One of the conceits of the antiwar crowd–those who argued over the past thirteen years for leaving Afghanistan and Iraq regardless of the situation on the ground–was that doing so would be a favor to the American military, which has sacrificed so much in those wars. The sacrifice has been real and ongoing, with an increase in post-traumatic stress disorder and in suicide and divorce being only a few of the more discernible costs. Yet a new Military Times survey of 2,300 active-duty troops finds that morale is actually lower now than it was in the days when far more U.S. troops were deployed in harm’s way.
Back in 2009, when an average of 50,000 U.S. troops were in Afghanistan and 135,000 in Iraq, 91 percent of troops surveyed said their quality of life was good or excellent. Today only 56 percent say that and 70 percent believe their quality of life will decline in coming years. Some other findings: “73 percent of troops would recommend a military career to others, down from 85 percent in 2009. And troops reported a significant decline in their desire to re-enlist, with 63 percent citing an intention to do so, compared with 72 percent a few years ago.”
Troops are less willing to reenlist now than in the days when they were much more likely to be wounded or even killed in the line of duty? How could this be? Why aren’t troops embracing the Obamian paradise of unilateral withdrawal from war?
Part of the answer is provided by political scientist Peter Feaver, who is quoted pointing out “that the mission mattered more to the military than to the civilian. For the civilian world, it might have been easier to psychologically move on and say, ‘Well, we are cutting our losses.’ But the military feels very differently. Those losses have names and faces attached to [them].”
Few civilians can realize how deeply dispiriting it is for troops who fought for cities such as Fallujah and Al Qaim to see them fall to black-clad jihadist fanatics. Once troops served with a purpose–to avenge 9/11 and to defeat our nation’s enemies. Now, however, with an administration that makes withdrawal the highest priority, the military’s sense of mission and purpose is waning–with deleterious effects on morale. “Of those surveyed, 52 percent said they had become more pessimistic about the war in Afghanistan in recent years. Nearly 60 percent felt the war in Iraq was somewhat unsuccessful or not at all successful.”
This problem is aggravated by the severe budget cuts that the White House and Congress have collaborated to enact. The Military Times has a telling anecdote: “A Navy aviation machinist’s mate first class based in El Centro, California, said operational budget cuts left him and fellow sailors cannibalizing working parts from other aircraft entering phased maintenance so they could repair higher-priority broken jets. Even uniforms are in short supply, he said, as the Navy embarks on what could be a decade of scrimping under sequestration. ‘We are on the bare necessities and sometimes not even that. For example, I need new boots but they’ll ask me, ‘How long can you stretch that?’ ‘ he said.”
Another telling line: “A Navy fire controlman chief with 10 deployments said budget fears are contributing to a feeling of distrust and abandonment. ‘If sailors are worried about not getting paid, how am I supposed to do my job?’ he said. ‘I’m not an effective warfighter if I don’t have the backing of my government at home’.”
The U.S. military, to be sure, remains the most professional and capable force in the world. But it is suffering real damage and it would be nice if we had a president who recognized that was the case and sought to do something about it. Even a better secretary of defense, which Ash Carter promises to be, will have limited leverage to reverse crippling budget cuts or to implement plans for Afghanistan and Iraq that make military sense. Alas, the U.S. military appears to be in big trouble and help is still a couple years away at best.