On Meet the Press, NBC News' Richard Engel asserted that "if you pull back the troops, the troops themselves are going to be furious. They have done so much and worked so hard ... that if you start pulling them back ... they're going to be livid." However, neither host Tim Russert nor other guests mentioned recent reports indicating that some members of the military would not be opposed to drawing down troop levels in Iraq.
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On the August 26 edition of NBC's Meet the Press, during a panel discussion on the war in Iraq, host and NBC News Washington bureau chief Tim Russert did not challenge colleague Richard Engel's assertion that "if you pull back the troops, the troops themselves are going to be furious. They have done so much and worked so hard and sacrificed so much that if you start pulling them back because of political debates and domestic pressure in the United States, they're going to be livid." Engel, NBC News' Middle East correspondent and Beirut bureau chief, added: "They're not going to thank the Americans, and they're probably going to end up blaming Democrats, who said, 'We never got a chance to complete the mission and all of our hard work hasn't been accomplished.' " He concluded: "[T]here's a real risk, if you ... draw the troops down and don't give them a new mission, that they're going to feel that they were just used and manipulated."
Neither Russert nor the other members of the panel -- Washington Post military correspondent Thomas Ricks and New York Times chief military correspondent Michael Gordon -- mentioned recent reports indicating that some members of the military would not be opposed to drawing down the number of U.S. troops in Iraq. For instance, in an August 19 New York Times op-ed, seven members of the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne Division asserted that "it would be prudent for us to increasingly let Iraqis take center stage in all matters, to come up with a nuanced policy in which we assist them from the margins but let them resolve their differences as they see fit." Further, on August 25, the Los Angeles Times reported that many soldiers are "becoming vocal about their frustration over longer deployments and a taxing mission that keeps many living in dangerous and uncomfortably austere conditions. Some say two wars are being fought here: the one the enlisted men see, and the one that senior officers and politicians want the world to see."
In their New York Times op-ed, the service members asserted: "In the end, we need to recognize that our presence may have released Iraqis from the grip of a tyrant, but that it has also robbed them of their self-respect. They will soon realize that the best way to regain dignity is to call us what we are -- an army of occupation -- and force our withdrawal." Further, while Engel later asserted that the troops are "going to be really angry" if their mission in Iraq shifts away from patrolling the streets, the service members continued in their op-ed:
Until that happens, it would be prudent for us to increasingly let Iraqis take center stage in all matters, to come up with a nuanced policy in which we assist them from the margins but let them resolve their differences as they see fit. This suggestion is not meant to be defeatist, but rather to highlight our pursuit of incompatible policies to absurd ends without recognizing the incongruities.
The Los Angeles Times article also reported on the view some U.S. service members have of their current mission. From the article, headlined "GIs' morale dips as Iraq war drags on":
As military and political leaders prepare to deliver a progress report on the conflict to Congress next month, many soldiers are increasingly disdainful of the happy talk that they say commanders on the ground and White House officials are using in their discussions about the war.
And they're becoming vocal about their frustration over longer deployments and a taxing mission that keeps many living in dangerous and uncomfortably austere conditions. Some say two wars are being fought here: the one the enlisted men see, and the one that senior officers and politicians want the world to see.
"I don't see any progress. Just us getting killed," said Spc. Yvenson Tertulien, one of those in the dining hall in Yousifiya, 10 miles south of Baghdad, as Bush's speech aired last month. "I don't want to be here anymore."
Morale problems come as the Bush administration faces increasing pressure to begin a drawdown of troops.
Plenty of troops remain upbeat about their mission in Iraq. At Patrol Base Shanghai, flanking the town of Rushdi Mullah south of Baghdad, Army Capt. Matt Dawson said residents used to shoot at troops but now visit them and offer ideas on improving security.
"For the 20-year-old kids here who have been shot at for 10 months in a row, the change is a tremendous feeling," Dawson said last week.
The Army cites reenlistment numbers as proof that morale remains high and says it expects to reach its retention goal of 62,200 for the fiscal year.
"On the 4th of July, we reenlisted 588 service members ... in Baghdad. That has to be an indicator," said Sgt. Maj. Marvin Hill, who visits bases to gauge morale on behalf of Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of U.S. troops in Iraq.
