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.
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.”