The growing protest of football players and club management and owners has drawn ire from Donald Trump and some of his voters, including the criticism that the acts of the protesters disrespects the flag and goes against support for the troops.

My usual objection to usage of the word, troops, is that its inherently plural, and when we’re told by the Pentagon that X troops will be sent to a particular conflict, that doesn’t tell me how many individual service members will go, but this “support the troops” line is yet another cliché in American political speech, one that needs analysis.

The time when that saying came to my attention as problematic was during the early days of George W. Bush’s wars. As we got ourselves mired in Afghanistan and Iraq, various representatives of the Republican Party joined with country music stars and others in saying that any lack of enthusiasm to our military adventures showed disrespect to our people in uniform.

Now when I say that country music stars took that position, let’s recall that the Dixie Chicks did not, and this son of North Carolina isn’t ready to make nice, either, with trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives, if not more — Iraqis and Americans and Brtions and so many others — being wasted on a war that was not planned out, not thought through, and whose consequences are not yet over.

But what, exactly, is meant by “support the troops”? In World War II, the answer to that question was much clearer. Americans rationed sugar and meat and gasoline, turned in pots and pans for armor, bought war bonds, and paid taxes because the country had been attacked, and we were obliged to join the fight against fascism. Winston Churchill said that we always do the right thing after we’ve tried everything else, but we got there, and it was right for us to have done so.

In this century, however, supporting the troops has meant buying more at Wal-Mart. It’s meant that I should get a new sauce pot, even though our troops were being transported in vehicles that lacked sufficient armor in their undercarriages. It’s meant that we’re all supposed to accept that the rich need tax cuts, though the national debt swelled as we threw ever more dollars into a fire.

The argument of politicians regarding support for the troops ends up sounding a lot like a demand that we approve of whatever our government decides to do with the Americans who have to follow orders.

If the athletes were protesting war, there could at least be the excuse that their actions were relevant to what the troops are doing. But the protest is about police brutality. The nation’s flag and anthem represents more than just the military. They are symbolic of everything that we do and say within and without as a country. As a result, those symbols are subject to critique and commentary.

And in any case, the right to protest is among the things that our troops are supposed to defend. It has to be. Protest is one of the ways that we actually make our country better. We push for the greater exercise of rights, the greater extent of opportunities, and the greater list of achievements by saying no when the country does something wrong. We don’t accomplish those things with hats or with calls to fire people who speak out.

For more of my writing, find me on the South American river.

Gee, Camp, what were you thinking? Supports gay rights, #2a, #1a, science, and other seemingly incongruous things. Books available on Amazon.

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