William M. Arkin on National and Homeland Security
A Note to My Readers on Supporting the Troops
I knew when I used the word "mercenary" in my Tuesday column that I was being highly inflammatory.
NBC News ran a piece in which enlisted soldiers in Iraq expressed frustration about waning American support.
I intentionally chose to criticize the military and used the word to incite and call into question their presumption that the public had a duty to support them. The public has duties, but not to the American military.
So I committed blasphemy, and for this seeming lack of respect and appreciation for individuals in uniform, I have been roundly criticized and condemned.
Mercenary, of course, is an insult and pejorative, and it does not accurately describe the condition of the American soldier today. I sincerely apologize to anyone in the military who took my words literally.
Almost every day, we can hear or read someone in uniform saying that they are just doing a "job." We don't necessarily take this to literally mean that they are only in it for the work.
Of course those who choose to wear the uniform do so because they are patriots and because they feel compelled to take up arms to defend the nation. What we take from their self-deprecating description that they are only doing their job is that they are not glory seeking, and that in order to make war and put themselves in the unnatural position of risking their lives and killing others, they have to focus on their profession, to do what they have been trained to do, to put aside the seeming inhumanity, to just "soldier on."
When we in society make war and consent to war, we accept the righteousness of those who fight on our behalf with the knowledge that they are a part of an organized and disciplined military force that operates lawfully and chivalrously. We also accept that they kill only as a last resort, and that they are engaged in a just endeavor that in its existence and though their conduct presents the prospect of restoring peaceful relations once the enemy has been defeated.
In the 30 years that we've had an all-volunteer force, this is the first war we've had where the justness of the cause is questionable and where we are losing and still could "lose."
Those in uniform who think about and speak out about this predicament are rightly frustrated and angry. Many seem to find some solace in blaming the media or anti-war "leftists" or the Democratic Party or the liberals, or even an ungrateful or insufficiently martial American public.
But if those in the military are now going to argue that we are losing in Iraq because the military has lacked for Ssomething, then the absence of such support should be placed at the feet of the Bush administration, Rumsfeld and company, and a Republican Congress -- not on the shoulders of the American public, who have been nothing but supportive, even those who have opposed the war.
Finally, the military as an institution needs to ask itself what role it plays in where we are today in Iraq. One of the reasons that the military is held in such high regard in our society is that we love and expect the honesty and toughness and professionalism of those in uniform. We expect the generals to know what they need and to speak forthrightly and without hesitation. We expect politicians and spinners to deflect responsibility and blame -- not the military.
When I hear soldiers and war supporters expressing their frustrations about the American public or the news media, something doesn't quite seem right -- even when the soldiers and war supporters aren't talking about me. I know that those in uniform would like to bring the war to an honorable conclusion, but are they blaming those who are against the war and the news media for having tied their hands under a Bush administration which is certainly the most warrior-oriented in the past 20 years? Is there no space for respectful acceptance of the possibility that people who also love the nation and care about our security think that the country is wasting national treasure - lives and money - on an unwinnable cause?
In the middle of all of this are the troops, the pawns in political battles at home as much as they are on the real battlefield. We unquestioningly "support" these troops for the very reasons that they are pawns. We give them what we can to be successful, and we have a contract with them, because they are our sons and daughters and a part of us, not to place them in an impossible spot.
In our instant and globally wired world, these very men and women are additionally burdened by their access to our debates and words. This is a difficulty of our modern world, but I completely reject the notion though that we undermine them or support the enemy by debating at home.
I also reiterate my core point, which is that military attitudes should not serve as a censor of the civilian debate at home, either literally or through intimidation.
In the end, it is Specialist Tyler Johnson who deserves a thoughtful and respectful answer, and in my original piece, I failed to give him one.
Spec. Johnson said "you may support or say we support the troops, so you're not supporting what they do, what they're here sweating for, what we bleed for, what we die for. It just don't make sense to me."
Spec. Johnson, everyone supports the troops. But if supporting the troops comes to mean that we cannot raise questions about the military, about how wars are being fought in our name, that we cannot criticize those in uniform, can't protest, can't write, can't demand better, then what kind of country do we have?
I know you are out there every day risking your life, and for that I am grateful. But I just can't stand by and do nothing when I can see that your risk is no longer being matched by a commitment or a plan or the prospect for victory or a just ending. I can't be silent when I can also see that you are a pawn in a Washington political tug-of-war that has become more about the Bush legacy and future power here at home than about Iraq.
Spec. Johnson, I also firmly believe that you are wrong if you believe that Iraq represents the difference between freedom and slavery for all of us in the future. I understand, and respect, that you think it. I understand, and respect, that that's what keeps you going. I'm just asking you to understand that different people have different views of the world, and that those views don't mean that they are un-American, anti-American, or contemptuous of the military.
By William M. Arkin | February 1, 2007; 5:31 PM ET | Category: Iraq
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