YOU CAN TELL a lot about the state of the society from reading the slogans that people display on their cars.
The pride in one's Eagle Scout or honor student is understandable, though perhaps annoying to those whose kids are in rehab.
The ultimate in unearned satisfaction was exhibited some years ago with the rash of "Baby on Board" signs that appeared. Since people could not possibly expect others to alter their driving habits in response to this message, it could only have been a celebration of fertility.
Lately, the vehicular sign du jour is a ribbon, usually yellow, bearing the inscription "Support Our Troops." In the run-up to the election, I thought this must be simply another example of reflex patriotism, like the hijacking of the flag by conservatives that started during the Vietnam War.
But then I tried to understand what the words meant. Is there a significant portion of the population that doesn't want the best for the troops? Who are they and what do they stand for? Are they the ones who raise questions about why we're in Iraq and wonder what we have gained through the sacrifice of more than 1,200 American lives? And what are the drivers of these yellow-ribbon cars doing themselves that constitutes support? Are they sending their kids to the military? What, exactly, would they like the rest of us to do - other than display a yellow ribbon?
The conflation of support for the war and for the people designated to fight it is, of course, a standard jingoistic maneuver and occurs whenever the government finds it helpful to brand as unpatriotic any who disagree with its war policies. It is important to keep people's attention focused on the positive ("our troops are wonderful people") but not on flag-draped coffins.
Dan Rather on the CBS Nightly News regularly calls attention to those who have died in the segment "Fallen Heroes," in which the picture of some young person in uniform is briefly displayed with a few sentences describing him or her. What we seldom see are their families trying to come to grips with their unimaginable losses.
Recently, this veil of inattention was briefly pierced by the HBO documentary Last Letters Home, in which several wives and parents read the final letters they had received, often after their loved ones were dead. They also spoke of the knocks on their doors and what they felt at the moment they were informed of the death. It was agonizing to watch these naked displays of grief, and I wondered if these people will be able to look back after this war ends, however it ends, and say, "Our sacrifice was worth it; he (or she) did not die in vain."
We've been through this before. As the deaths piled up in Vietnam, we were constantly reassured that the loss was justified by the need to stop communism's march through Southeast Asia. In an echo of President Bush's assertion that it is better to fight in the Middle East than in the cities of America, we heard in the 1960s that the beaches of California were at risk. Those who protested the war then were accused of undermining the morale of our soldiers.
The unalloyed evil of the enemy is also a familiar refrain. Then as now they were painted as purveyors of atrocity, which they were and are. It was inconvenient, however, to notice that the longer the war went on, the more like them we became. And so, with Abu Ghraib already burned into our collective memory, we found ourselves watching videotape of a Marine shooting a wounded, unarmed insurgent in a Fallujah mosque. Predictably, right-wing talk shows defended his actions.
It is difficult to stand in front of the granite wall of the Vietnam Memorial and conceive that those 58,000 lives were lost to a cause worthy of such a sacrifice. What will we feel like when we stand before the memorial to the war in Iraq? Will we conclude that we are safer because these men and women died? Are the terrorists who so frighten us being dissuaded by our willingness to try to subdue a country that never attacked us? Or do they find it more convenient for the moment to simply kill the Americans in front of them? Do we believe that a free and friendly society will rise from the rubble of Fallujah or Mosul or whatever city we next decide we must destroy in order to save?
I wish I knew the answers to these questions, because then I could decide what that "Support Our Troops" slogan really means. After service in Vietnam, I concluded that the best thing I could do for our soldiers there was to work to bring them home. I've got a feeling that this war, similar in so many ways, will lead us all, finally, to the same conclusion.
Gordon Livingston, a psychiatrist who lives in Columbia, is the author of Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart.
Columnist Ellen Goodman is on vacation.