Wednesday, February 7, 2007

William Arkin gets in deep doody for not "supporting the troops"

Actually, he was kind of asking for it. For a regular journalist, he does a pretty good blog. But as I've said before, sometimes he tries too hard to be provocative. And he apparently sent the wingnuts into a feeding frenzy this week with a column of his where he was making a very valid point but couldn't resist trying to be provocative:

The Troops Also Need to Support the American People Washington Post 01/30/07

This doofus rightwing
Day by Day comic strip for 02/01/07 is an example of the negative reaction.

So Arkin tried to walk it back in a follow-up post:

A Note to My Readers on Supporting the Troops Washington Post 02/01/07

And he returned to the topic again in
Demonization and Responsibility Washington Post 02/06/07, in which he speculates on the approach of his more "biting, fanatical, threatening" correspondents.
Check out his columns to see what the broohaha is about.

I've followed Arkin's columns for quite a while. He's one of the best military analysts out there and his Post blog is a great resource.

I understand what he was getting at. He was challenging the increasingly daffy political convention in America of arguing about Iraq War policy in terms of what's best for "the troops", who are routinely described as brave, noble, self-sacrificing, [fill in your favorite superlative]. We're against the war because we're asking too much of "our troops" who are fine, wonderful, etc. No, we need to stay in Iraq because "the troops" want to finish the job, being as they are brave, determined, capable, etc.

This convention has become increasingly popular over the last three decades. To a significant extent it's the result of having an all-volunteer military, though other trends have contributed to it, such as the Christian fundamentalists deciding that the military was a rich "mission field" for their message. But was result of all those trends is that fewer and fewer Americans have direct contact with the military themselves or through neighbors and family members. Idolizing "the troops" is kind of an informal but real psychological bargain.

The civilians who don't serve and haven't served gush about the nobility of those who do. Those in the military are expected to then be jacked around as the politicians and our infallible generals decide (the generals also being dedicated, noble, selfless, etc.), and they shouldn't make everyone else feel uncomforable by bitching and moaning about it. More particularly, no one should make the offspring of affluent Republican white folks feel guilty about the fact that while they cheer for wars and recite bloody slogans as loyal Republicans are expected to, most of them don't feel moved to volunteer for those wars they find so vital to the interests of the Homeland. That's what we have fine, noble soldiers for, who just happen to be disproportionately Southern, diproportionately minorities and disproportionately working class. Military recruiters should confine their high-pressure recruiting efforts to mall and high-schools in working-class neighborhoods and not trouble nice young Republican white folks about such things.

And that's a big downside of this idolization of "the troops". Because "the troops" are strangers to so many Americans, and because they are abstracted to be the Best of the Best, it makes it psychologically much easier for most of the public to cheerfully agree and even applaud to send them off on dubious missions where their lives and bodies are placed on the line. Too many people view them as The Troops, not as what they are: men and women just like the rest of the society they come from, though with the demographic disproportions I mentioned above.

Arkin made the point in a clumsy way. But doing verbal somersaults to make Iraq War policy sound in the best interests of the soldiers is getting increasingly unreal. Anyone who's not a Big Pundit or totally into the Oxycontin worldview understands that it's obvious that war is never in the best interests of "the troops". Their best interests is in not being put in some Middle Eastern hell-hole where they may be killed or maimed or shot out their helicopters or driven to PTSD.

Also, it surely must be clear to most anyone not washed in the blood of High Broderism that whether the soldiers in the field want to carry on the fight is not the determining factor in war policies, unless things come to the extremes of the army collapsing or revolting. I'm not aware of any country which lets the rank-and-file soldiers vote on whether to initiate, continue or end a war. I suppose you could make some sort of romantic-Bolshevik case that they should get to decide by a vote. (Not that Communist governments ever followed such a practice.) Soldiers in the American Civil War got to elect some of their officers, a system that didn't have such great practical results.

