The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Why its so difficult to debate the war in Iraq


February 7, 2007

Over at Early Warning, William Arkin has generated incredible traffic to his site–over 1500 comments on one post–over his recent posts on the Iraq war. Arkin took on a very central issue in our debate over the war, and in doing so, exposed the continued difficulty we as a nation have in developing a language to debate the war.

Arkin’s initial column noted how “the troops” in Iraq–the enlisted soldiers who bear the brunt of the fighting in this war–are reacting to the rising criticism of the war:

Friday’s NBC Nightly News included a story from my colleague and friend Richard Engel, who was embedded with an active duty Army infantry battalion from Fort Lewis, Washington.

Engel relayed how “troops here say they are increasingly frustrated by American criticism of the war. Many take it personally, believing it is also criticism of what they’ve been fighting for.”

First up was 21 year old junior enlisted man Tyler Johnson, whom Engel said was frustrated about war skepticism and thinks that critics “should come over and see what it’s like firsthand before criticizing.”

“You may support or say we support the troops, but, so you’re not supporting what they do, what they’re here sweating for, what we bleed for, what we die for. It just don’t make sense to me,” Johnson said.

Next up was Staff Sergeant Manuel Sahagun, who is on his second tour in Iraq. He complained that “one thing I don’t like is when people back home say they support the troops, but they don’t support the war. If they’re going to support us, support us all the way.”

Next was Specialist Peter Manna: “If they don’t think we’re doing a good job, everything that we’ve done here is all in vain,” he said.

Note what’s going on here. In all of his messages to “the troops,” President Bush and his senior military leadership have continually emphasized the centrality of the war in Iraq to the war on terrorism and the need to defeat terrorists in Iraq in order to guarantee the safety and future of the United States. These soldiers identify with their mission to such an extent that they take any criticism of the mission as an attack on themselves. And, indeed, at a certain level, they need to identify with their mission in this way in order to make any sense of why they are there and what they are doing. Arkin recognizes the problem:

I’ll accept that the soldiers, in order to soldier on, have to believe that they are manning the parapet, and that’s where their frustrations come in. I’ll accept as well that they are young and naïve and are frustrated with their own lack of progress and the never changing situation in Iraq. Cut off from society and constantly told that everyone supports them, no wonder the debate back home confuses them.

However, its when Arkin makes a critical remark about the make-up of today’s military and who owes who what that he opens up the real can of worms:

So, we pay the soldiers a decent wage, take care of their families, provide them with housing and medical care and vast social support systems and ship obscene amenities into the war zone for them, we support them in every possible way, and their attitude is that we should in addition roll over and play dead, defer to the military and the generals and let them fight their war, and give up our rights and responsibilities to speak up because they are above society?

…But it is the United States, and the recent NBC report is just an ugly reminder of the price we pay for a mercenary – oops sorry, volunteer – force that thinks it is doing the dirty work.

The notion of dirty work is that, like laundry, it is something that has to be done but no one else wants to do it. But Iraq is not dirty work: it is not some necessary endeavor; the people just don’t believe that anymore.

…America needs to ponder what it is we really owe those in uniform. I don’t believe America needs a draft though I imagine we’d be having a different discussion if we had one.

This generated some 900 comments to his blog at
Now, Arkin knew what he was doing, and did it on purpose, intending to make a very important point. He initialy responded:

I knew when I used the word “mercenary” in my Tuesday column that I was being highly inflammatory.

NBC News ran a piece in which enlisted soldiers in Iraq expressed frustration about waning American support.

I intentionally chose to criticize the military and used the word to incite and call into question their presumption that the public had a duty to support them. The public has duties, but not to the American military.

So I committed blasphemy, and for this seeming lack of respect and appreciation for individuals in uniform, I have been roundly criticized and condemned.

Mercenary, of course, is an insult and pejorative, and it does not accurately describe the condition of the American soldier today. I sincerely apologize to anyone in the military who took my words literally.

The point he wants to make is:

Those in uniform who think about and speak out about this predicament [Iraq] are rightly frustrated and angry. Many seem to find some solace in blaming the media or anti-war “leftists” or the Democratic Party or the liberals, or even an ungrateful or insufficiently martial American public.

But if those in the military are now going to argue that we are losing in Iraq because the military has lacked for Something, then the absence of such support should be placed at the feet of the Bush administration, Rumsfeld and company, and a Republican Congress — not on the shoulders of the American public, who have been nothing but supportive, even those who have opposed the war.

…When I hear soldiers and war supporters expressing their frustrations about the American public or the news media, something doesn’t quite seem right — even when the soldiers and war supporters aren’t talking about me. I know that those in uniform would like to bring the war to an honorable conclusion, but are they blaming those who are against the war and the news media for having tied their hands under a Bush administration which is certainly the most warrior-oriented in the past 20 years? Is there no space for respectful acceptance of the possibility that people who also love the nation and care about our security think that the country is wasting national treasure – lives and money – on an unwinnable cause?

There Arkin hits the the central issue on the nose. Is there no political / rhetorical space for one to argue that the best way to support the troops is to stop their leadership from doing any further to deepen American involvement in Iraq? Might the best way to support the troops be to bring them home?

