Troops’ Silence at Fort Bragg Starts a Debate All Its Own

Some critics of the Bush Administration are taking the lack of applause from the Fort Bragg audience at the president’s speech Tuesday night as a sign that the troops do not support the war. Defenders say the troops thought they were under orders not to applaud.

Troops’ Silence at Fort Bragg Starts a Debate All Its Own (NYT)

So what happened to the applause?

When President Bush visits military bases, he invariably receives a foot-stomping, loud ovation at every applause line. At bases like Fort Bragg – the backdrop for his Tuesday night speech on Iraq – the clapping is often interspersed with calls of “Hoo-ah,” the military’s all-purpose, spirited response to, well, almost anything.

So the silence during his speech was more than a little noticeable, both on television and in the hall. On Wednesday, as Mr. Bush’s repeated use of the imagery of the Sept. 11 attacks drew bitter criticism from Congressional Democrats, there was a parallel debate under way about whether the troops sat on their hands because they were not impressed, or because they thought that was their orders.

[…]

Capt. Tom Earnhardt, a public affairs officer at Fort Bragg who participated in the planning for the president’s trip, said that from the first meetings with White House officials there was agreement that a hall full of wildly cheering troops would not create the right atmosphere for a speech devoted to policy and strategy. “The guy from White House advance, during the initial meetings, said, ‘Be careful not to let this become a pep rally,’ ” Captain Earnhardt recalled in a telephone interview. Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, confirmed that account.

As the message drifted down to commanders, it appears that it may have gained an interpretation beyond what the administration’s image-makers had in mind. “This is a very disciplined environment,” said Captain Earnhardt, “and some guys may have taken it a bit far,” leaving the troops hesitant to applaud.

Earnhardt’s explanation is quite probable. Troops are naturally pretty enthusiastic when the commander in chief comes to see them. That was true even for Bill Clinton, who was not at all liked by many.

As to the idea that there is a groundswell within the military, let alone the elite troops at Bragg, against the war, it just isn’t so. Soldiers are remarkably loyal to their mission once assigned. Most soldiers, certainly most airborne and special forces soldiers, want to be “where the action is” if there’s a war on. That doesn’t mean they don’t want a break or that they enjoy the hardships of deployment, of course. But being left out when their fellow soldiers are doing something important is even worse.

That said, I am always uncomfortable when politicians use soldiers, cops, firefighters, or schoolchildren as props for their speeches. Even when the motive is non-cynical–as I believe it was here–it politicizes those who should not be politicized.

Soldiers go to war because they’re ordered to do so, not because they are supporters of the president, his party, or his policies. While most soldiers are probably all those things right now, it isn’t always the case. Many held Clinton in contempt personally but they followed his orders without question. The military may lean Republican, but it isn’t a Republican military. We don’t want that to change.

Update (0754): Ed Morrissey thinks this “the pettiest controversy of recent memory” and notes that, “If the same soldiers had greeted Bush with wild cheers and hoo-ahs, or had repeatedly interrupted the speech with cheers, we’d be hearing that the White House had secretly arranged that reception.”

FILED UNDER: General
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. C says:

    I appreciate your comment about using the troops as “props,” something this President likes to do with regularity – use the troops and say “9/11” repeatedly to remind the base why they voted for him.

    That’s right it’s not a Republican military – if it were, it might be 1/2 the size it is today.
    You might read this: http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20050711&s=blumenthal

    In the military, no one has a political opinion in the current environment unless it’s issued to him – except on election day, in private, in the booth.

  2. LJD says:

    Nothing is sacred, no comment too low for “some critics”.

    They should know, had the troops disapproved of their commander-in-chief, they would have been throwing pies or salad dressing.

  3. JACK ARMY says:

    In the military, no one has a political opinion in the current environment unless its issued to him except on election day, in private, in the booth.

    I’m in the military and I have plenty of my own political opinions. Now, I don’t go spouting off my opinions any ole time I want, but none of them are issued.

  4. c says:

    I’m in the military and I have plenty of my own political opinions. Now, I don’t go spouting off my opinions any ole time I want, but none of them are issued.

    Yes, not a problem when you’re a Bush supporter.

  5. Anderson says:

    I figured the troops at least thought they were ordered not to applaud.

    That said, n.b. that Bush is such a personal coward that he won’t address any group that isn’t somehow cherry-picked to make sure no one in it disagrees with him. Hence the Mom-&-apple-pie scenes of American citizens being ordered out of gov’t-funded Bush appearances because some Bush staffer didn’t like their bumper sticker.

  6. c says:

    From Max Blumenthal’s article at http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20050711&s=blumenthal – regarding the College Republican National Convention last week:

    By the time I encountered Cory Bray, a towering senior from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, the beer was flowing freely. “The people opposed to the war aren’t putting their asses on the line,” Bray boomed from beside the bar. Then why isn’t he putting his ass on the line? “I’m not putting my ass on the line because I had the opportunity to go to the number-one business school in the country,” he declared, his voice rising in defensive anger, “and I wasn’t going to pass that up.”