But who outside Beltway punditry or rightwing think-tanks pretends that's the way the world works? Of course, wars are bad for the soldiers' health and well-being, including the businesses, marriages and family lives that are negatively affected by their absence. And of course the soldiers in the field don't get to decide, short of some kind of insubordination or revolt, whether or not their country is going to enter a war, keep on fighting or come to a peace agreement.

To make his point, Arkin chose a TV report which contained quotes from several soldiers in Iraq complaining about antiwar critics in the US.

What surprises me, though, is that he makes the following assumption:

I've been mulling over an *NBC Nightly News* report from Iraq last Friday in which a number of soldiers expressed frustration with opposition to war in the United States.

I'm sure the soldiers were expressing a majority opinion common amongst the ranks - that's why it is news - and I'm also sure no one in the military leadership or the administration put the soldiers up to expressing their views, nor steered NBC reporter Richard Engel to the story. (my emphasis)
Why would he assume that? There have been a number of indications that soldiers, including those serving in Iraq, are at least as critical of the war itself as the general population in the US. For instance, a recent Military Times poll (Down on the war/Poll: More troops unhappy with Bush’s course in Iraq by Robert Hodierne 12/29/06) found: 

When the military was feeling most optimistic about the war — in 2004 — 83 percent of poll re spondents thought success in Iraq was likely. This year, that number has shrunk to 50percent.

Only 35 percent of the military members polled this year said they approve of the way President Bush is handling the war, while 42 percent said they disapproved. The president’s approval rating among the military is only slight ly higher than for the population as a whole. In 2004, when his popularity peaked, 63 percent of the military approved of Bush’s handling of the war. While ap proval of the president’s war lead ership has slumped, his overall approval remains high among the military.

Just as telling, in this year’s poll only 41 percent of the military said the U.S. should have gone to war in Iraq in the first place, down from 65 percent in 2003. That closely reflects the beliefs of the general population today — 45 percent agreed in a recent USA Today/Gallup poll.
So I would fault Arkin for being too quick to buy into a bad assumption on the part of the war fans. In fact, in his 02/06/07 post about the responses he got, he remarks on the war fans' rather bizarre denial of the state of pubolic opinion on the Iraq War:

Other criticism focuses on public opinion, which commenters say I've misstated. It appears that many Iraq war supporters believe that public opinion against the war (and the President) is a concoction of the mainstream news media and the liberal elite. Moreover, some seem to believe that in the battle for public opinion, people like me are in some kind a contest with soldiers or veterans of the Iraq war as to who knows best.

As this line of argument goes, the soldiers themselves and those who have served in Iraq are the only ones who really know what it is like, what the war is about, and what should be done. The media in general and war opponents in particular intentionally and purposefully provide a negative and discouraging view that doesn't comport with what the soldiers see, so goes this argument.
If been surprised to see that attitude expressed in at least one of the "milblogs" I sometimes visit, where the writer seems to just take it for granted that polls showing heavy dispproval of the war are somehow faked, or meaningless. In fact, the various polls are showing a remarkable degree of dissatisfaction with the war. And based on previous experience in such things (Korean War, Vietnam War, for instance) that negative opinion on the war is unlikely to get much more favorable. So it is kindof stunning that some war fans manage to so easily disregard it.

He goes on to describe the faux-populism, or maybe rightwing populism would be a better word, framing that argument:

But the bigger point is that any dissenting voices are just those of whores, politicians, tin foil hat liberals, or worse, un-Americans. In this view, there are no actual experts in this world, no one who studies and measures public opinion, no one who studies war or the military, who do not wear the uniform. This is not some post-modern relativism, it is pure anti-elitism. The elite think they know it all, while those who do all of the dirty work, who do all of the suffering, are methodically ignored and dominated.
Give Arkin's three posts linked above a read. They provide a good look at the venom and often daffiness of the Iraq War's more enthusiastic supporters.


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