28 January 2010

A Soldier is a Soldier

Pop Quiz: "The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution regards the rights of all U.S. citizens to the freedom of ..."

(a) Religion
(b) Speech
(c) Press
(d) All of the above

Answer: D. All of the above.

God love those Dead White Guys who, despite the limitations of the day and their own human frailties and (mis)understandings, managed to put into words some of our unalienable rights. I bring up the First Amendment now, because I find that some of my Politically Active Evangelical Christian friends occasionally forget that they should be equally as interested in the sentiments of "Congress shall make no law ..." as are those Obviously Biased Liberal Media Types. (The italics, by the way, are courtesy of a former social studies teacher of mine.)

As a citizen, I exercise my First Amendment rights freely and often. In that role, I get to occasionally throw a switch and help elect a president. I also put my voice out there in other ways. Red Bull Rising is a good example.

As a soldier, I wear the U.S. flag on my right shoulder and ultimately answer to the president as my commander-in-chief. I am sworn to defend the Constitution from all enemies, foreign and domestic--not a flag, not a man, not a piece of ancient paper. That said, I know who my boss is; it is neither my role to praise nor to bury him. Remember "Render unto Caesar," and all that good First Amendment separation of Church and State mojo ...

Because of my dual-role, I don't plan to be a Thursday-morning Quarterback or Armchair General regarding the 2010 State of the Union address. Given some of my earlier posts and conversations here regarding George Orwell and Newspeak and related concepts, however, I thought I'd target a recurring contradiction in how people talk about soldiers.

Words matter as equally in the military as they do in politics. "Every time an acronym changes," I like to say, "a full-bird colonel gets his wings." Ask any Joe about how higher-ups get all wrapped up in changes of terminology, like when "Load Carrying Equipment" or "L.C.E." was changed to "Load-Bearing Equipment" ("L.B.E.") It was the same equipment--a harness on which a soldier would hang his/her ammo pouches and canteens--but woe to anyone who called it the wrong name in front of the drill sergeant, sergeant major, or newly minted officer.

Similarly, for years soldiers were "soldiers." Then, some sergeant major of the Army got the idea that the word should be capitalized on all uses, in order to show respect or importance, even though this is incorrect English. (Later, someone else would decide that "family" would be similarly capitalized. Then, everyone with a pet cause to stroke decided that they needed to arbitrarily capitalize a different Word, just to Feel and Be Special.)

Back in the day, soldiers annually trained and tested to a set of "common tasks." (Full acronym was "Common Task Testing," or "C.T.T.") These were skills in which every soldier, regardless of rank, should be proficient: "Put on a pressure bandage, prevent a fellow soldier from going into shock, use and maintain your rifle" kinds of stuff. About the time of the whole "Army of One" debacle, someone decided that "soldier" wasn't butch enough--that we should be called "warriors." (Oops, I mean "Warriors.") So "CTT" became "WTT": "Warrior Task Testing."

Don't get me wrong. I understand and appreciate that "every soldier's secondary Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) is Eleven-Bravo (11B)": "Combat Infantryman." You have to be able to fight, regardless of specialty. There is no "front line" in modern warfare. In my humble opinion, however, not every soldier is a "warrior." For the record: Sherpa is a soldier, and proud of it. But he doesn't pretend to be something he isn't.

I'm a little conflicted, then, when I hear our political and military leaders talk about getting our "combat soldiers" out of Iraq or other countries. Yes, there are soldiers who are warfighters and warriors, who step into harm's way on a daily basis. Yes, there are "support soldiers" and "combat enablers" and "Fobbits," specialists who may rarely get outside the wire but whose every thought and action had better be "what can I do to help the warfighter today?"

Consider this excerpt from the State of the Union (italics are mine):

In Afghanistan, we are increasing our troops and training Afghan Security Forces so they can begin to take the lead in July of 2011, and our troops can begin to come home. We will reward good governance, reduce corruption, and support the rights of all Afghans – men and women alike. We are joined by allies and partners who have increased their own commitment, and who will come together tomorrow in London to reaffirm our common purpose. There will be difficult days ahead. But I am confident we will succeed.

As we take the fight to al Qaeda, we are responsibly leaving Iraq to its people. As a candidate, I promised that I would end this war, and that is what I am doing as President. We will have all of our combat troops out of Iraq by the end of this August. We will support the Iraqi government as they hold elections, and continue to partner with the Iraqi people to promote regional peace and prosperity. But make no mistake: this war is ending, and all of our troops are coming home.

One shouldn't make a distinction between "combat soldiers" and then say "all troops are coming home." One shouldn't beat a rhetorical war drum such as "every soldier is a warrior," and then turn around and use "combat soldier" and "support soldier" as weasel-words. In poker parlance, we may be "all in" as a country, but we're not going to be "all out" any time soon. Our troops can be expected to have a role in Iraq and Afghanistan--as advisors, as trainers, as support personnel--for many, many years to come. (Personal, anecdotal evidence? Sherpa's first deployment in 2003 was to a then-25-year-old "temporary" U.S. contingency mission in the Middle East.) Once "invited," Uncle Sam tends to be a rather long-term house guest. Just ask Germany. Ask Japan. Ask Korea.

The bottom line: Soldiers are soldiers. We'll do the job. Just don't blow smoke and sunshine at us, or at our folks. Tell it like it is. People respect that.

So do soldiers.

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