    And besides, being a College Republican is so much more fun than counterinsurgency warfare. Bray recounted the pride he and his buddies had felt walking through the center of campus last fall waving a giant American flag, wearing cowboy boots and hats with the letters B-U-S-H painted on their bare chests. “We’re the big guys,” he said. “We’re the ones who stand up for what we believe in. The College Democrats just sit around talking about how much they hate Bush. We actually do shit.”

    Jack Army, why isn’t the military recruiting more of these guys? The ones who believe that the war is necessary, as long as someone else is fighting it, that someone else’s family is supplying the soldiers.

  7. ALS says:

    Im in the military and I have plenty of my own political opinions. Now, I dont go spouting off my opinions any ole time I want, but none of them are issued.

    Yes, not a problem when you’re a Bush supporter.

    That was a cheap shot, and you know it.

    What about those of us who weren’t Clinton supporters? Do you suppose we booed him and threw pies whenever he came around?

    Of course not. Those of us who serve know where to draw the line when it comes to politics. I was nothing but 100% respectful and courteous when Clinton and/or his staff members came out to visit us, even though many of us personally couldn’t stand them.

    And believe it or not, there are plenty of Soldiers who don’t like Bush. I’ll bet there were several of them in that audience. But you’d never know it by the way they act.

    We’re entitled to our personal political opinions, and many of us have them. But whether or not we like the President has absolutely no bearing on our behavior.

  8. Lt bell says:

    This is another round of BS, I am probably the only military member on this board.,
    How long do any of you think a commander would last if he ordered troops not to applaud the president??? More likely they (just as in the other fake bush rallys) went around and asked who would like to come and support (by applauding) the president tonight.
    Did any of you think that the guys in the military might be getting tired of listening to the lies from the white house and tired of being used as props for a liar.

  9. carsick says:

    I agree with you on the whole though given the content of the speech I think it should have come from the Oval Office or a similar setting.
    Therefore I believe the choice of venue was a cynical one.

  10. McGehee says:

    I am probably the only military member on this board.,
    How long do any of you think a commander would last if he ordered troops not to applaud the president???

    The second sentence disproves the first. If you’ve ever been military, I’m Popeye the Sailor Man.

  11. LJD says:

    Hmmm, Republicans supporting the war although not being in the military…
    …almost like a bunch of fruitcakes talking on behalf of the troops, a group with which they do not belong. Hyposcrisy knows know bounds with some people.

    The military is just like any other facet of society with those on the left and right. For anyone to make assumptions like I’ve seen here, is just stupid.

    The difference they have with the some of our citizenry, and the Ted Kennedy’s of the world, is the respect for their elected officials. Free speech with personal responsibility for the impact of one’s words. You guys have a lot to learn.

  12. DBT says:

    …almost like a bunch of fruitcakes talking on behalf of the troops, a group with which they do not belong. Hyposcrisy knows know bounds with some people.

    I take it the ‘fruitcakes’ would be those who share an alternate opinion from your own, the ‘non-fruitcakes’?

    I agree about the hypocrisy.

  13. Fersboo says:

    C:

    Are you currently serving in the military? If not, how can we accept your opinion about politics in the military? You’re just a damned chickendove.

  14. tgif says:

    Operation Yellow Elephant

    http://patriotboy.blogspot.com/

  15. ALS says:

    I take it the ‘fruitcakes’ would be those who share an alternate opinion from your own, the ‘non-fruitcakes’?

    No, I think he means the types who say things like: “WE are the insurgents! Bring our guys home!” (actual post from yesterday’s OTB)

    The ones who claim to be oh-so-patriotic in one breath, and then dump all over our Soldiers in the very next.

    Not trying to start a fight; I welcome healthy debate and respectful voices of dissent. In light of yesterday’s “insurgent” accusation post, I can see where LJD is coming from.

  16. LJD says:

    Also kinda like “Operation Yellow Elephant” a.k.a. Operation Mentally Disabled With a Keyboard.

    I have learned that with some “fruitcakes” there is no such thing as a “healthy debate”. In that case, unlike ALS, I AM looking for a fight.

    Here’s a question: What do you have for those Republicans, or Independents that support the War and the President, who HAVE served and ARE serving?

    Nothing but contempt, I’m sure. Your site smacks of disdain for anything military. What a tribute to those who have died- you ass! Enjoy your free speech, courtesy of the U.S. Military.

    #*@*%)^ Profanity… &*$@&$*^ More Profanity….

  17. ALS says:

    Here’s a question: What do you have for those Republicans, or Independents that support the War and the President, who HAVE served and ARE serving?

