We like to think we treat our troops now far better than U.S. Marine David Crawley was treated in the Vietnam era.
When Crawley came home severely wounded from Vietnam decades ago, he was delivered to Great Lakes Naval Hospital in Minnesota where most of his body was in a cast for months.
When he finally recovered sufficiently to score a weekend pass, he was confident his Marine uniform would help him hitch a ride home. Instead, his uniform attracted insults and thrown bottles and cans from passing cars.
It was not popular then to wear the uniform of the USA. The anti-war left did their job well convincing a war-weary America the war in Vietnam was immoral and that our troops had become evil.
When the troops came home, and for a long time after, many of them met shabby treatment in various ways and were wrongly portrayed as losers in Hollywood movies.
I can tell you when attitudes changed. In the 1990 buildup to the first Gulf War, a wave of badly needed and cohesive patriotism swept the country. In the aftermath of victory there slowly arose a national resolve not only to properly celebrate our troops, but to never again treat them badly as they returned from an unpopular war we sent them to fight.
I recently spoke to a group and told them, “I know if I could look into your heart, I would likely find affection and support for our troops in Afghanistan and other places. But do you realize what we are doing to them?”
We send them to wars we choose to fight, not wars we must fight.
As any warrior knows, victory comes most quickly and successfully from overwhelming force, but we don’t permit our troops to fight for victory. We require them to fight with a patchwork of rules that get more of them killed while engaged in nation-building and winning world opinion.
By complex rules of engagement, we value the safety of civilians more than the lives of our own troops. U.S. Marine Paul Szordla wrote last month, “When faced with a split-second decision of whether to shoot, soldiers many times must hesitate — or be investigated.”
Troops under fire can no longer depend on artillery or air support since multiple levels of approval in the command chain, including lawyers, will likely deny or delay that support, all to prevent the bad press of civilian casualties.
The result is reluctance to engage the enemy at all, and to wonder what the hell their mission has become.
To make themselves look good to voters, politicians strip from our troops the fundamental tools of war – surprise and deception – by announcing to the world when we will stop fighting and go home.
If those politicians wanted to ask someone other than our own troops, any seventh grader could tell them that is a really bad idea while fighting a war.
We give our troops impossible missions, like turning the 7th century hellhole of Afghanistan into a stable democracy friendly to the West.
Any modestly informed person knows that any American gains in that culture will be wiped out in the next hysterical reaction to a cartoon, a film they have not seen, or rumors that an American soldier did not treat their religion with the tedious respect they demand.
Our troops, of course, are not supposed to mind that the practice of Christianity could bring a death sentence in that country.
We tear their families apart with one deployment after another.
Karl Marlantes was a U.S. Marine grunt in the mountain jungles of Vietnam. He wrote an excellent novel from his experience, “Matterhorn,” a book I would recommend to you.
In an interview with Charlie Rose, Marlantes spoke of a soldier he encountered recently at an airport, exchanging tearful goodbyes with his toddler and pregnant wife. When he wasn’t intruding, Marlantes asked the man if this was his first deployment to a war zone.
The man replied proudly, “No, sir! This is deployment number seven.”
Marlantes said to Charlie Rose, “Seven. How can we call ourselves a republic when we demand so much of them while we … do … nothing?”
Recently there have been unsettling events in Afghanistan, like our Afghan counterparts turning on the American troops training them and sending more than 50 Americans home this year in flag-draped coffins.
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta responds to such wrinkles with concern they could upset negotiations with the Taliban, our enemy, as coalition forces try to make arrangements to pull out U.S. troops.
Of course nobody believes the Taliban will keep any commitment they make, not even Panetta, but the window dressing is necessary so we can depart as scheduled to save political face for our president.
Maybe we should start a betting pool on how long before the Taliban resumes executions in the Kabul soccer stadium to entertain the public, punishing offenses such as wearing shorts or listening to Western music.
There is one very important point here about similarity to the Vietnam War. While our White House and Pentagon are engaged in breathtaking stupidity, it is our troops who faithfully carry the load, pay the price and they still fight with honor, skill and courage. They deserve our admiration.
Give a thought to this disparity. While these troops are fighting with one arm and one leg tied behind their backs, while their families at home are paying the price of separation, again, the White House was recently unable to find the courage to admit the attack on our Consulate in Libya, and murder of four Americans, was an act of war, because doing so might open them up to criticism for not being properly prepared.
We expect our troops in combat to obey layers of rules that elevate the risk to their life, while our politicians are too cowardly to admit the simple truth that is obvious to everyone else.
So, how are we treating our troops? Just fine, if you listen to speeches of politicians wrapping themselves in the flag.
But when you peek behind the curtain, we treat them like mercenaries; overwork them, underpay them and ignore their sacrifice because, after all, they are volunteers.
I ended my recent talk this way. “I hope the next time you see a man or woman in the uniform of our armed forces that you take the trouble to shake their hand and thank them. You could even say, ‘We don’t deserve you!’”
[Terry Garlock of Peachtree City occasionally contributes a column to The Citizen. His email is email@example.com.]