Of course, here Arkin stumbles into the rhetorical trap laid by the Bush Administration. It generated over 1500 comments to his post. In this debate,

In the middle of all of this are the troops, the pawns in political battles at home as much as they are on the real battlefield. We unquestioningly “support” these troops for the very reasons that they are pawns. We give them what we can to be successful, and we have a contract with them, because they are our sons and daughters and a part of us, not to place them in an impossible spot.

And yet this is exactly what we have done. Its “the troops” who occupy an impossible spot in Iraq. They need all the best support we can offer them to do the impossible job they have been given. They believe–perhaps because they must, perhaps because they honestly do think so–that they can succeed if given the chance and if given just a little more help. A few brigades here, better Rules of Engagement there, more active patrols, more training, and “we” can turn the corner. So, all who want to support “the troops” who are our sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, (and in my case, an uncle) really want them to have every chance to succeed and don’t want to be put in the very uncomfortable position of saying no to them.

And this is just what the Administration wants, for it makes it next to impossible to have an honest debate about the role of the military in Iraq. Witness the recent debates in the Senate–the various resolutions under discussion for possible debate (only in the Senate…) talk about a lack of confidence in the mission and leadership but still promise to continue to fund the troops. The Democratic-led Senators want it both ways, and Bush (and his allies in Congress) are raking them over the coals for it, and the Democrats with any national ambition are caving over the resolution. Just notice McCain’s come-back–if you really believe the war is wrong, then why aren’t you just de-funding it and ending it now? While perhaps Russ Fiengold would support this, few others would, and once they conceed that–they won’t de-fund “the troops” but have serious problems with the way the war is being fought, they end up with the same problem as Arkin.

In his final words on the subject (a post which has a mere 600 comments), Arkin assesses the substantial criticism he has recieved, attempting to understand how those who have attacked make sense of the world and Arkin’s place in it:

As this line of argument goes, the soldiers themselves and those who have served in Iraq are the only ones who really know what it is like, what the war is about, and what should be done. The media in general and war opponents in particular intentionally and purposefully provide a negative and discouraging view that doesn’t comport with what the soldiers see, so goes this argument. But the bigger point is that any dissenting voices are just those of whores, politicians, tin foil hat liberals, or worse, un-Americans. In this view, there are no actual experts in this world, no one who studies and measures public opinion, no one who studies war or the military, who do not wear the uniform. This is not some post-modern relativism, it is pure anti-elitism. The elite think they know it all, while those who do all of the dirty work, who do all of the suffering, are methodically ignored and dominated.

Finally, commenters attack what I wrote as the work of Democrats and “liberals.” I’m lumped with Bill Clinton, that degenerate who decimated the military and the Kerry-Sheehan-Hillary-Gore-Pelosi evil axis, which now threatens more of the same. Fight back, the commenters say to their brethren. America for too long turned the other cheek against terrorism and now it is time not just to fight but to draw battle lines and show no mercy in that fight. They have, after all, shown no mercy for us.

In this narrative, I have spat upon the American soldier and thus America, called the true patriots naïve and un-educated. I have all the power and control all of the words and through my actions I enslave others and ensure that only my type and my class prospers.

The reconciliatory and peace-loving narrative is that only the soldiers are honorable and virtuous, and no matter how despicable I and my ilk are, they will still “save” me from the enemy. The evil narrative is that they will happily watch me die, serving not as protector but as judge of who can live and who does not deserve to.

Patrick has previously discussed the role of “expert” knowledge and offered a very insightful analysis into the anti-elitism, you’ve never been there so you don’t know what its like argument, and that’s not really the point I’m interested in discussing here. Rather, its Arkin’s second point, that what he is encountering are two versions of a larger narrative about those who criticize the troops. Its a narrative that the Bush Administration and its pro-Iraq war allies have spent the past 5 years articulating, reinforcing, supporting, and defending.

What “we”–as scholars of IR who study the role of language and narrative in world politics–have “found” in our work is that you can’t defeat a narrative simply by poking holes in it or finding flaws in its ability to explain this or that particular outcome. No, the way you combat a narrative is with another narrative. Creating real space for dissent requires developing, articulating, and promoting a counter-narrative in which that dissent makes sense.

Though the Bush administration continues to stick to its narrative about Iraq, the recent election and Bush’s record-low public approval ratings reveal discomfort with this narrative. The American public has its doubts. The time seems ripe for an alternative.

The problem the Democrats in Congress have is that, while they can offer alternative facts, figures, and even plans, they are having a real hard time offering an alternative narrative in which all the other stuff makes sense. Indeed, when Arkin calls for a “space” in which one can love his country and still think that the war in Iraq is a waste of blood and treasure, he is in a sense asking for an alternative narrative in which his dissent makes sense. We’ve seen the beginings of some of these narratives from the various presidential candidates, but the trick that they need to master is how to develop an alternative narrative of dissent that a) validates their earlier positions on the war, b) explains the current failure c) offers an imperative to leave Iraq and d) doesn’t offend those who they are counting on for Votes in 2008. That’s a tough road to hoe, and if any of you out there can square this circle, you’re really onto something.

As Arkin has discovered, entrenched narratives, even ones under siege, are stubborn and difficult to dislodge.

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Dr. Peter Howard focuses on US foreign policy and international security. He studies how the implementation of foreign policy programs produces rule-based regional security regimes, conducting research in Estonia on NATO Expansion and US Military Exchange programs and South Korea on nuclear negotiations with North Korea.