The big lie in the protest movement against the U.S. military effort in the Persian Gulf goes like this: "We support the troops, but we oppose the war."

Saying "We support the troops ... ." is now a pro forma gesture from the war's critics. It is intended as a preemptive strike to eliminate any suggestion that they are undercutting the young men and women who are putting their lives on the line for this country. It is also meant to distinguish current antiwar protests from the left's opposition to the Vietnam War, which included antipathy toward the Americans fighting that war.

But there is a problem with this new logic of war protest. It has a disingenuous ring to it. How can anyone support an army if it is an instrument of evil? You can't have it both ways.

Unfortunately for the protest leaders, by all accounts the Americans fighting in the Persian Gulf genuinely think they are working for the good of the world and trying to ensure a peaceful future among nations by opposing the bully-type aggression of Saddam Hussein.

If the men and women who are launching thousands of sorties against Baghdad daily and who are killing Iraqi soldiers in combat are not to be held responsible for their actions, then they amount to nothing but mindless dupes -- either murderous mercenaries or, as some have put it, "cannon fodder" for the American military machine.

An essential part of this argument is laid bare in the contention that black military men and women (22 percent of the U.S. force in the Persian Gulf while only 14 percent of the age-eligible population in the United States) are in the armed forces because they have no other choices in life -- they certainly couldn't get a good job in civilian life -- and therefore lack the intellectual curiosity or moral ability to think about what they are doing by waging war.

The line coming from the protest movement is that the young men and women fighting the war enlisted for the paycheck and now are shocked to find that being in the military means you may have to fight a war. To listen to protest leaders is to hear that these mindless members of the military are fighting without pride or patriotism but simply to protect their own lives.

"You can't be for the troops and demean them in the next breath," said Charles Moskos, a professor of military sociology at Northwestern University who traveled to Saudi Arabia to talk with members of the U.S. military for several weeks before the start of fighting.

"Even before the shooting started," Moskos said, "they were very aware of the antiwar movement and the image of them as a bunch of losers. They didn't like to be thought of as losers. These people who think of those men and women as cannon fodder, poor misguided people with no other choices, are in a very real way condescending to the troops. That's why they {U.S. military personnel} react negatively to the protest movement -- they see it as putting them down."

A former general who is black agrees: "The problem with these people who say the soldiers -- especially black soldiers -- are over there because they have no options is they haven't taken the time to go talk with those quote dummies," said retired Lt. Gen. Julius W. Becton Jr., now the president of Prairie View A&M University in Texas.

Even a former general who disagrees with President Bush's decision to forgo sanctions and begin the war bristles at the suggestion that men and women fighting in the Gulf are "cannon fodder."

"Those people can't be cannon fodder because they are {a} well-trained professional force, and they are discharging their professional responsibilities very well," said retired Lt. Gen. Arthur Gregg, now chief operating officer of American Coastal Industries. "They volunteered for training, and we have given them all the tools and training in warfare necessary to win and come out of war alive."

And if support for the troops was real -- not just words mouthed to put a smiling face on opposition to the war -- then the protest movement would acknowledge that the troops are risking their lives to execute a difficult job that America's civilian, political leaders have agreed needs to be done -- stopping Saddam Hussein.

Yet the antiwar movement continues to ignore the reality that the troops and most Americans are in synch with the president, the House, the Senate and the United Nations in favoring military action against Saddam. They continue to turn a blind eye to the truth that he is no Third World revolutionary hero but a villainous world leader and threat to world stability. Instead they aim their fire at demoralizing American soldiers, sailors and airmen by portraying them as victims all the while claiming to support the troops.

"We support the troops," said Jesse Jackson, issuing his preemptive strike before launching a heavy rhetorical attack against the war in a speech to a group of Democrats meeting in Chantilly, Va., last weekend. "How can it be that those of us who want to bring them home safe and walking in their shoes and not in body bags support them less than those who do?"

The fact is that the war's supporters, the troops and particularly their families want the Americans and allied forces doing the fighting to get home safe and healthy; they also believe there is a reason to oppose Saddam, and the nation should offer a sense of valor to those who are willing and able to go forward in that fight.

At a recent San Francisco protest, a young man burned an American flag but told the Associated Press reporter: "Right now the flag symbolizes the government, not the people."

Unfortunately for Jackson and the young flag burner, about 80 percent of the American people -- and the troops -- stand with America's political leaders in supporting the war. The flag represents America.

Juan Williams writes for The Post's Sunday magazine.