Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Question

[posted by Callimachus]

Again, I ask you, what will you tell them when you get your way and you "support the troops" all the way home?

Every time I suggest many Americans, including the media, ought not to be so brazen -- almost gleeful -- in proclaiming American "defeat" in Iraq, or rubbishing the war effort, or rubbing our own faces in a relentlessly negative narrative of the war, I get accused of promoting a "stab in the back" mentality.

Let me tell you, as someone who got into journalism when the fall of Saigon was still a fresh memory, you will have it, whether I notice it or not.

They will come home, and they will want to know. Certainly some were cynical about the war from the start, and more have been disillusioned by their particular experiences over there. But a great many -- I am willing to bet the vast majority -- believe in what they're doing, believe in its essential goodness and honest virtue, and they believe in their ability to do it.

To speak to the troops fighting in Iraq is to see a particularly stark difference between their mindset and that of most Americans today. I saw this when, a few weeks into the surge, I traveled to Baghdad to see what the change in tactics looked like on the ground.

... Of course, military opinion varies greatly, and the mindset of the 57th could be atypical. But other journalists have picked up similar sentiments. In early April, National Public Radio’s John McChesney visited National Guard troops in Arkansas and found that, “to a man, they were gung-ho for the mission.” One specialist told McChesney, “I am looking forward to it. It’s going to be a great opportunity for me.” And news accounts regularly carry reports of soldiers who are eager to go to Iraq, whether out of a sense of duty or a sense of adventure. (More grimly, many obituaries also mention such eagerness.)

Legal restrictions make it difficult to measure military opinion. Still, the best and most recent measure, the annual Military Times poll (which relies on self-selected responses to a mailed questionnaire and as such is nonscientific), found in December that 50 percent of active-duty respondents continued to believe success was likely—and that was even before the surge had begun. While that number represents a sharp decline from two years earlier, when 83 percent were optimistic, it still greatly exceeds that of stateside civilians, 60 percent of whom favor a pullout from Iraq in 2008, according to the most recent CNN poll. In fact, a plurality of military respondents said they believed that the war requires more troops.

There are other signs that the military has a different view of how things are going: troops deployed to Iraq haven’t been voting with their feet. While National Guard units are having trouble meeting recruitment goals, and the active-duty forces are having similar difficulty with certain key specialties, reenlistment rates in the military in general remain surprisingly robust after four years of the war. The 4th Infantry Division and the 101st Airborne Division, both of which spent 2006 in Iraq for the second time, had post-deployment retention rates of 124 percent and 136 percent of their respective targets. Despite a significant rise in frustration inside the military as the war has dragged on, there remains a sizeable base of support for the mission.

Grousing about regulations and equipment and politicians doesn't change that: that's just the soldier exercising his time-honored reserved right. Half or more of the soldiers and marines we've got over there believe they're on a mission that is morally just and will benefit Iraq, America, and the world. And they believe they have the capability and the will to accomplish it.

This confidence is natural, in a sense. You don't last long in the U.S. military without a higher-than-average dose of "can-do" in your blood. You don't survive in hostile territory if you stop believing in yourself.

When the anti-war faction finally triumphs and they all come home again and all they've worked for in Iraq dissolves into blood and sand, some more will come around to the bitter conviction that it all was a blood-for-oil lie. Along with the realization that the rest of the world will consider these men and women spent the active and vigorous phase of their youth in a fool's errand. I don't envy them or those who love them.

But many will not see it like that. How many? Out of the half a million or so who have been there in the course of the war? You figure it out. What will they have in their eyes when they come home? They'll see:

  • That they were sent on a mission by their government and they fulfilled it to the best of their ability, often with stunning success, but their efforts were shown at home overwhelmingly in terms of failure and defeat.

  • That they were brilliant and brave under fire, but they were alternately mocked, pitied, and ignored by so many of their fellow citizens posturing at home.

  • That they were intensely proud of their comrades and their skills, but they were regarded as mercenaries or high school dropouts or poor victims suckered by slick recruiters; they were told they were incapable of winning a war unless a gaggle of unwilling draftees was sent in to do it.

  • That daily heroics they witnessed went untold, while a handful of criminals and bunglers among their ranks became household names and images of all of them. Few armies in our history have fought under more trying circumstances, and no army in our history has behaved better and more professionally, committed fewer crimes or veered less often into barbarity. Read about the suppression of the Philippines insurrection, if you can stomach it.

  • That the vile tortures* their enemies practiced at every opportunity on innocent victims -- and practiced on any American soldier unlucky enough to fall into their hands -- elicited mere shrugs among we, their countrymen, but we exercised ourselves into a mighty lather over the rare American lapses from the warrior's code of honor.

  • That they tried to do the incredibly difficult thing we told them to do, and in the middle of doing it, we told them to forget about it and come home. We, who had suffered so little, lost our will and our faith in them, who had done so much so well.

Now, you can excuse all these things, one by one, in the abstract. Of course we worry more about the atrocities we commit than the atrocities committed against us, because they touch our national soul, not just our flesh and bone. But you cannot deny their reality. We who only write about the war can turn away when it ends and just bury it in archives and forget it. They will live with it, always.

Do you fear "stab in the back" murmuring? You should. You may try to re-shape their narrative to focus their anger and frustration away from you and your party, toward the neo-cons in the White House, toward the "chickenhawks." You may find they reject that, and they will continue to insist on knowing what the rest of us were saying and doing while they were fighting. What will you tell them?

* I am not so sure this document is authentic, but no one disputes the tactics it illustrates.

Gettysburg monument photo by Jenny Goellnitz, an old buddy from my AOL Civil War roundtable days, and one of those indispensable learned amateurs honored, in passing, here.