Bush Envies Afghanistan Troops
President Bush said he was envious of our troops in Afghanistan and would love to be there if he were only younger and not otherwise engaged being president.
In a videoconference, Bush heard from U.S. military and civilian personnel about the challenges ranging from fighting local government and police corruption to persuading farmers to abandon a lucrative poppy drug trade for other crops.
Bush heard tales of all-night tea drinking sessions to coax local residents into cooperating, and of tribesmen crossing mountains to attend government meetings seen as building blocks for the country’s democracy-in-the-making.
“I must say, I’m a little envious,” Bush said. “If I were slightly younger and not employed here, I think it would be a fantastic experience to be on the front lines of helping this young democracy succeed.”
“It must be exciting for you … in some ways romantic, in some ways, you know, confronting danger. You’re really making history, and thanks,” Bush said.
My immediate, cynical reaction was that this it is an easy thing to say, if not insulting to those enduring great hardship and danger. Certainly, it’s an impolitic thing to say, since it will immediately raise questions about his actions when he was young and free to go off to war. Some of the soldiers and Marines — and probably all of the civilians — likely had the same reaction.
Having been in the military as a young man, and knowing quite a few who are still serving, though, my guess is that the remarks had the intended impact of bolstering morale and pride. As jaded as most of us become as we get older, there is a great sense of adventure among young volunteer soldiers. And much less cynicism about such lines as “helping this young democracy succeed.”
When Operation Just Cause started in late 1989, I was just a few weeks into my first assignment as a platoon leader in Germany. To a man, we lieutenants were upset at “missing out” on a mission that others “got” to participate in. Similarly, when we deployed for Desert Shield in 1990, most of us were excited about the prospect.
As a grad student a couple of years later, we were questioning the need for the Panama invasion, which we dubbed “Operation Just ’cause” and assessing the diplomatic moves that might have been done to prevent Desert Shield from morphing into Desert Storm. But that’s a civilian mindset. Soldiers don’t want war but when their country is at war, they want to be part of it. It is, after all, what they’ve trained for.
Of course, things are different now than when I served. The battalion commander who took us to southwest Asia had spent the first seventeen years of his career in a peacetime Army. We’ve now had substantial military operations going on since the early 1990s and two major regional conflicts going on for over five years. The troops are tired and less eager, certainly. And the older ones, especially those with families whose lives are being disrupted, are less gung ho still.
Even so, most of the soldiers I’ve worked with and talked to (mostly mid-career and senior officers) are still remarkably optimistic about their missions. Afghanistan more so than Iraq, understandably, but even Iraq. The ones who stay in and make a career of military service are remarkably less cynical and more cheerful than their civilian cohorts. While older and wiser, they still maintain much of the sunny outlook of their younger selves.