The Morale Myth: Republicans Say War Critics Undermine the Troops. So Why Are Dissent and Soldier Morale Both Going Up?

By Klein, Avi | The Washington Monthly, May 2006 | Go to article overview

The Morale Myth: Republicans Say War Critics Undermine the Troops. So Why Are Dissent and Soldier Morale Both Going Up?


Klein, Avi, The Washington Monthly


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. …

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