Is America at War?

This picture from today’s Kansas City Star echoes – in Marine fashion – a sentiment that I often hear from Soldiers: America isn’t at war; the Army is.

Politicians and pundits don’t always understand what Soldiers mean by that. It isn’t about a draft or who is serving in uniform or taxes or material sacrifices at home. It isn’t even about differing opinions about the way ahead. What most Soldiers mean is that the people seem to have lost heart.

Soldiers live by the warrior ethos:

  • I will always place the mission first.
  • I will never accept defeat.
  • I will never quit.
  • I will never leave a fallen comrade behind.

These are the values they live by. Time and time again, they throw themselves into the breach to accomplish what needs to be done. Soldiers, Marines, airmen and sailors are enduring extreme hardship and danger to accomplish the mission they’ve been given in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Pundits tell us that Americans are weary of the war. They are tired of it. They want it to go away. Many waiting friends and families endure the anxiety and heartache of deployments. Some receive terrible news of loved ones wounded or killed in action. For many Americans, however, the greatest hardship is seeing and reading bad news from Iraq in the media. I won’t downplay the significance of even this latter form of hardship. In today’s constantly connected world, news stories and images can and do create real traumatic stress.

Unfortunately, making decisions out of stress, discomfort or anxiety is a horrible idea. Soldiers and Marines quickly learn that paralysis and fear never get you out of a jam or accomplish what needs to be done. Success requires keeping your head in the game and your eyes focused on the goal, even when everything is going to hell around you. Courage isn’t the absence of fear; it is the ability to think and act despite your fear.

Service members do understand that there are differences of opinion about the way ahead in this conflict, both in Iraq and in the wider defense against extremist groups that attack us. Ask a dozen Soldiers for their opinions, and you’ll get at least a half-dozen different ideas. That’s true for any group of Soldiers, from privates to generals.

Military people have learned how to deal with different points of view. Military staffs begin planning by analyzing the mission they’ve been given and identifying and analyzing possible courses of action. In the end, the commander can decide to execute only one course. During the planning process, staff members can – and should – argue vigorously for their points of view. Once the commander decides, however, all Soldiers throw themselves into making the decision work. Certainly, you monitor the progress of your operation and make adjustments to both means and ends when necessary. No plan is perfect, but a barely sufficient plan vigorously executed now is much better than a perfect plan executed half-heartedly or in the distant future.

During my first assignment in the Army I worked in a Basic Training battalion at Fort Leonard Wood. There, I learned the phrase “suck it up and drive on.” That’s what Drill Sergeants said when issues of mental or physical discomfort (not injury) got in the way of Soldiers completing their tasks. Soldiers learned that the mission was more important than their comfort and that courage was more important than fear.

We cannot make decisions about this war based on fatigue, anxiety or self-interest. The stakes are too high for that. If the news is disturbing, don’t look at it until you can read it with your head instead of your gut. Eventually, find the courage to read beyond the “if it bleeds it leads” headlines. Choose to base your thinking on your intellect and will instead of on your weariness or fear. Choose to look beyond your own needs to the needs our nation and our world. As a nation, choose whatever strategy or course of action you think best achieves the greatest good and the members of the armed forces will execute it.

Be courageous; the members of the armed forces that serve you are more courageous still. You cannot ask too much from them. They will march through hell if you are behind them.