'Support the Troops but Not the war' Hypocrisy

I don't know any drivers who hate getting parking tickets but who nevertheless support the meter maid. I have friends who are vegetarians, but I've never heard one of them declare their support for the butcher. And as nobody enjoys paying taxes, I doubt there is a single Canadian willing to put a "support the taxman" sticker on the back of their car. So what are we to make, then, of the fact that even those most viscerally opposed to the war in Afghanistan feel obliged to declare their undiluted support for the troops?

The question came to a head a few weeks ago, after Toronto's city council voted to remove the "Support the Troops" decals from the city's fire trucks and ambulances. Proving once again that nothing unites the country like hatred for Toronto, the decision was met with catcalls and derision a mare usque ad mare. It didn't help that the decision was taken the same week that three more Canadian soldiers were killed in Afghanistan, but it gave Mayor David Miller a handy excuse to lead a new vote that reversed the original decision.

Because of course Toronto supports the troops. The war in Afghanistan, maybe not so much, but everyone supports the troops. Or do they? Does it make any sense to support the troops and not the mission itself?

It is easy to support the troops if you support the mission. Psychology 101 teaches that if you desire an end, you must also will the means to achieving that end. You want a beer, and the beer is in the fridge. You must therefore be willing to walk over to the fridge to get the beer; if not, you don't really desire a beer - or at least not as much as you do sitting on the couch. As with getting drunk so with military campaigns: you desire the success of NATO's International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. The success of ISAF requires, unfortunately, killing a large number of Taliban insurgents. Hence, you must support the troops in their fight against the Taliban.

But it isn't as clear how one is to support the troops without also supporting the mission. What would you support them in - not dying? What if not dying requires killing - do we support them in that? If so, how is that distinct from supporting the mission itself?

So let us ask once again: what does it mean to support the troops?

One of the most common complaints about George W. Bush's handling of the war on terror is the apparent discrepancy between the threat he claims his country faces and what he has actually asked of Americans. America is supposedly locked in an existential war with a global enemy, but aside from air travel having become more of a hassle, it is business as usual in the U.S. of A. Bush has asked for no sacrifice; there is no rationing, no issuing of war bonds, and certainly no draft. In a remark for which he has been deservedly criticized, the President asked nothing more of the American people than that they keep shopping.

It isn't any different here. The goal of the mission in Afghanistan is to support the Afghan government in expanding its authority to the rest of the country. Part of that involves the nice-sounding "reconstruction," but as Canadian soldiers have learned over the past four years, it also involves killing and, sadly and far too frequently, being killed.

In the most recent issue of Policy Options, the military historian Desmond Morton takes stock of the Afghanistan mission, evaluating the conditions for success and the consequences of failure. One of the problems, he claims, is that Canadians are not really behind the mission. Sensing that we have not set our minds on success, the government has not committed anything close to the money, troops, and matériel that would be required if we were actually trying to win the war. Instead, we are treating it as a "half-hearted but dutiful involvement in a disaster."

But Canada is at war, and in war, if you aren't fighting to win then you are fighting to lose. If we are just waiting until we can quietly withdraw in 2009, we are not doing anyone any favours: not the Afghan people, who will be left to a waiting Taliban, and not the Canadian taxpayers, who will spend the next two years funding a certain failure. As for the troops, we can expect another three or four dozen to die and hundreds of others to be wounded before we bring them all home for good, in a losing cause.

There are only two intellectually and morally honest ways of supporting the troops. One is to put the full economic and political power of the state behind the war effort in order to achieve victory as quickly and with as few casualties as possible. The other is to demand that the government bring them home, now.

Every country relies on petty hypocrisies in its political life, to minimize division and enable competing factions to at least try to work together. The "support the troops" movement is one of those: the anti-war faction pretends to support the troops, and those who support the mission pretend to believe it. Given the half measures that result, it isn't clear that our soldiers should appreciate the gesture.

Maclean's July 23, 2007