As Congress tries to devise a US exit strategy from Iraq, perhaps no words will be used more often in the debate than the expression seen on millions of yellow-ribbon car magnets: "Support our troops." It is a phrase in danger of losing its meaning.
Ever since the 2003 US invasion, those simple words – which play to a longstanding patriotic sentiment toward those in uniform – has taken on a political warp, often used manipulatively to justify various options for the war.
For many Americans, the phrase still evokes heartfelt compassion toward US soldiers and their families – no matter what their views about Iraq. That generosity of spirit is more than a tailgate slogan. It has been expressed in a huge outpouring of care packages and personal gestures for military personnel, whether they be in Iraq or trying to resume their lives back home.
And it has spawned hundreds of organized efforts, from the neighborhood to the national, for giving to overseas troops. Just read a local paper or search the web to find such names as Operation Gratitude, Operation Shoebox, or Operation Mom ("operation" being the operating word). The Pentagon itself keeps a website to assist others in supporting the troops (americasupportsyou.mil).
The gifts for GIs range from body armor to phone cards, from free video calls to free tax service, from cookies to posttraumatic counseling, from pet care to prayer.
The most appreciated item, however, may still be an old-fashioned, handwritten letter.
No matter what the gift, the basic message is gratitude for self-sacrifice. This week, for instance, Utah observed "Thank a Soldier Day."
Perhaps no war in US history has seen so much private aid and encouragement for each individual GI.
These items and pats on the back go beyond those offered at the military base PX or by the USO, including Bob Hope-style celebrity entertainment. The giving also makes up for what the Pentagon or the Veterans Affairs cannot do – or what they sometimes do badly (such as faulty outpatient care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center).
These acts of kindness toward soldiers represent a national unity that belies US divisiveness over Iraq.
Too bad, then, that "support our troops" now has a political overtone.
The expression itself simply suggests a type of personal loyalty, like that experienced between combat buddies fighting for each other. But lawmakers too often use it to claim the high ground in their sound-bite arguments about Iraq.
For the current debate in Congress, "support our troops" is sometimes code for either "don't tie the hands of the military" or "don't let more US soldiers be killed in Iraq."
Or it implies a call for courage to win the fight against terrorists in Iraq or, on the other side, to admit defeat in the face of an Iraqi insurgency that seems unbeatable.
But soldiers are just soldiers, trained to follow the commands of their elected civilian leadership. Congress gave authority for this war, and it can de-authorize it, which it may do in coming weeks. Lawmakers and the president can reset war policy together while still supporting the troops. Soldiers simply need support for what they are asked to do.