What If Our Troops Think We Can’t Win?

First Lt. Ehren K. Watada of the United States Army read too many books. The 28-year-old officer is heading for a court martial on account of doing so.

When his outfit, the Third Stryker Brigade of the Second Infantry Division, emplaned for Iraq last June, Lieutenant Watada’s seat was empty. He had elected to stay behind because, as he informed his commanding officer, “I am wholeheartedly opposed to the continued war in Iraq, the deception used to wage this war, and the lawlessness that has pervaded every aspect of our civilian leadership.”

In our all-volunteer Army, such insubordination—particularly on the part of an officer—doesn’t happen. Lieutenant Watada puts the blame on book-reading: to wit, A Pretext for War by James Bamford and Seymour M. Hersh’s Chain of Command. He had poisoned his mind. The lieutenant told New York Times reporter John Kifner, “I was still willing to go until I started reading.”

How and why Lieutenant Watada was seduced into book-reading hasn’t been explained, but his looks like an isolated case. The chances that significant numbers of uniformed personnel will fall into the trap of reading literature subversive of order and discipline are not large. At this juncture, no reason exists to consider drawing up a list of books forbidden to members of the armed forces, much less employing wider measures of censorship, such as consigning certain dangerous volumes to the flames.

Although no reliable figures exist, it is more probable that today’s young American, in the military services or out, will become addicted to drugs than to reading. Although three or four enlisted men have defied the Army and bailed on the war, there is no cause for alarm on account of the printed word: The pathogen of dereliction of duty, if it is to spread, will do so via another vector.

To be sure, anti-war organizations have taken up for Lieutenant Watada, but do not suppose they are as potent as those of 35 years ago. Today’s anti-war groups have few members and little money, although, strangely enough, they may enjoy more passive (but not very useful) support from the general public than those of the past.

Nevertheless, the signs are there that even soldiers who do not read books are becoming discouraged. The Military Times, the unofficial but authoritative journal covering the defense establishment, has published a poll of what the boots on the ground think of their mission. All those answering the poll’s question are on active duty; half of them have served in Iraq or Afghanistan. These are the men and women in whom the success of American intentions resides.

In answer to the question “Should the U.S. have gone to war in Iraq?”, only 41 percent said yes, as contrasted to a year ago, when 56 percent said yes. A startling 37 percent said no, with 11 percent deciding not to answer, which sounds like a “no, but I don’t want to be recorded as saying so.” About one in five refused to say whether they approved of the President’s performance on Iraq or overall.

“That’s my boss,” said Army Lt. Col. Earnestine Beatty in a follow-up interview. “I can’t comment.” Another respondent said that “he worried that asking such questions of military members and publishing the results could tarnish the military’s image as a nonpartisan institution.”

In answer to the question “Regardless of whether you think the U.S. should have gone to war, how likely is the U.S. to succeed?”, 41 percent of those doing the fighting said they didn’t believe that they and their country would prevail. Those answering the questions, who come from all the fighting services, also have doubts about the capacity of the man making the big decisions.

How closely do these results mirror the opinions and feelings of all active-duty personnel? The Military Times cautions: “The results should not be read as representative of the military as a whole; the survey’s respondents are on average older, more experienced, more likely to be officers and more career-oriented than the military population.” They are also preponderantly Republican and of a conservative cast of mind. A mere 7 percent described themselves as liberal, and a corporal’s guard of 16 percent said that they were Democrats. In theory, these people are President Bush’s bedrock support, the hardest of the hard-core, which makes these polling numbers and their respondents’ pessimism all the more startling.

How did this come about? These men and women have not been infected with Watada-ism. They have not been reading the wrong books, and while their opinions on the war lag behind polling numbers in the civilian population, they seem to be tracking them.

Today’s American military is closer to the civilian population than any before it, thanks to the Internet and the satellite telephone. Even physically isolated and hunkered down in a base in Iraq, our people are in real-time contact with their families and the world their families live in as never before. If nothing else, the contagion of civilian defeatism—or realism—can reach them very quickly.

In the Second World War, the government could and did keep much of the bad news from both civilians and military personnel. In the Vietnam War, the government had a harder time maintaining a happy face, but it was only after some years of warfare that the truth of our tactical position began to be understood by many back in the States. In this war, the uncensored back-and-forth streaming of anecdotes and snapshots from home and battlefield, the instant availability of news and opinion, is a constant of the technological age. If the isolation of sailor and soldier from the civilian social base hasn’t been ended, it has at least been modified, although with what consequences we are yet to understand.

One thing is clear, however, and that is: We now have an expeditionary force in Iraq composed of a majority of soldiers who do not believe they can win. Given the trend revealed in the polling, that majority will continue to grow, with who knows what effect on morale and efficiency.

The likelihood of either more Watadas or desertions is remote; this is a volunteer army, after all. Besides which, you’d have to be crazy to think of deserting in Iraq: Anybody wandering off from his or her unit is asking to be tortured and decapitated. There will be no dropping out and running for the hills.

Yet what kind of an effort will an army put out when it doubts that it can win? The Military Times poll reveals that a majority believes it will take years and years to accomplish the mission in Iraq. What the polls do not address is what that ever-shifting mission may be. For anyone risking life and limb, the blurred definition of what the Army is there to get done can only act as yet another drag on initiative and energy.

It stands to reason that there will be corrosive effects from this endless combat for ill-defined aims against an ill-defined foe. It is inconceivable that a force with the firepower of the United States could be driven out of Iraq. A major defeat is unimaginable, but not a series of minor ones. It’s not beyond imagining that our forces—adrift, confused and dispirited—will take some hefty losses.

Lieutenant Watada’s refusal to obey legitimate orders has the virtue of being a clear-cut statement that, for one soldier at least, the war is over. The Military Times’ polling suggests, for the rest of our soldiers, a dragging dénouement in which we are not beaten outright, but in which we crawl out of Iraq black and blue, so damaged that it may take our armed forces a long while to recover.

What If Our Troops Think We Can’t Win?