Morale of Troops in Iraq

Conflicting reports on the degree to which the current debate over the Iraq War, especially the issue of early troop pull-out, is affecting the troops.

Thom Shanker says all is honky-dory.

On the Front Lines, Many Say Morale Remains Strong (NYT)

In the tumultuous debate over renewed calls for a withdrawal from Iraq, each side argues that it stands shoulder to shoulder with the troops in the field and that the other side’s approach is undermining military morale. Those who favor an early withdrawal say the endless deployments and the mounting casualties are wreaking havoc on the armed forces. Those who want to stay the course say that talking about pulling out undermines the people making sacrifices.

“Put yourself in the shoes of the American soldiers who are losing lives and losing limbs and believe that it is a noble cause – which it is – believe they are making progress, believe we will prevail,” Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Sunday on the ABC program “This Week.”

Representative John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania, the Democrat whose call for an early withdrawal sparked the debate, said his loyalty also lay with the troops. “It breaks my heart when I go out there and see these kids,” Mr. Murtha, a combat veteran, said on the NBC program “Meet the Press.” “I see wives who can’t look at their husbands because they’ve been so disfigured. I saw a young fellow that was paralyzed from the neck down, and his three children were standing there crying with his wife and his mother.”

But in interviews conducted by The New York Times in recent months with more than 200 soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines stationed around the world, the sense emerged that the war had not broken the military – but that civilian leaders should not think for a moment that that could not happen.

Cpl. Michael Meade is a member of a Marine Corps Reserve unit from Ohio that lost 14 members in a single day last August. Interviewed at the Al Asad airfield in western Iraq as his tour neared its end, Corporal Meade said: “I’m ready to leave Iraq. But that doesn’t mean I’ve decided to leave the corps.”

Maj. Adam R. McKeown, a Marine Corps reservist with the Sixth Communications Battalion deployed to Camp Lemonier, Djibouti, expressed his ambivalence with an allusion to Shakespeare, a subject he teaches at Adelphi University. “The global war on terror is ‘drinking deep’ in terms of morale,” Major McKeown said, referring to a line from “Henry IV, Part 1.” “Especially right now, I think the armed forces need good leaders who have served and continue to serve, and to step up and lead,” he added. “But I can’t forget that there are only so many times you can leave your civilian job and still have that job to return to.”

While an overwhelming majority of those interviewed said their units had high morale and understood their mission, they expressed frustrations about long and repeated deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Those deployments present the most significant problem for these troops, who were interviewed during a military correspondent’s travels in the war zone and around the world.

Even among those who have done tours in Iraq, most soldiers who were interviewed said they were willing to wait and see, at least through another yearlong rotation, before passing judgment. The December vote on a new Iraqi government and efforts to train local security forces offer at least the prospect of reductions in the American force by next summer. But few wanted to talk about what would happen if, come next year or especially the year beyond, the military commitment to Iraq remained undiminished.

A growing percentage of ground troops are in Iraq or Afghanistan for a second or third tour. The Third Infantry Division, which led the drive to Baghdad in 2003, returned to Iraq this year with 65 percent of its troops having served previous tours.

Many of those returning to the combat zone said the latest tours were different. Bases in Iraq and Afghanistan show the money spent on infrastructure and recreation facilities. The hot food, air-conditioning, Internet facilities and giant gymnasium offered at major bases bolster morale in ways that may not be wholly understood by someone who has not just come off a dusty, dangerous patrol.

Rowan Scarborough sees it differently.

Military Fears Critics Will Hurt Morale (Washington Times, p. 1)

Pentagon officials say they are increasingly worried that Washington’s political fight over the Iraq war will dampen what has been high morale among troops fighting a tenacious and deadly enemy. Commanders are telling Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld that ground troops do not understand the generally negative press that their missions receive, despite what they consider significant achievements in rebuilding Iraq and instilling democracy.

The commanders also worry about the public’s declining support for the mission and what may be a growing movement inside the Democratic Party to advocate troop withdrawal from Iraq. “They say morale is very high,” said a senior Pentagon official of reports filed by commanders with Washington. “But they relate comments from troops asking, ‘What the heck is going on back here’ and why America isn’t seeing the progress they are making or appreciating the mission the way those on the ground there do. My take is that they are wondering if America is still behind them.”


