Trickle Up Reality – A Difference of Opinion

Noah Shachtman, at Danger Room and my go-to guy for inside information about Pentagon shenanigans, has a post up praising an article in The Washington Monthly by Spencer Ackermann. Entitled The Bitter End and with the tagline “Democrats are right to push for an end to the Iraq war. But don’t expect the troops to be grateful,“ one can see where he is going.

Haunted by Vietnam, Democrats are determined to express support for the troops. This is admirable. The truth of the matter, however, is this: many troops in Iraq, perhaps even most of them, want to stay and fight. That doesn’t mean that we should stay in Iraq any longer. It does mean, however, that if Democrats want to bridge the divide between themselves and the military—an effort further complicated by their opposition to the war—they’re going to have to recognize that arguing in the name of the troops isn’t going to work.

If you spend as much time reading about Iraq as I do, you tend to get a very distorted image of reality (if there is such a thing).

At one level, there is the extreme devotion to duty, honor and team that is shown at the personal level. (This is very apparent if you read military blogs written by the people fighting every day. Read them now before they disappear. ) On another level, you see officers, military advisors and pundits pointing to the successes, incremental improvements across many ‘measurables.’

But you also get a sense of a football team in the last quarter, physically at the end of their chain but still willing to keep trying;. even if the game is obviously lost. (But then again the troops in the field didn’t even all know who Rumsfield is/was.)

Interestingly, most of the people quoted in Ackerman’s article are also officers. The only enlisted man seems more interested in being redeployed to Hawaii than staying in Iraq. (At least there are bikinis to go along with the sand.)

I’d contrast the view presented by Ackermann with two different viewpoints, also published in the last few days.

From a the international Herald Tribute story, With allies in enemy ranks, GIs in Iraq are no longer true believers,

But now on his third deployment in Iraq, he is no longer a believer in the mission. The pivotal moment came, he says, this past February when soldiers killed a man setting a roadside bomb. When they searched the bomber’s body, they found identification showing him to be a sergeant in the Iraqi Army.

“I thought, ‘What are we doing here? Why are we still here?’ ” said Safstrom, a member of Delta Company of the 1st Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry, 82nd Airborne Division. “We’re helping guys that are trying to kill us. We help them in the day. They turn around at night and try to kill us.”

His views are echoed by most of his fellow soldiers in Delta Company, renowned for its aggressiveness.

A small minority of Delta Company soldiers – the younger, more recent enlistees in particular – seem to still wholeheartedly support the war. Others are ambivalent, torn between fear of losing more friends in battle, longing for their families and a desire to complete their mission.

The focus of this story is on the erosion of ‘mission feeling’ when the mission is defined to be stand up until the Iraqi’s take over. Unfortunately, the lower level troops are increasingly discovering that the guys taking over are also the guys who shoot at Americans on their days off. They came with a sense of mission, but like a puddle under the Iraqi sun, that is slowly evaporating.

The other side of this is the cost on the home front. This comes from the front page feature at the Washington Post highlighting the plight of the families of the Minnesota National Guard troops attached to the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 34th division.

Some 2,600 members of the Minnesota Guard are serving in Iraq, attached to the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 34th Infantry Division. Most of the Minnesotans from the rural northern part of the state around Crookston are in Bravo Company, whose 141 men range in age from 20 to 47 and represent a cross section of the small-town Midwest. One in seven has a college degree. One in three is married.

The citizen-soldiers of Bravo Company, 2nd Combined Arms Battalion, 136th Infantry, had been home 18 months from a tour in Bosnia and Kosovo when they mustered for war in October 2005. Reinforcing an active-duty Army stretched taut by a war longer and more ferocious than the White House expected, the Guard members checked out of their roles as students, farmers and workers.

Once deployed, they supported active-duty troops, largely in violent Anbar province, where the unit lost three soldiers to enemy explosives. After being granted two weeks’ leave and plane tickets home last year, Bravo’s soldiers returned to Iraq with the end of their mission in sight.

But shortly after Christmas, as friends and families counted the days until the planned March 28 homecoming, word came that the tour would be extended four months to support the effort to fortify Baghdad, a strategy designed to tip the balance against the insurgency.

