After a holiday evening together, we were saying goodbye to my friend Sharon and her two young children when she handed me a big yellow magnet in the shape of a ribbon. Its slogan: "Support Our Troops."
"I'm giving these out to friends, for moral support," she explained. "But you don't have to put it on your car if you don't want to. If it ends up on your fridge, that's great."
I smiled and nodded, but her request gave me pause. What would it mean if I put that magnet on my car? What does it mean to "support our troops," especially when I'm wondering what being in Iraq has accomplished, and how we're ever going to get out?
I thought back to the day I learned that Sharon's husband was being deployed to Iraq. At the community pool, I'd asked Sharon how she was doing, casually, the way you inquire if someone is feeling better after an illness. When she told me Barry would ship out in a month, I thought she was kidding. I didn't even know he was in the Army Reserve. To me, Barry was a high school teacher studying to be a principal, and a caring dad to one of my son's good friends.
Barry's presence in Iraq became real when I heard about the Carolina-based reservists refusing to deliver fuel in Iraq, claiming their equipment was unsafe. In normal times - when they're home - these reservists live not far from me. Though Barry wasn't one of the objectors, I worried about the implications. What if they're right? What if they've been given third-rate equipment to fight a war with no purpose?
My gut reaction to "Support Our Troops" is "Yeah, get them out of there." But I honestly don't believe that we can do that now. We made a mistake invading Iraq. I can't see how our occupation has accomplished anything to lessen the threat from Al Qaeda or make the US safer. But now that we're there, we have to stay. If there was no tie between Al Qaeda and Iraq before, there probably is now. If we leave, even more chaos will fill our place. Iraq will turn into a home for every two-bit terrorist from here to the Euphrates.
I turned the ribbon magnet over in my hand, trying to hide my ruminations from Sharon. "I'll be glad to keep this on the car," I assured her.
Though I have mild misgivings, that's where it has been every morning since. I'll admit it leaves me a bit embarrassed. Other drivers probably assume I'm politically conservative, and I'm not. But I keep it there anyway to jog me to remember Barry - and to think about the distinction between supporting our troops and supporting the war.
We are a generation past the time when some Vietnam veterans were greeted home with taunts. I know I respect our service men and women even as I question the cause. Yet I'm not the type to send packages of homemade cookies to the desert, and I'm definitely not the type to equate patriotism with suppressing dissenting views - an attitude I sense in the country with increasing frequency.
I've decided that I can support our troops by continuing to press my elected officials to define the mission. What are we trying to achieve in Iraq? What's the timeline? How are we going to do it, beyond President Bush's refrain of "staying the course"? What course are we on?
Meanwhile, Sharon has placed another ribbon magnet on her car. It reads, "Keep my soldier safe."
• Andrea Cooper is a freelance writer.