No Visible Support

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I salute the work and sacrifices of Canada’s soldiers, sailors, and air force personnel, but the familiar “Support Our Troops” t-shirts, bumper stickers, and other paraphernalia are, to my mind, in poor taste. Why?

Essentially, they’re too much like boosterism. I might support a favorite charity, a labor union, or my local hockey team (though as it happens I do none of those), but I should hardly have to support the armed forces of my government, any more than I would the federal bureaucracy, the Supreme Court, or the national parks system. Each institution is designed to serve the state, which is itself answerable to the public. They are not there to be cheered on; their value to the country is assumed. I support my troops just by paying taxes, observing laws, and voting. Unless you’re actively challenging Canada’s military – not its specific deployments but its very function – you support them too.

National armies in democracies are supposed to be politically neutral. If the elected leadership of the day decides soldiers should risk their lives in Iraq, or Libya, or Nunavut, then so be it; that’s the soldiers’ job. If by “Support Our Troops” you really mean “Death to ISIS,” “Down With the Taliban,” “Help the Victims of the Haitian Earthquake,” or “Canada: Kicking Ass Since Vimy Ridge,” then you should say that instead. You shouldn’t project narrow personal beliefs onto men and women charged with serving the national interest as a whole, and you shouldn’t claim the military’s fundamental mission for a subset of the Canadian population.  Courage and patriotism are important values, but they aren’t exclusive to people who wear uniforms.  Conversely, soldierly tradition and honor are abstract ideals you’re free to respect on your own, but don’t confuse them with the real soldiers who are there for everyone.

Some say the “Support Our Troops” trend, like the designated “Highway of Heroes” stretch of the 401 route in Ontario, represents a calculated militarization of society begun by the former Conservative government. Nonsense. If anything, the fact that supporting the troops has become a cause to promote suggests how inherently civilian our culture has become. What’s everybody’s mandatory duty in North Korea is, in Canada, a lifestyle option. You can support the troops the way other people support gay marriage, legalized marijuana, social housing, or fibromyalgia awareness – each campaign is an expression of sympathy meant to combat popular indifference or even a mobilized opposition. If the availability of “Support Our Troops” decals reveals a nefarious pro-military agenda, then recycling programs reveal a pro-environment agenda and national nutrition standards reveal a pro-vitamin agenda. “Support Our Troops” is tacky, not totalitarian.

The last time the nation was truly “militarized” was during World War II, when compulsory conscription into the armed services was in effect and major chunks of state resources and private industry were devoted to “the war effort.” Fighting global fascism was everyone’s business in 1943; fighting Islamic fundamentalism, or Russian expansionism in the Arctic, or Icelandic overfishing off Newfoundland, or the effects of natural disasters, only occupies a few of us in 2016. But while today’s all-volunteer military may be less of a burden on the wider public, it has the disadvantage of skewing military enlistment and military partisanship toward those who already feel a special advocacy for the military itself. If jury duty were likewise the career choice of a minority, rather than imposed on everyone at random, no doubt most jurors would be crime and punishment buffs, and law-and-order zealots would be sporting “Support Our Juries” emblems – that’s not how civic rights and responsibilities should function. In the same way, national security should not be the issue of a single professional lobby. “Support Our Troops” asks us to stand behind a movement which is actually everyone’s by default.

Supporting our troops through good citizenship, or just though being aware of soldiers’ various roles around the country and the world, is perfectly reasonable and even admirable. But supporting our troops by blaring your enthusiasm for them on your clothes or the back of your vehicle demeans what our troops do and the principles they are obligated to uphold.

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