In his rebuttal to President Bush’s State of the Union Address on Tuesday, Sen. Jim Webb (D., VA) stated, “The majority of the nation no longer supports the way this war is being fought; nor does the majority of our military.”
Where the Virginia senator got his definitive military majority is anybody’s guess. But I would suppose it is from the recent poll conducted by Military Times, which shows a somewhat higher than marginal disapproval of the way the president “is handling the situation with Iraq.”
Keep in mind, however, that of the 6,000 Military Times subscribers who were polled, 13 percent said they believe the U.S. is “very likely” to succeed in Iraq. Thirty seven percent said “somewhat likely” to succeed. Thirty one percent said “not very likely” to succeed. And 10 percent said “not at all likely” to succeed. That means 50 percent of those polled believe the U.S. will probably prevail, 41 percent of those polled believe the U.S. probably will not prevail, and eight percent had no answer.
Hardly accurate numbers to suggest — as Webb has — that the troops no longer support the way the war is being prosecuted: A subliminal suggestion to the general public that American soldiers no longer believe in the overall effort in Iraq (which is absolutely false).
What the numbers do suggest — and what we who have worn the uniform of the United States have always known — is that soldiers and sailors gripe. They get frustrated like everyone else. They blow off steam. And they have been doing so since armies first marched and navies sailed. They complain about the food (even when it is superb). They dismiss the equipment as being worthless (even when it is the best in the world). And they sometimes grumble that their leaders are stupid (though those leaders might be tactical masters on the battlefield). The unhappiest and most rebellious of those who gripe are also the most vocal in their griping.
But let’s consider the poll and Webb’s comment, and then consider the hard facts.
POLLING THE MILITARY
Like all polls taken, the opinions registered are a reflection of a singular point in time.
And points in time during combat operations are fluid, always evolving, devolving, and dramatically changing from one day to the next.
Also, unlike polls conducted among the general populace, independent news polls taken solely among military personnel almost never reflect a consensus of the military, because most military personnel won’t participate. They’re extremely cautious about speaking on or off the record — even anonymously — without permission. The ones who are content and support the decisions of their superiors are often quiet, as are the discontented. But if one is to speak, it is usually the one who is perhaps disgruntled.
This doesn’t mean that a soldier of one political ideology would speak and the other would not. But an unhappy soldier, for whatever reason, almost always seems to be quickest to speak.
What further narrowed the opinions gleaned from the Military Times poll are the facts that the vast majority of those polled had deployed to Iraq only once since 2003 (suggesting the poll reflected a majority opinion of either very new soldiers or those not in combat arms units). Only nine percent of those polled were Marines, when Marines make up over 12 percent of the U.S. Armed Forces, and a huge chunk of the Corps is directly involved in the fighting in Iraq. And those polled from all services had to be subscribers to at least one of the Military Times’ independent newspapers.
So proof of how soldiers might really feel, may not be gleaned from polling. The proof is in the numbers of who is staying when he or she has the opportunity to leave, and why.
Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty, chief spokesman for the U.S. Army’s personnel office, tells National Review Online, two out of three soldiers eligible to reenlist have been reenlisting for the past several years, and 2006 was no exception.
“The 2006 reenlistment rate of active-duty soldiers was, across the board, higher than the pre-9/11 rate,” he says. “The unusually high, even by our standards, 2002 and 2003 rate is likely due to patriotic fervor and a desire to not leave the service before getting into the fight against terrorists.”
The Army’s reenlistment numbers for the past six years break down as follows: For Fiscal Year 2006 (FY06), the Army’s goal was to retain 64,200 soldiers already on active duty. The service exceeded that goal by retaining 67,307 eligible soldiers. In other words, 3,107 soldiers — in addition to the ones the Army had hoped to re-up — raised their right hands and swore to continue defending the nation even if it meant service in Iraq. That’s 105 percent of the goal of re-upping eligible soldiers (Contrary to public perception, not all active-duty soldiers are eligible to reenlist. For example, the Army does not want and will not retain a soldier who is not meeting physical fitness or other performance standards.).
FY06 was not unlike previous years.
In FY05, the Army needed to retain 64,162. They met and exceeded that goal at 108 percent by retaining 69,512 eligible soldiers.
In FY04, the goal was 56,100. The goal was exceeded at 107 percent with 60,010.
In FY03, the goal was 51,000. The goal was exceeded at 106.2 percent with 54,151.
In FY02, the goal was 56,800. The goal was exceeded at 102.5 percent with 58,237.
And in FY01, the goal was 64,000. The goal was exceeded at 101.5 percent with 64,982.
Simply put, the majority of America’s soldiers are voluntarily remaining in the Army when they have the opportunity to leave, which is the only accurate measurable response to whether-or-not soldiers believe in what they are doing and support the way they are being led.
“This is an indicator that those who have joined the Army find an institution with values, where they can trust the people on their right and left, where they’re involved in something bigger than themselves, and where they find value in service,” says Hilferty.
Marine Corps retention goals and numbers are similar. In fact, the Marines have far-exceeded all retention goals for the past six years, and have already achieved 82 percent of their goal for FY07, and there are eight more months remaining in FY07.
“This is because Marines reenlist for the same reason they joined the Marine Corps,” Major Trevor Hall, assistant to the head of Marine enlisted retention and counseling, tells NRO. “They reenlist to serve their country and fight the war on terrorism, to be challenged both physically and mentally, and to develop leadership skills that will enable them to be successful in life no matter what the calling.”
What’s particularly interesting — and in fact, runs contradictory to Senator Webb’s comment — is that For FY06, the goal for first-time enlistments of Marine infantry riflemen (the leathernecks who kick in doors and fight toe-to-toe with the bad guys) was 504 Marines. Yet 511 Marines reenlisted, and of that number, 486 (95 percent) had already deployed to either Iraq or Afghanistan, and 325 had deployed more than once.
As the great 19th-century military theorist Ardant du Picq wrote, “He who knows the morale of the infantryman, which is put to the hardest proof, knows the morale of all the combatants.”
Then there are the Motor Vehicle Operators (the Marines who drive trucks in the always dangerous convoys). For FY06, the goal for first time enlistments was 212 Marines, yet 216 reenlisted. Of that number, 186 (86 percent) had deployed to either Iraq or Afghanistan, and 112 had deployed more than once.
MORALE MEASURED BY RETENTION
“If you use retention as a measure of morale, morale is certainly high,” says Hall.
Regarding the other service branches: According to the December recruiting statistics published by the U.S. Defense Department on January 11, 2007, “Retention in the services remains solid. The Army, Marine Corps and Air Force are meeting or exceeding overall retention missions. Navy met 96 percent of its year-to-date mission.” Those stats are drawn from the same period the Military Times poll was taken.
None of the retention figures include recruiting accessions (brand new recruits), and those goals too are being met or exceeded across the board, as they have since 9/11.
The Military Times poll also suggests that most soldiers believe we should have between 146,000 and 200,000-plus troops in Iraq. That’s exactly what Bush proposes and Webb opposes. The senator forgot to mention that.
— A former U.S. Marine infantry leader, W. Thomas Smith Jr. writes about military issues and has covered conflict in the Balkans and on the West Bank. He is the author of six books, and his articles appear in a variety of publications.