By Michael E. Berumen 2-10-07
It has become de rigueur to append any criticism of our military activity in Iraq with a profession of "support" for the troops, whether it emanates from the right, center, or left of the political spectrum. I doubt that many opponents of the war who utter such talismanic qualifications think much about the meaning of "support," other, that is, than a desire to distinguish the policies with which they might disagree from the people who actually are charged with executing said policies on the battlefield, while, at the same time, hoping to avoid appearing unpatriotic. They do not want to disparage the common soldier, even though the policy he implements is deemed flawed or even immoral, for soldiers are in some senses judged based on criteria other than what they do, for example, a recognition that their principal duty is to obey the orders of their civilian chiefs, and the moral responsibility lies with the latter, other than certain limits to soldiering (e.g., rules specified in the Geneva Conventions, Uniform Code of Military Justice, etc.). Of course, those who actually agree with what we are doing in Iraq often use their "support" for the troops as a hyperbolic cudgel against the war's opponents, accusing them of not supporting the troops, which, they would have us believe represents the height of unpatriotic behavior.
Verbal denigrations of the military and worse (e.g.,stories of spitting on soldiers or calling them baby killers) have become a part of the lore surrounding America’s travails in Vietnam a generation ago, notwithstanding the fact that there are relatively few documented instances of such outlandish behavior. To be sure, there are many examples of policies that failed to provide adequate support for the veterans of that era, and for that matter, nearly every other wartime era. Indeed, the same can be said in relation to veterans even today, but that's another story. After years of regret and introspection about Vietnam, openly evincing support for the troops, nowadays, is to no small degree meant to have a prophylactic effect against doubts about one's own devotion to country.
Supporting the troops is a very complicated thing. There is the kind of support provided by financing military endeavors, on the one hand, and then there is the psychological support one gives to people on the home team, the cheerleading kind of support. Then there is that "love the sinner, hate the sin" kind of support religious people often promote. People who say they support the troops and don't support what they're doing apparently adopt something akin to the latter sort of support... we love you, but a major portion of your life is spent doing immoral things at the behest of others, and we blame them for your depredations, not you, who we admire and support as people.
One generally expects those who are the object of support to welcome the efforts of the supporter. However, I would guess that a great many of the troops despise the position of those who decry the war, yet say they support the troops. I have not done a survey, but I am confident that most military folk want victory more than they want the support of the anti-war crowd. Perhaps that would have been different with a military comprised of draftees, though even that is questionable; but today's soldiers are volunteers, not draftees. To be sure, they want the political support that will provide appropriate munitions and equipment. It is a safe bet that they would rather not be injured or killed. But they also want to win, and they see that end as an intrinsic aspect of their chosen vocation, namely, soldiering, and certainly not a bad one to have if one aspires to be a first-rate soldier. The kind of support they really want is an anathema to those who would have them return without a victory, safe but defeated. Not only do these soldiers want whatever help they can get from their countrymen to defeat their enemies as defined by their superiors in the chain of command, when they are done, they want to come home to the approbation of their nation's citizens and to a government that is willing to take care of their needs.
My point is that many of the anti-war types who want to bring the troops home and, at the same time, want to be in a position of saying that they “support the troops,” do not really support the troops in the way the troops themselves would welcome. I rather think that this kind of support rings hollow (loving the sinner kind of support) when one believes what they are charged with doing to be a mistaken or a lost cause. At the very least, it is problematical. How might it have sounded, for example, if a citizen in Hitler’s Germany had said, “I support the troops, but denounce the Nazi Reich that sent them into battle.” Imagine having said, “I support General Washington’s revolutionary troops, but not their revolutionary cause.” The problem is evident: it just doesn't sound quite right.
What I think critics mostly mean to say is that they want our soldiers home and unharmed, and that they want what they consider to be a misconceived mission and policy changed. Fine. There is no betrayal, there; however, this is not the same thing as supporting the troops, for it is simply not possible to support the troops and at the same time castigate what the troops are doing to other human beings. I wish those who do not support what the troops are actually doing would simply tell the truth. It is more honest to say that they want them to stop fighting the war and that they don't support what the troops are doing in Iraq, notwithstanding what the troops want, rather than prattling on about supporting the troops.
This is not to say that the soldiers are wholly uncritical of the policies are charged with implementing. They are not mindless automata, notwithstanding their obligation to follow orders. I suspect that a number of our professional soldiers believe policymakers are guilty of several grave strategic missteps, especially in the early phases of the invasion and then the occupation in Iraq. In the first instance, we should not have invaded Iraq and we did so based on a false premise, namely, that they had weapons of mass destruction. They did not. Once that was done, in the early occupation, we disenfranchised much of the educated Sunni population with so-called de-Baathification. In doing so, we emasculated the Iraqi civil service, rendering the state's infrastructure inoperable, and we unemployed and impoverished thousands of young men by dismantling the Iraqi armed forces. The early aftermath of major combat operations were bungled when soldiers were not permitted to finish to kill or imprison thugs such as Muqtada al-Sadr, before they amassed power and influence. All of this was made worse by not providing sufficient forces (as recommended by the Army's top general at the time) to occupy the country and squash a cancerous insurgency before it became nearly uncontainable. If the judgment of retired general officers is any guide, I suspect many on active duty might be especially prone to make the last criticism.
