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Support the Troops: Gender and U.S. Civil-Military Relations During the “War on Terror”

A mailbox painted with a U.S. flag and yellow ribbon that says "Support Our Troops"

A curbside mailbox displaying common “support the troops” imagery during the “war on terror,” taken in 2008. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

During the early years of the “global war on terror,” the call to “support the troops” was ubiquitous in the United States. The yellow ribbon associated with “supporting the troops” adorned all sorts of material culture, from front-yard trees to magnets to credit cards; professional sporting events regularly featured tributes to the military; military charities connecting regular citizens with deployed military personnel proliferated.[1] Surveys indicate that following the invasions of Iraq in 2003 and Afghanistan in 2001, some reasonably large portion of U.S. citizens thanked military personnel for serving in wars the citizens themselves opposed. How did this come to be?

The call to “support the troops” may be traced by contrasting the “war on terror” with World War I and World War II. The world wars and a national service requirement made military service a common experience—and important gendered expectation—of U.S. men, though it was on unequal terms.[2] Women entered the workforce at an unprecedented (if explicitly temporary) rate.[3] The valorized combat soldier came to be constructed as the apogee of citizenship, defined by a gendered division between violent and supportive home front labor.[4] While this idealized soldier was ostensibly universal, in practice it was inflected by implicit, contextually-derived characteristics and expectations.[5] In the United States, this idealized type is related not only to gender but also normative understandings of sexuality, race, and class, such that the soldier/citizen is typically framed as white, cis, straight, economically productive, etc.

During the world wars, U.S. civil-military relations were typified by a gendered military contract. Military service was understood as a core requirement of citizenship, legitimated with reference to idealized, protective, heterosexual masculinity.[6] Thus, the world wars were crucial to enduring cultural narratives about the relationship between masculinity, soldiering, and citizenship (i.e. what “good men” do in war). World War II looms large as the “last good war”: a righteous fight characterized by the collective sacrifices of heroic men and loyal women.[7]

This romanticization of World War II was both challenged and facilitated by the war in Vietnam. The war and its terms of military service exposed a fracture in the idealized liberal, gendered military contract. Vietnam was characterized by a highly unequal draft and, consequently, was less a shared experience of sacrifice and solidarity than the Second World War.[8] Affluent, well-educated, frequently white men with proximity to power were afforded more opportunities to avoid or alter military service than poorer and racialized men.[9] Casualty rates were higher in rural and less wealthy states (the obverse of World War II).[10] Young Black, Latino, and Asian men were disproportionately assigned to the infantry, where they suffered disproportionate casualties.[11] The embodied identity of many draftee soldiers, alongside the process of inequitable conscription, did not align with the mythologized white middle-class U.S. soldiering ideal.[12]

The distinction here between embodied identity and social positioning and idealized masculinity is key. Military institutions, as with broader society, contain a plurality of masculinities that overlap and contest each other.[13] In the military, these are typically related to proximity to combat and the stereotypical ideals associated with soldiering masculinity: bravery, sacrifice, stoicism, physical prowess, righteousness, etc.[14] That ideal masculinity pertains to people of all identities and social positions; but even those who seem to be more proximate to its implicit characterization (in the United States as white, straight, cis, engaged in infantry combat, etc.) still do not fully embody the ideal.[15] Although the idealized soldier continued to persist as a valued cultural figure during the Vietnam War, its implicit characteristics—particularly relating to race and class—were further detached from those of the people doing the actual fighting.

It was in this context of differentiated service that a precursor to “the troops” first emerged as a distinct cultural figure. Successive U.S. administrations, first under Lyndon B. Johnson and later Richard Nixon, ran astroturf public relations campaigns designed to delegitimize the antiwar movement under the guise of “supporting our boys.”[16] The National Committee for Peace and Freedom in Vietnam, for instance, organized letter-writing campaigns and demonstrations to “Support Our Boys in Vietnam”;[17] in 1967, a similarly named parade drew a crowd of 70,000.[18] The call to “support our boys” was crucial to forging the “silent center” of support for the war in Vietnam, a position later framed by Nixon as the “silent majority.”[19]

