In the Arena

The Wrong Word

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Over at the Commentary blog, Max Boot notes that even the gung-ho U.S. special forces seem “a bit worn down and pessimistic” in recent conversations he’s had with them about the situation in Afghanistan. I’ve had similar conversations with rank-and-file members of the U.S. military recently–in part, because they’re not sure that this mission can actually be accomplished (very unusual for our can-do military), but also because they’re exhausted and overstretched after eight years of combat, in the necessary Afghan action and the unnecessary war of choice in Iraq.

Boot’s prescription is as predictable as it is lame…

He thinks morale would improve markedly if the President uses the word “victory” in his Afghanistan rollout next week. But “victory” is a word that was never used by David Petraeus in Iraq–it was only used by unsophisticated bully-raggers like John McCain–and it is a word that would be laughable if applied to Afghanistan (just as it remains fairly implausible when applied to Iraq). Success is a better word than “victory,” less bellicose, more in keeping with the spirit of counter-insurgency doctrine.

Boot is on firmer ground when he suggests ┬áthat morale would improve if Obama hews to the McChrystal recommendation of 40,000 troops, but I think a much stronger morale booster would be if the President conveys a firm, reasonable sense of what can actually be accomplished in Afghanistan (and the region), and why it must be accomplished–no matter the number of troops he is sending. A plausible sense of mission needs to be re-established…and it would be a nice morale booster if he reinforced this message to the troops by (a) finding a way to deliver it personally in Afghanistan for the holidays and (b) spending either Thanksgiving or Christmas with his family at either Fort Hood or Fort Lewis here, with the families of troops either returning from deployments or rotating downrange.

But there is one further step the President should take. In almost every conversation I’ve had with members of the military who have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, the most powerful morale buster is the sense that they’re in this all alone–that the rest of the country expresses “support” for the troops but isn’t really involved, individually or emotionally, in the war effort. (“Thank you for your service” is the punch line for more than a few jokes and sardonic quips.)

If the President really wants to raise flagging morale, he can get the rest of us involved in Afghanistan when he makes his speech next Tuesday. He can name some charities–like Greg Mortenson’s project to build schools or Matt Damon’s efforts to provide clean water (in Africa now, but it could be expanded to Afghanistan and Pakistan)–that people should be supporting in the war zone. He can ask people to donate clothing for Afghan children or seeds for Afghan farmers. He could set up an office–yes, Glenn Beck, a czar–to coordinate this effort. As I wrote yesterday, I’d favor something even more tangible–a tax to fund the war effort–but I’m not holding my breath.

It has been a privilege for me to spend time with our military these past eight years since September 11, 2001. The culture of service and sacrifice–and the reciprocal provision, by the government, of gold-plated social services that would thrill any liberal–represents the best we can be as a society. In fact, ┬áthe President should appropriate the old Army slogan and say that it is time for us, as a nation, to Be All We Can Be…in support of the Afghan war effort and make some specific suggestions about how that can be done. It’ll produce a morale surge among the troops–and, I suspect, an endorphin-laden feeling of solidarity among the rest of us as well.