Our troops deserve better from us
There is a bill pending in the U.S. House of Representatives, passed by the Senate, declaring March 30 to be “Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day,” and similar efforts are under way in a few states. This is in recognition of the lousy treatment given to troops returning from Vietnam four decades ago.
This is a bit of inside baseball, but when Vietnam vets meet for the first time, as they shake hands they are likely to exchange a greeting of “welcome home,” a custom that arose since some never heard those words when they returned. When Vietnam vets gather, the speaker sometimes begins with, “Welcome home!” Some like to hear it, some like me get tired of it.
Speaking only for myself, I think there are far more important things Congress and state legislatures should be doing and if they want to be supportive of our troops, for Pete’s sake, do something for the troops currently fighting multiple wars for us. We treat them too much like mercenaries, specialists we hire to gamble their life to do our dirty work.
I know what you’re thinking. We tell our troops “Thank you!” in a hundred ways now. Applause ripples in airports as groups of uniformed troops come and go on deployment. News reports praise our troops. Some citizens are bold enough to walk up to a man or woman in uniform to thank them for their service.
Years ago when the Iraq war was in full tilt, I heard Rush Limbaugh on the radio talk about outbursts of tears and greeting and applause for our troops in airports, and he said, “I’ll just bet it makes Vietnam vets furious.” Rush is wrong far more frequently than he thinks, and this time he couldn’t have been more wrong. Nobody is more determined than we are to never let troops come home from war to a cold shoulder again, not so long as we are alive.
But beyond lip service, as a nation we are not treating our men and women in uniform well. At the root, I believe, is politics and America’s obsession with being liked.
How long has it been since America made its own decisions on military intervention? For a long time we have sought the blessing of the United Nations, an inept and corrupt organization, thereby giving control to the Russians and Chinese on the Security Council. What a way to promote freedom.
We don’t fight wars to win any more. America gets involved in a shooting war and quickly we morph into a peacekeeping or nation-building force, turning our troops into targets of insurgents.
In search of international support and spreading good will, we tell our own troops to take extraordinary risks to protect civilians, thereby increasing our own casualties. Air and artillery support are withheld from troops in a firefight unless there are assurances civilians cannot be harmed. Troop movements, suspect searches, counter-attacks are decided with a filter of civilian reaction and safety while our enemy quickly learns to hide where we will not strike.
Our enemies no longer fear us. They now know they need not defeat our military machine; they only require a TV news camera nearby when they start a fight that leaves civilian casualties from American involvement, because what America fears most is bad press.
As Peggy Noonan wrote in the Wall Street Journal last week, it is so easy for us to get involved in a war but very difficult to end one because the day American boots hit the ground there is a rapidly growing list of reasons we cannot leave lest we be blamed for consequences.
And so, we become entangled in the complexities of culture and history we know little about, like Iraq and Afghanistan, and in our need for the world to like us, with every wiggle to leave our boots get sucked a little deeper into the mire.
Disengaging from Iraq is taking forever, scheduled for this December but don’t bet the farm yet on our complete withdrawal.
In Afghanistan, where we have been fighting even longer, I have complete confidence in the strength and capability of our fighting force, but zero confidence we can transform that 7th century warlord culture into a stable nation.
The mental image of the corrupt civilian leadership flying to their hidey hole with suitcases of American taxpayer cash doesn’t help.
While our troops are under fire, we have a duty to support them in every way possible. But the first leg of that support should be giving them a mission with a high chance of success.
So what was President Obama thinking when he approved a troop surge in 2009, but announced at the same time we would begin our withdrawal this summer? Readily apparent to me was a political split-the-baby maneuver to soften the blow to his anti-war supporters. Our enemy took careful notice.
Color it any way you wish, to me it was an unforgivable betrayal of the people we send to fight and sometimes come home severely wounded or worse. As a nation, and as individual presidents, we want too much to be liked.
How far we have drifted from Teddy Roosevelt’s notion of, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” Since I am a dinosaur, I can say it with less finesse: we should strike fear in our enemies’ hearts, our allies should respect us, we should continue to be kind and generous, we should withhold our military might until the world’s cretins provoke us, then we should squash those cretins like the bugs they are.
If overwhelming force isn’t going to end the conflict quickly, like in Afghanistan, maybe the message is we should strike the enemy as we can with weapons that don’t require boots on the ground.
Go ahead and think me a Neanderthal simpleton in a complex world. I would argue that using our military as an arm of the State Department, as we have been doing now for some time, sends a message of weakness around the world. Our enemies are emboldened, our ability to influence world affairs is diminished as even allies have less concern about American support.
As a nation, there is a price to pay beyond the cost in dollars. When America is strong and bold, the cretins of the world tend to stay under their rocks. When America is hesitant and tentative, the cretins cause trouble we must deal with. Peace comes from strength.
Our military is now stretched very thin. There is little strength in reserve for unexpected events like China making an opportunistic move on Taiwan, or a no-fly zone in Libya, never mind the potential for natural disasters on our own shores.
There is also a personal cost, but you and I don’t have to pay it. We have an all-volunteer military now, so we can go about our daily life with little concern about war. Someone else does the dirty work. Do you even know someone who serves in the military?
If you do, ask them what happens when America gets itself into a war we cannot end. Ask them about three or four or five tours in a war zone, what it does to a family, how serving repeatedly in combat changes them even if they return without serious wounds.
But we don’t even have to think about it. You and I don’t have any skin in the game. When the President or Congress considers committing American troops to a conflict, it won’t be our children at risk. We can relax and focus on “American Idol.”
Because there is a rapidly diminishing part of the population with military and combat experience, we tend to push social change on the military with little understanding of the consequence.
The latest is a report ordered by Congress on diversity in the military’s leadership – turns out the proportion of blacks, Hispanics and women in the leadership structure is inadequate.
Peachy. Now we will use a new brand of affirmative action instead of just selecting the best.
This reminds me of Army General Casey’s warnings in the aftermath of the Ft. Hood shootings that we must be sensitive to diversity. That sounds harmless enough, but the shooter, Major Nidal Malik Hasan, had outwardly given clear signs for years of pro-Muslim, anti-American sentiments, but nobody did anything for fear of upsetting the diversity applecart.
General Casey might be a good example, as is Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mullen, of soldiers and sailors morphing into politicians when promoted beyond a certain level.
We don’t think of our troops when we should. As the debate raged about spending a trillion dollars on stimulus a couple years ago, I never heard any politician point to our troops sacrificing on multiple combat tours and suggesting we give them a handsome bonus. What about a cash bonus for every year in a war zone with the condition they have to spend it to boost the economy? Maybe it is too easy to not think about our troops; after all, they are volunteers.
Things aren’t all bad. Our Navy is a vital part of projecting American power in the world and is a key asset of aid in disasters like recently in Japan even though the number of ships has been cut in half since the late 1980s. Our armed forces today are the most combat-experienced ever, the world’s best, highly professional, well trained and skilled, standing by to bet their life on the missions we hand to them.
We should continue to thank our troops, to applaud them in airports. But they deserve far more from us.
[Terry Garlock lives in Peachtree City. He occasionally contributes a column to The Citizen.]