The title of this article isn't aimed at American soldiers, veterans, or their families. If you are a member of the 7.4 million Americans alive today who served in Vietnam, or the 2.5 million Americans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the 1.6 million female veterans, or any part of the over 21 million veterans living in the U.S., then you've earned the right to view military issues in any manner you wish. However, the vast majority of the 316 million citizens of this country (including me) have never experienced the psychological trauma of killing an enemy, barely surviving an IED, or witnessing the death of a close friend on a foreign battlefield.
Therefore, this article is a philosophical challenge to the average American who hasn't served in the military yet respects America's soldiers and their sacrifice. If you can correlate the phrase "Support the Troops" with President Obama's recent decision to send 1,500 more soldiers to Iraq (bringing the total to 3,100 American soldiers in a war zone we left in 2011), then the semantics behind this phrase seems to possess a contradictory meaning in our country.
President Kennedy grew America's presence in Vietnam from 746 military advisors in 1962 to over 11,000 soldiers in 1963 and we know what happened with LBJ and Nixon. 40% of Americans now support U.S. ground troops to fight ISIL, even though the lessons of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars are still fresh in the minds of most Americans. The chances that Obama, or his successor, sends even more soldiers into "harm's way" (another fantastic euphemism) increases with every beheading video and propaganda photo of ISIL massacring its enemies. Therefore, there are numerous reasons why Obama's recent troop increase is not only ill-advised, but greatly disparages the phrase "Support the Troops" only days before Veterans Day.
1. We've already learned that counterinsurgency wars aren't conflicts that America can win. To send soldiers back into a sectarian quagmire, with unseen enemies and deadly religious rivalries, is the antithesis of "support." Fighting perpetually losing wars, because of factors beyond military might, is putting our soldiers in an unwinnable position.
General Daniel Bolger has published a book titled Why We Lost, explaining the deadly lessons of the Iraq War. As quoted in a Time interview, Gen. Bolger highlights some of the reasons reasons the Iraq War didn't go as planned:
"Once you get past that initial knockout shot, and decide you're going to stay awhile, you'd better define 'a while,' because in counter-insurgency you're talking decades," Bolger says. "Neither [the Bush nor the Obama] Administration was going to do that, yet I was in a military that was planning for deployments forever, basically. An all-volunteer force made it easy to commit the military to a long-term operation because they were volunteers."
"Both wars were won, and we didn't know enough to go home"
"Don't be so arrogant and think you're going to reshape the Middle East," Bolger says. "We've basically installed authoritarian dictators."
"They should have been limited incursions and [then] pull out -- basically like Desert Storm...This enemy wasn't amenable to the type of war we're good at fighting, which is a Desert Storm or a Kosovo."
What do Gen. Bolger's words mean? With all our technological, military, and financial superiority, we can't always defeat an insurgent wearing tennis shoes and firing at our troops. It's the reason that USA Today states "between more than half to two-thirds of Americans killed or wounded in combat in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have been victims of IEDs." Of the 4,488 Americans who've died in Iraq and the 2,350 Americans have died in Afghanistan, USA Today states that over 3,100 of these deaths have been the result of IED's. IED's have also resulted in 31,000 wounded American soldiers as well. In addition, the bizarre nature of counterinsurgency warfare found in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan is also part of the reason that in 2013, 22 veterans every single day were committing suicide.
In recent wars, American soldiers are battling an unseen enemy hidden in the ground, in addition to sectarian violence between Sunni and Shia, political corruption, and a number of other deadly obstacles. The "authoritarian dictators" in Maliki and Karzai didn't behave the way we wanted, making our "initial knockout shot" of decisive battles succumb to suicide bombings, civil wars, and now ISIL.
How does "Support the Troops" possibly correlate to sending the troops back to this hell on Earth? Don't say to "fight them over there" because all it took was two deranged terrorist to kill three Americans and wound hundreds in the Boston Bombing, and that was before the rise of ISIL.
2. It's a myth that we need to "train" the Iraqi military because we left too early. The U.S. already left Iraq with a functioning and capable military in 2011. Rear Adm. John Kirby, on November 7, 2014 made the following statement:
And yeah, we did spend a lot of money and effort training the Iraqi army. And when we left in 2011, we left them capable and competent to the threat that they faced. That opportunity they were given, the skills that they were provided, the leadership that they had were squandered by the Maliki government over the last three, three and a half years.
They weren't properly led, they weren't properly resourced, they weren't kept properly trained, and that led -- that and a lack of will, both political and military will at the top in some units led to their dissolution in the face of ISIL earlier in the summer...
