On Wednesday, chants of “USA! USA!” rang out across Beinecke plaza as members and supporters of Yale College Students for Democracy gathered at a “Support our Troops” rally.
Watching the event, I thought of a young woman who expressed her worries to a friend of mine recently. “My entire family is in the military,” the woman said. “My dad, my husband — I definitely support the troops. Obviously I want them to be OK. But what bothers me is that some people think that means we should root for the U.S. like it’s a sports team. We’re not cheering for the Celtics over beers. My husband might die in Iraq. He knew that when he joined the Army, but I think he thought it would be for a good war. This war isn’t right, and I don’t think he should die for it.”
Unlike this military mom, some don’t believe that it’s possible to support the troops and oppose the war. Indeed, the phrase “Support the Troops” is often used by those who wish to quell any critical discussion of a war already in progress. The implication is that Americans who diverge from the pro-war line aren’t concerned about the welfare of servicemen and women. Some members of YCSD take this simplistic analysis even further, calling peace activists “pro-Saddam radicals.”
That is the type of empty sloganeering common on both the right and the left. In this debate, however, it is pro-war advocates who’ve used this tactic to criticize all wartime dissent as unpatriotic. Opponents of the president’s foreign policies are told to be quiet now that the war has begun, to mute criticism of a cowboy-style foreign policy that calls for democracy and human rights and then pursues those ideals in a way that directly contradicts them.
Many at Wednesday’s rally expressed hope that Americans would now unite behind the president. No one mentioned that this war begins a new policy of aggressive pre-emption that could lead to invasions of Iran and North Korea and the death of countless more American soldiers. No one mentioned that this war likely will increase the threat of terrorism. No one mentioned that democracy is being given to Iraq in an entirely undemocratic way, or that human rights will be bestowed upon the country in a flurry of bombs. No one mentioned that while most Iraqis will be glad to get rid of Saddam, they will probably deeply resent the way in which that goal was achieved. All legitimate criticism of the long-term consequences of our new foreign policy is now drowned out by the frenzied cries of “USA! USA!”
Perhaps it seems futile to speak out against a war already in progress. Indeed, those opposed to this policy must now shift tactics. It is no longer enough to oppose war in the abstract. War opponents must work to ensure that Iraqis do not suffer more grief than that caused by the bombs now raining down upon them. (At the moment, it seems unlikely that Iraqis will get nearly enough immediate humanitarian aid or, in the long term, true economic and political self-determination). Opponents of this invasion must also stress that war, while at times just, should be a last resort used in the face of an imminent threat.
All Americans worried about those dying in the sands of Iraq have two choices. We can treat this bloody invasion like a sporting event. We can wave flags and criticize dissent. Or we can express our deep hope for the safety of civilians and soldiers, while continuing to critique the military policy and diplomatic failure that put them in harm’s way in the first place.
Abe Koogler is a freshman in Branford College.