For nearly a decade I have had the privilege of teaching veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, though they have taught me more.
Most of them were Army captains and majors who had done three or four tours of duty. And here’s the most remarkable thing: Not one of these men and women complained about what we asked of them.
They have, however, occasionally objected to the shameful fact that after the first few years of hostilities, these became largely invisible conflicts. In the final stages of the Iraq war and for a long time now in Afghanistan, there has been something close to media silence even as our fellow Americans continue to fight and die.
The ongoing war barely impinges on our daily discussions, and we don’t bother to argue much about our Afghanistan policy. Mostly, we hope that President Obama can keep his promise to bring our troops home.
My Thanksgiving thoughts have often turned toward my military students at Georgetown University’s Public Policy Institute and to the thousands like them who have done very hard duty with little notice.
But this year, the gratitude that they inspire has been heightened, perhaps paradoxically, by the news about David Petraeus, his affair and the mess left behind. I won’t add to the mountain of Petraeus commentary, so much of which has been driven by preexisting attitudes toward Petraeus himself, the wars he led or the matter of how we should deal publicly with sexuality.
What has troubled me is how writing on all sides has aggravated the understandable but disturbing tendency to lay so much stress on the role of famous generals that we forget both the centrality of midlevel military leadership and the daily sacrifices and bravery of those in the enlisted ranks who carry out orders from on high.
There is, of course, nothing at all new about celebrity generals, and many of them truly deserved the accolades that came their way. One thinks, for example, of Ulysses S. Grant, who is enjoying a comeback among historians, and Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose subsequent presidency should give Republicans trying to rebuild their party some useful guidance.
But our military has been at its best when it combined two deeply American impulses, one more honored on the right, the other on the left.
We are an entrepreneurial country, and members of our officer corps do extraordinary work when they are given the freedom to think for themselves and to innovate.
We are also a democratic nation, and although the military is necessarily rank-conscious, the U.S. armed forces have traditionally nurtured an egalitarian ethos that cultivated loyalty all the way down. This is one reason reports of rather privileged living by generals are grating, even if none of us begrudges a bit of comfort for those — including people at the top — who give their lives to service.
The entrepreneurial and democratic spirits are important in battle, but they are even more important to the many noncombat tasks that we are now asking our military to undertake. Petraeus’s approach to Iraq depended upon officers who had exceptional political gifts and an ability to improvise as they worked with local leaders. As an Army major serving in Iraq wrote in a memo that was shared with me back in 2007, “We discovered that we were not fighting a military campaign but a political campaign — not too different from what a small-town mayor might do to win reelection back in the U.S.” The surge was as much about this kind of inventiveness as it was about military planning.
We can show our gratitude toward these officers and their troops in at least two ways.
First, as my MSNBC colleague Rachel Maddow keeps reminding us, we need to cut through what the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America calls the Department of Veterans Affairs’ “egregious failure to process the claims of our veterans” in a timely and effective way.
And we need to recognize the contribution that this new generation of veterans can make to our nation. The character of the “Greatest Generation” that fought World War II was established not by the generals or the admirals but by the officers in the lower ranks and the millions of enlisted men and women who carried into civilian life both the skills and the sense of service and community they learned in the war years.
My students taught me that we don’t need to be nostalgic about the Greatest Generation. It’s right here among us.
By: E. J. Dionne, Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, November 21, 2012
Six years ago I celebrated Thanksgiving on a small Iraqi base in western Ninewa province. Nearly halfway through my year-long tour on that day me and 9 other members of the military transition team I served with (one man was home on leave) settled in to watch a game of football. No, not the Cowboys or the Lions. In this case it was a soccer match between the young members of an American cavalry troop who were co-located with us at the time and ringers from the Iraqi battalion. Final score, 1st Battalion: 20, B Troop: 2. Or something like that. (The energy and fitness of the young troopers could not overcome the superior passing skills and finesse of the Iraqis.)
