Dissent IS deeply American. We value free speech, heated debate, the power of the veto and judges who write dissenting opinions. Many Americans strongly oppose the war in Iraq, and their words of dissent can be
very sharp, especially when they accuse U.S. soldiers of being as brutal as terrorists. Defenders of the war say such criticism hurts our troops’ morale.
As a Marine officer who served 19 months in the Middle East after 9/11, I learned that morale in the military is less affected by what pundits say than what happens on the battlefield. I fought in Iraq for two reasons: to liberate Iraqis and to take care of Marines.
We defeated the enemy, provided security, delivered basic necessities, repaired hospitals and schools, and gave lots of candy to Iraqi kids. We Marines thoroughly believed in what we were doing and maintained a warrior spirit. We fulfilled our purpose, and morale was accordingly high.
We did not have the luxury to pause and check polls on how the American public felt about the war. That was the responsibility of our elected officials.
There were a few times when dissent on the home front reached the front lines, and it did not harm troop morale but motivated us to ensure that the truth was reaching Americans.
While fighting just outside Baghdad, I heard that critics of the war in the U.S. were saying that continued Iraqi resistance was evidence of an “unwanted U.S. invasion.” The resisters, however, were not the old Iraqi army, whose troops were deserting in droves, or Iraqi civilians, but foreign fighters and Saddam Hussein loyalists. I wanted to make sure that this reality reached the American people, so I told our embedded news reporter. The morale of the enemy was crumbling, but our will to fight was unwavering.
Then there was the time when dissent stared me in the face. During an interview with an American journalist, he charged that our military’s supposed inhumane treatment of Iraqi prisoners had undercut any justification for the war. In response, I told him how I had personally protected hundreds of captured Iraqis who had been tortured under Hussein’s regime and faced retaliation from insurgents. When I then showed him the copy of the Geneva Convention that I carried in my cargo pocket, he ended our conversation.
Dissent is valuable when both sides walk away with a clearer version of the truth, and that certainly is a morale booster.
But just like blind obedience, unconstructive dissent has negative consequences. A lesson that I will always remember from Marine Corps training is, “Never present a problem without presenting a viable solution.” Dissent for the sake of dissent is unproductive, especially when we are at war. When political leaders call for the immediate withdrawal of our troops from Iraq without proposing a plan for that country’s future, they are merely being divisive. Because we are professional fighters, these kinds of political stunts do not affect our morale. But we do lose faith in our politicians.
Misdirected dissent is even more dangerous. Accusing U.S. troops of “terrorizing” innocent Iraqi civilians as a way to oppose the war is not going to change U.S. foreign policy. Such unfounded accusations disrespect all who serve or who have served honorably. Although this type of dissent is unlikely to hurt troop morale in Iraq, it psychologically affects us once we are home. The fact that I had to explain to close friends and family that I and my fellow Marines never tortured anyone in Iraq still haunts me.
Although I dislike comparisons between the Iraq and Vietnam wars, they can be instructive in one respect. After eight years of fighting, the U.S. abandoned South Vietnam, clearing the way for the North to create a communist Vietnam. Our troops returned to an ungrateful nation that literally spat in their faces.
In just under three years, the U.S. military and its allies have helped the Iraqi people approve a constitution and democratically elect a permanent National Assembly. How will America treat our troops as they come home?