Politics & Policy

Troops Demoralized?

Not yet, but they will be if Kerry has his way.

President George W. Bush says that Senator John Kerry is demoralizing our troops by sending mixed signals and flip-flopping on the war. In response, Kerry says that the president is “living in a make-believe world, unwilling to tell the truth or understand the situation in Iraq.” President Bush has–by far–the better half of the argument, but he misses the point about why what Kerry says is damaging.

The problem with Kerry’s speeches is not that he’s sending mixed signals on Iraq. Of course he is, and by now most of us have lost count of them. The problem is in his sole point of constancy: Kerry says, over and over, that we need to make the Iraq war someone else’s problem, and begin pulling out. Nothing in his formulation requires that the war be won–and Iraq and Afghanistan be stable and free–before we leave. That one unshakeable position is sending a precise, consistent, and damaging message to the troops.

You might be surprised to hear how well-informed and thoughtful the grunts are. From the army private standing guard to the Marine lance corporal riding a Humvee on patrol, these men and women probably follow the news more closely than the average civilian voter. They read whatever they can get their hands on, listen to American broadcasts on the Armed Forces Radio Network, and thousands see television news broadcasts on a regular basis. They get letters from home and talk to the reporters who pass through their units. And they talk among themselves, all the time. Not just about what they’re doing, their families, and their comrades who have been wounded and killed: They discuss what’s going on at home, and how it will affect them. When they hear Kerry talking–as he did earlier this week–they hear defeatism.

In his New York University speech, Senator Kerry said we are failing to gain and keep the trust of the Iraqi people because we’re not rebuilding Iraq quickly enough, and because we’re failing to provide them security by not training Iraqi forces fast enough for them to have an election. He said that if we fixed these problems, and brought more troops in from allied nations, “…we could begin to withdraw U.S. forces starting next summer and realistically aim to bring all our troops home within the next four years.” When the grunts hear this, they hear echoes of Somalia and Vietnam.

The soldiers’ creed is not the civilians’. It is based on a concept of trust between them and their commander-in-chief: Spend my life if you have to, but don’t waste it. Wasting lives means spending them in a fight we don’t see through to its conclusion. As I’ve written before, in Inside the Asylum, my pal Dale McClellan–a former Navy SEAL–gives this explanation of what that means in terms Kerry clearly doesn’t understand.

McClellan landed in Mogadishu the day after the “Black Hawk Down” battle. As he said, “They were still washing the blood out of the Humvees when we got there.” He was perfectly willing to risk his life, and he did. But for what?

As Dale said, “I talked a lot with the senior enlisted guys and some of our officers while I was in Somalia. They always asked, ‘Why the hell are we here?’ It seemed pointless.” And it was. “We knew the place was going to go back to what it was before we came right after we left. Who wants to waste his life on something like that?” McClellan told me. “The least they can do is finish the job we went over there for. We never did that in U.N. peacekeeping missions. All those men died in Somalia, but what for?” he asked. As their fellow soldiers saw it, and as we should, those brave men died in vain.

As McClellan sees it, it’s different now. “I can go over there [to Iraq or Afghanistan] with a bunch of 22-year-old kids or 40-year-old men, and we’d go with a smile, because there’s a reason to be there. And we’re not leaving until the job is done. That means everything to the men who fight, and the families of the men who die there.” But from what Senator Kerry has said again and again, it apparently doesn’t mean much to him.

As it was in Somalia, so it is now in Iraq and Afghanistan. So it will be wherever else we have to fight against terrorists and the regimes that create and support them. To say, as Kerry does, that we should begin withdrawing our troops in six months and–with the help of the phantom allies he will get to take over in Iraq–be out altogether in four years, says nothing about finishing the job. Kerry makes no commitment to ensure that Iraq doesn’t revert to chaos after we leave. He says nothing about ending the threats to America and Iraq emanating from Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and the other nations whose terrorists have been pouring into Iraq since at least September 2002. (Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is known to have been there since then.)

If Kerry wanted to demoralize our forces, he would say little that’s different from what he is saying now. As he continues to tack with the breeze, it’s clear that there is no underlying principle that guides him, no resolve in his mind that the lives lost should not have been in vain. Kerry’s message does not promise the men and women who are risking their lives that their sacrifices will buy anything different from what dozens of lives bought in Somalia. Instead, Kerry says that we want to turn Iraq over to others, and bug out. Our troops’ morale–as best I can gauge it–is not down. They’re not happy about doing what they’re committed to do: No one wants to fight or suffer or die. But their morale depends on the resolve and commitment of their commander in chief, and the bond of trust between them and the president. If their morale isn’t down yet, it will sink more and more as they think about what Kerry would do as president. They know he will not finish the job.

NRO contributor Jed Babbin is the author of Inside the Asylum: Why the UN and Old Europe are Worse than You Think.

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