Based on his encounters, Hill said, he would rank morale at 8 on a scale of 1 to 10.
"Units that are having real success are units where troop morale is extremely high," Hill said. "Units that are sustaining losses, whether it be personnel losses, injuries or casualties -- those are organizations where morale might dip a bit."
The signs of frustration and of flagging morale are unmistakable, including blunt comments, online rants and the findings of surveys on military morale and suicides.
Sometimes the signs are to be found even in latrines. In the stalls at Baghdad's Camp Liberty, someone had posted Army help cards listing "nine signs of suicide." On one card, seven of the boxes had been checked.
"This occupation, this money pit, this smorgasbord of superfluous aggression is getting more hopeless and dismal by the second," a soldier in Diyala province, north of Baghdad, wrote in an Aug. 7 post on his blog, www.armyofdude.blogspot.com.
"The only person I know who believed Iraq was improving was killed by a sniper in May," the blogger, identified only as Alex from Frisco, Texas, said in a separate e-mail.
The Army's suicide rate is at its highest in 23 years: 17.3 per 100,000 troops, compared with 12.4 per 100,000 in 2003, the first year of the war. Of the 99 suicides last year, 27 occurred in Iraq.
The latest in a series of mental health surveys of troops in Iraq, released in May, says 45% of the 1,320 soldiers interviewed ranked morale in their unit as low or very low. Seven percent ranked it high or very high.
Mental health trends have worsened in the last two years, said Cindy Williams, an expert in military personnel at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "These long and repeated deployments are causing acute mental stress," she said.
From the August 26 edition of NBC's Meet the Press:
RUSSERT: Richard Engel, is an all out civil war inevitable in Iraq?
ENGEL: Absolutely. It is going on right now, it is just contained. You have so many American forces that are keeping the lid on this civil war, but Iraqis are fighting it. And you pull them back, it's just going to come right up to the forefront. And going back to their points, if you pull back the troops, the troops themselves are going to be furious. They have done so much and worked so hard and sacrificed so much that if you start pulling them back because of political debates and domestic pressure in the United States, they're going to be livid.
They're not going to thank the Americans, and they're probably going to end up blaming Democrats, who said, "We never got a chance to complete the mission and all of our hard work hasn't been accomplished." So I think there's a real risk, if you draw them -- draw the troops down and don't give them a new mission, that they're going to feel that they were just used and manipulated.
RUSSERT: A new mission -- Tom Ricks, you write this: "If Iraq does not descend into a full-out civil war" -- "If Iraq does descend into a full-out civil war, U.S. government efforts may turn to shaping a new policy of containment that seeks to prevent the country's conflict from flaring into a regional one. The question then, perhaps to be debated later this year but certainly by the 2008 presidential election, will be whether the Americans are taking on another open-ended and ultimately impossible mission."
RICKS: I think probably where we'll wind up is with what one recent think tank study called the "Three No's": moving to goals of basically no genocide, no safe haven for Al Qaeda, and no regional war -- no expansion of the war outside of Iraq. Much less ambitious than the Bush administration's original goals of liberation and democratizing the Middle East, but still a considerable mission that would have us with many, many troops in Iraq and the region for many years.
RUSSERT: And tolerating a civil war, in effect.
ENGEL: That's the problem: The troops are going to be sitting on their bases, no longer patrolling as much, and they're going to be watching massacres happen right off the base, and they're going to be really angry about it because they're going to feel responsible. Now they're out on patrol, the only thing that gets them going is they see one particular neighborhood they can help, an old woman or a family, and effect change. If they're just told, "Stay on your bases to be a trip-wire so that Iran doesn't take over, but don't listen to all of the civil war going on around you," it's going to be a very uncomfortable position for them.
GORDON: Just going back to my original point: The most important initiative going on in Iraq now is this effort to build reconciliation, as it were, from the ground up instead of the top down, to enable these Sunni groups and try to get them to work with the government. That's become, really, I think, the centerpiece of the plan, more so than these benchmarks, which are more discussed in Washington than in Baghdad. And I think the success or failure of that over the next three or four months will determine the shape of the war in Iraq.