Unraveling Webb's Response

This column was written by W. Thomas Smith Jr.
In his rebuttal to President Bush's State of the Union Address on Tuesday, Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., stated, "The majority of the nation no longer supports the way this war is being fought; nor does the majority of our military."

Where the Virginia senator got his definitive military majority is anybody's guess. But I would suppose it is from the recent poll conducted by Military Times, which shows a somewhat higher than marginal disapproval of the way the president "is handling the situation with Iraq."

Keep in mind, however, that of the 6,000 Military Times subscribers who were polled, 13 percent said they believe the U.S. is "very likely" to succeed in Iraq. Thirty-seven percent said "somewhat likely" to succeed. Thirty-one percent said "not very likely" to succeed. And 10 percent said "not at all likely" to succeed. That means 50 percent of those polled believe the U.S. will probably prevail, 41 percent of those polled believe the U.S. probably will not prevail, and eight percent had no answer.

Hardly accurate numbers to suggest — as Webb has — that the troops no longer support the way the war is being prosecuted: A subliminal suggestion to the general public that American soldiers no longer believe in the overall effort in Iraq (which is absolutely false).

What the numbers do suggest — and what we who have worn the uniform of the United States have always known — is that soldiers and sailors gripe. They get frustrated like everyone else. They blow off steam. And they have been doing so since armies first marched and navies sailed. They complain about the food (even when it is superb). They dismiss the equipment as being worthless (even when it is the best in the world). And they sometimes grumble that their leaders are stupid (though those leaders might be tactical masters on the battlefield). The unhappiest and most rebellious of those who gripe are also the most vocal in their griping.

But let's consider the poll and Webb's comment, and then consider the hard facts.

Polling the Military

Like all polls taken, the opinions registered are a reflection of a singular point in time.

And points in time during combat operations are fluid, always evolving, devolving, and dramatically changing from one day to the next.

Also, unlike polls conducted among the general populace, independent news polls taken solely among military personnel almost never reflect a consensus of the military, because most military personnel won't participate. They're extremely cautious about speaking on or off the record — even anonymously — without permission. The ones who are content and support the decisions of their superiors are often quiet, as are the discontented. But if one is to speak, it is usually the one who is perhaps disgruntled.

This doesn't mean that a soldier of one political ideology would speak and the other would not. But an unhappy soldier, for whatever reason, almost always seems to be quickest to speak.

What further narrowed the opinions gleaned from the Military Times poll are the facts that the vast majority of those polled had deployed to Iraq only once since 2003 (suggesting the poll reflected a majority opinion of either very new soldiers or those not in combat arms units). Only nine percent of those polled were Marines, when Marines make up over 12 percent of the U.S. Armed Forces, and a huge chunk of the Corps is directly involved in the fighting in Iraq. And those polled from all services had to be subscribers to at least one of the Military Times' independent newspapers.

So proof of how soldiers might really feel, may not be gleaned from polling. The proof is in the numbers of who is staying when he or she has the opportunity to leave, and why.

The Army

Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty, chief spokesman for the U.S. Army's personnel office, tells National Review Online, two out of three soldiers eligible to re-enlist have been reenlisting for the past several years, and 2006 was no exception.

"The 2006 re-enlistment rate of active-duty soldiers was, across the board, higher than the pre-9/11 rate," he says. "The unusually high, even by our standards, 2002 and 2003 rate is likely due to patriotic fervor and a desire to not leave the service before getting into the fight against terrorists."

Hard Numbers

The Army's reenlistment numbers for the past six years break down as follows: For Fiscal Year 2006 (FY06), the Army's goal was to retain 64,200 soldiers already on active duty. The service exceeded that goal by retaining 67,307 eligible soldiers. In other words, 3,107 soldiers — in addition to the ones the Army had hoped to re-up — raised their right hands and swore to continue defending the nation even if it meant service in Iraq. That's 105 percent of the goal of re-upping eligible soldiers (Contrary to public perception, not all active-duty soldiers are eligible to reenlist. For example, the Army does not want and will not retain a soldier who is not meeting physical fitness or other performance standards.).