What the Active-Duty Military Wants

The American military — once a staunch supporter of President Bush and the Iraq war — has grown increasingly pessimistic about chances for victory.

For the first time, more troops disapprove of the president’s handling of the war than approve of it. Barely one-third of service members approve of the way the president is handling the war, according to the 2006 Military Times Poll.

Robert Hadierne, Poll: More troops unhappy with Bush’s course in Iraq, December 29, 2006, MilitaryCity.com

The military is famously not a democracy, but within our democracy the military tends to vote Republican, has tended to support the Iraq War and has tended to support this Commander in Chief. The military will continue to submit to civilian control, and soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen will continue to follow tactical orders, but what happens culturally when they no longer necessarily agree with the strategy of the war?

An active-duty sailor has circulated a petition, written in a tone he calls “short and simple … patriotic and respectful in tone.” The petition will be sent to Congress on Martin Luther King, Jr. day; the names of its signers, all active-duty servicemen and women, will not be made public. It reads:

As a patriotic American proud to serve the nation in uniform, I respectfully urge my political leaders in Congress to support the prompt withdrawal of all American military forces and bases from Iraq. Staying in Iraq will not work and is not worth the price. It is time for U.S. troops to come home.

An Appeal for Redress from the War in Iraq

The petition is legal and intended to appeal not to the public but to Congress, with whom members of the military have a legal right to communicate directly. It is unprecedented.

What are we to make of this shift in perception within the active-duty military? Is it a consequence of the stress of repeated tours in Iraq, or frustration with stop-loss measures that extend enlistment periods? Is it a reflection of what soldiers and marines are seeing on the ground in Iraq? Is the culture of the active-duty military changing, or did the Army Times poll uncover only a temporary reaction to institutional stress?

James Meeks

Captain in the Army’s Inactive Reserves

Served two tours of duty in Iraq

Student at Stanford Business School

Guest List
Jonathan Hutto
Naval Petty Officer stationed in Norfolk, VA Served on the USS Theodore Roosevelt March '05 - September '06 Co-founder, Appeal for Redress
Seth Moulton
Captain, US Marine Corps Reserves Served in Iraq Currently writing a book about Iraq and national service
Michael Yon
Writer and photographer, Michael Yon: Online Magazine Embedded blogger in Iraq in 2005, unembedded in Afghanistan, 2006 Former officer in Special Forces U.S. Army Author, forthcoming Battle for Mosul
Dave Danelo
Former Marine Corps Infantry Captain Served in Iraq in 2004 - left active duty at the end of 2004 to become a journalist Author, Blood Stripes: The Grunt's View of the War in Iraq Editor, US Cavalry on Point

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  • OliverCranglesParrot

    “What are we to make of this shift in perception within the active-duty military?”

    Mission creep and mission ambiguity could be one candidate. This explain a decrease in morale and increase in fatigue. Bellwethers in the armed forces are somewhat opaque to the civilian population at large.

  • nother

    Ugh, I already thought my job as Presidential speechwriter was hard enough, now the big guy wants me to come up with something to promote his new “surge” idea. Well then, first we have to convince the troops, they are starting to waver and we need to rally them back somehow.


    I’ve got it, we’ve had luck so far using old slogans from WW2, so how about we take Presidents Eisenhower’s letter to rally the troops before invading France, and we just rework it a little. It was an operation he hoped would bring a quick end to the war.

    “Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force! (Multinational Force-Iraq)
You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. 

The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.

In company with our brave Allies (a few Brits) and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German warmachine (Terrorist Terrormachine), the elimination of Nazi (terrorist) tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe (Middle East), and security for ourselves in a free world. 

Your task will not be not an easy one. Your enemy is (not) well trained, (not) well equipped and battle hardened. He will fight savagely.

But this is the year 1944! (2007!) Much has happened since the Nazi (Terrorist) triumphs of 1940-41 (9/11). The United Nations (United States) have inflicted upon the Germans (Terrorists) great defeats, in open battle, man-to-man (Tank to man). Our air offensive has seriously reduced (Iraqi infrastructure) their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. (Albeit it may have given them a rallying cry against us) Our Home Fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. (On their third tour of duty) 

    The tide has turned! (They’re in the last throes) The free men of the world are marching together to Victory! (Quelling Sunni vs. Shiite violence)

I have full confidence in your courage and devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full Victory! (The ability for a politician to leave the Green Zone without being shot).

Good luck! And let us beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.”

