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The morale myth: Republicans say war critics undermine the troops. So why are dissent and soldier morale both going up?

At the height of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in 2004, Republicans rushed to defend the honor of the million or so soldiers who were not implicated. They worried that the troops, who watch cable news in the mess halls and blog in the internet cafes might mistake the public revulsion over a particular set of uses for a dislike of soldiers in general. If the troops lost heart, then the war--however noble and well-conceived--might be lost as well. Perhaps even worse, dissent at home might embolden our enemies in Iraq. And there was a historical precedent. "This happened in Vietnam," said Tom DeLay at the time, excoriating John Kerry for circulating a letter calling for Donald Rumsfeld's resignation. "It happened in other wars, where the troops wondered if people are really behind them."

Over the last year, as calls from Democrats and dissident Republicans to pull the troops out of Iraq have grown louder, so, too, have the warnings from Bush supporters about harming troop morale. Bill O'Reilly has issued the alarm. ("If you're going to exploit casualties in a time of war, that undermines morale.") So has Oliver North. ("My hope and prayer is that we're not going to sabotage the morale of these good troops, these soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines ... with this kind of rhetoric.") Not surprisingly, George W. Bush agrees. "When our soldiers hear politicians in Washington question the mission they are risking their lives to accomplish," the president recently told a gathering of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, "it hurts their morale."

Intuitively, such criticisms make sense. War isn't easy, after all, and hauling yourself out of bed each morning to face the possibility that the next Iraqi you encounter has dynamite strapped to his back can only be harrowing, even if you happen to believe in the mission. The only thing that could make it worse, presumably, would be a sense that you were dying for a cause in which your country had lost faith. You'd surely want to throw in the towel, especially if there were no end in sight.

Such reasoning has strategic appeal to a besieged Republican Party that finds itself tied to an increasingly unpopular war. It makes clamping down on dissent sound patriotic rather than partisan. And, politically, it seems to work. A November 2005 poll by the bipartisan polling and consulting firm RT Strategies found that 70 percent of Americans--including 55 percent of Democrats--agree that "criticism of the war by Democratic senators hurts troop morale."

But here's the problem: There's absolutely no evidence for it. In fact, a series of Pentagon surveys suggests that most troops in Iraq have grown more satisfied with their jobs, not less, even as criticism of the war has grown stronger. Troop morale, it turns out, depends on many factors, the most important being immediate conditions on the ground--how comfortable troops feel at their base, how often they get to call home. Levels of support for the war among elected officials in Washington or the U.S. public at large have little, if anything, to do with it.

Stars and gripes

Poke around among those professing concern for the feelings of the troops and it quickly becomes clear how little evidence they've got. Take Bush. According to National Security Council spokesman Frederick Jones, the president's understanding of the relationship between dissent and troop morale is based on his "conversations with troops and his deep reading of history"--particularly the lesson of the 1970s protesters who spit on soldiers returning from Vietnam and "called the troops 'baby killers." The White House offered no other support. A spokesman for Tom DeLay provided even less, merely claiming that the connection "goes without saying." As with Bush, DeLay's meetings with troops were also cited. Calls to leading conservative military experts at the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation were no more fruitful.

Such solicitude toward the troops hints at an odd conception of the military man--as if he's a frail creature, quick to dejection. Those closer to the military, however, tend to describe someone made of stronger stuff. "Soldiers aren't just robots who turn on CNN and see there are protesters and get depressed," says professor Morton Ender, a military sociologist at West Point, who recently visited troops in Iraq and found morale there to be high. "They are active participants in their own wellbeing" who can distinguish between criticism of the president and criticism of the troops. "Don't say that political speeches hurt morale," the Army newspaper Stars and Stripes quoted a senior officer as saying in 2003, when morale was at its lowest of the war. "What hurts morale is lack of equipment. What hurts morale is watching a soldier die. What hurts morale is not having enough boots on the ground to get the job done and keep it that way."

And what helps morale, it turns out, is mostly the mundane stuff--hot showers, video games, email and phone communication with families back home. As a March 2006 study by the Strategic Studies Institute of the Army War College concludes, "The forward operating base has emerged as a critical factor in shaping the ability for soldiers to maintain the requisite psychological readiness for combat operations." And, on that front, there's been progress. The first troops in Iraq slept in tents and ate three rationed meals a day. Today, while troops in Iraq can't have alcohol, they generally have comfortable beds and warm meals, access to internet and phones, and attentive medical care. Some bases even have weight rooms and cappuccino bars. "[Troops] can have a shared deprived experience," says Dr. Ender. "But once the bullets stop flying, they want stuff. This is a generation used to having their accoutrements." Such improvements on base appear to have improved morale, too. In 2003, the same year The American Soldier was Time Person of the Year, an Army Surgeon General's Mental Health Advisory Report on morale in Iraq found that 70 percent of soldiers in Iraq between August and October of 2003 reported low or very low troop morale. Asked to list "deployment stressors," soldiers most frequently named uncertain redeployment dates and lack of communication with home, among other things. Yet in 2004, when support had begun to decline and John Kerry was allegedly giving aid and comfort to the enemy, an almost identical follow-up report released in 2005 by the same Surgeon General team found that only 50 percent now reported low or very low morale. "Many quality of life concerns such as lack of privacy, lack of personal space, and difficulties communicating back home were reported much less frequently" between 2003 and 2004, reported the team.

