Supporting the Troops But Not the War

Bruce McQuain posts an NBC News video of interviews with American soldiers in Iraq to bolster his long-held view that one can’t simultaneously claim to “support the troops” while criticizing the mission they’re fighting and dying to accomplish.

Bruce argues its “A bit like saying ‘we want you to look like a soldier, and we love you for being one, but we can’t support you acting like one it this instance.'”

While one can certainly understand the frustrations of a young soldier at hearing disparaging things about the war he’s fighting, securing the freedom to do just that is the essence of his mission. Some wars are controversial and it’s a vital part of our political process that debate not be stifled.

Further, while soldiers might not like to hear negative sentiments being expressed, they nonetheless maintain their enthusiasm and focus on the mission at hand. As I wrote in a December 2005 piece for TCS, “Does Criticism of the War Undermine Troop Morale?

[S]oldiers in a war zone are perhaps the least attuned among us to what’s being said on television. During Desert Storm, my parents anxiously watched CNN several hours a day trying to keep up with what was going on. Meanwhile, I was focused on the mundane duties of a platoon leader, making sure my troops were taken care of and that we were ready to fire rockets down range when called upon. The only news I got was from my nightly operations briefs and from days-old copies of the Stars and Stripes when the mail got delivered.

Soldiers ultimately decide for themselves whether their mission is “worth it.” To the extent that they are concerned with political debates in Washington, it is mostly about the small picture: ensuring they get the tools and equipment they need to survive and get the job done. While they may be interested in grand strategy, it seldom motivates them to risk life and limb. They may agree or disagree with establishing a foothold for democracy in the Middle East but they fight for their comrades-in-arms, out of genuine concern for locale villagers whose situations they empathize with, and for hundreds of other reasons unique to each soldier.

Soldiers are risking their lives because they’ve been ordered to do so by our duly elected political leadership. They deserve our respect and gratitude for doing that, regardless of any beliefs you might have about the worthiness of the war. But, by all means, feel free to criticize the politicians who sent them there.

FILED UNDER: Iraq War, Military Affairs, , ,
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.

Comments

  1. NBC report on troops’ frustrations with criticism from the public. He starts off with a reasonable premise: I’m all for everyone expressing their opinion, even those who wear the uniform of the United States Army. But I also hope that military commanders took the soldiers aside after the story and explained to

  2. California Yankee writes: “NBC reports on how some troops react to criticism of the war. I can’t fault their logic when they complain that you can’t support the troops if you don’t support the mission.” Outside the Beltway’s James Joyner “understand[s] the frustrations” of young soldiers but offers a minority opinion on the right: “Some wars are controversial and it’s a vital part of our political process that debate not be stifled.”

  3. Steven Plunk says:

    Certainly “it’s a vital part of our political process that debate not be stifled”. No one should disagree with that statement but the way the debate is carried on is very important to morale.

    The media driven nature of politics has ruined the way this sort of debate should be done. Too much of the discussion is sound bites and bluster before the cameras rather than reasoned, logical discussions showing respect for others opinions even when there is disagreement. Today it’s more petty and childish than it is adult and responsible.

    These are hard decisions being made and people are passionate about where they stand but civil discourse is a necessity. Painting the US Capitol with graffiti is an example of lowering the bar for active participation.

    Again, it’s the way we talk about it as much as where we stand.

  4. LJD says:

    Some wars are controversial and it’s a vital part of our political process that debate not be stifled.

    Yes, a RESPONSIBLE political process, not acting like a blathering idiot on a street corner, and not using the war for political gain towards an upcoming election. Remember when our politicians had the skills to get their point across, while respecting their adversaries? Remember civility?

    I would also point out one fundamental difference between this stage of OIF and ODS: Our troops are not living in their vehicles or tents, they are now largely in FOBs with access to cable and network news. They hear all of the stupid comments.

  5. Edgardo says:

    Although I fully agree with your last paragraph, I think you are not addressing the problem of what politicians opposed to the war should do about the financial and material support needed for soldiers to carry their mission. As long as they cannot challenge legally the President’s authority to go ahead with the war, I believe that in a democracy they have the moral and legal obligation of providing that support. Unfortunately, by now it is quite clear that we can expect them to do it only when it is on their political advantage.

  6. James Joyner says:

    Remember when our politicians had the skills to get their point across…

    Indeed. Of course, that cuts both ways. If we had a Churchill, FDR, or Reagan as the spokesman for the cause, it’d surely help. Then again, Tony Blair has been quite eloquent and hasn’t managed to persuade much of the British public.