SIGNED: Dwight D. Eisenhower (George W. Bush)

  • stopiransieds

    As the father of a Marine son in Iraq has started a letter drive to convince the President and Congress to stop the Iranian Government from sending IEDs into Iraq.

    The website http://www.stopiransieds.com ask supporters to send a email letter to him, the father of the Marine, and he will print them and forwarding them to the President and members of Congress in large groups to make a better impact.

    The father, who is protecting his identity out of concern for his son, is advocating our government use force against Iran if they do not stop sending IEDs into Iran. See the website for more details.

    “I started this on his birthday.” It was the only present I could think of giving him and members of his platoon in Ramadi.

    Contact: stopiransieds@cableone.net

  • “but what happens culturally when they no longer necessarily agree with the strategy of the war”

    During the Viet Nam war weren’t there some commaders who when leading their troops into Viet Cong territory were shot by their own unwilling troops?

  • lptrixiemale

    I’d recommend checking out “Sir, No Sir!” It just came in to our local video rental joint. From what I know about it, it’s about resistance within the armed forces while stateside during the Vietnam era.

  • zeke

    What is the distinction between “surge” and “escalation?” If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, there is a pretty good chance it is a duck. How do military people refer to the proposed policy when they discuss it?

    Second thought: the Israeli army has experienced significant dissent from within the ranks. Are there things we can learn from parallels and differences in what we are seeing in our own ranks?

  • Potter

    Ostensibly with a “surge” you surge (flood with numbers of soldiers) and then get out. But this has the makings of another deception so it’s good to see the word “escalation” being used in place of surge by some, not belatedly, as once there and mired, there is a very good chance troops will not un-surge and thus we will have escalation.

  • zeke

    I am tiring of the phrase variations of which are being used by partisan on both sides of the debate: “We should tell the Iraqi government that we won’t do for them what they are unwilling to step up and do for themselves.”

    If “unwilling” were changed to “incapable,” the implications might be quite different.

    Clearly, there are many things both politicians in Washington and militray leaders in Iraq wish the Maliki government would do. I wonder what the military sees as the reason for their lack of action.

  • nother

    As the president’s speechwriter and advisor I’m feeling the pressure, big time. The rally letter idea fell on deaf ears, and the big guy still wants to take one last stab at this pot with more troops. Here’s the rub, everyone is against it. Desperate measures are in order here, I’m going to write the ultimate rallying cry for President Bush, a faith based rallying cry that he will deliver to the troops himself, in Iraq. My vision is for him to address the troops on the outskirts of Anbar province, riding a horse to and fro in the vain of William Wallace from the movie “Braveheart.” (Preposterous you say, they tried to say the same about my “Top Gun” idea where we had him fly onto the aircraft carrier in a flight suit.) If need be we can get Mel Gibson to consult in this regard. Sitting atop the horse, President Bush will speak out of a bullhorn as he did so brilliantly at Ground Zero. With his eyebrows scrunched tight he will deliver the following speech of his life:

    Men, we are gathered here together at the crossroads of tyranny and liberty and I wanna know which road your gonna take. If you wanna join me in choosing the path of liberty, freedom, and Democracy, then I want you to march down this baron street, kick down those doors to tyranny and terrorism and be courageous in your conviction that we will prevail in the name of all that is good. My boys, you may not know the language of these people, the culture or even the terrain, you may not know friend from foe, and you might have no idea when your gonna leave this place, but you will know one important thing – the mission. A very clear and vital mission that involves mediating the disagreements between the Shiite and Sunni sects. We have provided some of the highlights of their 2500 year old strife in your field manuals and I want ya’ll to look them over before we move in. As you enter their neighborhoods reach out to these Arabs; do not let the camouflage you’re wearing disguise the compassion of Democracy you represent! They will in turn reach back out to you – of course if they reach out too quickly, or in a threatening way, take them out at once, do not show weakness. After we have firmly persuaded them to settle their differences, the people in these parts will be enlightened and thus view us less as occupiers and more as liberators. The country of Iran and Syria will shake with awe at this site of this freedom on the march, and thus have trouble recruiting young men to hate America. Eventually they will curtail their nuclear enrichment programs and embrace capitalism; but I don’t wanna bog you guys down in the details.

    I’ll end with this, we could do as the many say and begin withdrawing from Iraq, and you would all go home alive, but I’d rather you think, dying in your bed many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance, just one chance, to come back here as young men and tell our enemies that they may take our lives but they will never take our freedom!” March on men and make the free world proud, I promise I will be here when you get back.


