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Sunday, August 29, 2010

Coming home from Iraq

When one enters the military, one loses most of the freedoms and rights that civilians enjoy.  On some occasions, one has the right to dissent, but needs to be damned careful about what is said and how it is said.  Officers do not have the right to criticize or express low opinions of Congress, the President, or any other member of their command.  Gen. McChrystal is a case in point.  Enlisted men can bitch on their own time, but anything that is insubordinate or disloyal can subject them to severe discipline.

In battle situations, effective commanders draw upon the experience and knowledge of veterans in the field, but most battle orders come from the top down and the grunts just follow orders.  When ordered, they simply carry out the jobs they were trained to do.  And any obstinacy or delay in carrying them out will be seen as a failure to obey orders or insubordination.  No matter what a soldier may think of the way a task is set up, he or she is obligated to do it.  This is a necessary fact of military life.

The reason for rigorous discipline in the American military is rooted deep in the experience with the militia.  The militia was anything but well regulated.  Lincoln, for example, was elected as commander of his company of Illinois militia during the so-called Black Hawk War.  That honor was more a testament to his political savvy than to his aptitude as a military leader.  He did not learn those latter skills until he was President facing the Civil War.  That militia created one of the most embarrassing episodes in military history during an occasion named Stillman's Run.  The men were encamped one night during their pursuit of Black Hawk and were enjoying their ration of whiskey.  Their commander was named Stillman.   Some of Black Hawk's scouts approached with a white flag to ask for a meeting.  When some of the militia saw Indians approaching, they panicked and opened fire on them.  The small party that had been sent to accompany the messengers opened fire in return to protect the messengers, and the militia ran in all directions, many of them not stopping until they reached some white enclave where they could hide in basements and fortified barns.  They said they had been besieged by thousands of Indians and put all of northwestern Illinois in a state of panic.   The place in Illinois where this mass demonstration of cowardice and incompetence took place was called Stillman's Run.  Now it as been benignly renamed to Stillman's Valley.  However, that bit of history provides the reason why military actions are assigned to a professionally trained and maintained military, not a militia. 

A soldier's primary task is to carry out orders, and no time or circumstance is allowed to debate the wisdom or appropriateness of those orders.  In America, the military must depend on the people who order them into action to have determined whether the wars declared are just and valid, whether the battle plans are competently drawn, and whether the necessary equipment and support for the actions is provided.

During and after Viet Nam, soldiers were vilified for the actions they carried out.  The civilians who so abused and castigated them did not grasp that whatever the soldiers did they did under orders and would have received severe punishment if they disobeyed them.  There are always cases in war where some soldiers go too far and commit war crimes, such as My Lai in Viet Nam.  But even then, the ultimate responsibility falls--or at least it should--on those who are commanding the troops.

The troops are coming home from Iraq.  Many of us protested this war as the country was preparing for it.  At the time, we thought it was not justified and, as it draws down, are more convinced that American lives and resources were needlessly wasted.  But the troops went there and carried out the mission set for them.  The problem is that when one criticizes the war on Iraq, some people say we are not supporting our troops.  We support our troops.  Even though we thought this war served no  purpose and would only worsen the situation in that area of the world, we provided them the equipment and support they needed, hoping that the battle would come to a quick conclusion.  It didn't.

The troops carried out their orders magnificently, for the most part.  Even though many of us think the war was irrational because Iraq was not a threat to us, the troops served under that pretext and deserve all the respect and honors we can bestow on them. 

Any anger and resentment should be reserved for those who propelled us into the war and so botched the whole affair. 

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States