A bit of rhetoric that’s getting a lot of play is that one shouldn’t voice reservations about the war, because we need to “support our troops.” That’s the language used by a pizza delivery man who stopped to berate a woman who had an anti-war sign in her yard, and by the trucker who drove his truck at some peaceful protesters, according to The Guardian. On face, this makes very little sense: what does being against the war have to do with being against the troops? Except for a few loons I’m seeing voice their desire that this conflict be long and bloody in order to teach us all a lesson, the anti-war crowd seems united in the hope (if not the expectation) that this will end quickly, with a decisive coalition victory, and that there will be as few casualties as possible on both sides. How is one’s opinion about the wisdom of the war supposed to hurt the troops fighting it?
My guess is that this is something like the spike in public confidence in government seen shortly after 9/11—paradoxical, when you think about it, given that government had rather manifestly just failed in the core task of safeguarding Americans against domestic attack. One explanation is that it had suddenly become too terrifying to admit to oneself that the people charged with that task might not be perfectly competent. Government had to be wise and capable and trustworthy, because the alternative was to accept that the next 9/11 might not be stopped either.
Once war begins, there are inevitably going to be casualties. Everyone knows somebody in the military, somebody who’s risking his or her life in this war. The attitude we have about the advisability of that war may not increase or decrease that risk, but it does change the meaning of the risk. If this is a necessary war, a struggle to eliminate a vital threat to our own security and to make a better life for the people of the region, then the sacrifice involved, while still terrible, is ennobled. If the war is not necessary—if, indeed, it is likely to be counterproductive—then all that death and maiming is merely waste: grotesque, pointless, tragic loss of life. Hence the inevitable jump in support for any war that shows up in the poll numbers once hostilities are underway. It is not, I suspect, that people have discovered new reasons to believe that war is justified. Rather, it’s that the alternative has become too awful to contemplate.