The Rhetorical Power of “Support Our Troops”

First published at Commonsense2.com in September 2007.

In light of Bush s recent plan for a troop surge in Iraq and the ensuing congressional debate over the strategy and funding of it, Senator John McCain argued that a bipartisan non-binding measure to rebuke the troop surge amounted to a demoralizing “vote of no confidence” in the U.S. military. His statement is a new version of an old rhetorical strategy Support Our Troops–one of the most important rhetorical moves in the last 20 years and it is a strategy that is as deceitful as it is successful. A key to understanding the success of Support Our Troops is a linguistic device called synecdoche.

A synecdoche occurs when a part of something is used to represent the whole. For example, in pro-life campaigns the visual image is often a tiny foot or hand, which is meant to represent a fetus. The reason the group only shows the hand or foot is because the hands and feet are the only part of the fetus that look human at this stage in the pregnancy to show the actual fetus in these campaigns would probably hurt their argument because the rest of the fetus doesn t look human at all (See Condit s book Decoding Abortion Rhetoric for more on the rhetorical strategies used in the abortion debate).

In like manner, ever since the first War on Iraq, the U.S. government has used the troops to represent the whole war. So, the reasoning has gone that if you don t support the war, by definition, you do not support the troops. As The Troops come to represent the whole war in the public sphere the terms of the debate become severely limited.

How do you argue against the troops?

In response to the synecdoche Support Our Troops it is important for us to clarify the difference between the war and the troops. Ask the person, “How do you define support?” It is not likely that most people have given any thought to what the abstract word support really means in that phrase and that s the beauty of it. Just like the phrase “family values,” Support Our Troops really says nothing at all so everyone assumes that we all mean the same thing when we say “we support the troops.” Based on how they define those terms we can respond.

Their response will probably be something along the lines of “We must support them when they’re in harm s way,” or “If we disagree with the policy that keeps them there we will hurt their morale.” We should offer alternative definitions of what it means to Support Our Troops.

For example, we might note that the ultimate support would be to not unnecessarily put them in harm s way based on false or misleading intelligence. We might ask them what they think the morale of the troops is as they ve learned about the false and misleading intelligence that got them there to begin with. We might note that the military is made up of individuals and many, including Iraq veterans, are against the war; therefore the monolithic abstraction TheTroops, is problematic.

We should ask people if they define the troops that fought in Vietnam by the reputation of the war itself or by the failed and untruthful policies of the politicians who put us there and kept us there these memories are not positive. If they say that they do define the soldiers who fought in Vietnam as negatively as most view that war in hindsight, they are saying some pretty negative things about our troops in Vietnam, the vast majority of whom served with honor and integrity. If they say no, then we should ask why we should define The Troops in Iraq as the war itself if we re not willing to do that in the case of Vietnam. They will be trapped in their own rhetoric because that rhetoric is fallacious

The word Troops is simply not a synonym for war.

The public has started turning against the war and those who still champion it, so it is clear that the majority of the public are not complete dupes. Still, while many of us immediately saw through the weak attempts to justify the invasion of Iraq, the majority of the public bought the Bush Administration s justifications and once again yellow magnets ribbons were everywhere; perhaps this reveals that the public are not skilled rhetorical critics either.

Where does this leave us as a country?

Now more than ever we need to realize that language shapes and creates our realities. We need to recognize that we inflict collateral damage so that we don t have to talk about the shameful number of innocent Iraqi dead. We need to realize that we tolerate embedded journalists so that we don t have to listen to negative/realistic reports or see the carnage that is the reality of war and so corporate media does not risk offending those that they rely on for their sweetheart deals the politicians.

We champion Patriot missiles that research reveals hit their targets only about 10 percent of the time in the first Gulf War–yet we pretend war is clean; we praise the surgical strikes of those and other missiles, pretending that no one but bad people are getting hurt.

Have we already forgotten that only a few years earlier those bad people were defined by Cheney, Rumsfield, Bush Sr. and the gang as good?

We need to understand that we are told to Support Our Troops so that we don t question the war.

The “Support Our Troops” synecdoche is an overarching and ubiquitous presence in our society today. We must take the power out of this fallacious and harmful phrase.

 

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