Commenting on my post a few weeks ago, Darren Barefoot isn’t sure you can support the troops without supporting the war:

That always struck me as wishy-washy, and seemed to render these troops as unthinking automatons or poor saps who are just doing their job. The latter, of course, is kind of true.

…What do we really mean when we say ‘I support the troops’? Something like “hey, good job over there, engaging in a conflict I totally disagree with. I’m really proud.” That doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it? It’s a bit like being a Mets fan yet supporting the Yankees as well, because they come from the same city.

A few quick disclaimers. I had a four-year, profoundly undistinguished career in the Canadian Forces Reserves where the most dangerous hazard I faced was probably cholesterol. I’m lousy at both sports and sports analogies (I thought the fact that Jon Stewart got the ball anywhere near home plate, let alone with just the one bounce, was pretty damned impressive and I don’t think I could have done the same). So bearing that in mind, I think it’s more like saying you love the Yankees, but you think George Steinbrenner is an idiot – or that you love the Canucks, but you think the coaching is going in the wrong direction.

And that’s as far as I really want to take the sports similes, because it’s not really like either of those things. The element of extreme danger, the fact that Canadian soldiers are required to kill and be killed in the course of their duties, the polarizing controversies that surround the mission in Afghanistan – these all raise the stakes for the soldiers, for civilians in the war zone and for democratic discourse in Canada. So arguing from analogy probably isn’t as useful as we’d like it to be.

Instead, let’s look at the question head-on, starting with its context. Behind what Harper said last month, what Bush says every day of the year and what politicians going back to Nixon and beyond have said, there’s a battle for the rhetorical high ground going on – an attempt to shut down discussion by conflating the political decision to send soldiers into combat with the soldiers themselves, the orders with the ordered. Those in harm’s way are inherently more sympathetic than those who sent them there, so turning opposition to that political decision into an attack on the troops themselves is a powerful rhetorical maneuver. Powerful… but deeply dishonest.

So the discussion of whether you can support the troops and oppose the war takes place in an arena where the word “support” has already been cheapened and abused. It already groans under the weight of ideological and rhetorical baggage: the words conservatives are frantically trying to cram into the mouths of their opponents. You’ll have to forgive the word “support” if, by the time it emerges from the mouth of a dissenter, it sounds a little mushy; it’s been through hell and back.

And that, I suspect, is part of what makes Darren so skeptical: he knows PR and communications well enough to detect the fear of being misrepresented and the calculation that comes with navigating a minefield.

For what it’s worth, here’s what I’d mean if I was telling a reporter “I support the troops”: “I support giving our soldiers the equipment and training they need to do their job. I support putting them in danger only when necessary, only when their presence can achieve a worthy goal and only when the resources and circumstances are sufficient to allow them to succed. I support paying them decent salaries, providing decent housing and offering their families a decent level of service and amenity. And I support honoring the values we tell them they fight for – by upholding those values at home and abroad, including not only the right but the duty to vigorously and honestly debate the most important issues of national policy and the public good, including war and peace.”

Maybe we should just give up on the word “support” for now, bury it in some quiet place with a nice view of the trees and remember it as it was in happier days. Then again, I’m just naive enough to think we can someday hope to have these discussions in an environment more nuanced and more honest than the one we have today. An unlikely goal, I guess… but one that I think deserves my support.

(Incidentally, check out the comments on Darren’s post. With one asinine exception, it’s a very thoughtful and at times moving discussion.)