Much of the travesty in Iraq resulted from our nation’s triumvirate of ineptitude, President George W. Bush, Vice President Richard Cheney, and Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, all of whom were guided by an assortment of half-baked neocon soothsayers and intellectuals. Of course, the vast majority of soldiers support and trust their civilian leaders, even when not warranted by the facts. This probably explains why Bush and Cheney and many their predecessors prefer a military audience above all others. I also think it likely that many of our soldiers see the various vocal opponents of these malfeasants, including many erstwhile supporters of the war policy, such as Senator John Kerry, as simply compounding the mistakes already made by wanting them to retreat ignominiously before the mission is complete, without ever having given them the proper kind of “support” to achieve what they really want: victory. The troops would once again come home from another lost war (lost by politicians, not the military) to a nation whose only support amounts to little more than sentimental verbiage.
Whether or not "victory" is possible at this point, or what victory even entails from a policy perspective, remains debatable. I myself believe victory would be characterized by an Iraq that does not threaten anyone; a country that is a bulwark for individual rights (at least relative to neighboring countries) and economic prosperity; and a place that is not a home base for various psychopathic terrorists and religious nuts as it is now and to which our policies have contributed to no small degree. I also think the notion of a centralized government in Iraq is a pipe dream, and that the sectarianism we see today can only be quiesced through the formation of a loose-knit, decentralized federation, with Sunni, Shia, and Kurds having their own areas of dominance. Perhaps in time a greater sense of nationhood will develop. After all, it took our country nearly 100 years to get there, and not without considerable turmoil and bloodshed.
President Bush might well be remembered for having committed the greatest foreign policy blunder in American history. I think it can even be argued that he is a war criminal for having invaded a country and killing tens of thousands of people on false pretenses. We must now go about the business of repairing this awful mess that we have created. I fear that the craven desire of many Democrats who want to see President Bush fail for their own political gain obscures the very dire consequences of failure, both for our nation and the world. We have a moral obligation to do our best to repair what we have broken, otherwise known as Colin Powell’s "Pottery Barn" caveat: you break it, you own it. This is important so that so many Americans and many more Iraqis have not died or suffered in vain, and, most importantly, so that future generations of Iraqis are not left with their country in shambles, a condition for which the United States is now largely responsible.
We should not have gone to war with Iraq when we did, and, it is now clear, we should have done things very differently once we did. However, we did go to war and we did make a mess. We must not leave an even greater mess behind, one that could have negative ramifications throughout the Middle East and the world for generations to come. To do otherwise is simply unconscionable, as unconscionable as having gone there the way we did in the first place.
The best way we can support the troops is to help them to achieve a kind of victory to recompense for our original misguided policy and to produce a better outcome for the people we conquered, and by that, I mean a stable Iraq and repairing what we've broken with a misguided invasion. Democracies, and ours is certainly no exception, show little patience for either failure or extended conflicts. We must not confuse our quintessentially American desire to be pragmatic, to cancel failed projects and move to the next one, with the irresponsibility of giving up when the going gets tough. This is especially true when our own mismanagement created much of the problem that we face today, and when abandonment entails leaving a country in disarray and a tinderbox of sectarian strife. One half of America cannot simply throw up their hands and say that is President Bush's problem. It is our problem as a whole nation. Defeat in Iraq is not an acceptable alternative. Not right about much else up to now, President Bush is quite right about that. What is necessary is an improvement in planning and execution, and there is evidence to suggest that is taking place.
I am certainly no fan of President Bush and his administration, though I don’t like those opponents who are taking advantage of the President's unpopularity, seemingly oblivious to what is at stake if he fails, or so cynical that they do not even care. I also reserve the right not to support the troops in this conflict or in any other when I don’t support what they are doing, which is certainly not the same thing as wishing them harm. The idea that one must offer any arm of the government unqualified support, notwithstanding the policies they are implementing, is at best silly and, at worst, immoral. It is not necessary to support people who are doing something that should not be supported, even when one wants them to stop doing so for reasons one considers to be for their own good. What is more, by not giving our armed forces, or any other unit of government, a blank check of support, I shan’t be one whit less patriotic.
Michael E. Berumen is a philosopher, businessman, and U.S. Army veteran (1969-1972) living in Laguna Niguel, California. Among other things, he is the author of Do No Evil: Ethics with Applications to Economic Theory and Business.