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The 'Support our Troops' Myths

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Message Ira Chernus

Are you hoping those spineless Democrats in Congress will cut off the money for the war? Well don’t hold your breath. Even a stalwart liberal like Barney Frank demurs, explaining that “it’s a high-risk thing” -- a high risk to the Dems’ chances of winning next year’s election, because most voters clearly do not want war funds cut now. That includes a surprisingly big chunk of voters who oppose the war. They say openly that it’s a disastrous mistake, but they don’t want Congress to best thing it can do to end the war.

Though the Bush administration can’t figure out how to win in Iraq, it is scoring a big victory on the public relations battlefield with its favorite myth: If you cut funding for the war you are not “supporting our troops.” If you support the troops you have to keep on paying billions for a failed war.

To believe that one, you’ve got to believe several other myths.

Myth one: The Bush administration does support the troops. In fact, of course, they’ve shorted the troops on everything from body armor to medical care for four years now.

Myth two: The only way to support the troops is to put them at risk of death or grievous injury and leave them there, for no good reason. If that’s “support,” then I’m glad I’m not being supported.

Myth three: Either we keep war funding at its present astronomical level or we won’t be supporting the troops at all. In fact, there is plenty of room to find a middle ground, to cut the funding by some amount yet still give the troops what they need to stay safe.

These are myths that are out and out falsehoods. Why would so many people buy into them? As a historian of religions, I suspect that it has a lot to do with other powerful myths that have always been woven around soldiers and the military.

Here I don’t use the word “myth” to mean a lie, but rather the way we use it in my field of study: A myth is a story that is widely believed because it expresses people’s basic worldview and values . People who live by a myth don’t care whether it is factually true or logically consistent, as long as it gives them a way to make sense out of their world and find meaning in their lives.

In an age when it’s hard to believe in heroes, the mythic “GI” of the American media is someone people want to identify with and emulate. When you can imagine yourself as the main character in the myth, that’s when the myth really grabs hold of you.

I suspect that is what’s happening to a lot of people who oppose the war but insist on “supporting our troops.” They see their soldiers as uniquely admirable role models. In the popular imagination, these soldiers are ordinary youngsters (thus easy to identify with) who have extraordinary character. They are “just plain kids” who have the kind of heroic virtues that most kids don’t seem to have anymore -- unless they go into uniform.

The mythic soldier’s virtues are all about caring for others -- buddies, the outfit, the service, the nation -- more than self. After all, no one forces them to serve. They volunteered. (The myth conveniently ignores the economic pressures that drive people into the military.) And the news media give us an endless parade of these uniformed heroes, all looking noble and handsome, telling us that it doesn’t matter whether or not they approve of the war. “I made a commitment. I have an obligation to serve. I have to do my duty,” is their constant refrain.

Identifying with such selfless heroes lets ordinary civilians imagine that they, too, might someday somehow rise to that higher level of virtue. It lets them believe that in a world so saturated with selfishness, selfless devotion to duty is still a possibility.

It also lets them believe that somewhere in this chaotic world, there is at least one institution where order still prevails -- where orders are given and carried out, where someone is in control and everyone knows it, where the concept of authority still means something. To people who feel that their own world is spinning out of control, it can be awfully comforting to have these uniformed, duty-bound heroes to identify with.

To people who feel that their nation is saturated with selfishness and spinning out of control, it can be equally comforting to see noble young people willing to sacrifice themselves for their nation. “Our troops” seem to care more about America than anyone else. So they send a reassuring message that somehow (even if we don’t know quite how) “America” is still worth serving, sacrificing, and even dying for.

Of course that’s the strange thing about this myth: It is most powerful when we identify with heroes who are dead. It is usually displayed (especially in local news media) when a soldier has died. So it asks us to imagine ourselves as dead, too.

Death gets to the heart of the military myth. The absolute finality of death can easily give the myth an aura of absolute significance, making its messages seem like the absolute, final truth. In a predominantly Christian country, the story of a sacrifice of the innocent to save the rest of us (who don’t deserve it) makes the virtuous cause for which they died seem sacred, too.

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Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of

Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin.
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