Contrast Admiral Kirby's assessment of the Iraqi military in 2011 with what you hear on the nightly news. Then ask yourself if it is fair, or just, that American soldiers are being sent back to Iraq because dysfunctional Iraqi politics "squandered" a "capable and competent" military.
3. No amount of U.S. military force will completely defeat ISIL, since recent wars have illustrated that religious rivalries overshadow any hopes of federalism. "Winning" in Iraq and Afghanistan, or against ISIL, requires the help of local political figures and governments placing American interests over sectarian allegiances.
According to the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, both Iraq's Nouri al-Maliki and Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai utilized U.S. support to further their own political goals rather than ensure American interests:
With their survival principally guaranteed (an overlapping interest), small allies can then focus on areas of interest that diverge from those of their large allies. Maliki can propagate sectarian policies, and Karzai can extend patronage networks. The United States, meanwhile, continues to focus on thwarting insurgents and terrorists--much to the benefit of Karzai and Maliki, but not requiring much sacrifice on their part...
Under this model, war made the state and the state made civil war...
Therefore, American backing indirectly provided Maliki with incentives to act against American interests. This is a structural consequence of U.S. military intervention in the Middle East, and it speaks to the political complexity of military intervention as a diplomatic tool.
So, let's say the 40% of Americans are right and American boots on the ground will destroy ISIL. Then what? Since 2003, there have been well over 119,000 civilian deaths in Iraq according to Iraq Body Count.org. The most important element of counterinsurgency wars is building a sustainable political reality where, in this case, allegiance to Shia and Sunni are replaced by allegiance to a flag. ISIL has gained safe haven in Sunni areas of Iraq, therefore how will Obama's decision to send even more Americans to the region prevent Sunnis from siding with ISIL? Both Shia and Sunni commit atrocities against one another and there's no guarantee that once ISIL is defeated the two religious sects will cease hostilities. The answers to these question should correlate directly to our support of our soldiers.
4. Since 9/11, we've used the sacrifice and courage of our soldiers as a buffer against our fears of terrorism. This is an injustice on so many levels, primarily because we're asking them to kill, survive a war, and then simply return to normality at home. Very few Americans truly empathize with the plight of soldiers, particularly because we're all so far removed from their experiences.
As stated by Sebastian Junger in The Washington Post, America does not show the necessary empathy towards its returning soldiers:
And when soldiers come home spiritually polluted by the killing that they committed, or even just witnessed, many hope that their country will share the moral responsibility of such a grave event.
Their country doesn't. Liberals often say that it's not their problem because they opposed the war. Conservatives tend to call soldiers "heroes" and pat them on the back. Neither response is honest or helpful...
One study predicted that in the next decade 400,000 to 500,000 veterans will have criminal cases in the courts. Our collective avoidance of this problem is unjust and hypocritical. It is also going to be very costly...
Civilians tend to do things that make them, not the veterans, feel better. Yellow ribbons and parades do little to help with the emotional aftermath of combat.
While the ribbons and pins we wear are meant to show respect and admiration, they won't prevent the hundreds of thousands of veterans in the next decade from facing criminal court cases in part because of the experiences of war. Junger points out the grandiose issues of soldiers being "spiritually polluted" from the carnage of war and the "moral responsibility" we all evade that hurts the healing process of returning soldiers. Today, our president is sending more soldiers, back to a war that already ended, in the hopes of defeating an enemy that simply rebrands itself after being defeated militarily. ISIL is simply an offshoot of al-Qaeda in Iraq, bin-Laden is dead, and drones kill terrorist leaders all the time, yet our war against a word continues to require immense sacrifice from a small number of Americans.
If fighting terror means perpetual war, then we've already lost and our soldiers will ultimately be the ones who pay the greatest price. President Obama, and 40% of the American people, are making a terrible mistake by focusing more upon beheading videos than the psychological, emotional, and physical toll that Iraq has inflicted upon our soldiers. The U.S. military will do anything it's asked to do to defend America, therefore we have a responsibility to ensure that we don't ask the impossible.
ISIL is a genocidal and evil terrorist group. However, it will never invade this country, and we're just as much at risk of terror with or without ISIL in Iraq. We'll soon have over 3,000 American soldiers back in Iraq, fighting the same enemy we couldn't defeat after a decade of war, facing the same IED's, battling the same Shia and Sunni insurgent militias, and dealing with the same dysfunctional Iraqi politics. If you think this sad reality coincides nicely with "Support the Troops," then someone should change the meaning of the phrase.