This change certainly didn't come about because of isolation from opinions on the home front. Even as computers have improved tactical military communications, so, too, means of civilian communication have dramatically increased in number. Soldiers in Iraq have nearly instant access to news from home. The internet is generally available on established bases (courtesy of Halliburton), and, where it isn't, some units have bought it for themselves. Cable news (especially FOX News) runs constantly in the mess halls, Stars and Stripes enjoys wide distribution, and mail service is reliable. Making a phone call is only slightly more difficult than in any foreign country.

If anything, then, upgrades in conditions in the field would only give troops more time to brood over shifts in public sentiment in the United States. Nevertheless, despite paternalistic worries that troops might lose heart over what was being said on The New York Times editorial page, even the most pointed criticism at home seems to have little effect on morale, as long as it is directed at either the administration or the malfeasance of individual soldiers. The uproar over Abu Ghraib provides a striking example. Because the news broke while army sociologists were preparing the surgeon general's 2004 survey, the military leadership in Iraq requested a special assessment of mental health among the troops still stationed at the prison complex. Curiously, morale among these soldiers appeared to be neither better nor worse than that of other soldiers in Iraq. "All in all," the final report said, "custodial staff members believed they were coping well with stressors."

In addition to direct surveys, statistics on retention--the number of soldiers eligible to reenlist who do so--can also provide hints about morale. Although the army has had to use sleight of hand to mask its faltering recruitment rates, reenlistment numbers have actually been better than expected. Indeed, since 2003, the Army has been revising its expected retention numbers upwards. In 2000, the Army projected that 20,000 soldiers completing their first term would reenlist, and 21,402 took up the challenge. In 2005, it expected 26,935 to re-up, and 27,818 did. The Marines--who invariably have the strongest combat morale--have also been successful, retaining 6,152 troops in 2005, 300 more than in 2000. "High retention is a reflection of high morale," says Army spokesman Sheldon Smith, "and, conversely, low retention would reflect low morale." (The big exception to the trend is the reserves, where retention numbers have been declining. But experts attribute that outlier not to political criticism of the effort but with other factors particular to the reserves: Namely, reservists have been required to stay in the theater and away from their homes and families for far longer than they expected to upon signing up. This is a reality that Republicans would have trouble blaming on anyone else.)

If you have any lingering suspicions that criticism of the war damages the way troops feel and perform, look no further than the political opinions of the troops themselves. A recent Zogby poll found that 72 percent of troops in Iraq believe the United States should withdraw in a year, and 29 percent think it should do so immediately, numbers that closely track polling on the home front. Another poll of active duty military personnel conducted by Military Times similarly shows a sharp decline in support for President Bush and the Iraq war. Soldiers are increasingly coming to the opinion that we're not winning the war, we're not likely to, and that we should begin withdrawing sooner rather than later. But, as they've come to this conclusion, their morale has held steady or improved, and there are no indications that their performance has suffered in any way. It's hard to imagine better evidence that the tough criticism of the war we're now seeing doesn't hurt morale.

Republicans have spent a lot of time fighting off Vietnam analogies, so it's strange that they're so attached to this one. Never mind that many historians have questioned the stories of soldiers being spit on (at the very least, such occurrences were exceptional), or that demoralized draftees in Vietnam were depressed long before they arrived on the front. And never mind that the only means of preventing troops from hearing criticism of the war--by imposing either censorship at home or media blackouts in Iraq--would be profoundly un-American. With approval ratings of 34 percent and public confidence in the war plummeting, the president and his allies prefer to blame their critics. But if Bush is truly concerned about troop morale, he should do more to strengthen it. This means respecting our soldiers enough to provide them with a clear mission and the resources with which to achieve it, or giving them a clear date when we're pulling out of Iraq altogether. It doesn't mean enlisting them as shields whenever there's criticism of their commander in chief.

Avi Klein is a writer in Washington, DC.
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Author:Klein, Avi
Publication:Washington Monthly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2006
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