THERE WAS A RUNNING joke in my Marine units in Afghanistan and Iraq. Each grunt thought he was the best, the platoon above him was good, the company above that was mediocre and the overarching battalion was actively trying to get him killed. So it is with most organizations. People near the bottom wear blinders, and their diligent attention to the task at hand is precisely what makes them less qualified to assess the bigger picture.
This phenomenon helps explain Zogby International’s recent survey of U.S. troops in Iraq, which reported that 72% of them think the U.S. should withdraw within a year. Of course they do. The troops have no control over the broader strategy directing U.S. policy in Iraq, so they are suspicious of it. U.S. soldiers in Normandy in 1944 probably felt the same way.
Some newspapers and blogs across the country trumpeted the findings of the Zogby poll, which was conducted from mid-January to mid-February. They said the survey portended disaster for the U.S. in Iraq, as if the loss of faith of the common soldier on the ground reflected some kind of turning point in the war.
But the uncomfortable reality of polls is that you can’t cherry-pick their results. Conclusions that don’t support our preconceived notions must be taken along with those that do.
A less-heralded finding in the Zogby poll was that only 30% of the troops said they’d been inadequately supplied with body armor and armored vehicles, a low figure given that media coverage has suggested that the complaint is widespread among soldiers. Nearly two-thirds reported that basic infrastructure and services in Iraq -- electricity, water, healthcare and so on -- have improved in the last year. Ironically, the troops’ opinions on these topics, which run against the grain of popular perception, have a much stronger foundation in their daily experience.
As critics of the Iraq war rallied around that 72% figure on withdrawal, defenders of the policy trashed Zogby’s methods and questioned the poll’s motives. The firm has been tight-lipped about its methodology, citing “security purposes.”
There is, however, one telling hint: A quarter of those surveyed were female, but only about 15% of U.S. forces in Iraq are female. This indicates that the sample was skewed toward logistical support troops as opposed to front-line combat forces.
The attitudinal contrast between front-line and support troops is one of warfare’s fabled dichotomies, much like the contrast between an active-duty, infantry-heavy group -- such as the Marines -- and their Reserve and National Guard counterparts. In the survey, nearly 90% of polled Reserve and Guard soldiers advocated withdrawal from Iraq within a year, while barely more than half the Marines shared that view.
Culture matters: In the 1990s, the Marines toyed with the recruiting slogan “Nobody likes to fight, but someone has to know how.” It was dropped after Marines started grumbling that they really did like to fight.
But both the champions and critics of the Zogby survey miss the central point: The opinions of junior troops on the ground matter little -- and rightly so -- in crafting national policy.
Consider this poll finding: 85% of the troops who believe that the U.S. should exit Iraq in the coming year also said that the U.S. mission there is mainly “to retaliate for Saddam’s role in the 9/11 attacks.” How can we reconcile the so-called wisdom of the former with the demonstrable falsehood of the latter?
In short, we can’t. Asking young soldiers and Marines about national strategy is almost as fruitless as asking senior political leaders about platoon-level tactics.
During the war in Vietnam, President Lyndon B. Johnson and his advisors micromanaged battlefield decisions, sometimes even picking individual bombing targets. Their errors have been recognized in subsequent years, and commanders in chief these days are quick to emphasize that military decisions should be left to military professionals. Similarly, political decisions -- such as when and how to disengage from Iraq -- must be made by political professionals.
In the absence of a draft, members of the U.S. armed forces are professional volunteers. Their oath of office is not to a particular president, policy or administration. They swear to defend the Constitution and to obey the lawful orders of their democratically elected government. They served President Clinton, and they serve President Bush. They served in the Balkans, and they serve in Iraq. Civilian control of a professionally apolitical military is a sacred American tradition. This is why, in the all-volunteer force, troop opinions or outside perceptions of their morale cannot be used as a “canary in the coal mine” of Iraq policy.
My Marines were right about one thing: They were the best. But their expertise was fighting the war, not making national policy.
The Zogby poll and its selective interpreters fail to make that distinction and so contribute little to the debate on the wisdom of the war in Iraq.