Almost in passing, Sen. James Webb, Virginia Democrat, dropped what was intended to be a bombshell about the state of the American soldier in Iraq last Tuesday evening as he delivered his response to President Bush’s State of the Union address. Not only do the majority of Americans no longer support the way the war in Iraq is being fought, the terse and pro-withdrawal Mr. Webb told millions of viewers, but now, he said, “the majority of our military” also does not support the war.
The first half of that statement is true; poll after poll shows that the public now opposes the war in Iraq. But the latter half is at best a contortion of the evidence and quite possibly the opposite of the truth. The question of military support for the president’s war policies is a fascinating one, not least because service members are the people with the best firsthand knowledge of the war’s day-to-day conduct. They should know better than others what has worked and what hasn’t, what is likely to succeed and what isn’t. As befits a political speech delivered for high political effect, Mr. Webb has not done the subject justice.
The only non-anecdotal publicly available evidence for Mr. Webb’s case is a December poll of Military Times readers which shows that only 35 percent of readers support the president’s handling of the war, as opposed to 42 percent opposed. That’s down from 63 percent in favor in 2004 (in a poll which the editors stress “should not be read as representative of the military as a whole”). Interestingly, though, the seeming anti-war majority consists at least in part of people who think that President Bush has not been aggressive enough. Nearly half of this December poll’s respondents thought that the United States needed more troops in Iraq. That’s nearly half who want a deeper American commitment, not a withdrawal. How ironic for Mr. Webb, who tried to claim the troops for his own pro-withdrawal platform last week.
Anecdotally, there are plenty in the military who support Mr. Webb’s call to leave Iraq or are critical of the president’s policies, like the founders of the Appeal for Redress, a group of 1,200, active-duty personnel and veterans who back withdrawal, or Paul Rieckhoff, President Bush’s most able young Iraq-veteran critic, who founded Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which claims 60,000 members. But there are plenty of service members who want an even more aggressive approach in Iraq. They want greater numbers of troops and deeper engagement. Some may even support a long-term commitment to Iraq. Some cannot imagine giving up on Iraq after sacrificing so much themselves and befriending the country and its people. Others think the risk to U.S. interests is simply too great. Still others just want to get done the job they were assigned. In fact, we’d go so far as to say that a pro-mission viewpoint is the natural stance of the American service member no matter how grim the headlines and no matter the pessimism in Washington.
Both sides of this ferocious Iraq debate want to claim the support of the troops as they make their case for or against the war. The truth does not belong exclusively to either side — and it would be earth-moving, as surely Mr. Webb wants to suggest it is, if it were proven that a majority of troops now favor withdrawal. But this is an attempt to shoehorn the evidence into a soundbite. It does the debate over Iraq no justice. It is a sleight of hand and no more.