“They are not oblivious to this stuff nor are they isolated,” said the senior Pentagon official, who asked not to be named.

Still, officers in Iraq contend that troop morale is good to excellent. “I have not heard of any morale problems related to the political debates,” said Lt. Col. Steven Boylan, a spokesman in Baghdad. Lt. Col. David Lapan, a Marine spokesman in the violence-wracked Anbar province, said, “We haven’t conducted any surveys so obviously we can’t speak to the morale of every Marine, sailor and soldier out here. However, based on comments from commanders and leaders who interact daily with troops at all levels, I’d say morale remains pretty high.”

Retired Army Col. Douglas Macgregor, an author of books on military transformation, said he is hearing something different from returning troops. “Soldiers see no viable mission, no plan and no strategy,” Col. Macgregor said. “No one trusts any of the Arabs in the Iraqi army, only the Kurds. Soldiers want to survive to go home and are fighting to keep each other alive. There is no Iraq. There is Kurdistan, which the soldiers all love. Then, there is the Sunni Arab center and the Shi’ite south that most think is an autonomous province of Iran.”

Shanker’s report is in tune with most of the other accounts I’ve read, as well as with that of the soldiers I’ve talked with who have served in theater. Of course, it doesn’t really answer the question very much, since it is based almost entirely on interviews that took place before the recent flare up sparked by Rep. Murtha’s comments.

Macgregor’s observations seem dead-on. Troops are simultaneously proud of the mission they are fighting to achieve, confused about the strategy, and focused on their day-to-day circumstances. It’s almost a given that troops aren’t oblivious to the debates. On the other hand, they are occupied with the job at hand, not watching CNN.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. ken says:

    Meanwhile, Iraqi officials today demanded a timetable for the withdrawl of coalition forces.

  2. LJD says:

    I would think that the Iraqis asking us to plan our departure is a good sign. Not that we’ll make a timetable. Perhaps they can give us a timetable for when they’ll have their shit together.

    Anyway, back on the subject. I would say, Ken, that such a statement would have a positive effect on troop morale.

  3. LJD says:

    …and who said we’ll leave when the Iraqi authority asks us to?

    Hint: President (no plan) Bush


  4. odograph says:

    I hope you aren’t saying we can’t have a war and democracy at the same time.

    Democracy requires debate. If war stifles debate, it stifles democracy. There’s no way around it.

    Beyond that … I get hints in this discussion that I don’t like. Remember the old “in order to save the village we had to destrop it”? I’m afraid the new version is “in order to support the troops, we have to leave them there, for as many tours as it takes.”

  5. LJD says:

    Put down the crack pipe, you’re seeing things that aren’t there.

  6. jane says:

    Juan Cole has indicated that the tenative time table is out of the cities in 6 months, the country in 2 years.

    Possibly these numbers come from the Americans. There have been quite a few hints from commanders though Bush has seemed to refute them.

    I do think the “demoralize the troops” argument is coming from those who think the struggle is merely partisan, who because they couldn’t point to Iraq on the map think it doesn’t really exist.

    From the begining the administration and it’s supporters have made an efort to avoid looking at the problems and the unwelcome information. At best they’ve been slow to address trouble and at times they still ignore it.

    The country is unbelievable corrupt and crime ridden, health has not improved and WHO warns of a crisis. The economy has flattened.hiite militias control the south, antagonisms betwen Sunni and Shiite have increased, many areas have segregated.

    The country would be in serious trouble even without an insurgency, and while it’s true that we demolish this when we close it; our commanders admit that even in the areas they control long term, the thugs come out and intimidate, they control much of the population.

    I do not know if withdrawal is a good choice. I do know that we need to analyze the situation honestly and ruthlessly. Pretending there are no problems is a recipe for failure.

    To most of us this is what the debate is about. We want measurements gathered and displayed honestly and consistently, we want programs tested, we want things articulated.

    The Dem/Repub rift is getting irritating. But the Dems are hopefully forcing some concrete explanation of the system rather than this “trust us, we’re from the government” patter than Bush supporters say it is treason to question.