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Who Really Supports the Troops?

The media continues to say progressives are anti-military, but it’s the Bush administration that can’t admit the enormity of its error.

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Mark Halperin, former ABC News Political Director and now Time magazine correspondent, explains that liberals “hate the military.” David Broder, the “dean” of Washington conventional wisdom, used a Democratic gathering in Washington to attack a 2007 speech by Gen. Wesley Clark  because the general “repeatedly invoked the West Point motto of “Duty, Honor, Country,” forgetting that few in this particular audience have much experience with, or sympathy for, the military.”

Halperin and Broder give more polite voice to the same prejudices expressed by Rush Limbaugh, who insists that, by definition, a liberal: “hates the military, hates America, hates Bush, hates the world except for France and Germany.”

Yet the Halperin/Broder/Limbaugh axis notwithstanding, the conservatives’ devotion to the American military seems to primarily consist of two aspects: rhetorically trumpeting one’s love rhetorically while specifically avoiding service oneself, and refusing to offer appropriate funding or support either for soldiers fighting abroad or wounded veterans returning home. As with patriotism, conservatives do like to trumpet their devotion to the military with greater enthusiasm than liberals, but while so many in the media may fall for this, it’s clearly one case where it’s far more important to watch what people do, apart from what they say.

No, I’m not writing about the chickenhawk issue today, though I could. I’m speaking about those in favor of the war who argue that defunding the war would hurt the troops and the military itself. They miss the facts: the Army is pushed to the breaking point. But owing to the misguided anti-liberal bias in the media, the argument that defunding the war would hurt the troops carries the day.

Glenn Greenwald caught this meme in a blog post over the weekend where he critiqued a recent article by Newsweek’s Jonathon Alter. Even though defunding the war wouldn’t strip the troops of the equipment they need, he argues, the American people have been convinced that they have:

“Both of the premises which Alter sets forth here are correct: (a) de-funding does not even arguably constitute ‘endangerment or abandonment of the troops,’ but (b) ‘Americans have been convinced that it does.’ And therein one finds what is the most extraordinary and telling fact of our political landscape. Namely, our Iraq war policy was just determined, in large part if not principally, by a complete myth: that de-funding proposals constitute an abandonment or, more ludicrously still, ‘endangerment’ of the troops.”

In fact, in addition to all the damage that Bush’s administration’s war has done to the people it has killed and maimed, to the reputation of the nation it has destroyed, to the budget it has busted, and to the constitution it is sworn to defend, one of its most lasting legacies has been to undermine the military institutions the president professes to admire so much. (Though to be honest, he does not admire them enough to actually give a speech suggesting that Americans enlist to fight in them, much less encourage his own daughters or other relatives to join up.)

Here are the facts: The month has been the deadliest of the year for American troops in Iraq, with the highest fatality rate since November of 2004. The president, during the course of his desperate escalation, has allowed military commanders in Iraq to implement counter-insurgency tactics that require immense numbers of troops for success—tactics which have led to further death. But it’s still not enough. The President has fired or ignored the critics who told him he needed 500,000 troops to occupy Iraq in the past. And now he has stretched the military to its breaking point.

CAP’s own Lawrence Korb and Max Bergmann published an op-ed in the L.A. Times last week making this very point and calling the president’s bluff. While Bush wants to win in Iraq, he doesn’t have the intellectual or political courage to make the necessary sacrifices to win. Even though our current post-Vietnam army was designed specifically for short engagements—to be supplemented with a draft in the event of a drawn-out national emergency—the president has done nothing to prepare for the challenges of his chosen war. Korb and Bergmann explain:

“Although the president and his administration have insisted that operations in Iraq will be difficult and will take a long time, Bush has done nothing to seriously prepare for such a long-term commitment…[T]he president will never call for the draft. He knows the country would never support the level of sacrifice for this war that implementing a draft would demand. But this is one of the very reasons why the all-volunteer Army was designed the way it was—to prevent a commander in chief from fighting a war that lacks the support of the public.”

