Who Supports the U.S. Soldier?

Wednesday's Washington Post featured a heart-wrenching article by Greg Jaffe on Marine Lt. Gen. John Kelly and his son's death on the battlefield in Afghanistan's Helmand Province. The article clearly struck a chord and was among the most widely shared articles of the day. Although not its central theme, the article extensively quotes the speech in which Gen. Kelly addressed the meaning of "support" for soldiers in combat.

From the article:

"Their struggle is your struggle," he told the ballroom crowd of former Marines and local business people. "If anyone thinks you can somehow thank them for their service and not support the cause for which they fight -- our country -- these people are lying to themselves... More important, they are slighting our warriors and mocking their commitment to this nation."

And speaking of the soldiers, "They hold in disdain those who claim to support them but not the cause that takes their innocence, their limbs and even their lives,' he said.

In addition to the issue's emotional weight, part of what makes the conversation about supporting soldiers in combat so difficult is the absence of a shared understanding of "support." Effective communication is nearly impossible without at least a mutual understanding of how the communicating parties define key terms. Even if the two sides don't agree on one definition, they must understand what the terms mean to one another. In this case, this understanding is all the more important given the emotional character of the issue, and the sensitivity of both sides to perceived judgments.

Soldiers have a unique but generally shared understanding of the term, not widely understood by those without a personal connection to those in uniform. While not uniformly held, in my estimation this is the view of the majority of servicemen with combat experience.

Soldiers go where our country's civilian leaders tell them to go, in pursuit of the objectives those officials determine to be in our country's national interest. To those soldiers, the time for spirited debate is before they are ordered into combat. Up to that point, one can legitimately claim to be supporting the soldiers by vociferously opposing their deployment, by lobbying political decision makers, and by attempting to demonstrate a lack of public support for the mission's objectives.

At that point, there is no congruence between supporting the soldiers and supporting the mission, because if the opposition is successful in its efforts, the soldier doesn't go to war. The opposition's success does not undermine the soldier's efforts, encourage his enemy, or demean his sacrifices.

That is not true once the government sends the soldier into combat. Once our volunteer soldier deploys, his sole purpose is to achieve the objectives he is ordered to secure by our elected leaders. In fact, every soldier swears an oath that defines their duty, to "obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me." The soldier, more than anyone else, wants these orders to be well-considered, valid, popular objectives that are worthy of his sacrifices.

Once he receives these orders, he wants to accomplish these objectives as quickly and as decisively as possible. Every delay exposes him to further danger and risks the mission. Once he is so engaged, "supporting" him necessarily means sharing this desire for victory, defined as successfully fulfilling the mission.

At that point, if the opposition is successful in its efforts, there are very real negative consequences to the soldier on the battlefield. Such opposition actively interferes with his pursuit of his objectives and makes an already dangerous and difficult mission even more difficult and dangerous. Undermining public support for the effort, delegitimizing the mission, and declaring victory unattainable make it tougher for the soldier to decisively achieve his objectives by emboldening the enemy, damaging morale, and undermining political leadership. Therefore, from this perspective, there is a logical and inherent contradiction in claiming to "support" the soldier while taking actions that undercut his efforts.

This is particularly true for the protracted, unstructured war in which we are engaged, where public and political support are critical elements of success.

One might argue that this is an idealistic and naive vision of the process by which our leaders decide to send soldiers into harm's way. That may be true today, but it need not be. Regular elections remain the greatest check on our country's leadership and government policy, and voters should demand consideration on matters of such importance.

It may not always be possible to hold extensive debates, as with preventive strikes, true emergencies, or covert actions. But there is nothing that prevents opposition to the military's efforts, the political leaders responsible for the decision, or the objectives pursued. However, those active opponents should at least recognize that their "support" is likely not recognized as such by soldiers holding this view. To them, it just doesn't make sense to claim to "support" those whose purposeful efforts you undermine, even unintentionally.

This seems unfair to those who feel they "support" the soldier because they don't want him to suffer any harm for a cause they don't believe is worth the sacrifice. They contrast their stance to the Vietnam-era demonization of soldiers and object to the perceived blurring of that line. There are many patriotic, good-hearted Americans who feel this way, and who won't accept the perspective described here. They don't have to. But if we're ever going to close this "great divide" between the military and civilian worlds, we must first understand each other.