Sunday, November 20, 2005

Politics and Morale

Part of the non-debate about Irag is the Republican claims that Democrats are: a) hypocrites for voting for a war that they now oppose and b) are at fault for supporting the war in the first place. I certainly agree that Democrats bear significant responsibility for the Iraq War. Democrats lacked the courage to question and oppose BushCheney’s plan from the outset. Even early on, many legitimate questions were raised about the wisdom and need to invade Iraq but most Democrats failed to press for real answers and explanations. Even if there had not been many, many critics of the proposed invasion, Democrats demonstrated their cowardice and lack of wisdom when they abdicated their Constitutional war powers in 2002. Republicans have plenty of company in the responsibility for the Iraq war.

But I give Democrats and Repbulicans like Chuck Hagel some credit for speaking out now that the war has turned into a long term occupation. It doesn’t take nearly as much courage to speak out now as in 2002 but thoughtful criticism is needed as much now as then. Americans have every right to raise questions about BushCheney’s use and control of information to make their case for war in 2002. Administration motives and methods were questionable then and are still. The difference now is that a few Congressmen are beginning to ask questions. They need to ask more questions and keep asking until they get some honest answers and a credible strategy for accomplishing realistic aims in Iraq.

As for “the troops” their morale does not ebb and flow with debates in Congress. Morale is a mix of many things, including purpose, ability and comfort. Clear purpose supports morale even in difficult situations. Lack of purpose has the opposite effect. It’s easy to see how soldiers and Marines returning to Iraq for the third and fourth times will have low morale at the deteriorating conditions there. Taking a town from the insurgents, destroying much of it in the process, only to abandon it offers no clear purpose. Ability comes with training and support. Well trained, well supported troops will have high morale because they know they can accomplish their missions. Putting truck drivers on infantry patrol with poorly armored vehicles does not create morale. Nor does sending National Guard and Reserves into combat with little training and old equipment. Comfort is key because it allows some respite from the arduous tasks of combat. Living in the dirt, eating marginal food and enduring the uncertainty and tension of combat patrol is only tolerable in limited amounts, especially if the mission seems pointless.

I have read, but cannot remember where, that American service men and women are discouraged when they return to the US and see that nothing has really changed even though they and their entire world are completely changed. Returning troops see that while they have been sacrificing everything, most Americans are sacrificing not at all. It’s as most Americans don’t know that there’s a real war in Iraq, that people are fighting and dying there. The story rings true to me because that is exactly how I felt returning from Vietnam. The war to most people was far, far away. Riding in rush hour traffic from Dulles to National Airports in January 1972 three days after returning from Vietnam, I was stunned by how normal everything looked. The same thing happened when I came back on leave about halfway through my tour. I wanted to shout out “There’s a war on, you know. My buddies are fighting and dying right now.” I wanted people to know, to somehow be part of that sacrifice. I don’t suspect the feeling is any different now.

As for the “cut and run” issue affecting morale. I cannot think of any greater morale boost than heading home. Even heading for a rear area. Throughout my tour in Vietnam, rumors abounded that we would withdraw from the field. The rumors were true in the long run; the last US combat troops stood down about three months after I returned to the US. But even as rumor, it was something we all wished for. Maybe some of the gung-ho types want to stay on but most soldiers just want to get it over with, even if they believe in the mission. I did not believe in my mission. Neither did many of my buddies. It was just something to get through, the sooner the better. War, occupation and the military being what it is, I doubt if much has changed so I am certain morale will improve as American forces prepare to return home.

Morale will improve even more if the US redeploys in a way that salvages some honor from the mission. America’s one and only accomplishment in Iraq was deposing Saddam Hussein and his Ba’athist dictatorship. That’s it. And the consequences make even that victory a pyrrhic one. We failed in creating a viable political process. , a failure largely the result of the inability of a foreign power to control events in an Islamic, Arab nation. At best, Iraq will emerge as a stable dictatorship or balkanized mini-states with an virulently anti-American Sunni heartland, a Shi’a mini state allied with Iran and a Kurdish republic with the potential to destabilize Turkey and Iran. Those results will trouble us for years to come. At worst, Iraq will descend into civil war.

If American forces redeploy in a way that prevents wholesale slaughter, perhaps Iraqis will have the opportunity to settle their differences with less bloodshed. I would call that a win of sorts. That doesn’t mean I think the invasion and occupation were ever justified; it means that America salvaged some honor from BushCheney’s reckless aggression.


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