Is U.S. Troop Morale Slipping?

Is U.S. Troop Morale Slipping?

Despite eroding public support for the Iraq war, troop morale remains high. Experts warn that could change as U.S. forces get further bogged down in Iraq.

June 14, 2007 11:58 am (EST)

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With tours of duty extended and support for the Iraq war waning stateside, troop morale remains surprisingly high, military experts say. But that may be changing, as debate rages in Congress over funding the Iraq war and pulling out of what many analysts say is a worsening situation in Iraq. As Marine Lance Cpl. Jack Kessel recently told the Los Angeles Times: “How are we supposed to fight a war when people back home say we’ve already lost?” Recent polls indicate that service members favor more troops be sent to Iraq and repeated tours have taken their toll on soldiers’ mental health.

Sliding war approval ratings

Since it began in March 2003, support for the war—and President Bush’s handling of it—has been high among U.S. service members. In 2004, 83 percent of the U.S. military felt success in Iraq was a likely outcome. The previous year, 65 percent of the military believed that Iraq was a just war and that Saddam Hussein should be removed. Generally, U.S. troops remain supportive of President Bush, their commander in chief, and the larger war on terror. “They are determined to do their duty and get after al-Qaeda,” says a senior military official based in Iraq. 

But those poll numbers have slipped in recent years as fatalities, which just passed 3,500, continue to climb and support for the war wanes among Americans. Troops have grown increasingly pessimistic about whether victory in Iraq is achievable, given the current troop levels and cycle of sectarian violence. According to a Military Times poll, sampling just over nine hundred active-duty service members and released last January, about one-third of the service members surveyed approve of the president’s handling of the war (these number reflect pre-“surge” opinion—it remains unclear what kind of support for the surge there is among service members). Based on the same poll, just 41 percent now believe the United States was justified in going into Iraq in the first place, mirroring the general public’s skeptical attitudes of the White House’s casus belli. “They’re seeing more casualties and fatalities and less progress,” David Segal, director of the University of Maryland’s Center for Research on Military Organization, told the Army Times. “Part of what we’re seeing is a recognition that the intelligence that led to the war was wrong.” Segal says it’s common during times of war that the opinions of military personnel shift in tandem with those of the public, despite a slight time lag. For instance, fewer than half of the military view Iraq as part of the larger global war on terror, the Military Times poll reveals, which reflects wider public attitudes on the subject.

A military overstretched

Perhaps more worrisome for the White House is the number of U.S. service members from the four branches—roughly half—who believe more troops are needed to secure Iraq, according to the same survey. (13 percent, meanwhile, favored a complete pullout of U.S. forces.) Partly this is a response to the overstretching of the U.S. armed forces, experts say. “The spirit of soldiers and Marines is undiminished, and their performance in battle has been superb,” Tom Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute writes in the Weekly Standard. “The force is not broken, but its institutional basis is cracking,” he wrote, referring to the Pentagon’s failure to expand and retrofit U.S. land forces after 9/11 to fight what he calls “the Long War.”

Retired Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey told the Senate Armed Services Committee in April 2007 that “the combat overload on the Army is having a negative effect on readiness.” McCaffrey criticized the stop-loss program—or “back-door draft”—to extend the tours of seventy-thousand soldiers beyond their volunteer commitment, adding: “We have jerked twenty-thousand sailors and airmen into ground combat roles and taken them away from their required air and sea power duties.” McCaffrey also worries about the military failing to meet its recruiting and retention targets—the Army plans a 13.5 percent increase, or 65,000 troops, over the next five years; the Marines plan a 15.4 percent increase, or 26,800 troops—while maintaining high admittance standards.  For the first time in eight months, the Army failed to meet its recruitment quotas in May 2007 (5,500 new recruits). Pentagon officials say lower recruitment is typical for this time of year, especially during times of extended combat (potential recruits are distracted by graduation ceremonies, a spokesperson explains to Bloomberg News). They also say retention rates remain high, due partly to larger reenlistment bonuses. 

But the overstretching of the U.S. military has had a negative effect on troops’ mental health, recent polls show. According to a May 2007 Pentagon-commissioned study, 45 percent of the junior-enlisted Army soldiers overall rated unit morale as low or very low, while one in five soldiers suffers from a mental health disorder like depression or anxiety. More than half of the soldiers surveyed are concerned by exceedingly long tours—which in April were extended from twelve to fifteen months (Marines’ tours remain unaffected). Meanwhile, one in three complains about boring and repetitive tasks. Another common gripe is the military’s restrictions placed on dress code, Internet usage, and alcohol consumption. In previous years, the lack of adequate tank and body armor was one of the troops’ main worries. 

How the military vents

Growing dissatisfaction of the war among U.S. service members has spawned a number of new outlets for expression. Several U.S. troops now maintain blogs, where they post comments and complaints, all vetted by their military superiors. Sometimes these blogs, which tend to be pro-war, have gotten troops into hot water. In early June 2007, Cpl. Edward Watson’s blog, Eighty Deuce on the Loose, went silent after Watson’s sergeant objected to some postings. Under new rules imposed in April 2007, blogs are supposed to be cleared through the Defense Department’s communications department, but U.S. military officials say they are short-staffed and cannot always enforce the rules.

Another outgrowth of the war’s unpopularity is the growing presence of grassroots political groups within the armed forces. One such example is the Appeal for Redress, begun by Sgt. Liam Madden, an active U.S. Marine, which advocates a complete withdrawal from Iraq . “[This group] heralds the appearance of something new to the American political landscape: A soldiers’ lobby,” writes Andrew J. Bacevich of Boston University in the Atlantic Monthly. “In formulating their appeal, men and women in America’s fighting forces claim a new prerogative: to engage in collective political action for the explicit purpose of influencing national-security policy.” Most of the group’s ranks, which number in the hundreds, consist of junior officers, sergeants, and GIs. Bacevich believes active-duty service members should limit their political activity to voting in elections. “Legitimating soldiers’ lobbies is likely to warp national-security policy and crack open the door to praetorianism,” he writes.

Criticism from within the armed forces has also gotten sharper in the press as the war has grown more unpopular. A much-discussed May 2007 article by Lt Col. Paul Yingling in Armed Forces Journal took under-performing generals to task and called for more peer review and promotions that reward “creative intelligence.” “As matters stand now,” he writes, “a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.”

Glimmers of optimism

Despite the gloomy outlook, military experts point to one bright spot: the U.S. Marine Corps. Attitudes among Marines, despite the draining support for the war, remain on average more positive than other military branches. Marines who have deployed twice to Iraq are more likely to reenlist than those who have served only once. Tony Perry of the Los Angeles Times, who has been embedded five times in Iraq, attributes the Marines’ pro-war sentiment to their institutional culture, which is generally more prone to optimism. Plus, many of its members are sons or daughters of other Marines. “Young men join the Marines with the expectation—many even with the fervent hope—that they will deploy quickly to a war zone,” Perry writes. “That’s not true for, say, the National Guard, and that kind of motivation doesn’t waver with public opinion polls.”

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