Wayne O'Leary

Loving Our Legionnaires

The political wrangling between Congress and the Bush administration over the past several weeks has produced a wondrous revelation about American policy in Iraq: We're not stuck indefinitely in the Mesopotamian sands because of WMDs, an Iraqi-al Qaeda connection, the need to establish Mideast democracy, or any other prior rationale; we're there because of "the troops." We have to support the troops by keeping them in Iraq, providing them logistically with a home away from home, and retaining an open-ended budget for the war they're fighting.

Deadlines for withdrawal would hurt the troops. Cuts in money or manpower would hurt the troops. Discussion of alternative strategies would hurt the troops. In fact, doing anything differently than it's been done for the past four years would hurt the troops. This is the administration line, and it's sticking to it. By refusing to defund the war, Congress implies that it agrees. You see, it's all about the troops, always has been from the start. They are the raison d'être for this war, not simply the instruments for pursuing it. And who can be against the troops?

There's a bizarre kind of circular logic at work here. We can't get out of Iraq without withdrawing our troops, but if we withdraw them, we're not backing them or their mission, however that mission may be redefined from week to week. In a way, the troops are held hostage by the war policy, and at the same time, we're held hostage by the troops; they can't leave until we let them, but we can't let them because that would be not supporting them. It's a Catch-22. So the war continues.

And the circle of sophistry draws ever tighter as more of the troops are killed in action, becoming almost a Gordian knot impossible to unravel. The dead can't be allowed to have died for nothing, yet no one knows what they died for, because the reasons keep changing. Nevertheless, the more troops that die, the greater the demand for us to support them by leaving them in place, so previous sacrifices won't have been in vain. This means many more will die, while the reason for their deaths grows more obscure and pointless by the day.

As insane as this appears on its face, the troops themselves appear to accept it. When asked if they believe in "the mission," they inevitably respond in the affirmative -- at least when on camera. Of necessity, they define the mission for themselves, understandably investing it with noble purposes and good intentions. They are there, they say, to fight terrorism, defend America, save Iraq, help defenseless people, and generally improve conditions for humanity -- serving as the representatives of a kind of international welfare/rescue society.

The question of whether or not the troops and their families support the effort in Iraq is constantly posed, and their mantra-like affirmation -- the cause is just, the motives pure, the commitment right -- is offered up as an unassailable argument for our continued presence in that country, the ultimate retort to war critics. This shouldn't strike anyone as strange. In an all-volunteer armed force, no one backs war more than the warriors. It has always been so. Biographies of generals like Douglas MacArthur and George Patton have described their subjects' misery during the fallow inter-war period between 1918 and 1941, a malaise that bordered on despair. Career soldiers, especially the officer class, need war as much as architects need building contracts and lawyers need legal cases; it's the prime avenue toward professional recognition and advancement.

Things are a little different in the ranks. Ordinary soldiers join the service for a variety of reasons: sincere patriotism, economic need, desire for challenge and adventure. A few are motivated by darker impulses: the wish to subjugate and even kill. All have one thing in common, however: they want to be where they are sent, and they generally accept without question whatever assignment they are given. Surveys have shown that while support for the war in Iraq is slipping among the troops as disillusionment gradually sets in, they remain 10% to 15% more favorable towards current policy than the populace as a whole, two-thirds of whom oppose it.

That's the danger to a democracy of an all-volunteer professional military, and it's why the decision to continue a war like the present one should not rest on the attitude of the troops. As Andrew J. Bacevitch observed recently in The Nation, reliance on an all-volunteer army removes the constraints against using force imposed by an army made up of reluctant citizen-soldiers. There's no unpopular draft to hinder presidential war making, and a military detached from society -- ours comes from less than 1% of the population -- contributes to executive freedom of action. In Bacevitch's phrase, the US military has now become "the property of the Commander in Chief," to be used in pursuit of his personal foreign-policy objectives. And, it could be added, any congressional resistance to his actions can always be dismissed as counter to the welfare of the troops doing his bidding.

This is where we find ourselves 30 years after Richard Nixon's inspired realization that an imperial presidency required a career military tied closely to the executive and impervious to democratic influences, much like those wielded by Latin American caudillos or Prussian autocrats. In the present conflict, the only counterbalance to the president's personal Regular Army is the contingent of National Guard and Reserve troops making up close to half of the US forces on the ground. Its members, especially the Guardsmen, are older than their counterparts; they have been unexpectedly plucked from civilian life, and their loyalties, as part-time home guards, are somewhat divided. Above all, they lack the true gung-ho spirit of the Regulars.

As more and more of these increasingly unhappy weekend warriors are shunted to the Middle East, some for a second or third time, the perceived attitudes of the troops and their families at home can be expected to change. In a time of backdoor drafts and extended deployments, the solid phalanx of uniformed Americans willing to enthusiastically serve and die in a meaningless war will begin to crumple, as in Vietnam. It's only a matter of time, and it's the incumbent imperial president's worst nightmare.

Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.

From The Progressive Populist, June 15, 2007

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