his time in the Navy not receiving letters cut the morale of soldiers with whom he was stationed. Now, the question of how to “support the troops” is particularly relevant for Keech as there is one section of Congress that argues bringing the troops home now is supporting them and there is another that says that giving them the tools they need to “get the job done” is supporting them. He argued that part of the problem is people are not sure what the measure of success is in Iraq, he argued that it should be supporting Iraq until it is a stable democracy. He also criticized the media, arguing that the media is still talking about Abu Ghraib but is not talking about “the good things” that soldiers do, including the Iraqi elections and reconstruction efforts. As was stated earlier, much of the reconstruction effort has ended and its gains have been minimal. Keech encouraged people to support soldiers after the battle is done and to “support them even after they have died” and highlighted the passage of legislation protecting military funerals from protests by the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church. In his concluding remarks, Keech urged the crowd to “support the troops” by writing letters to soldiers, writing letters to newspaper editors, being a newspaper columnist, joining a support group, or wearing a yellow ribbon.
Marine Sergeant Ben Gurk, who served two tours in Operation Freedom, spoke last and addressed many of the same themes that the other speakers addressed. He said that after he came home from his second tour of duty that many people were upset that he had to fight in Iraq and asked him if he “didn’t just want it to all go away.” His response to these critics has been that he would rather not be there, just as in 1942 the Marines did not want to be in the Pacific fighting the Japanese or in the 1950s did not want to be in Korea. The Marines–and he himself–fight because they understand that there is a larger context for the war. He offered an analysis of geopolitics over the past twenty years and the attitudes of the United States’ public, asserting that following the end of the Cold War, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the decisive victory of the United States in the Gulf War, and the period of prosperity and peace that followed, the United States entered a “post-modern mindset” in which most Americans believed that “bloody wars” were something that only happened in the past. However, Gurk asserted that 9/11 taught the United States that a country cannot circumvent or transcend warfare and that it is part of the life of a “strong nation.” Gurk argued that “sometimes peaceful nations like America need to be defended violently.” Gurk–highlighting an issue raised earlier in the evening–argued that the “nature of the enemy… is neglected by the mainstream media and the academic world” and that while in World War II you could surrender to your enemy, now “you know what happens” if you attempt to surrender.
Gurk then referenced President Abraham Lincoln’s statement that “if slavery is not wrong, nothing’s wrong,” and said that he likes to share an updated version–”if radical Islam is not evil, then nothing is evil.” He says that when people tell him that we should “give up” because the war is too bloody or too costly, he says, “what epic struggle has not been so” and references the way in which Abraham Lincoln continued the Civil war despite people telling him to end it. In the Iraq War, Gurk told the crowd that Bin Laden is describing the United States as a “paper tiger” that will fold “when the going gets tough” and that it is now necessary to show Lincoln’s determination. He said that the Marine Corps will be in Iraq for “1,000 years if needed” but that the real question is whether the American People have the will to fight.
Gurk then addressed antiwar protests, raising the question of who is really a “true peacenik.” For Gurk, it is the “Marines that see the horrors of war” that are the “true peaceniks,” not those in the antiwar movement. Unlike the “professors at Berkley who live in the isolated world of academia who drink lattes,” soldiers desire peace the most and they understand that leaving Iraq will not bring peace in the long term. “Cutting and running” in Iraq, according to Gurk, will embolden the enemy and prompt further attacks against the United States. He concluded with a quote from President Lincoln during the Civil War, citing Lincoln’s statement that “America is the last best hope on earth” and stating that it was “true then and it is true now.”
For the most part, the rally focused on cliche terms and empty rhetoric under the banner of “support the troops.” The rally avoided a serious discussion of the Iraq War and used a tired technique of dismissing antiwar protests as “anti-troop” with little evidence to assert that the movement is indeed “anti-troop.” Instead, the rally ignored the fact that opposition to the war has become mainstream and is not “anti-troop,” as shown by the numerous organizations such as Iraq Veterans Against the War, Military Families Speak Out, and Gold Star Families for Peace that have formed by military veterans and their families to oppose the Iraq War.