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The Most Precious Commodity

October 19, 2009

We hear conflicting reports about troop morale in the US armed forces. High-profile people who visit our troops in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other places report that morale is high. After eight years of war since 9/11, however, years more of war ahead, and the US strategy to win it uncertain, others report that troop morale is low. Whatever the situation, now, more than ever, itís important that American leaders and the American people not take troop morale for granted and exercise great care not to squander this most precious commodity essential to success.

For almost 20 years, now, the US armed forces have been waging war, enforcing sanctions and no-fly zones, and preparing for these missions on an unprecedented level for Americans. Since the First Gulf War, when a new, better trained, better equipped, and better led US military demonstrated its prowess to the American people and the world, the US armed forces have been the worldís premier military--the most capable and feared fighting force on earth.

Given their stature and accomplishments, we should expect them to have high morale. After all, they are an all-volunteer military thatís become one of the most respected institutions in American society. Their leaders, generals like David Petraeus, are admired and respected by most Americans like the great American generals of World War II once were. Nevertheless, the US armed forces have been under great stress for a long time and it does not appear that pressure will abate anytime soon. Thereís a common-sense correlation between time and pressure on one axis and troop morale on the other.

Despite their seasoned-warrior image, individual troop morale is a fragile thing. Itís highly dependent on each person's psychological makeup and unique circumstances. Dear John letters, divorce papers, news of a family memberís death will undermine a warriorís morale regardless of other circumstances. Prolonged and multiple combat tours produce greater instances of suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which, if unrecognized and untreated, has an impact on unit morale which is greatly affected by the collective unit psyche of its members and by the quality of unit leaders.

These factors that affect morale, however, are constant challenges. Theyíve existed since armies were first formed and they will be there until militaries no longer exist. The military and civilian leadership of the US Armed Forces have a moral obligation to the troops to select the best commanders, establish good personnel policies, and provide a broad network of troop and military-family-support services. Good personnel policies include maintaining sufficient active-duty troop strength to allow longer breaks between unit rotations. While there will always be room for improvement, with the exception of minimizing unit rotations, todayís US Armed Forces are better at this than they previously were.

Then thereís what I call, for want of a better term, the Vietnam-War-morale syndrome. Thatís what happens to troop morale across the board when the US armed forces as an institution is unpopular and America engages in an unpopular and highly divisive war. Those of us who experienced the anger and disrespect of the anti-war movement in America when we returned from Vietnam will never forget it.

That anti-war, anti-troop mentality still exists in some American communities. Colleges and universities still bar Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) programs. Local communities still attempt to bar US Armed Forces recruiting stations. And high schools still bar or discourage military speakers.

There was a time during the height of anti-war protests over Iraq when I feared we might see a return to the widespread anti-war attitudes witnessed in the 1960s and 1970s. Fortunately, my fears were unfounded and we never did. Most Americans had learned to separate their disagreements with government about war from their respect and support for the troops.

We should never assume, however, that widespread anti-military feeling is a unique, historical phenomenon associated only with the Vietnam War. A serious potential long-term side effect of the all-volunteer military is that it could, over time, lead to a bifurcation of American society between those who are willing to risk their lives to defend our freedom and those who arenít. Americans must work to guard against this.

For the present, however, we have a more immediate problem; and thatís the mission our leaders give the troops, the extent to which the troops believe in it, and their expectation they can accomplish it.

America is at a crossroads in the war against Islamic Jihadism in the Middle East and Southwest Asia. Itís a lot more complicated than whether or not President Barack Obama will give General Stanley McChrystal the additional 40,000 troops he has asked for in Afghanistan. Those troops are necessary, and the president should give them to him; but they are no guarantee of victory. So long as al-Qaeda and the Taliban have sanctuaries in Pakistan, the US can not hope to eradicate their influence in Pakistan and Afghanistan. If we pull out of Iraq too soon the blood and treasure we have sacrificed there could be wasted. If we fail to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons we could find ourselves in the middle of a catastrophic war that engulfs the broader region.

Wisely deciding on the correct political, military, and other strategies to succeed in all these areas is essential. President Obama and his top national security and military advisors have difficult work cut out for them. Executing even the best strategies effectively, however, requires highly motivated, well informed men and women who understand the strategies, believe in them, and are willing to sacrifice to achieve success. This aspect of troop morale is the most important one of all. It is the most essential and precious commodity any commander-in-chief can possess. Failing to understand this and do what is necessary to nurture it will only guarantee failure.



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