08 December 2006

Morale and our Mission

This piece was contributed by reader Robert Connolly, whom I'm also proud to call a friend.

Most of the emails that I get from Marines in the field are wonderful: efficient, friendly, sincere thank-yous from senior NCOs and more senior officers. Until the last year, I didn’t personally know anyone deployed in Iraq fitting that description, but in the past year I have met a few. To a man (yes, they are all in combat arms), they are what any civilized society would hope to have leading their sons and daughters in the terrible business of conducting a war. I have come to look forward to getting three sentences from these men, mostly confirmation that another care package arrived and their Marines were ‘feeling the love’ from back home.

Yesterday, I responded to one of those emails from a very senior Marine NCO by explaining a little of what we have been doing (i.e., how did it happen that you got this care package from me). I always try to make a couple of points with these men: 1) the professionalism displayed by our Marines is a source of great pride, and 2) we are aware that much of what they do which is good is not being reported (i.e., we know the news is slanted). Most of the time, I don’t get an email back. That’s generally because these men have another job which occupies their time and energy (and I stress that their families are more important than strangers trying to help with morale).

This time was different. This senior Marine wrote back to say: ”Glad to hear that you care. So many people don't.” I was quite taken aback by this message. Its directness wasn’t surprising, but the tone was disturbing to me. It was completely out of step with what I usually hear.

I pondered this for most of the day, wondering what could lie behind this. The obvious explanations did not fit: there were no fatalities in this unit and there was no other public bad news. True, it could be that I was seeing the consequences of fatigue, the cumulative effects of a raft of minor problems, or other issues that probably won’t matter in the long run. Still, after dozens and dozens and dozens of these emails, all from Marines in roughly comparable settings, this one stood apart.

It occurred to me later that I may have been seeing something that has been noted by many others who interact with Marines and soldiers in the field: what happens back home affects Marines and soldiers in the field. So, what’s happened lately? A casual tour of the blogs which cover such matters shows a litany of serious negativity:

  • Distortions of a Marine colonel’s report on Anbar province

  • Leaks of additional classified documents

  • Mounting evidence of derelict performance by a major news service

  • Speculation about the Iraq Study Group report and its recommendations.

  • Then, a plausible explanation jumped out: this email came 24 hours after this Marine’s likely new civilian boss, Robert Gates, said that the military wasn’t winning the war in Iraq. Now, the truth is that the headlines trumpeted this, but the Secretary-designate’s views are a bit more nuanced than that. From an MSNBC report,

    At the outset of an afternoon session of questions about Iraq and other subjects, Gates began by telling the committee he wanted to amplify on his remark about not winning in Iraq. He did not withdraw the remark but said, "I want to make clear that that pertains to the situation in Iraq as a whole."

    He said he did not want U.S. troops to think he believes they are being unsuccessful in their assigned missions.

    "Our military wins the battles that we fight," Gates said. "Where we're having our challenges, frankly, are in the areas of stabilization and political developments and so on."

    Perhaps this Marine only caught the headlines, or perhaps he was too busy ‘winning the battles’ in his area to have time to scour the testimony. Either way, it doesn’t seem far-fetched that our Marines and soldiers might have come to the point where they are wondering what the hell is going on back home.

    I am not near smart enough to know how to answer that question with authority. I don’t think I have run across anyone who is that smart.

    I do think there is something we can do about it, however. If you know a Marine, soldier, airman, or sailor in harm’s way, take the 10-15 minutes it will require to put a pen to paper (or type an email) and assure them of your personal support. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but it does have to happen. (These folks are good, but they cannot read your mind from 8,000 miles away.) Your note will do more good than you can imagine, and it has, I believe, a much more powerful impact on morale than reports in the MSM.

    If you don’t know who to write to, go to Marty Horn’s AnySoldier.com website, pick a PFC or SGT, and send them a note. Alternatively, go to Soldiers' Angels and adopt a soldier. If you don’t know what to say, then the nice people at Xerox have created a way for you to do this without having to use your own words. It isn’t hard, and you won’t get back a critique of your efforts from a soldier or Marine.

    In January 1951, Gen. Matthew Ridgway took over the 8th Army in Korea, and noting the morale problems there, he wrote and had distributed to the entire force a document entitled, “Why We Are Here.” It addressed the difficulties that soldiers and Marines in the field might have had in understanding the purpose of their terrible exertions.

    I don’t think we need that now. This Marine’s closing sentence in his email to me speaks to the differences between morale in Korea at that time and in our force in Iraq: “My boys are doing a great job though and we will continue the best way we know how.”

    I have to go work on something to say to this Marine and his boys. Will you do the same?

    Bob can be reached via email or you may leave him a comment below.

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