If, as Samuel Johnson said, "patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel," then "support our troops" is very close by. It is being used to deflect criticism of the war in Iraq, or to rebut those who call for a pullout or question how incompetents seized control of the government in a coup by ideologues. In the lexicon of some, the only way to support our troops is to ensure that more of them die.
The utter tastelessness of this approach was on display Tuesday when Vice President Cheney spoke to the 10th Mountain Division and the National Guard's 42nd Infantry Division at Fort Drum, N.Y. These are storied outfits. The Mountain Division is Bob Dole's own, and those of us who followed him as he campaigned for the presidency in 1996 will never forget the day in New Hampshire when some of the division's World War II veterans gathered to hear from their old comrade in arms. There was Dole, trying as ever to be stoical, but that day his voice cracked and emotion rocked him and, along the wall of the hall, a mighty cynical press corps fought hard to hold back the tears.
As for the 42nd Division, it is my own. Its famous Rainbow Patch -- Douglas MacArthur said "the 42nd Division stretches like a rainbow from one end of America to the other" -- is among my mementos. I make no great claim to military service -- I was a reluctant Vietnam-era enlistee in the National Guard -- but I trained at Fort Drum, wore the Rainbow Patch and keep it to this day on the bulletin board in my office. By accident and happenstance, it's my outfit. Somehow, it matters.
So I don't need any cheap reminders about supporting the troops. On the contrary, it's the other way around. It is the reminders who need reminding that they owe the troops the highest level of respect. That means, among other things, explaining clearly and honestly why they are being sent into harm's way. If that cannot be done -- if you cannot tell soldiers why they might die -- then you cannot send them. At the very least, you must stick to the strictest truth.
But Cheney was not strictly truthful. He turned the war in Iraq into a war against terrorism, when it is only partly that. The Sunni insurgents have no designs on America. And to say, as Cheney did, that terrorists "believe that, by controlling an entire country, they will be able to . . . establish a radical Islamic empire that encompasses a region from Spain, across North Africa, through the Middle East and South Asia, all the way to Indonesia" is to give credence to the fantasies of Islamic nut cases. This may or may not be the goal of certain terrorists, but it is clearly beyond their reach -- and no reason to fight in Iraq.
Similarly, Cheney once again implied a link between the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and Saddam Hussein. His words were slippery, but his meaning was clear: "Some have suggested that by liberating Iraq . . . we simply stirred up a hornet's nest. They overlook a fundamental fact: We were not in Iraq . . . and the terrorists hit us anyway." Yes, and the crowing of the rooster makes the sun come up. Cause and effect is being mocked here.
As I recently wrote, I do not favor an immediate pullout from Iraq -- not yet, anyway. The arguments advanced for staying make sense to me, and Cheney mentioned some of them in his speech. There is reason to fear civil war in Iraq, the country's dissolution, the creation of a haven for terrorists and the precipitous loss of American prestige, which could encourage even more terrorism.
But I do not fear the emergence of a vast, radical Islamic empire stretching from Granada to Jakarta, and neither do I believe that toppling Hussein dealt a blow to terrorists or made the United States one iota safer. Soon enough we will exceed in military deaths the number of civilians killed on Sept. 11 -- and the culprits, including Osama bin Laden, are still on the loose, still posing a threat. This is a policy that collapsed of its own stupidity.
By dint of heroic effort, the Bush administration long ago lost any credibility. But if we are going to stay in Iraq -- if additional Americans are going to be asked to die -- then Bush, Cheney and others should avoid emotionally compelling, but intellectually fatuous, arguments. As far as the troops are concerned, pay them the ultimate respect for their ultimate sacrifice: Stick to the truth.