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Can You Back the Troops and Oppose War?

From the April 1, 2002 Dallas Morning News: In a word, no.

5:20 AM, Apr 2, 2003 • By TERRY EASTLAND
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BOUNCING AROUND the Internet is a photo of a huge banner that was carried in the recent "peace" demonstration in San Francisco. The banner says, "We support our troops when they shoot their officers."

Now, the calm response to that banner is that "our troops," were they to shoot "their officers," would be violating the oath they take upon enlisting, which obligates them to obey "the orders of [superior] officers," which don't include shooting or otherwise committing acts of violence against those officers. And such acts, it probably doesn't have to be pointed out, aren't merely violations of the oath of enlistment but duly punishable crimes.

Among the terrible early stories of the war is that of the Army captain who was killed after a serviceman rolled a grenade under his tent. The blast also injured 15 soldiers, one of whom later died. An Army sergeant, in custody, is suspected of the crime. Presumably, he or whoever pulled the pin on the grenade is exactly the kind of soldier some war protesters "support."

To be sure, there are protesters who define their "support" for "our troops" in more appealing terms. Indeed, as The New York Times has reported, "demonstrators [save, it appears, for some in San Francisco] have been careful to express their admiration for those serving in the armed forces." But only for them. The anti-war movement has settled on a formulation that simultaneously expresses its support for "our troops" and its opposition to the president who commands them, George W. Bush.

Rep. Charles Rangel of New York has stated it succinctly: "We support the troops, but we don't support the president."

That is morally better than supporting our troops "when they shoot their officers." Yet what does it mean, what can it mean, to support the troops but not the president?

Not very much. The protesters "support" the troops in the sense that they hope our men and women in uniform will be okay, notwithstanding their dangerous environment. To spell out the obvious, they hope our troops won't suffer death or injury or capture, nor hunger, nor (too much) sleep deprivation, nor (another) blinding sandstorm.

But note that the protesters' "support" doesn't extend to the troops' actual mission. Consider that the oath of enlistment obligates each soldier to obey "the orders of the president of the United States." President Bush's orders to disarm Iraq and effect regime change, given to the Pentagon and our armed forces, are precisely what the protesters oppose. Thus, they are unable to support our armed forces in Iraq in the discharge of the very responsibility they have accepted and that matters most to the country--the execution of their mission.

Those who oppose the war but meanwhile declare their "support for the troops" may feel better for having made that declaration. And they may think that, by voicing such "support," they and their cause will look better to a country overwhelmingly behind the president and that supports our armed forces as they seek to accomplish their mission. But the support the protesters offer our troops is beside the point.

What isn't trivial is the act of a U.S. soldier who actually disagreed with the president's decision to go to war but who nonetheless has accepted his duty and now is carrying it out. The decision to go to war, whether one agrees with it or not, belongs to civilian authority, not the military. It is the responsibility of the soldier to live up to the oath of enlistment and thus to obey the orders that come ultimately from the commander in chief, the president. To refuse those orders would be wrong. The protesters may be astonished to learn that American soldiers may have thought more--and more clearly--about the morality of using force in Iraq than they have.

We may be in for a longer war than many armchair generals once advised. If so, we can expect more demonstrations. And no doubt more statements of "support" that fail to recognize the duties of a soldier.

Terry Eastland is publisher of The Weekly Standard. This article originally appeared in the April 1, 2003 Dallas Morning News.