News of the extension, which the families first heard about on television, was a rough blow. One wife likened it to nearing the end of a marathon and learning she would have to run eight more miles uphill. Another forgot that she had set her cellphone to ring on March 28, a cheerful reminder that her husband was homeward bound. When the alarm sounded, she called a friend and cursed: “Damn alarms.”

This is especially interesting because the MNG will probably become the longest serving unit in Iraq, reserve or active.

And what do these guys say about the war?

Days turn into weeks, weeks melt into months, and the months turn into a year and I am still in Iraq.

I have not yet reached a true state of apathy, but as the days pass I come closer and closer. I do my duty every day without complaint but I don’t give a damn anymore. I no longer care about the mission and I no longer care about the people I am supposed to be here to help.

I no longer give a fuck.

The above quote comes from Sixty-Six.org a milblog from an infantry man on his second deployment who was, in another world, a graduate student in Psychology. “I will not allow myself to have an opinion on the war. I have a job to do, and that job is not to agree or disagree with the politics of war. My job is to fight the war and come back to tell the story. ”

Interestingly, Ackerman even quotes a journalist who had been embedded with the Minnesota National Guard, NPR’s John McChesney.

Of course, military opinion varies greatly, and the mindset of the 57th could be atypical. But other journalists have picked up similar sentiments. In early April, National Public Radio’s John McChesney visited National Guard troops in Arkansas and found that, “to a man, they were gung-ho for the mission.” One specialist told McChesney, “I am looking forward to it. It’s going to be a great opportunity for me.” And news accounts regularly carry reports of soldiers who are eager to go to Iraq, whether out of a sense of duty or a sense of adventure. (More grimly, many obituaries also mention such eagerness.)

This was something I could fact check. Was Ackermann cherry- picking? Let’s take a look the original story,

Under new policy, the 39th’s second deployment would be limited to 12 months, according to Maj. Gen. Bill Wofford, who is the adjutant general of the Arkansas Guard. That would include training time in the States, so it’s possible the soldiers could be in Iraq for less than a year.

But Wofford acknowledged that they could be extended, like what recently happened to the Minnesota National Guard. “That would be up to the Department of Defense and what’s going on in theater at that time,” he said.

Immediately following a news conference in Little Rock, Wofford jumped in a Blackhawk helicopter and flew north to Fayetteville. Wofford was going to say goodbye to some men who will be leaving soon for their first deployment to Iraq.

Command gathered a group of them to talk to NPR about the trip. To a man, they were gung ho for the mission.” I am looking forward to it,” said Spec. John Martell. “It’s going to be a great opportunity for me.” He expects to return to be a full-time student at the University of Arkansas. In the meantime, he says, “I’ve always wanted to serve in this way.” [my emphasis]

It would seem Ackermann quoting people who are gung-ho on war. But those are officers, those recently arrived or the one’s who hadn’t gone yet. This let’s me wonder who he listened to in Iraq. Especially off the record Majors commenting in the US Embassy. If I contrast that with the feelings I read about at Sixty-Six, in the WP and the story in the International Herald Tribune, I feel a real reality disconnect here.

So while some might still support the mission. I get the impression, even under the troops who are the last to lose faith, gung ho isn’t the phrase I’d use for those on repeated deployments.

It would seem to me, those in Iraq are no longer fighting an enemy. They are fighting to support each other. They follow orders because that is what orders are for; they do their job with pride: clear an IED, search a house or help in the reconstruction; not to help the Iraqi’s, not because someone in Washington wants them to – but because there are fellow Americans doing the same thing and they need help.

Ackerman points out that the Democrats do themselves a disservice by claiming to help the troops and wanting them to withdraw. His point is that the ‘troops’ don’t want to withdraw. I think the troops want to stay together. No-one wants to be the first to leave or the last to go. But I disagree that there is still a strong feeling of mission.

Returning to the Washington Post feature,

Last winter, with her husband due home in 100 days, Modeen and the kids put 100 M&Ms in a jar. Every day, they took one out; as the pile got smaller, Staff Sgt. Nathan Modeen was closer to coming home. Sam was growing excited. Then came news of the 125-day extension.

Jennifer Modeen could hardly stand it: “We just threw the M&Ms away.”

While Ackerman may be right and the soldiers still haven’t lost hope in the mission, I’d argue that they have lost their M&Ms.

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