Service Members: It's Time to Get War Strategy Right

(CBS)
Eight more troops were killed today in Afghanistan, bringing us to 53 dead this month –the highest toll so far in the eight-year-old war. It comes in advance of yet another meeting the president is holding to decide about his Afghan war strategy. He'll meet with the joint chiefs, including the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, on Friday.

But while many in the blogosphere and the 24-hour media universe – as well as former White House officials – denounce the meetings as dithering, a group of servicemen here in Florida indicated they believe otherwise.

Addressing servicemen and women at Naval Air Station Jacksonville, President Obama said, "I will never rush the solemn decision of sending you into harm's way. I won't risk your lives unless it is absolutely necessary." The remark prompted rancorous applause.

I sure didn't see it coming. But I should have. I've heard it enough from friends and contacts in the military and the diplomatic corps: "Let's not rush headlong into this like we did with Iraq. Not again."

Yes, the U.S. is already there, and has been since 2001, but there's a feeling among those I speak to that this really is a new war. They say that America's tired but undaunted military community had enough energy and drive to run this race once – not twice, and certainly not over and over again, as they feel they did in Iraq.

I had been standing reading an advance copy of the speech on my Blackberry. I was watching to see whether President Obama would stray or stick to the text, and trying to predict which lines would get the biggest applause.

I guessed a couple of the cheers – saluting the men and women in uniform, and the civilians who support them, for instance. But often this reserved group of people didn't cheer at points where the White House or the press corps expected them to.

The second big round of applause came when Mr. Obama went on to say, "And if it is necessary, we will back you up to the hilt. Because you deserve the strategy, the clear mission, and the defined goals as well as the equipment and support that you need to get the job done. We are not going to have a situation in which you are not fully supported back here at home. That is a promise that I will always make to you."

He'd touched a nerve. His speechwriters seemed well aware that a painful spot was there. Many troops I've spoken to harbor a slow-burning resentment that they gave their all, both in Iraq and Afghanistan, on multiple tours already, only to be told they failed. Do over.

Witness all the tell-all, sometimes back-stabbing books out of Iraq over the past few years – a blame game of which general got it right or wrong, which official President Bush should have listened to, which aggrieved public servant he failed to heed, possibly averting disaster.

No one wants to go through that again. Most troops feel they did everything they were told to only to be vilified in the media, to find out that their bosses were being ignored, and to learn that the reason they were sacrificing so much – WMD – wasn't exactly valid.

They lost friends to IEDs, families to long deployments, and parts of themselves –sometimes literally – in the process. Many feel that what they see as their ultimate success, the surge, was never truly acknowledged by the country, or the current president.

So you can see how, if you feel like that, you're reluctant for a Groundhog-Day-style replay.

Hence that applause – a powerful retort to the bloggers and pundits so quick to dub Mr. Obama's deliberations as "dithering."

Mr. Obama met with 11 sailors and Marines in an off-the-record meeting after the speech. They were allowed to ask anything. It was set up partly by a former naval officer he now employs.

And ask as I might, I can't find out what was said; they're honoring their promise to the troops to keep it off the record. (But anyone in that meeting is welcome to write in. Thanks.)

The goal of the meeting was to make sure Mr. Obama hears what they have to say, since they're the ones making the sacrifice. As one White House official pointed out, less than 1 percent of citizens serve in the military.

The rest of us paying may be putting up tax dollars for the war effort, but that less-than-1-percent are actually risking their lives, and the ones that we heard from, at least in public, are saying, "This time, do this right."
  • Kimberly Dozier

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