You would have to start any brief “support our troops” history with the dismal end of the Vietnam War and a consensus that the antiwar movement had been particularly self-destructive in not supporting the soldiers in Vietnam. (In fact, this is a far more complex subject, but we’ll save that for another day.) In any war to come, it was clear that the charge of not supporting the troops was going to be met by an antiwar opposition determined to proclaim their support for the soldiers, no matter what. In fact, nowhere on the political spectrum was anyone going to be caught dead not supporting-the-troops-more-than-thou. This was one simplified lesson everyone seemed to carry away from defeat in Vietnam (despite the fact that in the latter years of the war, the heart of the antiwar movement was antiwar Vietnam veterans and that the Army in Vietnam itself was, until withdrawn, in a state of near revolt and collapse).
Add into this the history of the yellow ribbon. The yellow ribbon had long been a symbol of military men gone to war (and the women they left behind them), while captivity narratives had been among the earliest thrillers, you might say, of American history (though the captives were usually women). In 1973, Tony Orlando and Dawn released “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Ole Oak Tree,” a song about a convict returning from prison and wondering whether his wife or lover would welcome him home. It was a massive success as were a postwar spate of films about MIAs and imprisoned American soldiers in Vietnam. In the wake of defeat, the theme of the heroic soldier as mistreated captive and victim came front and center in the culture.
Now jump to 1979 and the Khomeini Revolution against the Shah of Iran. On November 4 of that year, Iranian students broke into the US embassy in Tehran and took the Americans inside hostage, holding them in captivity for 444 days. “In December 1979, Penelope Laingen, wife of the most senior foreign service officer being held hostage, tied a yellow ribbon around a tree on the lawn of her Maryland home. The ribbon primarily symbolized the resolve of the American people to win the hostages’ safe release, and it featured prominently in the celebrations of their return home in January 1981.”
Throughout the 1980s, the yellow ribbon remained a symbol of support for unarmed Americans kidnapped in the Middle East. In 1990, however, at the time of the First Gulf War, something truly strange, if largely forgotten, happened. The yellow ribbon as a symbol migrated from captive American civilians to American volunteer troops simply sent into action. This was quite new. From the beginning of the First Gulf War, the administration of George H. W. Bush dealt with its troops in the Persian Gulf as if they were potential MIAs. Their situation was framed in a language previously reserved for hostagedom: They were an army of “kids” (as the President called them), essentially awaiting rescue (in victory, of course) and a quick return to American shores.