    Our troops are not living in their vehicles or tents, they are now largely in FOBs with access to cable and network news.

    Fair point on the FOBs. Our troops are much more connected now than in 1991.

  7. Wayne says:

    Some pretty good posts so far. Although Churchill, FDR and Reagan had their nay sayers but most was put aside tin order to give a unified front and effort.

    My problem with much of the harping, is that it encourages the terrorist. It also has the affect of creating stupid ROE that are for home political purposes and not military or foreign local political goals. Part of the blame lies with Bush for allowing it, although he has taken many political hits for what he has done. After all he does live in a political environment. .

  8. Triumph says:

    Lets be real here. The troops have been given a major pass, here. Rumsfeld, Wolfie, and Cheney said this war was going to last a matter of months.

    This thing has been going on four years and the military is nowhere near bringing stability to Iraq. Bush has said quite clearly that Rummy, Wolfie, and Dick are exemplary and have done great jobs. Given the fact that the civilian leadership has made no mistakes, the logic assumes that the mistakes have been made by the troops. They are responsible for seriously messing things up there. Accountability should start with them.

  9. ken says:

    Do we really want to have a country were the troops feelings are more important than policy?

    Personally I don’t care how the troops feel about our discussion. They report to the American people. If we do not want them to do what they are doing, their proper response is to salute and withdraw.

    But the fact of the matter is that over 70% of the military agrees with the majority of Americans anyway. So worrying about the morale of a small minority of malcontents in the military does not make sense to me.

  10. legion says:

    In the military, if you disagree with, or even dislike, your commander, when he gives an order you shut up, salute, and carry on. But neither Congress nor the American people are in the military. The President is the Commander-in-Chief of the military, but he is the employee of the people. The people tried to point him in the right direction back in November. Every single opinion poll conducted since then shows a growing discontent with being ignored.

    If Bush fails to follow the orders of his own bosses, what exactly can the people, either directly or through Congress, do short of demanding his resignation or impeachment?

  11. just me says:

    Fair point on the FOBs. Our troops are much more connected now than in 1991.

    They are more connected than they were during peace time as well.

    My husband was serving during the early 90’s, and he didn’t have access to email or other instant communication (he was in the Navy, and there wasn’t a telephone system available, at least not for chit chat). I have friends whose husbands are serving in Iraq now who have more real time communication with their spouses than I ever had with my husband during his peace time service.

  12. spencer says:

    Read the previous post on Brian Freeman. The individual who is doing the least to support our troops is the President who sent them into battle without providing them with the resources they needed to win.

    Notice that Freeman’s main complaint was that they were stretched so thin. This is the direct consequence of the Presidents refusal to properly fund the war effort and has been obvious since day one of this war.

    What I can not understand is that for 8 years the right complained bitterly about how Clinton was destroying the military. Yet the same people completely support the current Presidential policy of fighting a war with exactly the same military
    structure he inherited from Clinton. Either the complaints about Clinton were not justified, or this President should have done something to expand the military besides calling up the reserves.

    Somebody tell me what is wrong with this analysis.

    The primary source of disrespect and ingratitude
    of our troops is this incompetent President and the people who give him unquestioning support —
    although the number of those individuals is finally contracting.

  13. LJD says:

    Rumsfeld, Wolfie, and Cheney said this war was going to last a matter of months.

    That is a lie. You know damn well what he was referring to when he said that. If you thought it he meant the duration of our involvement, I have a bridge to sell you.

    Do we really want to have a country were the troops feelings are more important than policy?

    Personally I don’t care how the troops feel about our discussion.

    Now that some feel they have a majority, we start to see the true feelings. Not so concerned about the we-support-the-troops-but-not-the-war meme. Tell me, did you do any troop spitting-on last weekend?

    If Bush fails to follow the orders of his own bosses, what exactly can the people, either directly or through Congress, do short of demanding his resignation or impeachment?

    It seems to me, they already have. Unfortunately, not a single valid reason to do so under law. I was wondering, what do you do with the media and some elected officials, when they have launched a comprehensive campaign to tear down a President, undermine his efforts and those of our troops, and even go so far as to support the enemy, during a time of war?

    Well, at least it was a productive discussion until you guys showed up. Be careful how hard and fast you run with this thing, you may just turn around to find out you are alone.