The Harper Index

"Support Our Troops" frames war as loyalty

Toronto debate recognizes feel-good gesture as political statement.

Stephen Harper with troops in Afghanistan (Photo: PMO)Toronto, June 25 — A fight about political framing here made the headlines last week as city councillors first decided to remove Support Our Troops stickers from city vehicles, then reversed themselves in the wake of massive protest. It didn't help that the decision came to light on the day three more Canadian soldiers died in Afghanistan.

"It's controversial on both sides," said Toronto's Mayor David Miller, before the casualties and his own reversal. "There are people who see it as support for the troops and there are people who see it as support for war."

Removing the stickers would make sense to George Lakoff, the Berkeley, California, linguistics professor and the author of Don't Think of an Elephant, an American political best-seller about how language shapes the contours of political debate.

"As soon as you say 'support our troops,' it evokes the right-wing model," he told a Straight Goods symposium in 2006. Adding 'bring them home' onto the phrase does nothing to counteract that effect, because "as soon as you use the other side's words, you invoke their frame."

"For the most part, we have been letting conservatives frame the debate," says Lakoff. "When progressives react, we echo the conservative frames and values, so our message is not heard or, even worse, reinforces their ideas."

When Canadians are dying overseas, it is hard to resist the call for displays of patriotism that can amount to tax-subsidized promotion of political policy. Some say supporting the troops is not the same as supporting the war, but as Toronto Star reader Thom Corner wrote to a very active forum on the topic: "Make no mistake about it. The people advocating 'support for the troops' are really supporters of Harper's foreign policy and of the war in Afghanistan. They are banking on you and I not wanting to raise a fuss because no one wants to be seen as unsupportive of men and women risking their lives."

Daring war opponents not to display decals or sport red on Fridays are two ways in which the Harper Conservatives, again, have borrowed strategy from Bush Republicans. Following 9/11, flags were everywhere in the USA, and each flag was a reminder of Bush's so-called war on terror and his very real invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Another example of the same kind of framing shows up in the current recruiting ads with the slogan "Fight with the Canadian Forces." In the past, recruitment ads for the Forces have featured the virtues of peacekeeping and learning a trade. Today's ads show young soldiers in battle fighting "chaos and despair." It is likely that new recruits have been only one audience for the ads, which ran frequently during the Stanley Cup playoffs when airtime is most expensive.

The Hockey Night in Canada broadcast of one of the final Stanley Cup games in Ottawa in June began with personalities Don Cherry and Ron McLean ushering a guest down from high up in the fan-filled bleachers. The spotlight in the darkened arena was on the threesome as they descended the steps. The guest was none other than Rick Hillier, the chief of defence staff, who continued onto the ice to drop the puck. This blatant marriage of sports, politics and militarism, obviously planned and choreographed by top CBC officials, is reminiscent of American sporting events such as the NFL Super Bowl but unfamiliar in Canada.

The CBC also allowed Don Cherry to turn his Coach's Corner program, broadcast between the first and second period of each game, into a Support our Troops frame, which explicitly promotes a military option that many of the CBC's viewers and citizen owners do not support. Signals like these give the appearance the CBC is attempting to buy goodwill from Conservative politicians who have vowed for years to privatize it.

The "support our troops" debate clearly indicates Lakoff's insight. "Supporting the troops" is not the question. The troops are recruited, equipped and paid to support the people.

The troops are troops because their role is to support their government's foreign policy. It is not the public's job to support the troops since there is really — beyond hanging yellow ribbons and affixing stickers to their cars — nothing the public can do in a war thousands of kilometres away.

Harper has asked Canadians for no sacrifice at all to support the troops, such as a war tax to pay for the incursion or a drive to raise money for the families of the dead so their kids can get to university and their widows can afford housing when they have to leave homes on the bases where they live now.

Related individuals, organizations and significant events

Harper Conservative vs. Public Values Frame
  Support our troops / Backing the US
  Cut and run / Address reasons for the war
  Supporting democracy and freedom / Not public's job to support troops

Links and sources
  Voices: Decal spat, Toronto Star, June 20, 2007
  George Lakoff tells why progressives lose to conservatives, National Union, September 2006
  Spat over 'Support Our Troops' decal hits Toronto,, June 20 2007
  Canadian Forces ads zoom in on combat mission,, September 13, 2006
  Rockridge Institute
  George Lakoff, Don't Think of an Elephant, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2004

Posted: June 25, 2007

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