Our Civilian-Run Military

This opinion piece in the Washington Post really caught my attention. The writer asserts that soldiers currently serving in Iraq have high morale, but that their optimism and commitment to success are rarely reported by the media. For example, writing about Congressman John Murtha:

In view of his distinguished military career, John Murtha has been the subject of much attention from the media and is a sought-after spokesman for opponents of the Iraq war. He has earned the right to speak. But his comments supposedly expressing the negative views of those who have and are now serving in the Middle East run counter to what I and others know and hear from our own colleagues — from junior officers to the enlisted backbone of our fighting force.

On the surface this is a convincing point: who knows better what is going on in Iraq than the soldiers who are there? This is really the wrong question. The author claims that he and others know things from their own colleagues, while Murtha’s point comes from people he has spoken with. It is impossible to know which person, if either, has spoken with more soldiers, or knows better how things are going.

The next paragraph contains a statement that makes it clear why it may not be a good idea to rely heavily on soldier’s opinions in a decision like this:

Murtha undoubtedly knows full well that the greatest single thing that drags on morale in war is the loss of a buddy. But second to that is politicians questioning, in amplified tones, the validity of that loss to our families, colleagues, the nation and the world.

The claim here is that politicians drag on morale when they question the validity of the loss of a buddy. What in the world is the “validity” of a loss? It seems clear that this is a strain of the standard right wing talking point, that questioning the wisdom of any military action is basically treason, because it demoralizes the troops, because it implies that what they are doing is wrong, and that this demoralization helps the enemy. Unfortunately for the simpletons who use this argument, it is true that sometimes, some military actions really are a bad idea.

The writer of this article clearly feels that the War in Iraq is going great, and he is entitled to that opinion. Elected officials must use a more demanding system when deciding what is a good use of our military forces. If they see young Americans dying for a cause that is unworthy of their sacrifice, then they ought to say so. Of course soldiers on the ground believe they are doing a good thing–who would ever tell themselves what they are doing is bad? It is the abuse of these soldiers’ bravery, by decision makers who, in his opinion, do not respect their courage enough, that Murtha seeks to end.

4 Replies to “Our Civilian-Run Military”

  1. My Dear Walrus,

    Two questions: (1) Even if military intervention in Iraq was a mistake, what course of action should the U.S. adopt on a going forward basis consistent with national security? (2) Given that opposition to the war does have a negative effect on troop morale, do elected officials who oppose the war in Iraq owe any duty to the troops and the country in how they express their critical comments?

  2. These are good questions. Let me take them one at a time:

    1) Obviously, the only truthful answer is that I don’t know what course of action the U.S. should adopt. As far as my opinion on National Security, I think it is important first to recognize our limitations. We are learning in Iraq that conducting a war followed by nation building is more costly and difficult by far than was expected by some. Given this, it seems to be more practical to avoid this option when there are others available. I am a proponent of the United States using our tremendous power and influence to be an example and a partner with the rest of the world. People who admire you don’t want to kill you.

    2) It’s a little more complex than “opposition to the war ha[s] a negative effect on troop morale.” If I decide to undertake a project, and my neighbor thinks it is a stupid project, and tells me so, that will make me feel bad. It is important, though, to remember that my neighbor may also be correct. To expand on this, the fact that pointing out the problems of the Iraq War makes the troops sad is not the end of it. The Iraq War seems, to many people, like a terrible idea, one that is killing and wounding young Americans for no clear benefit. If one of these people is an elected official, their job is to speak out about it.

    The military has a dual identity that makes this a more complicated matter. On the one hand it is a group of individuals, most of whom are admirable, courageous, and brave. On the other hand, it is the means by which we as a nation project force into the world. It is entirely possible that the civilian leadership could try to use the military in a stupid, dangerous way, and that this could result in needless loss of life. That this might be the case does not take away from the virtue of the individuals, but their virtue, by the same token, does not necessarily mean that anything they do is a good idea.

  3. My Dear Walrus,

    If, as you admit in response to my first question, there is no obvious alternative to the continuation of the present course of action in Iraq, then are not critics of the war making worse what they already consider to be a bad situation? As military historians have stated repeatedly, the key military assets are psychological. Guns and technology, in the absence of espirit de corps and the will to sustain losses, do not guarantee victory.

    At a minimum, criticism of the war in Iraq should be constructive.

  4. I did not say that there was no obvious alternative. I said I did not know what the correct one is. There are many options, on a gradient from immediate total withdrawal (stupid) to permanent full deployment (also stupid). Debating these options is important and healthy, and the best course of action to protect the troops in the long run. Yet this debate requires criticism of the current strategy unless one agrees with it. To cut off such criticism is bad.

    As I said, just because the military is engaged in a project doesn’t make that project a good idea.

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