As a kid, my favorite Black Sabbath song was "War Pigs." And my favorite line from the song was this caustic bit of political analysis: "Politicians hide themselves away/They only started the war/Why should they go out to fight? They leave that all to the poor, yeah."

While this antiwar analysis has certainly been articulated in more sophisticated ways, Sabbath's 1971 bubblegum version sticks in your head. Wars often involve politicians sending working-class stiffs off to fight for the interests of the upper class. But despite the best efforts of Black Sabbath to remind Vietnam-era protesters that the grunts were victims of the war and not the enemy, the protest kids in the early '70s disapproved of soldiers who were "just following orders." Returning GIs were spat on and generally cast as bad guys. Anti-GI sentiment was understandable, and was actually shared beyond the protest set--little old ladies swore at GIs in American airports. After all, GIs could be seen massacring and napalming innocent Vietnamese villagers--just following orders--on the nightly news. Only a small minority of Americans supported our troops by 1972.

However, over the ensuing years, the ugly Vietnam experience--riots, vets returning home to disdain, and ultimately the military loss itself--morphed into the infamous '70s malaise. Over time, starting with the Vietnam Memorial, America bounced back from the Carter-era doldrums using a touch of historical revisionism that--in the Reagan/Rambo years--ached to honor Vietnam vets and blame the whole messy '60s thing on the stinking hippies. We could've won that war, the revisionists insisted, if only everyone had supported our troops. It was a neatly effective way of blaming the Vietnam disaster on the people who were right all along--the protesters--while at the same time exonerating the politicians who led us off the cliff. Soon, "Not Supporting the Troops" became an unforgivable sin.

This explains why today's antiwar movement goes out of its way to drape itself in the stars and stripes (the "No Iraq War" sign seems to have been stitched together by Betsy Ross herself) and why protesters put a defensive emphasis on "supporting the troops."

However, with war under way, peace activists who claim to "Support Our Troops" are guilty of intellectual dishonesty. Placards that proclaim, "Support our troops..." are obviously a ruse because the inevitable follow-up--"...bring them home!"--reads more like a Jay Leno punch line, de-dum-dum, than a political position. (War supporters can get in on the standup comedy too: "This is what Democracy looks like," the antiwar protesters chant. "And you don't see much of it in Iraq," replies the pro-war comic. De-dum-dum.) I understand that the protesters' ploy is tactical--they don't want to alienate the folks watching on TV or hand an issue to the talking heads on Fox News.

But let's get real. The "I support the troops" sentiment isn't truly an endorsement of U.S. troops. It's a jokey, semantic ploy that has nothing to do with supporting the troops. Do protesters really support the troops now that the military is "shocking and awing" Baghdad and doing house-to-house raids in Nasiriya? Once the fighting starts, "supporting troops" means supporting war.

Fact is, if you don't support war then you don't support the troops. And antiwar protesters shouldn't claim to support the troops behind the guise of the analysis that GIs are quaintly duped working-class zombies, either. That's condescending. After all, GIs have brains and make choices, and its GIs who actually "kill children and other living things."

At a peace demo on Thursday, March 21, three counterprotesters from Tukwila were standing behind a police line with signs that read "Support Our Troops" but without the "Bring Them Home" punch line. The accusation that protesters didn't support the troops (gasp!) obviously unnerved the crowd. After encountering the Tukwila vets, the protest chant quickly changed from "Stop the war, Bush is a whore!" to "Peace is patriotic." Protesters shouldn't be so defensive. After all, protesting is patriotic all by itself. (It's the First Amendment in action!) And you don't have to love the troops to be a good, patriotic American. Soldiers are carrying out the orders that the protesters in the streets oppose. Protesters should make it plain that they do not support any part of the military machinery--which includes the troops.

josh@thestranger.com

Support The Stranger