Monday, August 01, 2005

Army Morale and Reporters With No Sense Of Irony

About 2 weeks ago, Robert Burns reported that a majority of soldiers in Iraq say morale is low. I meant to blog about it at the time, but didn't get around to it. So here goes.

The Army Medicine report he cites is hardly earth-shaking if you take the time to read the whole thing and consider that the report is mostly talking about combat service support and National Guard and Army Reserve personnel.

It's no surprise to most military folks that morale is highest in the units that are highly trained and that face the most danger. When's the last time you heard about low morale in the Rangers or Special Forces? When's the last time you've read a story about Regular Army infantry soldiers complaining of low morale?

It's also no surprise to most military folks that morale is generally lower in combat support and combat service support units -- or that National Guard and Army Reserve units generally don't share the same level of morale as the Regular Army.

Most news reports about low morale are almost without meaning. "Army morale low" is one-over-the-world-handwave bullshit. It tells us almost nothing. Pretty much standard fare for the mainstream media.

Here are some headlines that would grab my attention:

"82nd Airborne Division Suffering From Low Morale"

"1st Cavalry Division Struggles With Morale Problems"

"Infantry Soldiers Say Low Morale Is Impacting Unit Missions"

Not that the underlying story would be accurate, but if it were I would start being concerned.

So I take media reports of low morale with more than a grain of salt.

Even so, imagine, if you will, living in these conditions:

- Your work place is about 6,000 miles from home, give or take a thousand.

- there's no such thing as an 8-hour day or a 40-hour work week. You rarely if ever get a break from work, except when you're sleeping and even then "work" (such as mortar rounds fluttering in -- they sound just like a covey of quail taking flight) can disrupt that. When your shift ends, you don't go home to the comfort of your house or apartment.

- The outside daytime temperatures reach about 120º -- add about 30º if you're in an armored vehicle.

- You get chilled at night, chilled enough to make your teeth chatter -- even though it might be 75º.

- Sand and dust get in everything -- your weapon, your eyes, your nose, your boots, your uniform, your sleeping bag (there's some break from that if you are lucky enough to sleep in a fixed facility as opposed to a tent or no tent).

- You have little to no time for yourself -- even when doing the 3 S's (shit, shower and shave).

- While you get plenty of food, it is not necessarily what you would choose to eat at home. Delivery is a chow truck. Dining-in is what you do when the chow truck gets there. Dining-out is eating MRE's on top of your vehicle.

- You have very few of the small conveniences that most all civilians take for granted. You can't jump in your car and go for a drive or walk in the park or go to a ballgame or go to the beach or just be lazy and lie in bed all morning reading the Sunday papers.

- You miss your loved ones -- your children, your wife or husband, your parents, your brothers and sisters, your girlfriend or boyfriend. If you have children, imagine being away from them for a year. Imagine what that, alone, is like.

- The younger you are, the more you think you're missing out on things back home and the more susceptible to homesickness you are.

- If you're lucky enough to get internet access from time to time (it really is a new world), you're hard-pressed to find anything good being reported about what you're doing -- unless you read the blogs. The milblogs know and get the word out, but you know most Americans don't even know what a blog is. They get their news from the mainstream media.

- You rarely have doubts about your mission, but you often doubt whether the folks back home really appreciate what you're doing.

- There are people that want to kill you any way that they can. You live with that 24 hours a day -- when you're driving down the road in your HMMV or helping the locals with a problem (maybe supplies for a hospital) or pulling an engine pack on a Bradley (or any of the thousands of ordinary tasks performed by soldiers of different Military Occupational Specialties) or just trying to get some much needed sleep.

- You may have lost buddies. You may have seen them die or even held them as they died. You've seen others wounded. You may have even been wounded yourself.

- You know that if you're lucky enough to make it home, home is days and days; weeks and weeks, months and months away.

Now tell me -- how would your morale be? Piss poor to the point of pitching a fit and telling everyone to go fuck themselves and that you just want to go home?

Or could you overcome all the negatives and have a generally positive outlook?

Sure you could -- if you are trained and well led. Trained to standard on hundreds of common and special tasks that would overwhelm the average civilian; trained to be mentally and physically tough; trained to work as part of a team; trained to accomplish your mission under conditions that most civilians cannot imagine. Led by men who truly lead by example; led by leaders who you trust to smartly lead you through the valley of death.

It's always interesting to look at how Robert Burns and his ilk have reported on Army problems in the past.

I'll tell you when morale and readiness were really a problem across the board in the Army: during the drawdown years of the Clinton Administration. After 8 years of Clinton, the Army was not a happy place.

Did Robert Burns or any MSM reporter write about morale problems when the Army was slashed from 18 to 10 divisions? when over 300,000 soldiers were sent packing? when thousands of mid-grade officers and noncomissioned officers with over 15 years of service, but less than 18 were given the boot without retirement? when political correctness indoctrination nearly paralyzed professional relations between male and female soldiers? when Consideration Of Others Training very nearly trumped combat training? when Army operational tempo (missions) skyrocketed to 300% even as the Army was being cut nearly in half? when young officers were leaving the Army in droves? when 20 out of 22 Army Training Centers were given a C-4 rating (that's an F)?

One reporter did -- Rowan Scarborough of The Washington Times.

Tom Ricks of The Washington Post was handed a huge story on a silver platter and declined to write about it. The same goes for national security/military reporters at every other major daily -- and Mr. Robert Burns, military writer for the Associated Press.

Of course, after Scarborough broke the story (stories, actually), the others started to chime in. Scarborough's work had a direct impact on the 2000 Presidential campaign. Clinton and Gore had been saying everything was rosy. They had slammed then-Governor George W. Bush for suggesting that there were military readiness problems. Rowan Scarborough's reporting took us behind the curtain and got to the truth of the matter. When Scarborough was done, Clinton-Gore didn't have a leg to stand on.

No thanks to irony-free Robert "Low Morale" Burns.


Gun-Toting Liberal said...

This is one thing the Air Force does right. They give their troops 4 month rotations to the desert, vs. a full year. Everybody gets their turn, then they get another one, then another one, etc. They also try to send their Reservists and Guardsmen to a stateside base for months before sending them over so they can be as well-trained as their active duty counterparts by the time they go over to dodge bullets and RPG's on the tarmacs. It is much easier to keep a positive attitude when you know it's only 4 months until you get to go back home and hug your family.

Good post!

Janette said...

Excellent post! I linked to it.

MerryMadMonk said...

GTL -- the Air Force does a lot of smart things, however their rotation policy would not work with the Army. The mission on the ground is another beast altogether. You want as much continuity as possible. A unit would just be at the point of learning the in-country ropes about the time that they would be due to rotate under a 4-month rotation policy. There are other issues: personnel turnover, homestation training cycles, deployment timelines. 6 months in a place like Iraq is about the bare minimum, in my opinion.

The Army also puts the National Guard and Army Reserve personnel and units through a train-up period; however, Army Military Occupational Specialties often have no civilian equivalent: infantry, armor, artillery, air defense artillery, special operations, tactical intelligence, etc. Soldier skills are highly perishable. It's been a long, on-going challenge to keep the National Guard and Army Reserve up to snuff. They usually are on active duty for no more than 39 days a year. In the case of call up -- up to 12 months. Part of that 12 months is usually spent bringing them up to speed. It is a herculean effort. Not because there are not smart, great people in the Guard and Reserve, but because the tasks that they must know require a lot of practice -- often continuous practice.

Janette -- thank you, ma'am.