Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Military, Part I - Supporting The Troops

A few months back, commenter Edwin Drood yelled at me to stop pretending to support American military personnel because, being a liberal, I obviously didn't care about them. This came in response to a post I had written which was all about supporting the troops. In other words, he seemed to be insisting the entire post was a fabrication, questioning the integrity of my stated positions as a facade, a public ruse. Why he did this I do not know, except perhaps out of the knee-jerk conservative idea that we liberals and lefties hate the US military.

With all the folderol surrounding the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks in 2001, one part that has been strangely absent has been commentary about the wars that flowed from that event. One, the invasion of Afghanistan, heated up yesterday with a Taliban attack on the US embassy in Kabul. The other, our war of choice in Iraq, while winding down, still sees 43,000 American service personnel stationed in-country, with debates over whether the December deadline for final withdrawal could be modified to leave behind as many as 3,000 American troops - too small to be really effective, just large enough to be a nice target for the on-going, low-level insurgency.

In the intervening years, the stories of the official neglect of our armed forces have been legion. From former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's choice to do the Iraq invasion on the cheap - too few troops, too little ammunition, thin supply lines susceptible to interruption, too little body armor, too little armor on personnel carriers - to the stage-managed stories of heroism that turned out to be false, to the lack of adequate troop presence in the wake of the fall of Saddam Hussein to prevent both massive looting (including Iraq's world-important museum of antiquities) and a rise in sectarian and sectional violence, creating a state of de facto civil war for nearly a decade. In the intervening years, the parsimony toward the troops has included lack of adequate training in local customs, lack of support for troops facing the psychological strains of low-level combat, and, of course, the horrendous conditions facing troops who muster out of the service only to find the Department of Veterans Affairs to be insouciant toward everything from nagging battle wounds to PTSD. Even the physical plant of DVA hospitals has been found wanting, crumbling, peeling paint, to go along with a lack of adequate care for everything from the psychological toll of battle on young men and women to making snap judgments that deny care to vets.

All of these, and more, have been on-going under both Republican and Democratic Administrations and Congresses, so it isn't partisan. While we can listen to silly people who spout slogans, the fact remains that this has been done under what can only be termed moderately to extremely conservative ideological conditions.

Just before the Iraq invasion, I attended one of those silly, pointless "debates" on the issue, this one at Illinois Valley Community College. One of the people at the debate, who claimed to be a philosophy professor, insisted we who oppose the war cannot claim, simultaneously, to support the troops, as he put it, "qua troops", because as soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen, their job was to do the very thing we opposed. Thus, it is intellectually inconsistent to insist that we both oppose the war and support the troops. I found this position to be one of the funniest, most infuriating things I have ever heard.

The wars we are still fighting are not the fault of our military personnel. Despite what far too many ignorant folks on the left believe, the military does not make policy. Sure, they recommend various policies, including military contingencies - that is their job, after all - but they do not make the decision to go to war, nor do they, in the final analysis, determine either strategy or overall battle plan. Because the military is under civilian control, responsibility for that lies solely with the Executive Branch. When the President, the Secretary of Defense and various civilian underlings make a decision, the uniformed service chiefs and their staffs do the only thing they can do - they carry out their orders, to the best of their abilities, with their eyes on doing so in such a way as to ensure minimal casualties, and bring about as swift a conclusion as possible. That is their duty.

Furthermore, the US military, for all the Defense budget really is a bloated, unmanageable blister - it is literally impossible, even for all the accountants and auditors in the Department of Defense, to keep track of all that money - since the end of the Cold War, the amount spent on actual service personnel has declined, and continues to do so even in a time of war. Our current fiscal situation is a reflection of our national refusal to support our troops, to set the nastiness and ugliness of war to one side and carry on our national affairs as if we were a nation at peace, rather than one which has committed hundreds of thousands of our young men and women to combat in far-flung places, risking their lives with inadequate funding, inadequate equipment, and inadequate official support (not including the lack of either a strategy or, as the saying goes, an end-game, particularly in Afghanistan). No amount of repetition of these realities seems able to change this situation. Our politics is just too warped, too entrenched in multiple unrealities.

In 2003, weeks before the Iraq invasion, I gave a talk to a group of folks in a church setting in which I spoke against the impending invasion, and in which I declared that the stated reasons for the invasion - the presence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction - were a lie. One person came up to me after and was quite visibly enraged. As he spoke of his son's presence in Kuwait, preparing for the invasion, and how my words had "dishonored" him, I asked him, "Why is a speech insisting that our troops should not be risked on a lie a dishonor? Isn't it a greater dishonor to risk one's life for a lie?"

I understood, even then, that the emotional investment so many Americans have, once our troops have been committed to battle, is far too high to entertain questions about the motives and methods of our politicians. We are simply to remain silent and "support the troops". Since that time I have come to realize the phrase is empty as long as there is not a sustained commitment to think through what the commitment entails, the sacrifices we all must make to ensure their mission is carried through expeditiously, and that the civilians who control the military have done all they can to plan, provide, and protect our young men and women in uniform. They have volunteered to serve us, to set their lives and fortunes aside in order to make sure the United States is safe. The least they deserve is competent civilian management and the attention from the public to their sacrifices so that, before, during, and after the guns go off, they get what they need.

Virtual Tin Cup

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