  • OliverCranglesParrot
  • Potter

    Perhaps it’s sinking in that the military has been given a mission that they cannot accomplish, different from what they thought was the original mission or the reasons or notions they had when they enlisted. Perhaps some see past pep talk lectures and feel the force of a strong energy coming at them that is not dissipating as they see little to no improvement. The messenger ( the press) gets blamed of course.

    All in all, if I were in the military I would not want to give my life for this increasingly unrealistic dubious project. Perhaps some even realize that staying and even surging may be nothing more than a political move, a last ditch attempt, not a meaningful strategic move, but a move to save a presidency at the cost of lives, to delay the moment of withdrawal on his watch, nothing more.

    As indicated in the article about the poll:

    But while they want more troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, nearly three-quarters of the respondents think today’s military is stretched too thin to be effective.

    In other words they feel they cannot accomplish the mission.

    Almost two-thirds (63 percent) of those surveyed said the senior military leadership has the best interests of the troops at heart. And though they don’t think much of the way he’s handling the war, 48 percent said the same about President Bush. But they take a dim view of civilian military leadership — only 32 percent said they think it has their best inter ests at heart. And only 23 percent think Congress is looking out for them.

    So they blame Rumsfeld and the Congress (the other guy’s rep) and don’t accept where the buck stops (it’s not the culture).

    But even 48% is a very low number regarding Bush’s concern about the troops. That means that the rest are unsure, unwilling to say, or feel he has no concern.

    I thought this NYTimes contributor article in the op ed section a few weeks ago was good- reprint link:

    Time to Offshore Our Troops

  • nother,

    That’s Mel Gibson allright – a little closer to the movie I think than Braveheart though its basically the same thing with different costumes. It does have to be on horseback. We have to pretend it isn’t the nuclear age or war might start to seem obsolete.

  • Ben

    What does “Victory” mean? More than sixty years after the Potsdam Conference the U.S. European Command is largely based in Germany and has an area of responsibility covering millions square miles and a hundred countries. In that conflict, rebuilding nations and institutions was not part of the concept of “Victory” but part of major post-war efforts that took decades to accomplish. Haven’t we already won the “War” in Iraq and are now foundering in the aftermath?

    Does this strike anyone as a problem in language or logic?

  • Sutter

    In our country, it’s very hard to even ask the kind of question I want to ask, and I’ve debated whehter or not to do so all day. So, here’s the caveat: Our troops are doing the best they can with the resources they’ve been given; they are making tremendous (too great, in my view) sacrifices for the nation, and they deserve our undying gratitude, whatever we feel about this specific war. That said: Is the view of the troops on the ground entitled to any kind of special treatment? Don’t get me wrong — the troops of course deserve to participate in the process as much as every other citizen. And they certainly know more about the facts on the ground, at least with respect to the daily existence of individuals in the military. But do they know more about the policy issues at stake than the well-read citizen back home?

    I pose the question not to disrespect the troops, but because I feel some discomfort here: When the troops vote overwhelmingly Republican, progressives like me don’t say “Well, they know better than I do about these foreign policy issues.” It feels a bit disingenuous, now that the troops have grave reservations, to point to them as all-knowing. I am genuinely grateful they have a very valuable role in the debate, but no greater a role than any of us here.

  • nother

    There’s been a change of plans. The president’s advisors and I huddled together and decided we were way off the mark with the rallying cry idea; it’s off the table now. Past leaders needed rallying cries because they had conscription forces. Those men were drafted and needed to be giving a good reason to fight. This military is a volunteer force, they have signed contracts under oath and it is their JOB to fight when we tell them to fight, that’s what we pay them for. Giving them a rallying cry would only give the impression that they have some say in the matter.

    Some of our critics might label this a “mercenary army” but we call it a “professional army.” We have urged these young men to not cloud their head with the politics, just fight. The President will give some curtsy speeches to the public, the soldiers will suck it up, and we will move on. Some critics might contend that it will be impossible for our men to win without inspiration, without a clear cause; we have decided that our supior training and equipment will compensate. Good day.

  • pryoung

    Several of the above comments touch on language and its manipulations and confusions during wartime. What most aggrieves me is what has become of the phrase “support the troops.”

    I was always suspicious of it, because it smacked of phony consensus that I felt could actually enable militarism. But I do think it came initially from a place of genuine concern, and of recognition of the pain of the Vietnam era, particularly for soldiers.

