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Unpatriotic Protests

Should Protesters Support Our Troops?

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Public debate about the justification (or lack thereof) for American and coalition forces invading Iraq has led to a secondary, but equally important, ethical debate over the justification (or lack thereof) for people publicly protesting that invasion. Is it unethical and unpatriotic to protest a conflict when American troops are fighting and dying? Is it unethical and unpatriotic to use patriotism as a means to silence protest?

The argument against protesters seems largely anchored upon the maxim that all Americans should "support our troops" during their time of mortal danger and combat. Protesting the conflict is regarded by many as un-supportive, if not actually counter-productive, because they feel it expresses (even if tacitly) support for an enemy trying to kill American soldiers.

This argument begins to break down, however, when it is revealed that it relies upon significant ambiguities in just what it means to "support our troops." The phrase is used as if its meaning were obvious, but nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, the phrase serves as a mask for the serious political and ethical debates which are at the heart of people's disagreements about the war.

Does "support our troops" mean that we should support the political goals of the government which has sent them into harm's way? No, and it doesn't mean that we should support attempts to actually achieve those political goals, either. Americans are not required to agree with their government, and they aren't required to agree with the attempts by their government to achieve any and all goals, whether through the use of bureaucrats or the deployment of soldiers. Such disagreement is not unethical.

Does "support our troops" mean that we should support the use of military might and deadly force to achieve goals which we otherwise generally approve of? No - Americans are perfectly justified in disagreeing with the means by which their government attempts to achieve even valid and moral goals. The American government is, after all, imperfect and quite capable of errors in policy decisions, and it is not unethical to dissent from decisions you honestly believe to be mistaken or harmful.

Does "support our troops" mean that we should show gratitude for soldiers who are fighting and dying for our freedoms? Perhaps, but such a position commits the fallacy of Begging the Question. After all, the protesters and dissenters might be objecting to the fact that soldiers are fighting and dying for reasons unrelated to our freedoms. If a person honestly believes that American soldiers are being used for much less honorable tasks, then this argument cannot serve to show that they are being ungrateful and thus acting unethically.

So is there any meaning for "support our troops" such that a failure to do so would be unethical and would make protests unpatriotic? I think so, but it seems to exist only in an amorphous manner ill-suited to clear explanation. It seems that a person who doesn't care about the lives and safety of American troops, who perhaps harbors desires that the troops lose, and who cares not at all for the fears and concerns of friends and family left behind, is displaying a lack of "support" which is unethical.

American soldiers are, after all, human beings with hopes and dreams of their own. One may legitimately disagree with the government's goals and/or hate the manner in which it is using (or abusing) the military, but such opposition should not be transferred to individual soldiers so long as those soldiers have acted honorably and morally on the field of battle. The fact that Americans are fighting and dying to achieve unwanted goals is not a reason to suddenly abandon or hide disagreement; on the contrary, the risks and privations which the soldiers are suffering may be treated as important or primary reasons for disagreeing in the first place.

Indeed, it is arguable that a principled and ethical opposition to the conflict must include support and concern for the troops who are fighting and dying in it. Spitting on soldiers, turning your back on them, sending hateful messages to their families - these are all things which have been done at one time or another in the context of past military conflicts, and all of them represent a lack of support which is unethical.

Clearly there are many ways in which the phrase "support our troops" might be meant. Just as clearly, however, is the fact that the only meaning which makes sense in the context of claims that protesters are acting unethically or unpatriotically is the one which does not necessarily apply to the protesters at all. On the contrary, it is more arguable that those who are attempting to twist genuine concern and support for the lives of American soldiers into a tool to stifle legitimate debate and disagreement over the goals for which those soldiers are fighting are the ones acting unethically and unpatriotically.

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