You can always tell when things are going badly in a war when the people running it start referring to principled resistance as giving aid and comfort to the enemy. Actually, there is a well-established methodology to this. Administration spokespersons get on a television talk show and prompt an interviewer to ask about political opposition to the war among substantial numbers of American citizens and their political representatives. The response, which seeks to demonize the opposition and simultaneously claim sole ownership of patriotism, goes like this: “Well, it may not be exactly treasonous in any legal sense; but certainly this is how I would see it…if I were an American…fighting…in country.”
Bogus then and bogus now. When I went to Vietnam as an armored cavalry platoon leader in 1969, I knew how controversial and unpopular the war had become. I went, I honestly believe, because of a sense of duty I had inherited from my parents’ generation. It may be that my fellow soldiers and I were ultimately betrayed in that sense of duty by certain American political leaders. But I never felt I had been betrayed by my fellow citizens. To be specific, before or after—even, in my case, living in largely academic communities where antiwar sentiment ran high—I never felt I had been treated treasonously by even the most vociferous or demonstrative antiwar Americans; and although I never made a big issue of my military service—finding postwar recriminations over misplaced patriotism, on the right or the left, largely beside the point—I certainly never sensed that anyone sat at home chanting for the enemy to kill me. I just understood that in a democracy people are allowed, encouraged, even impelled to take moral positions on political judgments by their leaders that turn out to be ill-considered and contrary to the general good of human beings at home and abroad. It was the war they hated, not me. I knew that then, and, as an exsoldier from a bad, even misbegotten war, I know it now.
If anything, I suggest that members of American military forces fighting in Iraq (and certainly in Afghanistan) understand this even better now than we did in the 1960s. A lot of us were draftees if we were enlisted, or basically drafted by other means—ROTC, OCS—if we were junior officers. We can certainly talk today about conscription by other means, about how young people in Iraq are not Bush’s or Cheney’s sons and daughters (nor Nancy Pelosi’s or Condoleezza Rice’s, according to a celebrated recent exchange), as they were not, in my war, Johnson’s or Rusk’s or McNamara’s. The fact remains, however, that these soldiers consider themselves volunteers who signed on to be members of a professional military force, albeit serving under constitutional civilian authority. They recognize themselves to be members of the best trained, most skilled and highly motivated—in every sense of the term, completely professional— military force we have ever put in the field. They know the mission. They also know that when it comes down to the real business of living and dying, political sophistries and the Potomac fire eaters who twist them around on talk shows can take a hike. They know, finally, that they only have each other; and in a certain sense, they’d just as soon a bunch of political wannabes presuming to speak for them would mess out. No less a political personage than a British Royal, young Prince Harry—or Cornet Wales, as he is called, in his current position as a newly minted second lieutenant in the Household Cavalry— got it completely right recently when asked if he would be deploying with his 12-man scout section to Iraq. “There’s no way I’m going to put myself through Sandhurst,” he said, “and then sit on my arse back home while my boys are out fighting for their country.”
Our soldiers know a lot of things. They read the papers, send and receive letters and e-mails, surf the Internet. As American citizen-soldiers, they know what is happening back home, in the administration and in Congress, during the last elections and now on the campaign trail. They also know they are fighting, among other things, for the right of their fellow citizens to speak freely. In the latter regard, they certainly know a REMF line when they see one. (REMF is an expression we used in Vietnam for people with jobs in the big base camps. RE stands for rear echelon; I’ll leave MF for the reader to figure out.) To somebody who sees a war from the range of the patrol or the ambush, the observation post or the booby trap, the “aid and comfort to the enemy” line is vintage REMF hogwash—along with the one about “dishonoring the sacrifice” of people who have gotten killed by not staying and getting more people killed. (Although I am working from decades-old memory here, I think the only time I ever personally got angry at any particular line concerned an item that suggested people back home felt sorry for us.)
I really do believe things have not changed all that much. I expect that our young military people prefer that our politicians not say stupid things when they are trying to pretend they know something about troop morale. All that politicians wind up proving is, then or now, they could never possibly have served as soldiers in a democracy.
Originally published in the May 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.