Thursday, October 12, 2006

NYT's Bob Herbert Exploits the Troops

I know my position on this subject is controversial, and that some readers will be surprised to hear me say this, but I'm fed up with listening to how only the "few" are sacrificing in our war on terror, and of seeing high profile columnists like Bob Herbert of the New York Times echo chamber this diaper dialogue to support their pet agendas.

Few people feel worse than I do for our troops who have had to serve two, three or more tours of duty in a war zone thanks to our end zone fumbles in Iraq, and I can understand why some of those troops are starting to complain about it. But when I start hearing about how unfair it is that only the troops are sacrificing, that's where my sympathy ends.

What Did the "Volunteers" Think They Were Volunteering For?

I'm not fond of chastising enlisted personnel for expressing their personal views, but Sergeant X agreed to be quoted in Herbert's October 12 column "Sacrifice of the Few," and Herbert saw fit to identify him by name. The column is nested behind NYT's Times Select firewall, but I'll give you enough snippets to illustrate my point.
Sgt. [X] remembers the time, not too long ago, when he came home on a brief leave from Iraq. He was walking through an airport, in uniform, and other passengers, spotting him, began to applaud.

“It was awesome,” he said. “They were cheering and clapping. It was great. But you know what? I said to myself, ‘That guy’s flying to Toledo on a business trip. This lady over here is flying off on vacation. Their lives are normal. But soon I’ll be getting on a plane to go back to the most abnormal place on earth.’”

What Sergeant X and Herbert don't seem to understand is that those other people's lives are "normal" because those are the lives they signed up for. Sergeant X was headed back to "the most abnormal place on earth" because he volunteered to be in the business of professional arms.

Like everyone else in the armed services today, Sergeant X was not drafted. When he volunteered to fight wars, did it not occur to him that he might actually have to fight one? And has it never occurred to Sergeant X or Herbert that America finances a robust standing professional force in peacetime so that if war breaks out, the professional force will fight it and the rest of America can go on with its "normal" life?
[Sergeant X is] safely home after serving three nerve-racking combat tours — one in Afghanistan and two yearlong tours in Iraq. He’s engaged to be married and will receive a degree soon from [a nearby] State University. His commitment to the military, which he made while still in high school…, will end in a few months.

But there is a definite edge in his voice, an undercurrent of bitterness, when he talks about the tiny percentage of the American population that is shouldering the burden of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “We’re nowhere close to sharing the sacrifice,” he said. “And it should be shared, because it’s only in that sharing that society will truly care about what’s going on over there."

The war in Iraq is the number one issue in American politics and "society" doesn't care about what's going on "over there?" As for "sharing the sacrifice," whom does Sergeant X think pays him twice a month, and spends $2 billion per week to "support" the war in Iraq, and financed his state university education and his fiancé's engagement ring?

Can We Share?

Herbert didn't let the interview end until Sergeant X endorsed one of Herbert's favorite mantras.

He said that if he could wave a magic wand, he would make some form of public service compulsory. “You wouldn’t have to join the military,” he said. “But there are many other ways to serve. You could work for AmeriCorps, or the Red Cross, or Homeland Security. You could do something. It’s about social responsibility. Especially in a time of war."

Much of the time, Bob Herbert's heart is in the right place, but on certain subjects he has his head cross threaded up another part of his anatomy, and his advocacy of compulsory national service is one of his foggiest notions.

Let's say we require every citizen between the ages of 18 and 20 to perform two years of national service. What are we going to do with all those kids, and how are we going to pay them? Do we not have enough bloated, ineffective federal government programs already? And how will having a bunch of underage drinkers getting underfoot at AmericaCorps or the Red Cross or Homeland Security help us win our war? Two words: it won't. Does Herbert honestly think it makes sense in wartime to keep an all volunteer military and conscript everyone else to hand out coffee and doughnuts at the USO? That sort of "sacrifice" wouldn't do the likes of Sergeant X any good, and it would horn in on Halliburton's combat coffee service contract.

I'm embarrassed for Sergeant X. He comes across in Herbert's column like he's in need of a prescription for grow-up pills. But my embarrassment for Sergeant X is nothing compared to my outrage at Bob Herbert for exploiting a dispirited young soldier to promote Bob Herbert's personal agenda.

Herbert does a grave injustice to the dignity of America's fighting men and women when he hands one a crying towel and turns on the tape recorder.


Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (Retired) writes from Virginia Beach, Virginia. Read his commentaries at ePluribus Media and Pen and Sword.


  1. Well, I think the point that he was trying to make, but wasn't making, was something along the lines of "if we're going to send men into combat, put the whole resources of the country behind them, don't just play around with it." I.e., "either do it right, or don't do it at all."

    As for the Sergeant, undoubtedly like me he signed up to defend his nation, not to defend Halliburton's profits. Since Iraq has nothing to do with defending the nation, it's fair to beef about how the military is being used there even if you volunteered for the military.