New York Rep. Charlie Rangel has taken this directive literally and been proposing a re-instatement of the draft since 2003. He caused notable controversy by reaffirming his proposal after last year’s Congressional elections. House leadership has squashed his bills, but his argument is solid: “There’s no question in my mind that this president and this administration would never have invaded Iraq, especially on the flimsy evidence that was presented to the Congress, if indeed we had a draft and members of Congress and the administration thought that their kids from their communities would be placed in harm’s way.”

This is not to argue that we now need a draft to defend the country. The point is that the administration is happy to push the self-sacrificing volunteers in our military today past their breaking point to reinforce their failed policy. The Bush administration conservatives who are ultimately responsible for this inexcusable abuse of our soldiers’ and our families’ trust have done so without any sense whatsoever of personal accountability—allegedly the bedrock of conservative philosophy.

“Those in highest authority,” a New Yorker editorial noted, “have been kept in office (Dick Cheney), promoted (Gonzales, Condoleezza Rice), honored with medals (Tenet, General Tommy Franks, Paul Bremer), or sent off with encomiums (Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld).” An Army lieutenant colonel and Iraq veteran named Paul Yingling complained in a brave essay published Armed Forces Journal of the debilitating effects on the uniformed servicemen of exactly this phenomenon. “A private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.”

And yet as the situation in Iraq continued to deteriorate, insurgency exploded and manpower shortages grew more acute the stress these failures placed on the fighting men and women grew ever more burdensome. Soldiers, in theory, expect a year between Iraq rotations. But in this war, rotations last only six months. What’s more, owing to “stop-loss orders”—which involuntarily extend active duty tours—these same soldiers are forced back into combat nine months after their enlistment expires, and these tours have been extended to 15 months.

“There’s never been anything close to this much demand on the all-volunteer military in its 30-year history,” observed Brookings’ Michael O’Hanlon even before the additional forced rotations into Iraq were announced in the Winter of 2007. “Even in wartime, with conscription, we didn’t send people overseas on two tours of duty. Certainly in Vietnam, if you did your one tour, you were done.

Naturally, as word got out about all of the above, recruitment numbers fell precipitously. Facing its worst enlistment crisis since the all-volunteer army began in 1973, the military’s manpower shortfall grew so acute that, beginning in 2005, its leaders felt forced to accept significant numbers of new recruits with criminal records and pending criminal charges—and to offer them enlistment bonuses ranging from $14,400 to $20,000, plus $70,000 in college loans. To retain the elite enlisted soldiers in the oft-deployed Special Forces, the Army has felt compelled to come up with as much as $150,000 per soldier. The Pentagon also asked Congress to lift the age of military recruits to 42, a full six years older than it had been three years earlier.

And yet, despite all of these inducements, all three services continued to miss their recruiting missions. In 2004, the Army lost more young officers, particularly graduates of West Point and other educational institutions, than it had in 16 years, as more than a third of those trained for a military career at taxpayer expense decided to bail out at their first contractual opportunity. In early 2007, a Congressional commission judged nearly 90 percent of Army National Guard units in the United States as “not ready”—largely as a result of shortfalls in billions of dollars’ worth of equipment—jeopardizing their capability to respond to crises at home and abroad.

It may be true that the troops themselves remain optimistic, as Spencer Ackerman argues in a thoughtful essay in The Washington Monthly. But, the facts demonstrate that their mission has already been betrayed beyond repair by those behind it. The vast majority of the country accepts this.

And yet the majority of the main stream media continue to treat liberals as less pro-military than conservatives because they seek to protect the troops not only from the Iraqi insurgents who seek to kill them, but Bush administration strategists who continue to allow it to happen—all because they lack the courage to admit the enormity of their error.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow of the Center for American Progress. His weblog, “Altercation,” appears at www.mediamtters.org/altercation, and his seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, will appear early next year.

Research assistance: Tim Fernholz

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.

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Eric Alterman

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