The weather in the high desert was changing from the arid heat to the cooler fall. We sat down that afternoon to a meal of hot, or at least warmish, and plentiful “A” rations of some form of pressed turkey loaf and fixings. This certainly was not the feasts available on some of the larger American and coalition forward operating bases throughout the country, and certainly was not as joyous an occasion as being surrounded by friends and family and favorite foods and beverages as available back here in the United States, but in retrospect it was quite good. It certainly was much better than what I am sure some soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines will be having tomorrow in remote combat outposts in Afghanistan. The fellowship of being surrounded by fellow soldiers, American and Iraqi, made the circumstances of being so far from home in a war zone bearable.
So on this Thanksgiving I say we give thanks for many things, even though individual circumstances may dictate the depth of our thanks. But collectively we Americans should be thankful for living in a country where violence and intimidation are not the norms for resolving political differences. Sure, we just exited from a contentious presidential election. And yes there was some hyperventilation about the results from some quarters (just as there was following the 2000 and 2004 elections) and the economy continues to sputter along, but we do live in a country where the deliberate, indiscriminate use of explosives or mass violence to systematically target to kill people simply due to their race, ethnicity, religion, or creed is not the norm. Yes, tragic incidents occur from time to time, but their rarity makes their occurrence all the more shocking.
We should also give thanks to the men and women of the armed forces and other members of the U.S. government and supporting contracting personnel who are separated from friends and family and are providing for the common defense and the advancement of U.S. interests abroad, whether they be in war zones or not. We hope to see you back home soon. For those in harm’s way be as safe as the mission allows.
By: Michael P. Noonan, U. S. News and World Report, November 21, 2012
I didn’t think the right’s “American exceptionalism” attack on Obama could get any dumber, but Sarah Palin has now outdone them all. She’s now faulting Obama for insufficient praise for our armed forces:
She also made a slight dig at President Obama for saying Monday at Arlington National Cemetery that his “most solemn responsibility as president [is] to serve as commander in chief of one of the finest fighting forces in the world.” Answering a question about Memorial Day, Palin said, “This is the greatest fighting force in the world, the U.S. military. It’s not just one of the greatest fighting forces. And I sure hope our president recognizes that. We’re not just one of many. We are the best.”
As it happens, the reporter got Obama’s quote a bit wrong. This is what Obama actually said: “It is my most solemn responsibility as President, to serve as Commander-in-Chief of one of the finest fighting forces the world has ever known.” But this isn’t good enough for Palin: If Obama doesn’t say that our armed forces are the bestest, baddest, most ass kicking-ist fighting forces in all of human history, he’s subtly denigrating the troops.
This is a reminder, if you needed one, that the charge that Obama doesn’t believe in American exceptionalism — which has taken literally dozens of forms now — will be central to the 2012 campaign. It’s also a reminder, though, of what this attack line is really about. It’s impossible to imagine that a significant number of voters could hear Palin’s latest attack and come away thinking there’s something to it; her claim is just too dumb for people to take seriously. But these sorts of attacks aren’t about the actual claims themselves.
Rather, they are part of a much broader effort to insinuate that you should find Obama’s character, story, motives, identity, cultural instincts and intentions towards our country to be alien and fundamentally suspect. The idea is to keep piling various versions of this charge — no matter how ludicrous — on top of one another, like snow piling up on a roof.
Mitt Romney has already made it completely plain that various versions of this insinuation will be a major feature of the 2012 GOP nominee’s argument against Obama. Donald Trump’s experiment in birther hucksterism — even though it crashed and burned — confirmed this beyond any doubt. Now Palin is at it, too.
Hearing this kind of thing from Palin actually makes me want her to run. Who better than her to reveal how vacuous, childish, jingoistic and unbecoming of the presidency this sort of nonsense really is?
By: Greg Sargent, The Plum Line, The Washington Post, May 31, 2011