    Then there were all of the ribbon magnets unthinkingly slapped on the back of the SUV’s. And the politicians and pundits going over to Iraq in the service of transparent personal agendas. Now the phrase is about to provide cover for the Bush Administration and the Democrats alike to move forward this calamitous escalation of what is already a lost war, and further avoid facing up to reality. We have to provide the soldiers with the “support” they need, regardless of our feelings about the war. Our friend at “stopiransied” above has gone even further and managed to turn “supporting the troops” into a pretext for inviting a still more disastrous confrontation with Iran.

    What was a worthy initial sentiment has, like so much else in this war, been made to seem empty and cynical.

  • OliverCranglesParrot

    A surge/escalation without a comprehensive grappling with the other high poles in the global geo-political tent will likely become another tactic in search of a strategic objective. Still born upon the worlds stage. Another opportunity to be exploited by adversaries of the U.S.

  • tlewis

    Let’s be honest, and let those who have served there who could not speak directly to the locals: they are not equipted for this mission.

    A “surge” in troops or “changing strategies” in a final quest for victory in Iraq are both impossible. In 2003 as now, our troops are completely untrained for their task: of course they have the lethal weapons and combat training, but they lack the capacity to communicate in Arabic as well as any working understanding of Iraqi society and culture. The logic of this reality on the ground has and will prevail. Cultural blunders, miscommunication, ignorance have led to “shoot them and let God sort it out.” US troops on the ground create more enemies than those whom they help.

    Only amateur middle east analysts, ideologues safe in their ivory towers, or politicians ensconced in the unreal “Green Zone” would so foolishly (or callously) send American soldiers to attempt to keep the peace without these necessary competences.

  • World Phamous

    I’m not sure how this will play into the on-air dialog, but we should keep in mind that the military is divided into a class society.

    Officers are the elite, presumed to be leaders because of a college degree, and are afforded “privileges of rank” that would be considered discriminatory practices in civilian society. Their quarters are cleaned for them, their food is of a better quality, they don’t stand in line. They are a step above.

    Requirements for enlistment, on the other hand, is nominally a high school education. Leadership within enlisted ranks is developed through experience. Privileges are always less than that of officers and are earned rather than expected. Pay for lower-ranked enlisted in many areas qualify them and their families for public assistance. Seldom is one promoted into the officer ranks from enlisted. Despite their disparaged positions, senior enlisteds are considered the backbone of their service.

    Political opinions, as may be expected, follows the two classes. Officers are typically conservative, preferring to preserve the class system that benefits them. Enlisted personnel are usually liberal and progressive, ready for change.

    Although the enlisted outnumber officers, a smaller percentage of enlisted vote. In my anecdotal experience (Navy enlisted, 23 years), enlisted voters are about 5%, officers are probably 25%.

    My point: We need to hear the opinions of enlisted personnel. The media relies too heavily on the military’s equivalent of expert pundits – generals – without consulting the military’s on-the-ground experts – senior sergeants and warrant officers.

  • bluefish

    why aren’t we sending in more Special Forces (unconventional warfare) and get the conventional commanders out of the way, instead of simply traffic police? How can we expect success if Sadr and his militia is put off limits by the politicians?

  • drunkencop

    One of the guests referred in passing to the popular notion that John Kerry might disparage the average grunt as being intellectually unequal to the task of understanding the geopolitical ramifications of the current conflict.

    This view of Kerry has gained so much traction recently that, like any falsehood repeated often enough, it’s threatening to become the accepted wisdom.

    Kerry’s unfortunate wording of a jab at President Bush has been pointed out often enough — and his notes for that speaking engagement verify that he was referring to the *leadership’s* being stuck in Iraq, not the ground troops’ being stuck there.

    Does Kerry have contempt for the mind of the enlisted man? It’s possible, but considering his own combat experience, and his many years of involvement with veteran issues, isn’t it far more likely that he has at least as much empathy for soldiers as does George W. Bush, whose privileges and negligences are too numerous to list here?

  • nother,

    opps… if this sentance didn’t make sense…

    That’s Mel Gibson alright – a little closer to the movie I think than Braveheart though its basically the same thing with different costumes.

    It was suppose to say…

    That’s Mel Gibson alright – a little closer to the movie ‘Patriot’ (another Mel Gibson) I think than ‘Braveheart’ though its basically the same thing with different costumes.

