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September 2003 • Vol 3, No. 8 •

Pentagon Retaliates Against Outspoken GIs

By Robert Collier

Morale is dipping pretty low among U.S. soldiers as they stew in Iraq’s broiling heat, get shot at by an increasingly hostile population and get repeated orders to extend their tours of duty.

Ask any grunt standing guard on a 115-degree day what he or she thinks of the open-ended Iraq occupation, and you’ll get an earful of colorful complaints.

But going public isn’t always easy, as soldiers of the Army’s Second Brigade, Third Infantry Division found out after “Good Morning America” aired their complaints.

The brigade’s soldiers received word this week from the Pentagon that it was extending their stay, with a vague promise to send them home by September if the security situation allows. They’ve been away from home since September, and this week’s announcement was the third time their mission has been extended.

It was bad news for the division’s 12,000 homesick soldiers, who were at the forefront of the force that overthrew Saddam Hussein’s government and moved into Baghdad in early April.

On Wednesday morning, when the ABC news show reported from Fallujah, where the division is based, the troops gave the reporters an earful. One soldier said he felt like he’d been “kicked in the guts, slapped in the face.” Another demanded that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld quit.

The retaliation from Washington was swift.

Careers over for some

“It was the end of the world,” said one officer Thursday. “It went all the way up to President Bush and back down again on top of us. At least six of us here will lose our careers.”

First lesson for the troops, it seemed: Don’t ever talk to the media “on the record”—that is, with your name attached—unless you’re giving the sort of chin-forward, everything’s-great message the Pentagon loves to hear.

Only two days before the ABC show, similarly bitter sentiments—with no names attached—were voiced in an anonymous e-mail circulating around the Internet, allegedly from “the soldiers of the Second Brigade, Third ID.”

“Our morale is not high or even low,” the letter said. “Our morale is nonexistent. We have been told twice that we were going home, and twice we have received a ‘stop’ movement to stay in Iraq.”

The message, whose authenticity could not be confirmed, concluded: “Our men and women deserve to be treated like the heroes they are, not like farm animals. Our men and women deserve to see their loved ones again and deserve to come home.”

After this one-two punch, it was perhaps natural that on Thursday, the same troops and officers who had been garrulous and outspoken in previous visits were quiet, and most declined to speak on the record. During a visit to Fallujah, a small city about 30 miles west of Baghdad, military officials expressed intense chagrin about the bad publicity. And they slammed the ABC reporters for focusing on the soldiers’ criticism of Rumsfeld, Bush and other officials and implying that they are unwilling to carry out their mission.

Complaints called routine

“Soldiers have bitched since the beginning of time,” said Capt. James Brownlee, the public affairs officer for the Second Brigade. “That’s part of being a soldier. They bitch. But what does ‘bad morale’ really mean? That they’re not combat-ready or loyal? Nobody here fits that definition.”

The nervousness of the brass has a venerable history. It has long been a practice in American democracy that the military do not criticize the nation’s civilian leaders, as Gen. Douglas MacArthur found out in 1951, when he criticized President Harry Truman’s Korean War strategy—and was promptly fired.

Yet several U.S. officers said privately that troop morale is indeed low. “The problem is not the heat,” said one high-ranking officer. “Soldiers get used to that. The problem is getting orders to go home, so your wife gets all psyched about it, then getting them reversed, and then having the same process two more times.”

In Baghdad, average soldiers from other Army brigades are eager to spill similar complaints.

“I’m not sure people in Washington really know what it’s like here,” said Corp. Todd Burchard as he stood on a street corner, sweating profusely and looking bored. “We’ll keep doing our jobs as best as anyone can, but we shouldn’t have to still be here in the first place.”

Nearby, Pfc. Jason Ring stood next to his Humvee. “We liberated Iraq. Now the people here don’t want us here, and guess what? We don’t want to be here either,” he said. “So why are we still here? Why don’t they bring us home?”

San Francisco Chronicle, July 18, 2003





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