    That said I agree that this article was inept and did not come anywhere near making a reasonable point. It suffers from the same problems as the Bush Administration -- too much hot air, not enough getting to the point.

    FWIW, my own opinion when Bush invaded Iraq is unprintable, but my second thought after that was the forlorn hope that the war was for oil. At least then there was a useful goal or objective to justify the invasion. Alas, it seems that the Busheviks drank their own kool-aide when they labeled the thing a "crusade" to "bring democracy to the Middle East". That's not a military objective. That's a bull**** objective. Soldiers kill people, that's their job, and it's a good thing because there's lots of bad actors out there who'd kill us in return if there wasn't the pointy edge of the stick there to kill them first. But you can't kill people into "embracing democracy". Dead people don't vote.

    Badtux the "What's the objective sir?" Penguin

  2. Anonymous11:44 AM

    Just because it's an all volunteer professional army doesn't mean we have carte blance to abuse it. People who show up to work in sweat shops in order to feed their family are also "voluneers." That doesn't mean we excuse 15 hour work days and unsafe work conditions.

    The point Herbert is trying to make is there is a disconnect between the people who support the policy-makers and the people who carry out the policy.

    Policy-makers would be more reluctant to start unnecessary, optional, elective wars-of-choice if their kids were getting killed and maimed.

    But I suspect you know that.

  3. Jeff, I mostly agree with this post, but I think both badtux and anonymous hit on something important.

    You say, "What Did the "Volunteers" Think They Were Volunteering For?"

    That line has been abused -- not by you, certainly, but by others -- to justify all manner of neglect and mistreatment of our military personnel and veterans. (I talk about this here.) Yes, they volunteered, but I think it's worth repeating (for the benefit of visitors to your site; I understand that you get this) that the fact that they volunteered does not relieve us, their countrymen and -women, of certain obligations to them.

  4. BT,

    FWIW, I did a fairly significant revision of this piece after you commented, so I hope it doesn't seem like your considered comment looks irrelevant now (I don't think it does).

    And I'm with you all the way on the real objective. Control of the oil was the only objective worth the risk and the cost of this expidition.


    i'm completely onboard with you regarding the abuse of the troops aspect. That may well be my number one gripe with this admin--they took a magnificent professional force that took decades to develop and are wrecking it in a misadventure.

  5. Jeff - what do you think of a Rovian ploy to manipulate the national dialogue in such a way ("cut and run" vs. "stay the course") so that the public, unpermitted and thus unable to come to any other conclusion, begins to say of its own volition that we have no other option than to institute the draft again? In other words, Rove & Co. successfully box all Bush opposition into a cut and run framework, and successfully market that frame as bad, wicked and traitorous, while at the same time forcing us to conclude therefore that no other alternative exists other than to "somehow" stay the course, which is equated with self-sacrifice, longsuffering, and righteousness generally.

    Therefore, the only thing left to argue about is what "somehow" constitutes. And any rational person looking at the sorry mess in Iraq could only conclude that, given the subliminally imposed Rovian restrictions, the only way to do this is to add big time to the troop base. Since we are already exhausting the current ranks, and voluntary enlistment is reaching for the fringe, we will rationally as a nation conclude that a national draft is the only option left.

    Hence, the Republican party, and the neo-con lever pullers will get what they wanted all along, the troops they need to get their piece of the pie, without ever having to call for the politically suicidal "draft" themselves. We will bring it on our own heads.

  6. Ecc,

    I don't have much time or space to reply to your thoughtful comment, but I'd say that you've framed the issue in a nutshell.

    Whether the Rovewellian strategy works this time, only time will tell.

    About three weeks worth of time. ;-)

  7. I'm of two minds on the "what did they think they were volunteering for" issue. On the one hand, I'm remembering when my husband took his very small unit to Bosnia--out of 10 enlisted soldiers, two found ways to opt out of going. It put a lot of strain on the rest of them. Those two signed up, took the benefits, and then didn't come through when the time came to pay up. Sadly, that wasn't an isolated incident.

    On the other hand, saying that they're volunteers and knew what they were getting into allows people to distance themselves and not take servicemembers' hardships seriously.

  8. Anonymous5:19 PM

    I believe when a person suffers s/he would like all to suffer the same pain. In the end, it cannot happen. Unless someone has experienced the same reality, then s/he can possibly be empathetic to the situation.

    My father is a police officer and has been for many years. Many times he would tell me, to be careful about who I told what he did for a living. Why? Because so many people hate police officers. There are several songs about hatred of the police and about killing police officers. He has had friends killed throughout the years and many in society do not care.

    Anytime someone goes through a terrible ordeal or loses someone, I feel great sympathy for them. I do not think I can ever exactly understand what the US military personnel and their families go through, but I am not sure who can.

  9. I'll just say to this that the way to ease the suffering military families is not to make all families go through it.

    Do we all need to suffer from breast cancer to empathize with breast cancer victims?

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