    He makes pretty much the same speech from his horse in both movies followed by riding by yelling FRRRRREEEEEEEEEEDDOOMM! … must be the standard thing for rallying troops.

  • emcil


    Although I only listened for the last few moments of the debate regarding how much say should our troops have in creating policy, the fact that such a question is asked shows how wide the attitudinal gap lies between between that of foreign and domestic policy.

    Every year it seems there is a cry for more police in the streets. The reverberating voice ultimately begins in the city’s throat with the policemen until it rises and then emanates from the mouth, that of the Chief of Police. Usually, a fiscal song and dance occurs between the Major, the Chief of Police and the City Council. The end result is that those who first verbalized the need for more help wins. Why? Because we consider police to be on the front lines of an urban war: crime and hence, the police, we tell ourselves, ultimately know what is necessary to fight and to win.

    Yet, when soldiers in Iraq, are fighting in a different type of war, one of no, we consider them unable or inept to set and understand foreign policy. Ironically, it is probably our soldiers who understand best what the lack in understanding of Iraq’s culture can create, how no schooling in the Iraqi language leaves them at the most vulnerable. More importantly, like the police, our soldiers understand what to lose means more than anyone else. It means death.

    Death to their friends, death to themselves and death to a region that they are fighting maintain and stabilize. Losing is not an option and it is not due to an motto drilled into them but because simply, loss can be a synonym for death.

    So why do we accept the police officers’ cry for more police on the streets and yet, we do not accept what the soldiers tell us is needed or what they believe should be done to win?

    Why do we allow police officers to set domestic agenda but we tell ourselves that soldiers can not understand foreign policy, even when they continually shape it by their wins and losses and more importantly, who wish to see it in a manner that is beneficial to the nation that they are fighting for?

    What is it about our thinking and our bias that allows such blatant discrepancies to exist and to flourish?

  • nother

    Ahh Peggysue, I was a little confused. That is funny though, I didn’t realize he used it in both movies. I don’t think I made it all the way through the Patriot.

    Part of what I was getting at though is we will never see Bush on the horse for two reasons. First, he’d have nothing to say. When there is no clear cause, when you can’t even define victory, how can you craft an inspiring rallying cry? Second, he knows he doesn’t have to, it’s their JOB to fight, and their inspiration is getting paid and getting rank. Of course I believe these are the two reasons this mission is doomed.

    Have we ever won a war without a rallying cry?

  • I feel like what have I heard was a triumph of the ego syntonic, by a group of brave and idealistic young men, over the realism of more than a billion people who do not want us to rearrange their minds. Put another way, to “succeed” we will not only have to take and hold all of Iraq, but all of the Muslim world–until that occurs, young men will continue to come at us from every direction to give their life so as to oppose what they see as our subjugation of their brothers and sisters.

    JonEden at yahoo

    Connecting the Dots: From human behavior to ecosystem collapse http://StudentsForTheEarth.org

  • Tom B

    The whole idea of a chain of command and obedience to orders means that what the troops think or feel (especially enlisted troops!) is irrelevant. The contract between volunteers and the government hiring their services is obedience in exchange for pay and benefits; technically we have an all mercenary military, though most folks would object to such an honest statement of facts. (Note: One of the most popular benefits is education, both on duty and after leaving active duty). The American military is relatively ‘smooth’ when it comes to folks breaking their contracts. Other nations adopt a tougher line. And non-volunteer armies (e.g. Stalin’s during WWII) would hunt down and summarily execute those protesting or questioning their orders. When American active-duty troops get too vocal, expect either a honorable or general discharge or an Article 15 disciplinary action. As my drill instructor many years ago succinctly put it, ‘There’s no room in the military for individualists.’ A special case is when significant numbers of the OFFICER corps begin to protest. This is a serious matter for their political masters. Fortunately it’s an easier matter to silence ‘troublemakers’ in the OFFICER class, since their pay and benefit package is lucrative enough that few will risk losing it. — Yes, it IS very much the same as a corporation, and the same human motives that make folks put up with a Ken Lay, or a Dennis Kozlowski operate within the hierarchical constraints of the military…

  • rc21

    To Tom B; being x-military like myself you know that the primary pastime of all servicemembers is to bitch and complain on a daily basis. Everything from food to liberty. Mission, leaders, housing,pay,hair length,working hours,watch standing. You name it and the soldier/sailor will complain about it.

    This has been going on since the begining of time. This should come as no suprise to anyone.

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