    LJD, you should know by now.

    If you don’t serve, and you support the war, then you are a hypocritical chicken hawk.

    If you DO serve, and you support the war, then you are a war-mongering, Bush-worshipping brainwashed lemming.

    These very same people who love to proclaim that there is no “right or wrong” and no “black or white” are the same people who will angrily dismiss you as either one or the other.

  18. DBT says:

    Here’s a question: What do you have for those Republicans, or Independents that support the War and the President, who HAVE served and ARE serving?

    I have respect and admiration for anyone who is serving or anyone who has served.

    And what do YOU have for those Democrats or Progressives who HAVE served or ARE serving right now? Who, perhaps, supported military action to hunt down Bin Laden – remember 9/11? – but not the ongoing operations Iraq???

    What do YOU have for those who CONTINUE to serve, regardless of how they agree or disagree with the decisions made in Washington? Are you going to say such people don’t exist? I think you better realize that that describes close to 50% of the armed forces right now.

    When did this happen that it became necessary to say you support Bush in order to claim you support the troops? If you don’t agree with current policy, you’re automatically a commie pinko chickendove fruitcake slacker?

    And as far as those people who claim our soldiers are the insurgents and terrorists – f**k them.

  19. Mimi Schaeffer says:

    Yep, it’s not a Republican army. But “C” is way too generous. If it were only a Republican army, the military would have to reinstate the draft and let the “commies” join in the fun!

    Interestingly…when reviewing bios for current national leaders, Dems lead in military service by far.

    But it was not patriotic duty but the draft, no doubt.

  20. ALS says:

    Interestingly…when reviewing bios for current national leaders, Dems lead in military service by far.

    Actually, I researched this about a year ago for a project, and found exactly the opposite. Of elected officials, Republicans outserved Democratics by a small margin. When you counted only active duty service, it was a large margin.

    What are your sources? It’s not that I don’t trust you, I’d just like to see if I missed something.

    Thanks.

  21. JACK ARMY says:

    Im in the military and I have plenty of my own political opinions. Now, I dont go spouting off my opinions any ole time I want, but none of them are issued.

    Yes, not a problem when you’re a Bush supporter.

    I know the conversation has moved on, but I’ll put it this way: my political opinions have never been suppressed or ordered to be changed throughout the terms of the 3 different Commanders-in-Chief that I’ve served. I can separate my politics from my job. I’m a professional.

  22. LJD says:

    DBT:

    I don’t pretend they don’t exist. I honor and value their service.

    I expect that, as good troops they continue to do their duty regardless. Just like when Clinton was screwing up in Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, and, Oh Yeah Iraq too. Oh, wait a minute, HE let Bin Laden get away BEFORE 9/11.

    If you don’t agree with the policy, it does not make you, automatically a fruitcake. That privilege is earned by those in a fog of hysteria, making comments that only help the enemy. Usually it’s the type that compares our troops to terrorists. I’m sick of all of them; it makes me question my motivation to serve. They need to think before they speak, if that is possible.

  23. ALS says:

    I’m sick of all of them; it makes me question my motivation to serve

    LJD,

    Please my friend, do not ever let them get to you that way. Do not ever question why you serve. THIS is why you serve, my friend:

    For THIS guy:

    http://www.sharp-design.us/bandofmothers/valor.jpg

    And THIS guy:

    http://www.bubbazartwork.com/

    For THIS little girl:

    http://homepage.mac.com/jfstrain/blogpics/9.11/images/mdf51712.jpg

    For THESE guys:

    http://www.co59.org/iwo-9-11-final.jpg

    For people like THIS woman:

    http://www.tedkarol.com/blog/2005/iraqi_voter.jpg

    And yes, even for THIS guy’s right to run his ugly mouth:

    http://www.penguin.co.uk/static/cs/uk/0/articles/dude/gifs/header_michael_top

    We exist only because men like you have defended our way of life for over 200 years.

    These are the reasons you serve, LJD. Please don’t ever forget that.

  24. Mike says:

    Found this link on mudville gazette…

    I did 3 years at bragg and did oef and oif.

    Wild cheering and applause is not normal there, or at least not in the unit I was in (1/505).

    If there was any suggestion that applause/cheering was frowned upon, the plt sgts would have flat out told people to not do a damn thing unless someone else did it first.

  25. LTJ says:

    After working with active duty US Army soldiers for many years, I think that most uphold very high standards of professionalism.

    On the other hand, politicians never tire of using the image, power and lives of our soldiers for their own purposes. For example, when former Sen. Jesse Helms tried to spit on our country’s long tradition of civilian control of the military, by suggesting that then Pres. Clinton “better have a bodyguard” when visiting Ft. Bragg, NC in 1994. A thinly veiled suggestion of a right-wing military coup in America!