Casting support for the war in terms of emotional support for “our boys” was an effective means of questioning the gendered relations of home front loyalty. Feminist scholars point out that civil-military relations are usually constructed in gendered, heteronormative terms, wherein soldiers are authorized to use righteous violence to protect dependent and vulnerable civilians (typically framed as women) who, in return, owe home front contributions, loyalty, and gratitude.[20] These same logics are extrapolated to the relationship between a masculinized military, whose existence is justified by the need to “protect” a feminized civil society.[21]

Within this broader context, Vietnam-era antiwar protestors—and often civil society in general—were constructed as not only “betraying” soldiers overseas, but betraying them in feminized and sexualized terms.[22] The simplest example of this dynamic is the now well-known stigmatization of Jane Fonda as “Hanoi Jane,” a moniker meant to condemn her purported support for the enemy.[23] It was common trope at the time to suggest that antiwar protestors, often referred to by terms such as “Helpers of Hanoi,” were providing “aid and comfort to the enemy.”[24] In this telling, “our boys” were not imperiled by conscription or the war itself, but by support withheld from ungrateful civilians.[25]

The shift from the ideally masculine, agential combat soldier to “our boys,” dependent upon the support and protection of civil society, as the center of normative U.S. civil-military relations was a key moment in the emergence of “the troops.” It signaled the beginning of the transformation of war from a matter of mass participation and democratic politics to a matter of social relationships and the “appropriate” performance of gendered home front loyalty.[26] The image of the masculine World War II–era citizen-soldier was at least partially rehabilitated by the professionalization of the military in 1973. That same professionalization, however, also created further tensions in the gendered, liberal military contract. Since the end of conscription, all citizens—all “good men”—are no longer required to serve in the armed forces. And yet the ideal remains.

A barn in a field painted with a yellow ribbon that reads "Support Our Troops."

A barn displaying common “Support Our Troops” imagery, taken in rural California. Courtesy of Pixabay.

The tensions posed by this disconnect, however, were briefly papered over by the Gulf War. This was when the call to “support the troops” and its associated yellow ribbon imagery became ubiquitous within U.S. political life.[27] Yellow ribbon sales by the largest U.S. manufacturer increased by 1000 percent in a single year;[28] the U.S. Postal service created a yellow ribbon stamp; and Reno, Nevada, was surrounded with twenty-five miles of yellow ribbon.[29]

“Supporting the troops” was explicitly framed as a redemption of Vietnam: an opportunity for civilians to “make amends” for the ostensible failure to support “our boys” overseas.[30] Gulf War–era invocations of “the troops” made it clear that support for the troops also meant support for the war (which, in contrast to Vietnam, was fairly popular). This valorization of “the troops” was accompanied by a (re)heroization of the masculinized soldier, once again characterized by ideals of physical bravery, sacrifice, and volunteerism, which enabled Vietnam-era tropes of feminized/izing dependency, failure, and victimhood to be put safely in the past.[31] The Gulf War consolidated the relationship between normative masculinity, citizenship, and soldiering while simultaneously constructing “support for the troops” as an apolitical norm of engagement in U.S. civic and political life.

This brings us back to 2001, the “global war on terror,” and more recent manifestations of “support for the troops.” The unpopularity of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan further intensified the fracture of the gendered liberal military contract, wherein the empirical reality of professionalized armed forces collides with the continued romanticization of a particular, heteromasculine soldiering ideal. The decline in popular military service was paired with the increasing service of previously marginalized groups, including Black and racially minoritized Americans,[32] women,[33] and lesbian, gay, and bisexual citizens.[34] The “war on terror” marked a complicated moment in U.S. civil-military relations, wherein soldiering continued to be conceptualized as a key expectation of idealized heterosexual masculinity, yet the work of military service was frequently taken up by people whose embodied identities and social positioning do not necessarily align with that figure. From 2001 onwards, U.S. public discourse forged a consensus around supporting the troops…but without agreement as to what that might actually mean.

Post-9/11 “support the troops” discourses and practices are therefore far more heterogenous than one might initially expect. In my study of “support the troops” discourse produced from 2001–2010 by the mainstream print media, the U.S. government, and five representative military charities and antiwar groups, I found that though “everyone” is the group most often represented as supporting the troops, virtually all groups within society, from the political right to the political left to taxpayers to Black Americans to military families to antiwar protestors, can be framed as “supporting the troops.”[35] The stated reasons why the troops should be supported are likewise far-ranging: from a sense of obligation related to notions of danger, hardship, and sacrifice; to treating support the troops as synonymous with support for the war; to love for the troops; to a sense that supporting the troops is morally right; to supporting the troops as a means to end the war. Antiwar protest during the “global war on terror,” in an important continuation of the Gulf War, also framed antiwar dissent as a way to “support the troops” (by bringing them home).

