Monday, November 21, 2005

Hurting Morale?

In Mike's "Murtha, Murtha, Murtha" post, he (correctly) goes after the Republican leadership for attacking John Murtha's call to start pulling troops out of Iraq on the grounds that he was "helping the terrorists" or "hurting troop morale." Clearly, it's a canard to dismiss informed, reasoned concern about the troop's well-being and the country's national security interests as somehow contemptible because it supposedly hurts troop morale. Congresspeople have an obligation to worry about the troops and their other constituents, and if that worry leads to suggesting a shift in policy, so be it. I'm not a military veteran, but my hunch is that Congressional debate affects troop morale less than getting kept away from home on extended tours of duty, getting shot at (while underarmored), and watching your friends getting injured or killed. Those, I suspect, are the biggies. So if Murtha's right and the occupation of Iraq isn't doing anything except training terrorists and getting our soldiers used as target practice, then it'll not only improve our national security but also massively improve troop morale to bring the troops home. I'm not sure that I agree with Murtha, but his position isn't illogical or ridiculous, and it sure isn't, contrary to the initial Republican response to it, borderline treasonous.

That said, I do think the cries of hurt morale are more complicated than just Republican political posturing. First, the people worried about morale are probably partly right to do so. Calling for troop withdrawal now essentially says that the invasion was a mistake or at least that the occupation is counterproductive. Over 2,000 American troops have died in Iraq; and if Murtha's right, then it's easy to feel that they died pointlessly (and that the many more injured were injured pointlessly). From what I understand, most professional soldiers in combat fight for their unit, their immediate mission, and for their personal survival, and they tend to leave questions of political efficacy and philosphical justification to others, or at least until later, when nobody's actively trying to kill them. Still, a lot of people in the military signed up to defend America, and most troops want to feel like they're making a difference. Even those troops who would rather that the US had never invaded probably want to help get a new Iraqi society up and running that validates the time, money, and blood spent thus far. I sure would.

But the problem is the things we want to be true aren't always true. I want to look like the young Paul Newman and dunk like the young Michael Jordan. But I don't. I want George Bush to be erudite, thoughtful, receptive to new ideas, and ruthless in his demands that his employees follow the strictest demands of transparency, ethics, and competence. But he ain't. Most Vietnam vets wanted the war in Vietnam to be something other than a messy struggle stupidly taken over from the French and pursued with an indifference to the cultures and material circumstances of the Vietnamese peoples. But it wasn't. 56,000 Americans died in that war, and probably millions of Vietnamese did, and at this point nobody can give a convincing--and valid--reason why we went in in the first place. But it's depressing to think 56,000 (or 2,000) died unnecessarily or (worse) counterproductively. But even more depressing than 56,000 or 2,000 unnecessary deaths is the possibility of 112,000 or 4,000. If John Murtha believes what he says he believes, he'd be a traitor NOT to call for troop withdrawal. And his compatriots in the Congress would be traitors not to consider what he has to say carefully and reasonably.

I also think the cries of hurt morale are partly true not only of troop morale but also of the morale of Americans in general and Congressfolk in particular. In addition to genuine concern that Americans really do feel for the troops, I think "the troops" have actually become an imaginary projection of civilians' fears and hesitations.

American voters returned Bush to office after he launched the war; Congressfolk gave him the power to start the war in the first place. We now know that the primary overt justification for the war--WMD--was a bunch of bunk. We now know that the primary covert justification for the war--that it was somehow payback for 9/11--doesn't make a lick of sense in that al-Qaeda wasn't operating freely in Iraq until our invasion opened it up to them. We now know that 2,000 troops and 30,000 Iraqi civilians have died in the war. We now know that the $300 billion this war has cost us could have been spent to pay down the debt or to provide health care for poor kids or tax breaks for poor parents or education for everybody or for more intelligence and military resources to go after Osama bin Laden (remember him?).

So most Americans are feeling a little resentful about WMDs not found, the lives lost, and the dollars spent. A lot of Americans--especially supporters of the war, especially Congressional supporters--are feeling a little guilty and doubtful too. So when somebody like Murtha stands up and gives voice to the quiet doubt they feel but repress, they don't want to hear it. To take that doubt seriously, to let the doubts surface, would be too painful and threatening. So they take all the feelings of panic and doubt and project them onto the troops in the form of "bad morale" inflicted on those troops by treacherous lefties. It's an understandable attempt to work out the cognitive dissonance brought on by at once supporting and doubting the President and the war effort. But it's not the right one. It distorts thought and debate, and thought and debate are what we need most right now in sorting out the mess in Iraq.

Whether or not the troops should stay in Iraq, it's pretty clear that they shouldn't have been sent in the first place. If American voters and their representatives continue to pretend otherwise to themselves, they'll never be in a position to realistically weigh where we are and what we can do to make it better. And we owe it to our troops and to the Iraqis to do everything we can to make life better over there. It may mean keeping troops there. It may mean pulling out troops but leaving behind engineers, contractors, and the money they need to help rebuild Iraq's infrastructure. And it may mean a rapid pullout so that the Iraqis can govern themselves. These are practical policy decisions that need to be made by relatively rational grown-up Congressfolk answering by relatively rational grown-up voters, not by people busily and angrily projecting their unresolved emotional issues onto the troops whom they put in harm's way in the first place by projecting their hatred of Bin Laden onto Saddam Hussein.


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