Rick Atkinson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of An Army at Dawn, and more recently, In the Company of Soldiers, has a thoughtful essay in the Sunday Outlook section of today's Washington Post on a dilemma I've long wrestled with. Mr. Atkinson writes about the tension between supporting the troops' morale by supporting their ultimate purpose — and supporting the troops by critically examining the means and ends chosen for their employment. Here's how he begins:
One morning in 1966, when I was an eighth-grader at Gen. George S. Patton Jr. Junior High School at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., we were mustered onto the playground in a formation of huge block letters that spelled: WE BACK YOU. A helicopter appeared over- head, and a photographer leaned from the cockpit. The subsequent photograph, published in a newspaper, was meant to inspirit the troops in Vietnam.I think he's quite right to draw the comparison between today and the Vietnam War. The common denominator between these two eras is the charge that those who oppose the nation's reasons for war or its conduct of the war might somehow be giving aid and comfort to the enemy. In Vietnam, this assertion was buttressed by the fact that both the peace movement and the North Vietnamese wanted nothing more than to see the U.S. withdraw from Southeast Asia. Such a common goal made it easy to draw the conceptual links. Today, the link is not so clear, as many who oppose the war in Iraq do so because it frustrates U.S. policy in the Middle East, not because they want withdrawal. Nonetheless, those who oppose the war, or who call for its chief architects' resignation, have been often criticized as anti-American or disloyal to the troops.
As the sons and daughters of professional Army officers, our impulse was to close ranks and stand where we were told to stand. For us the affirmation was not political, it was personal. We tried not to confuse the warriors with the war.
Yet over the years as the war dragged on, the dead stacked up and the country splintered, that distinction became harder to sustain. The suspicion that our soldiers were risking their lives in a bad, lost cause soon became so searing that many of us insisted the war was righteous and winnable. To admit otherwise felt like a betrayal of those we loved; it also implied that we had been duped. We closed ranks with the policy as well as with the troops. We conflated the warriors and the war. So did the country, in ways that became toxic.
Today the equivalent of "We back you" slogans can be found on military posts across the country, expressed in yellow ribbons and lapel pins and yard signs supporting the troops in Iraq. In a relatively small, volunteer Army, the agony of 1,300 dead and 10,000 wounded sears some communities more than others, and none more than the extended family that is the professional military.
Indeed, such conflation reaches the highest levels of the U.S. government. When former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger issued his report on the Abu Ghraib scandal, he rejected out of hand the prospect that Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld should resign, saying "his resignation would be a boon to all of America's enemies, and consequently I think that it would be a misfortune if it were to take place." (See also this AP story capturing current GOP sentiment on the SecDef's fate.) That astonishing statement captures the very essence of this issue. Even when we know we should make a certain policy choice, such as to fire the SecDef, we will not do so. The need to maintain the veneer of unity and resolvle trumps all; any wavering, uncertainty or debate is assumed top project the appearance of weakness to our enemies. We saw this issue during the presidential election too, with the assertions by President Bush that Sen. Kerry was unfit to serve as Commander-in-Chief because he questioned the wisdom and efficacy of the war in Iraq.
Mr. Atkinson continues that this tension is often too great to reconcile, and that we may have to live with simply identifying it:
While some voice private doubts, others insist — often with increasing stridency — that the war is justified, that the insurgency can be crushed and that naysaying undermines both national will and troop morale. I admire their steadfast faith, even as I recognize the dilemma. To disbelieve seems too much like betrayal. Skepticism and dissent appear inimical to service and sacrifice.This is a dilemma I've wrestled with since March 2003, if not earlier. I'm still not sure there's a way to coherently reconcile one's support for the troops with opposition to the war. This seems like cognitive dissonance in the extreme; to support the people who are laboring on one hand, but to oppose the purpose towards which they pour their blood, sweat and tears. On the receiving end of this speech, it's hard to see the line between supporting our soldiers while opposing the purpose for which they labor. It's not like we're talking about some corporate bottom line here. This purpose is used to justify great sacrifice by our soldiers, much more so than any employee in any other context. They face mortal danger every day; they miss their families; some will be wounded, a few killed — all in the name of this purpose. And you're going to come in and say that the war's being fought wrong — or worse yet, that this purpose isn't good enough? If that's true, the whole house of cards comes tumbling down — there's no more purpose to justify their enormous sacrifices.
Keeping the warriors and the war untangled is extraordinarily difficult, intellectually and emotionally. All that most of us can do is to mean precisely what we say: We back you.
Viktor Frankl wrote so many years ago that man will bear almost any hardship in the name of a purpose. If we oppose the purpose of this administration in Iraq, do we make it tougher for our soldiers to bear the hardship? On the other hand, if we remain mute, do we risk prolonging the hardship unnecessarily?
I'm still unsure about my answer. But increasingly, I have come to the conclusion that we owe it to our soldiers, as the citizens who exercise ultimate control over the politicians who send them into harm's way, to question the purposes and means of our wars. True loyalty to the soldier requires we bear witness to their sacrifice, and that we honor their sacrifice by ensuring that their efforts are not wasted, let alone their lives. Our democracy depends on the willingness of each generation of young Americans to put themselves in harm's way. But those young Americans depend on us, as citizens, to ensure they go into combat with the right stuff, and for the right cause.
Post Script: It is a sign of our nation's strength that we can produce young citizens like Alan Babin, who was willing to serve in the Army as a combat medic. We owe it to him (and the thousands like him) to do our duty as citizens.