Everyday Semiotics

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Support

Today's paper had a letter that seemed to remind me of something I've always meant to blog about but never realized: the meme "support our troops."
It is useful to read an occasional letter from the dwindling handful of war supporters (William Sillin, Dec. 16), to realize how shallow is their use of the term "support the troops."
In that writer's view, support takes the form of thanking the troops and contributing to charities which help them. Nothing is ever said of "support" in terms of increased taxes to pay for the war, a draft to provide adequate numbers of military personnel, oversight of military contractors, willingness to acknowledge and treat both physical and mental health impacts of war, and electing wise leaders who listen to experts and wage war only as a last resort.
Rutherford H. Platt
Florence
It is indeed very useful to chart how many different things this grouping of three words, "support our troops," can mean.

The fad seems to have died down lately, but a year or two ago you could pick up, from any gas station counter, one of those magnetic yellow ribbons. They all were inscribed, "Support our troops." This began as a way to wear your patriotism on your sleeve, er, car. Quickly the brand branched out to include American flag ribbons.

It was at this point still possible to use "Support our troops" as a synonym for "Don't criticize the War on Terror, lest you give comfort to the enemy." To say "support our troops" was then to not so tacitly approve of the Bush administration's foreign policy.

Curiously -- but appropriately -- the simple loop of the ribbon recalls that of the red AIDS ribbon, which symbolizes mourning for lives lost but also a determination to stop the thing responsible. I wonder: could the yellow ribbon be re-appropriated (like the words "queer" and "gay" and now "bitch" have been re-appropriated) to stand for mourning the war's dead and the determination to end the bloodshed?

The answer is it already does, or at least did. Once upon a time a yellow ribbon tied to a telephone pole or a porch pillar symbolized a hortatory "Bring the boys back home." Only for a brief time in the 21st century did it mean "Keep the boys over there, and heap on the praise."

Now I don't know what it means. The phrase "Support our troops," as Mr. Platt points out, certainly doesn't seem have any substance left to it. It has been deflated. The ribbon has come unpinned.

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