This contestation and heterogeneity within “support the troops” discourses is further illustrated by suggestions as to how one might support the troops (my favorite category). Providing material goods is the most common practice referenced within this discourse. But closely behind it follow: supporting the war itself; displaying symbols (i.e. yellow ribbons and U.S. flags); providing veterans’ care; supporting military families; and ending the war.  At a more micro-level, virtually all activities, from voting to taxpaying to shopping to protest, as well as explicitly charitable activities such as bake sales, sponsored bungee jumping, and dog walking, could be done to support the troops.

There are four things to take from this brief overview. First, “support the troops” discourses were focused entirely on the supportive relationship between “the troops” and civilian supporters; the actual violence in Iraq and Afghanistan did not appear.

Second, practices and attitudes toward the war that are diametrically opposed—supporting the war, ending the war; supporting the government, protesting the government—were both constructed as “supporting the troops.” That said, these opposing practices did manifest an important commonality. In contrast to the Gulf War, wherein the sending of care packages and engagement in pro-troops material culture and charitable activities was consistently framed as feminized care, during the “war on terror” these activities were instead framed as a form of war participation or paternalistic support of a vulnerable group (“the troops”) by empowered, masculinized civilian benefactors.[36]

Third, it was vanishingly rare for anyone to suggest in mainstream political discourse that the troops should not be supported. It was also extremely rare for enlisting to be suggested as a way to support the troops. And thus, fourth, what we see during the “global war on terror” is a thin but powerful agreement that, essentially, “everyone must support the troops because they are the troops.” “Supporting the troops” is an internally-oriented discourse of gendered (broadly masculinist) solidarity; it’s an apolitical discourse that works to maintain normative U.S. civil-military relations, rather than engage with the politics and ethics of war.

In the context of gendered U.S. civil-military relations, we can see the unsettled nature of post-9/11 “support the troops” discourse as a reaction—both to the transformation of the normative structure of U.S. civil-military relations and to fairly settled understandings of gender, sexuality, race, class, and their relationship to citizenship. The variation within “supporting the troops,” in other words, is an attempt to work out what it means to be a “good man,” a “good (masculine) citizen,” and a “good person” in the context of a fracturing gendered military contract. Which means that, despite its internal heterogeneity and quotidian banality, “support the troops” discourses and practices are not “mere” bumper stickers, but instead deeply political and deeply embedded in the making of U.S. wars.

Katharine M. Millar is associate professor of gender and international relations in the Department of International Relations at the London School of Economics. Her book Support the Troops: Military Obligation, Gender, and the Making of Political Community (2022), on the gendered politics of troop support in the United States and United Kingdom during the early years of the “global war on terror,” unpacks the implications of the above historical narrative for the possibility and politics of liberal war, normative gender and sexuality, and democratic dissent, in detail. It is out now with Oxford University Press.


[1] Roger Stahl, Militainment, Inc.: War, Media, and Popular Culture (2009); Mia Fischer, “Commemorating 9/11 NFL-Style: Insights into America’s Culture of Militarism,” Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 38 (2014), 199–221; Mark Hrywna, “New Veterans’ Charities Race Past Broader Sector,” Non-Profit Times, Dec. 2, 2013, http/thenonprofttimes.com/news-articles/ew-veterans-charities-race-past-broadersector/.

[2] Jonathan E. Vespa, “Those Who Served: America’s Veterans from World War II to the War on Terror,” American Community Survey Report (June 2020), https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2020/demo/acs-43.pdf.

[3] Claudia D. Goldin, “The Role of World War II in the Rise of Women’s Employment,” American Economic Review, 81 (1991), 741–56; Tammy M. Proctor, Civilians in a World at War, 1914–1918 (2010).

[4] Jean Bethke Elshtain, Women and War (1995).

[5] Katharine M. Millar, Support the Troops: Military Obligation, Gender, and the Making of Political Community (2022).

[6] Katharine M. Millar, “What Do We Do Now? Examining Civilian Masculinity/ies in Contemporary Liberal Civil-Military Relations,” Review of International Studies, 45 (2019), 239–59.

