Bush: Hiding Behind the Troops
"The one thing I really take objection to… Is politicians who try to put their political views into the mouths of soldiers."
--Senator James Webb (D-Virginia)
This quote is my favorite line from the now celebrated 15 July debate on Meet the Press between Webb and Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC). Graham had, indeed, put political speech in the mouths of soldiers when he said "The soldiers are speaking, my friend, let them win," referring to the mass reenlistment held in Baghdad on July 4th. One can hardly accuse any of the nearly 600 soldiers who reenlisted of purposely creating political propaganda or doing anything other than reenlisting in a time of war, a laudable act by any judgment criteria.
But one can safely assume that the ceremony was a carefully crafted public relations stunt, designed by U.S. commander in Iraq General David Petraeus to provide the likes of Graham the opportunity to use the troops to justify the otherwise indefensible policies and strategies of the Bush administration.
General Petraeus is hardly the first Bush liegeman to duck for cover behind the troops. From the beginning of the adventure in Iraq, pro-war pundits have, at least at a subliminal level, hammered away at the notion that it is not possible to "support the troops" without supporting the policies, and this basic propaganda arc has remained little changed in over four years.
Hiding Behind the Troops
Mr. Bush's "Mission Accomplished" event aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln was the most embarrassing example of conspicuous swagger in the history of the U.S. presidency. Still, as a case study in exploiting the troops for political purposes goes, the Lincoln episode was nothing compared to what followed. As more and more of the ugly truth about the run-up to the Iraq invasion and the incompetent handling of the war came to light, Mr. Bush came to increasingly rely on using the troops as window dressing to his reelection campaign. In the cases of Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman, the Rovewellians spun reality from bull feathers to create "heroes" at a time when the truth about Abu Ghraib and other scandals needed to be hidden behind a smoke screen.
We have also seen extensive use of the "soldier testimonial," in which service members, usually junior ones, tell us in their "own words" how much they believe in their mission, and how much people who don't support the mission just don't "get it." Much of this testimonial rhetoric spreads in the form of viral propaganda, supposedly genuine email letters written by troops in the field to friends and family that, just by coincidence, get forwarded to darn near anyone who might be sympathetic with the message. Generally speaking, these emails feature two tell-tale indications that they're not on the up and up: 1) all traces of the message's origin have been carefully removed and 2) however the letter starts, it eventually turns into a standard litany of "consequences of losing," "they'll follow us here" and other talking points from the pro-war playbook.
The Bush administration doesn't stop at milking political capital from active duty military types. It is also perfectly willing to co-opt so-called veterans' rights advocacy groups, the most notorious of which is the American Legion, which for all practical purposes has become a branch of the Republican National Committee and one of the most vocal supporters of Bush's Iraq policies. Granted, other veterans' groups exist that both support and oppose the war, but those groups are up front about the reason they exist, and don't pretend to be veterans' rights advocates. Outfits like the American Legion, on the other hand, are flying under false colors. (Interestingly enough, American Legion National Commander Paul Morin describes himself as a "Vietnam veteran of the U.S. Army" even though his entire military career consisted of two years of duty at Fort Dix, New Jersey in the 70s. If Morin is a Vietnam veteran, so is George W. Bush.)
Hiding Behind Skirts
I always find it amusing when the administration trots out Laura Bush to defend her husband's Iraq stance. It not only puts Bush in the position of being conspicuously protected by his wife's apron, it puts the defense of Bush's policy in the hands of the one person in Washington who actually understands less about warfare and the situation in Iran than Bush does.
Less amusing is an emerging class of pundit that I've come to think of as the "War Mommies." The Mommies are spouses and/or mothers of service members. Some of them have lost a spouse or child in Afghanistan or Iraq. They typically complain of being persecuted for their support of Bush and the war in Iraq, even as they castigate Cindy Sheehan for her condemnation of Bush and the war. One War Mommy consistently asserts that anyone who doesn't have a family member in the armed services can't understand the issues involved in our overseas military adventures. Almost all of the War Mommies are diehard Republicans. However their op-ed pieces start out, they generally devolve into a Readers' Digest version of the neoconservative manifesto that manages to blame all the Bush administration's mendacity and incompetence on the mainstream media and the Democrats.
Like everyone else, the War Mommies have a right to express their views. I wish they would do so in a more responsible manner. They add nothing to the national debate other than emotional noise that obscures the sorts of rational analyses we need to conduct in order to find our "way forward."
Hiding Behind False Main Assumptions
A lot of people won't like to hear this, but…
Ultimately, it is moot to discuss what the troops think or how they feel about a particular war they happen to be fighting because it doesn't matter what they think or feel about it. America doesn't exist to support its military. The military exists to support America. We should not engage in warfare for the sake of keeping the troops happy any more than we should avoid wars that the troops don't want to fight. The opinions of the troops--from buck private to four-star general--carry no more validity than the opinion of any civilian citizen. Today, that's true even of military strategy issues. The generals in charge of our present wars have proven themselves incapable of formulating and executing coherent strategies, and the people who have most influenced our war policies and strategies are neoconservatives like Bill Kristol and Fred Kagan, civilians who never served a day in the military.
But the powers that be in the administration will continue to hide behind soldiers and their mommies' skirts because that keeps the issue in the realm of fear and guilt, and away from the cold light of critical analysis.
Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (Retired) writes from Virginia Beach, Virginia. Read his commentaries at Pen and Sword.