Last week, while in Washington, D.C., I visited the National World War II Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. They are solemn reminders of the cost of war. Twenty million Americans served, and over half a million died, in these three wars.
On this Veterans Day, the United States is again at war. As of Nov. 9, the Iraq War has claimed the lives of over 1,200 U.S. and coalition troops, and untold thousands of Iraqi civilians. More than 8,100 Americans have been wounded in action.
Although no permanent monument has been erected to the Iraq War, local chapters of the national organization Veterans for Peace have set up a variety of memorials. Most notable is the "Arlington West" project on the beach in Santa Barbara, Calif. A small white cross has been planted in the sand for each American soldier killed, and these are illuminated by candles at night. Of course, the memorial keeps growing as the war drags on.
By now everyone has seen the plastic yellow ribbons stuck on cars and trucks all across the country, with the phrase "Support Our Troops." When I first saw these I assumed they symbolized support for the Iraq War. Then I remembered that displaying yellow ribbons first became popular 25 years ago, during the Iran hostage crisis. The message then was: bring the American hostages home now. So, perhaps the unintended but apropos message today is: bring American troops home now.
Since this war began, I have wondered what people really mean by the phrase "Support the troops." I have suspected that, for many people, "Support the troops" means refraining from publically dissenting against the war or questioning President Bush's foreign policy. I have always thought we can support our military personnel without necessarily pledging support to the war itself. After all, millions of well-informed, patriotic Americans view the Iraq War as a strategic blunder, at best.
Last week's presidential election, and the campaigns that led up to it, made unbearably clear how divided and polarized our populace is. Reasonable persons can differ about whether the Iraq War was wise or justified or necessary. Whether one supports the war, or is angered by it, resigned to it, or confused about it, I believe the vast majority of Americans can agree that our men and women in the armed forces deserve our respect and support.
Our soldiers do what we ask of them, regardless of politics. They aim to protect us, and they serve the nation honorably. In good faith, our military personnel rely on us, and the political leaders we elect, to use their selfless service wisely and nobly. Our duty to those who perform their patriotic duty is not to put them in harm's way needlessly; to support them and their families while they are at war; and to care for them when they have completed their service. And those who do not return home alive or in one piece must never be forgotten.
There are many practical ways to support our active duty troops in Iraq and elsewhere. A Department of Defense Web site (www.defendamerica.mil/support_troops.html) lists over 50 links to private and government programs citizens can participate in to show their support for our men and women in uniform and their families. Those who feel that supporting active duty troops in this way constitutes morally objectionable support for the war may still be able, with a clear conscience, to support disabled veterans through a variety of veterans organizations and agencies, such as the Disabled American Veterans (www.dav.org) or the Veterans Administration (www.va.gov/disvetres.html).
At the very least, we can all remember those who have died or made other sacrifices while serving our country. This is a time to reflect, to honor, and to mourn.
Ed Hein is a U.S. Army veteran and a member of Juneau Chapter 100, Veterans for Peace.
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