[7] Michael C. C. Adams, “The ‘Good War’ Myth and the Cult of Nostalgia,” Midwest Quarterly, 40 (1998), 59.

[8] William L. Lunch and Peter W. Sperlich, “American Public Opinion and the War in Vietnam,” Western Political Quarterly, 32 (1979), 21–44; Richard R. Lau, Thad A. Brown, and David O. Sears, “Self-Interest and Civilians’ Attitudes toward the Vietnam War,” Public Opinion Quarterly, 42 (1978), 464–82; Michael C. C. Adams, The Best War Ever: America and World War II (1994).

[9] David Card and Thomas Lemieux, “Going to College to Avoid the Draft: The Unintended Legacy of the Vietnam War,” American Economic Review, 91 (2001), 97–102; Bernd Greiner, “Heroism and Self-Sacrifice: The Vietnam War as a Case in Point,” in Heroism and the Changing Character of War: Toward Post-Heroic Warfare?, ed. Sibylle Scheipers (2014), 108–19.

[10] John Willis, “Variations in State Casualty Rates in World War II and the Vietnam War,” Social Problems, 22 (1975), 558–68.

[11] Arnold R. Isaacs, “Facts About the Vietnam War, Part II: The Draft Was a Moral Disgrace,” Sept. 12, 2017, https://warontherocks.com/2017/09/facts-about-the-vietnam-war-part-ii-the-draft-was-a-moral-disgrace/; Greiner, “Heroism and Self-Sacrifice.”

[12] Noting, of course, that U.S.-ians of marginalized and minoritized identities and social positions have always served in, or in support of, U.S. military institutions—regardless of whether this is reflected in the normative ideal. On identity and U.S. soldiering, see Melissa T. Brown, Enlisting Masculinity: The Construction of Gender in U.S. Military Recruiting Advertising during the All-Volunteer Force (2012).

[13] Frank J. Barrett, “The Organizational Construction of Hegemonic Masculinity: The Case of the U.S. Navy,” Gender, Work & Organization, 3 (1996), 129–42; Hannah C. Hale, “The Role of Practice in the Development of Military Masculinities,” Gender, Work & Organization, 19 (2012), 699–722.

[14] Katharine M. Millar and Joanna Tidy, “Combat as a Moving Target: Masculinities, the Heroic Soldier Myth, and Normative Martial Violence,” Critical Military Studies, 3 (2017), 142–60; Joanna Tidy, “The Gender Politics of ‘Ground Truth’ in the Military Dissent Movement: The Power and Limits of Authenticity Claims Regarding War,” International Political Sociology, 10 (June 2016), 99–114.

[15] Katharine Millar, “What Makes Violence Martial? Adopt A Sniper and Normative Imaginaries of Violence in the Contemporary United States,” Security Dialogue, 52 (2021), 493–511.

[16] Patrick G. Coy, Lynne M. Woehrle, and Gregory M. Maney, “Discursive Legacies: The U.S. Peace Movement and ‘Support the Troops,’” Social Problems, 55 (2008), 161–89.

[17] Stahl, Militainment, Inc.

[18] Melvin Small, Johnson, Nixon, and the Doves (1998), 101.

[19] Ibid., 102, 163.

[20] Elshtain, Women and War; Helen M. Kinsella, The Image before the Weapon: A Critical History of the Distinction between Combatant and Civilian (2017).

[21] Iris Marion Young, “The Logic of Masculinist Protection: Reflections on the Current Security State,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 29 (2003), 1–25.

[22] Lynda Boose, “Techno-muscularity and the ‘Boy Eternal’: From the Quagmire to the Gulf,” in Hollywood and War, the Film Reader (2023), 275–86; Jerry Lembcke, The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam (2000).

[23] Jerry Lembcke, Hanoi Jane: War, Sex, & Fantasies of Betrayal (2010); Tina Managhan, “Grieving Dead Soldiers, Disavowing Loss: Cindy Sheehan and the Im/possibility of the American Antiwar Movement,” Geopolitics, 16 (2011), 438–66.

[24] Thomas D. Beamish, Harvey Molotch, and Richard Flacks, “Who Supports the Troops? Vietnam, the Gulf War, and the Making of Collective Memory,” Social Problems, 42 (1995), 344–60.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Katharine M. Millar, “The Plural of Soldier Is Not Troops: The Politics of Groups in Legitimating Militaristic Violence,” Security Dialogue, 50 (2019), 201–19.

