Support our troops? / It requires more than slogans

Minneapolis StarTribune
Issue Date: August 17, 2003

President Bush and other leaders from Washington love to make appearances on military bases, where they tell the assembled troops what a wonderful job they are doing and how much the nation supports them.

Indeed, "Support our troops" is a popular refrain among both supporters and opponents of the war in Iraq. But the reality is different: The support the troops actually receive is much, much less than they deserve.

Last Tuesday brought a spate of comment and news articles on this issue. Writing in the New York Times, columnist Paul Krugman focused attention on the bad food, poor living conditions and lack of such basics as adequate water in parts of Iraq -- months after the cessation of major hostilities. Troop morale is low and falling. This isn't the usual GI complaining that goes on in every war; it represents a serious failure by the Pentagon to plan for taking proper care of those who would draw the difficult duty of occupying Iraq.

A first-rate Wall Street Journal article the same day detailed the horrific travails of a disabled veteran from the Afghanistan war as he struggled to get proper medical care from the Department of Veterans Affairs. From his experience, the Journal expanded its view to reveal that the VA system -- especially its medical system -- is in acute crisis. It is overburdened, underfunded and unable to meet the needs of the veterans it is supposed to serve.

In the Los Angeles Times, also on Tuesday, Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution did the math on the number of troops needed for Iraq and concluded the United States will need another division -- 30,000 troops if support units are included -- within a year. As O'Hanlon said: "We need to start recruiting now." But Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is dead set against enlarging the armed forces. Moreover, the horror stories out of Iraq would make recruiting a difficult task.

If the United States had as many troops, proportionally, in Iraq as it has in Kosovo -- a much less dangerous place -- it would have 500,000 men and women in country. It actually has fewer than 150,000. That too-small force makes Iraq much more dangerous for those troops who find themselves there. It's too easy for bad guys to hide themselves, weapons and explosives, and to move about the country.

But the United States has no more troops to send. Those still in the United States are needed to replace troops rotated out of Iraq. To beef up the force on the ground, troops in large numbers are needed from India, France and other friendly nations. But those nations require the legitimacy provided by a stronger U.N. mandate for Iraq, and the Bush administration has steadfastly refused to share power in Iraq with anyone except the British, and certainly not the United Nations.

It gets worse: Even if other countries supplemented U.S. forces, the American armed forces doesn't have sufficient troops to make a second rotation. Thus, in a year or so the United States may find itself rotating the initial invasion forces back to Iraq for a second tour of duty there. If you think morale is bad now, wait until a second tour becomes necessary.

On top of all that:

• Pay for the lowest service ranks remains low, and the Bush administration proposed increases of only 2 percent this year; 25,000 military families remain eligible for Food Stamps.

• The White House sought to reduce hazardous duty pay from $225 to $150 a month and family separation pay from $250 to $100 a month. It also opposed doubling the measly $6,000 paid to families of troops who die on active duty.

• The White House sought to cut $1.5 billion from the military construction budget, much of which would have gone to upgrade housing.

There's more, but you get the idea. President Bush and members of Congress, especially Republican members of the House, talk a good game about supporting the troops, but their policies say otherwise. They're trying to occupy Iraq on the cheap, and the troops are paying for it with their lives, their health and their families. Where's the outrage?

© Copyright 2003 Star Tribune. All rights reserved.

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