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the war, the heart of the antiwar movement was antiwar Vietnam veterans and that the Army in Vietnam itself was, until withdrawn, in a state of near revolt and collapse).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.
During that brief war–which was largely a slaughter of Iraqi conscripts from the army Saddam Hussein had sent into Kuwait–the most omnipresent patriotic symbol, along with the flag, was the yellow ribbon, tied to everything in sight and now a visible pledge to support our troops re-imagined as potential hostages. The yellow ribbon certainly emphasized the role of those troops as victims. (Because they were already imagined as captives, there was confusion about how to portray the small number of American military personnel actually captured by the Iraqis during hostilities, a few of whom were shown, battered-looking on Iraqi TV.)
The yellow ribbon reappeared for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, largely miniaturized as removable car magnets. It was by now the norm not just to imagine supporting our troops without regard to their mission, but to think of them, however unconsciously, as mass victims, captives of whatever situation they happened to be in once things went bad.
A Policy Built on the Backs of the Dead
With our soldiers transformed into warrior-victims and the objects of all sympathy, the stage was set for the President’s latest explanation for his ongoing policy in Iraq. For some time now, he has implied, or simply stated, that his war must go on, if for no other reason than to make sure those Americans who already died in Iraq have not died in vain. This bizarre, self-sustaining formula has by now come to replace just about every other explanation of the administration’s stake in Iraq. We are there and must remain there because we must support our soldiers, not just the living ones but the dead ones as well — and this is the single emotional valence upon which everyone now seems to agree (or at least fears to disagree).
In January of last year, for instance, Bush said typically, “And, I, as the Commander-in-Chief, I am resolved to make sure that those who have died in combats’ sacrifice are not in vain.…”; in October 2006, he commented that “[r]etreating from Iraq would dishonor the men and women who have given their lives in that country, and mean their sacrifice has been in vain.”
In a strange way, this is but another version of the “waste” explanation set on its head. Now that “supporting the troops” has become not only the gold standard, but essentially the only standard, by which this administration can rally support for Bush’s war, such presidential statements have become commonplace. No longer is Congress to fund the war in Iraq; it is to fund the troops, whatever any particular representative might think of administration policy.
Here, for instance, is how a White House response to the House of Representatives resolution criticizing the President’s Iraq surge plan put it on February 16th: “Soon, Congress will have the opportunity to show its support for the troops in Iraq by funding the supplemental appropriations request the President has submitted, and which our men and women in combat are counting on.” Or as the President stated the previous day: “Our troops are risking their lives. As they carry out the new strategy, they need our patience, and they need our support… Our men and women in uniform are counting on their elected leaders to provide them with the support they need to accomplish their mission. We have a responsibility, Republicans and Democrats have a responsibility to give our troops the resources they need to do their job and the flexibility they need to prevail.” Or in a press conference the day before that: “Soon Congress is going to be able to vote on a piece of legislation that is binding, a bill providing emergency funding for our troops. Our troops are counting on their elected leaders in Washington, D.C. to provide them with the support they need to do their mission.”
Put another way, American troops in Iraq, or heading for Iraq, and the American dead from the Iraq War are now hostage to, and the only effective excuse for, Bush administration policy; and American politicians and the public are being held hostage by the idea that the troops must be supported (and funded) above all else, no matter how wasteful or repugnant or counterproductive or destructive or dangerous you may consider the war in Iraq.
The President expressed this particularly vividly in response to the following question at his recent news conference:
“[i]f you’re one of those Americans that thinks you’ve made a terrible mistake [in Iraq], that it’s destined to end badly, what do you do? If they speak out, are they by definition undermining the troops?”
Bush replied, in part:
“I said early in my comment… somebody who doesn’t agree with my policy is just as patriotic a person as I am. Your question is valid. Can somebody say, we disagree with your tactics or strategy, but we support the military — absolutely, sure. But what’s going to be interesting is if they don’t provide the flexibility and support for our troops that are there to enforce the strategy that David Petraeus, the general on the ground, thinks is necessary to accomplish the mission.”
This is hot-button blackmail. Little could be more painful than a parent, any parent, outliving a child, or believing that a child had his or her life cut off at a young age and in vain. To use such natural parental emotions, as well as those that come from having your children (or siblings or wife or husband) away at war and in constant danger of injury or death, is the last refuge of a political scoundrel. It amounts to mobilizing the prestige of anxious or grieving parents in a program of national emotional blackmail. It effectively musters support for the President’s ongoing Iraq policy by separating the military from the war it is fighting and by declaring non-support for the war taboo, if you act on it.
It indeed does turn the troops in a wasteful and wasted invasion and war, ordered by a wasteful, thoughtless administration of gamblers and schemers who had no hesitation about spilling other people’s blood, into hostages. Realistically, for an administration that was, until now, unfazed by the crisis at Walter Reed, this is nothing but building your politics on the backs of the dead, the maimed, and the psychologically distraught or destroyed.
As the Iranians in 1979 took American diplomats hostage, so in 2007 the top officials of the Bush administration, including the President and Vice President, have taken our troops hostage and made them stand-ins and convenient excuses for failed policies for which they must continue to die. Someone should break out those yellow ribbons. Our troops need to be released, without a further cent of ransom being paid, and brought home as soon as possible.