As the conflict in Iraq drags on, more Americans are beginning to question both the president’s motives for starting the war and the administration’s competence in prosecuting it. With his poll numbers in a freefall, President Bush took to the airwaves last week to give America a pep talk.
One of the common neoconservative complaints directed at the war’s opponents is the claim that criticism of the conflict will "hurt the troop’s morale" and is therefore unpatriotic. This implies that anyone who exposes high-level deception and incompetence will discourage our soldiers, embolden the insurgents, and prolong the war.
Having spent substantial time in the U.S. military, I consider this line of thinking to be absolutely ridiculous. The soldiers are the ones who are risking their lives every day. At the very least, they deserve an honest explanation about why they are there. If our leaders didn’t tell the truth about this war, it won’t help our troops any if everyone pretends that they did. Likewise, if our leaders don’t have a credible plan for bringing the war to a successful conclusion, the troops are hardly better off if everyone pretends that they do.
While exposing the deceit and ineptitude of our rulers will not hurt our troop’s morale, I can think of quite a few things that our leaders could do which might help it considerably.
I offer this list in no particular order.
#1 Don’t lie to the troops any more.
There is a very strange school of thought lurking amongst our political and academic leadership which holds that lying to the public is necessary and moral in war. Specifically, these thinkers hearken back to FDR and Woodrow Wilson as examples of presidents who were forced to lie to the American people for the "greater good." This theory contends that the citizenry is too simpleminded and selfish to realize when wars need to be fought. As a result, the enlightened mandarins in Washington often need to tweak the truth in order to encourage the masses to go along with the latest military crusade (hence, we were spoon-fed absurd stories like Saddam’s chemical-spraying drones preparing to attack New York).
This school of thought (or at least its current neoconservative manifestation) holds that President Bush may well have bent the truth a bit, but he had to confront "Islamofascism," lest it overwhelm America in the future. Therefore, just like FDR in the 1930’s, Bush was justified in dishonestly maneuvering our nation into the Iraq War.
I consider this line of thinking to be morally bankrupt and utterly indefensible. If our leaders are going to ask Americans to fight and die in an overseas conflict, then the people deserve an honest, straightforward explanation of the reasons why the war is necessary. There is no legitimate place for lies and propaganda. In war, young people must kill and die. People lose their sons, daughters, fathers, and mothers. Soldiers are maimed, cities are destroyed, and innocent civilians lose their lives.
If the President of the United States believes that a war is necessary, then it is incumbent upon him to take an honest case to the people. There is a chance that, despite his best efforts, the people will disagree and decline to fight.
If that is the case, then the president doesn’t get his war.
This is what the Founders meant by self-government. If it turns out later that the people made a mistake and should have fought a particular war, then it is the people who will live to regret their decision.
But either way, Americans deserve the truth. We deserve to know why this war was started and who started it. We deserve to hear an accurate assessment of the current situation, and what the future options are
The troops are well aware of the controversy surrounding the instigation of this conflict, and the least they deserve (at long last) is the unvarnished truth.
Any more dishonesty will be devastating to the troop’s morale.
#2 Provide our soldiers with the equipment that they need to survive.
Despite literally hundreds of billions of dollars in annual defense spending, our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have been plagued with shortages of some of the most basic equipment. Stories have appeared throughout this conflict of families buying body armor and shipping it to their loved ones in Iraq, or of soldiers scrounging through garbage dumps looking for metal plates to weld onto their vehicles.
Nothing is more certain to crush our troop’s morale than forcing them to unnecessarily risk their lives due to a lack of basic equipment.
Our military is spending billions and billions of dollars on ridiculous projects like a new Raptor fighter jet (which lacks any mission whatsoever in the post-Cold War world) or the bizarre Rods from God space-based weapon system.
The administration could enormously improve morale among the troops by simply trimming a few billion from these white elephants and using it for more mundane supplies that will help our soldiers to survive.
Expecting them to continue unnecessarily risking their lives is a surefire way to destroy their morale.
#3 Don’t just talk the talk.
After the congressional debates concerning the Mexican-American War came to a conclusion, Jefferson Davis resigned his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and returned to his unit in the Mississippi State Militia. Taking a commission, he led them into the thick of combat on several occasions. He believed that the burdens of war should fall first on those at the top. As a prominent citizen and government leader, he thought that he had an obligation to share the hazards alongside the common soldiers. Despite the dubious nature of the war itself, at least Davis was willing to put his money where his mouth was.
Suffice it to say that the situation in Washington has degenerated significantly since then.
How many congressional proponents of the Iraq War have resigned to join the troops in the field? How many senior members of this administration have left to fight in Afghanistan? What percentage of our ruling elite has children in the military?
In his recent speech, President Bush asked the American people to encourage their children to enlist. He praised the military as a noble and honorable profession.
President Bush also has two 20-something daughters. Has he had this same conversation with them? Why aren’t they in the military? Is it legitimate for the president to ask others (particularly the lower classes) to fight in these wars without any participation from the elites?
Back in the Cold War era, I once heard a quip that "the Soviets would fight the Israelis to the very last Egyptian." Over the past few decades, a disturbing rift has opened between the bicoastal economic/political elites and the broad swath of Middle America. The globalist elites boldly insist that America should intervene routinely in various backwaters around the world. This attitude crosses party lines. Madeline Albright was every bit the militarist as is Dick Cheney.
This situation is dangerously destabilizing and is extremely harmful to the morale of our troops. Our leaders cannot lecture about the necessity of "nation building" and "spreading democracy" without putting their own necks on the line. Otherwise, it appears as though they are eager to fight wars so long as they do it with someone else’s children.
#4 Spare us the "if we don’t fight them in Timbuktu then we’ll have to fight them in Toledo" arguments.
The men and women in the military are not stupid. They recognize a pile of manure when they see it. The above argument tends to be shoveled at the public whenever our rulers can’t think of a better way to sell a conflict.
This is problematic for several reasons.
First, it is ridiculous. For instance, it was absurd to claim that North Vietnam was a danger to California. Likewise, it was ludicrous to suggest that Panama, Serbia, or Iraq were preparing to attack the United States.
Second, since this argument is so ridiculous, it insults the intelligence of the American people and of our military. No one enjoys being treated like a fool…it tends to dampen morale.
Third, upon hearing this excuse, it immediately prompts inquiring minds to begin postulating exactly what the real reasons for the war are. Since no one can seriously take this argument at face value, it follows that the president employing it must have some other reason that he doesn’t wish to share with the rest of us. This causes doubts, promotes conspiracy theories, and further harms morale.
This administration, with the full complicity of both parties in congress, has led us into a very sticky situation in the Middle East. We are bogged down in two wars with little chance of a military victory anytime soon. As conclusively noted in the infamous Downing Street Memos, our leaders lied to us and doctored intelligence in order to justify this war. Merely stating these facts publicly will not harm the morale of our soldiers. Admittedly, the facts themselves may harm troop morale, but the blame for that rests with those who perpetrated the lies, not with those who are speaking the truth.
While my above suggestions may help to bolster the morale of our troops somewhat, the only way to genuinely improve their situation is to create a reasonable exit plan. Saddam is gone, the WMDs are nonexistent, and the Taliban has been removed from power. There is no legitimate reason to keep them there.
Judging from what I saw in the faces of our fighting men at the president’s Fort Bragg speech, morale is low and probably isn’t going to turn around anytime soon.
The best way to truly improve their morale is to bring the troops home.
Steven LaTulippe [send him mail] is a physician currently practicing in Ohio. He was an officer in the United States Air Force for 13 years.