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Support our troops? Not with an empty gesture.

The Gratitude Campaign encourages Americans to honor US soldiers with a hand gesture of thanks. With all due respect, I won't be taking part. Here's why.

By David McGrath / August 16, 2010

Port Charlotte, Fla.

My friend Mick recently forwarded to me an email with a link to “The Gratitude Campaign,” the national crusade by Scott Truitt of Seattle to encourage support for our troops.

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This campaign urges each American, upon encountering someone in the military, to publicly but silently thank them, using a modified gesture from American Sign Language. It involves first placing your hand on your heart, and then moving it down toward your belly button and outward toward the soldier. With all due respect, Mr. Truitt, I will decline.

This “salute from the heart,” though well meaning, is yet one more in a series of obsequious flourishes in the past couple of years that may be doing more harm than good.

When a coal miner is killed on the job, his family and friends honor his passing and the value of his life, but they lament the nasty, dangerous industry in which he had to work to make a living.

In a similar fashion, Americans expressing gratitude and respect for those who died in Iraq or Afghanistan, ought to still lament the nasty and dangerous wars in which the soldiers lost their lives.

Sending the wrong message

As an educator, I am concerned that campaigns like Truitt’s, and the veritable “religion” that bumper stickers and mainstream media have made of “supporting the troops,” are sending the wrong message to our youth.

Earnest tributes to servicemen and women, wherever one or more are gathered, tend to occlude the moral questions of warfare, while lionizing soldiers, sailors, and marines in children’s eyes.

Examples include yellow ribbons on trees and on bumper stickers, wearing warrior red clothing on Fridays, and planned “spontaneous” applause in airport concourses.

Such initiatives are beneficial, certainly, for military recruitment. And, admittedly, recruitment is necessary for our system of defense and democracy to function in this country.

But historically, mass appeals for the kinds of martial veneration we’ve been seeing have fostered and inculcated cultures of war.

Most American adults can distinguish the concept of support for the military from blind endorsement of a foreign war.

Children, however, may not.

Kids used as props

This was disturbingly evident in events staged in towns across the country last Memorial Day. You probably saw a video clip on your local or national news, featuring children of varying ages scrambling to plant flags or wreaths on soldiers’ graves – soldiers they never knew.

Eight and ten year olds interviewed were breathless and excited, as from a game. On camera, they explained what they were doing with dutifully recited platitudes about dying for one’s country.

In their minds, the vague nature of war, death, and patriotism were bound up in an amorphous but festive competitive pep rally.