[27] The yellow ribbon imagery, as a symbol of vigil and waiting, was first popularized during the Iran hostage crisis, when the wife of the captive U.S. ambassador displayed one in their yard. For a full folk history of the yellow ribbon imagery in the United States, see Gerald Parsons, “How the Yellow Ribbon Became a National Folk Symbol,” Folklife Center News, 13 (1991),  9–11. Jack Santino, “Yellow Ribbons and Seasonal Flags: The Folk Assemblage of War,” Journal of American Folklore, 105 (1992), 19–33.

[28] Tad Tuleja, “Closing the Circle: Yellow Ribbons and the Redemption of the Past,” Journal of American Culture, 17 (1994), 23–30; Lotte Larsen, “The Yellow Ribboning of America: A Gulf War Phenomenon,” Journal of American Culture, 17 (1994), 11–22 cited in Coy, Woehrle, and Maney, “Discursive Legacies,” 171.

[29] Coy, Woehrle, and Maney, “Discursive Legacies,” 170. For more on calls to “support the troops” and its associated yellow ribbon imagery, see Roger Stahl, “Why We ‘Support the Troops’: Rhetorical Evolutions,” Rhetoric & Public Affairs, 12 (2009), 533–70; and Larsen, “The Yellow Ribboning of America,” 11.

[30] Beamish, Molotch, and Flacks, “Who Supports the Troops?,” 345. See also Lisa M. Heilbronn, “Yellow Ribbons and Remembrance: Mythic Symbols of the Gulf War,” Sociological Inquiry, 64 (1994), 151–78.

[31] Alena Papayanis, “Everybody’s Coming Back a Hero: Reflections and Deflections of Heroism in the Gulf,” Journal of War & Culture Studies, 3 (2010), 237–48.

[32] Racial segregation in the U.S. Armed Forces ended in 1948. Though non-Hispanic White Americans continue to make up the majority in the U.S. military, during the “global war on terror,” Black Americans, notably Black women, served in the U.S. military in disproportionate numbers. Latino/a Americans make up the fastest-growing portion of U.S. military personnel. Amanda Barroso, “The Changing Profile of the U.S. Military: Smaller in Size, More Diverse, More Women in Leadership,” Pew Research Center, Sept. 10, 2019, https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2019/09/10/the-changing-profile-of-the-u-s-military/; Julia Melin, “Desperate Choices: Why Black Women Join the U.S. Military at Higher Rates than Men and All Other Racial and Ethnic Groups,” New England Journal of Public Policy, 28 (2016), 8.

[33] Women were admitted to all U.S. military service academies in 1976, with all combat roles formally open to women in 2015. Matthew Rosenberg and Dave Philipps, “All Combat Roles Now Open to Women, Defense Secretary Says,” New York Times, Dec. 3, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/04/us/politics/combat-military-women-ash-carter.html.

[34] “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the discriminatory regulation preventing open service by lesbian, gay, and bisexual military personnel, was repealed in 2010 (though the service of LGB citizens was, by the existence of the policy, acknowledged earlier). Following the of the repeal of the discriminatory “ban” in 2021, trans citizens have the right to serve in the U.S. military in accordance with their lived gender identity. The U.S. military continues to struggle to meet the needs of non-binary and genderqueer military personnel. Guatam Raghavan, “10 Years Later: Looking Back at the Repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” whitehouse.gov, Sept. 20, 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/ppo/briefing-room/2021/09/20/10-years-later-looking-back-at-the-repeal-of-dont-ask-dont-tell/; Dave Philipps, “As Biden Lifts a Ban, Transgender People Get a Long-Sought Chance to Enlist,” New York Times, Jan. 25, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/25/us/biden-transgender-ban-military.html; Rebecca Kheel, “‘I’m Pretty Much Leading a Double Life:’ Nonbinary Troops and the Pentagon’s Next Frontier,” Military.com, Feb. 11, 2022, https://www.military.com/daily-news/2022/02/11/im-pretty-much-leading-double-life-nonbinary-troops-and-pentagons-next-frontier.html.

[35] Katharine M. Millar, Support the Troops, chapter 4.

[36] Ibid., chapter 6; Millar, “What Do We Do Now?”

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