UNDER A sweltering Iraqi sky, the general asked for questions from his troops. Many were reluctant, but one stepped forward.
Marine Lance Cpl. Jack Kessel, 19, of Raleigh, N.C., asked about something that had been gnawing at him as he and his buddies go about the dangerous business of winning hearts and minds in Al Anbar province.
“How are we supposed to fight a war when people back home say we’ve already lost?” he asked.
It was a question that Marine Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis had anticipated as he toured Marine outposts in the sprawling province that is the home of the Sunni Arab insurgency in Iraq. After four years of war -- and nearly 900 Marines killed and 8,000 wounded -- many Marines believe they have begun to drive a wedge between the civilian populace and the insurgency in Al Anbar.
But at the same time, troops are keeping an eye on what is happening at home, where polls show that an increasing percentage of Americans feel the war was unnecessary, has been poorly executed and is unwinnable, if not already lost. In January, for instance, a Times poll showed that 62% of Americans thought the United States should not have invaded Iraq -- up from 43% in November of 2003.
During the Vietnam War, the growing opposition of the American public to the war had a devastating effect on troops in the field. Drug problems among soldiers, race-related disputes -- and even faltering support among the troops themselves for their own fundamental mission -- could often be traced back to the fact that the public had turned against the war.
So what is the effect on troop morale of declining public support for the war in Iraq and the increasingly contentious political debate at home? Like so much about modern military life, the answer may seem counterintuitive to civilians.
After my fifth trip to Iraq to report on Marines, I’ve concluded that, at least among Marines, morale remains high -- high not despite the public’s disaffection with the war but possibly because of it. The declining poll numbers and rising political upheaval appear to have driven Marines closer together.
Marines, for instance, continue to exceed their reenlistment goals; a recent study showed that those who have deployed twice to Iraq are more likely to reenlist again than those who have only gone once -- and that the Marine least likely to reenlist is one who has not deployed to Iraq.
Whether the same spirit can be found among Army and National Guard troops is for others to determine. Their missions, histories and institutional cultures are different than the Marines. Young men join the Marines with the expectation -- many even with the fervent hope -- that they will deploy quickly to a war zone. That’s not true for, say, the National Guard, and that kind of motivation doesn’t waver with public opinion polls.
As Cpl. Alexander Lengle, 21, of Lancashire, Pa., said of the debate that dominates much of the news: “That’s political. It’s not our part of the spectrum. We’ve got a job to do.”
At chow halls at the larger bases, there are usually televisions at opposite ends, one set to sports, one to news. The TV showing sports gets the larger audience, particularly among the young enlisted troops. “It’s like noise in the background,” Lance Cpl. Jacob Holmes, 21, of Tallahassee, Fla., said of the news channels.
When the 2nd Battalion, 5th Regiment needed volunteers to extend their enlistments so they could return to Iraq and mentor younger Marines making their first deployment, the talk was not of foreign policy but of loyalty to each other. Two hundred Marines -- 25% of the battalion -- volunteered to return to war-torn Ramadi.
“It’s not for everybody, but it’s definitely for me,” said Sgt. Kemp Miller, 25, of Philadelphia, making his third deployment.
In my many discussions with Marines, Lance Cpl. Kessel was one of the few who raised the issue of support for the war. He said he had picked up negative vibes about the war while he was back home. Other Marines acknowledged that they’d heard the same kind of comments but said they had dismissed them. Kessel, however, said he kept worrying.
Keeping up morale is a top-priority mission among Marine brass and senior noncommissioned officers, who know that alienation can set in quickly and spread rapidly.
During the assault on Baghdad in 2003, young Marines frequently asked reporters whether the public backed their mission. At the time, the answer was yes, overwhelmingly so.
Many of the Marines were the sons of Marines or soldiers who had fought in Vietnam. They had grown up hearing tales -- real or apocryphal -- of returning veterans being scorned. There seemed to be a palpable fear among the Marines that the same fate might await them if the public changed its mind about the mission.
Instead, something different happened. As support for the war waned, support for the troops increased. A tidal wave of paperback books, goodie boxes of candies and other things and banners done by schoolchildren has engulfed the troops. At Christmastime, so many stockings and presents arrived for the troops that the loot had to be distributed to Iraqi children to keep it from clogging warehouse space.
It’s a point that Mattis, the commanding general of Marine Forces Central Command, made repeatedly as he talked recently to troops.
“There’s a lot of dissent about the war, but there’s zero dissension about the troops,” he said. He used the example of Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), possibly President Bush’s most ardent opponent on the war but also the most aggressive member of Congress in getting money for a safer combat vehicle.
Mattis told the Marines to believe their own eyes rather than news accounts on the issue of who is winning the war. Don’t be discouraged by the politicians and pundits who haven’t been to Iraq and don’t understand, he said.
“Don’t hold it against them,” he said to Kessel and the others gathered at a base in Habbaniya. “The only reason they have that freedom of speech is because you’ll fight for it.”
Kessel nodded. “I understand now,” he said later.