War – what was it for?

It will take more than cookies and speeches to boost coalition troops' morale.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

This is a bit of random text from Kyle to test the new global option to add a message at the top of every article. This bit is linked somewhere.

Six months after President George W Bush declared that ‘major combat operations in Iraq have ended’, morale among coalition troops is flagging.

In mid-October, the American military magazine Stars and Stripes found that a third of US troops surveyed in Iraq said the morale of their units was low, and half were unlikely to stay in the armed forces. Many of the troops complained that their mission is ‘not clearly defined’ or ‘not at all defined’. More recently, one soldier described the downing of a US Chinook helicopter on 2 November – which killed 16 US soldiers and injured 26 – as a ‘body blow’ to soldiers’ confidence (1).

In a bid to boost morale, families and friends back home are sending parcels and messages to Iraq. In North Carolina, some have ‘adopted a unit’, where you send troops ‘comfort items, including cookies, hygiene items and reading materials’, as a way of ‘letting them know you care’ (2). According to an adopt-a-unit organiser, ‘If you can’t keep the troops happy, you can’t complete your mission’ (3). In Seattle, families are ‘shipping the scent of home’ to the troops in Iraq, sending them ‘cedar boughs, so that when they open them up they will get the cedar smell that is very Pacific Northwest’ (4).

Pentagon leaders are taking ‘very seriously’ the problem of sapped morale in Iraq. ‘In the end it’s the individual soldier, sailor, marine or coastguardman that makes the difference’, says General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (5). Military officials hope to boost the morale of these individuals by sending commanders around Iraq to give rousing speeches and by improving troops’ access to good food and the internet.

Can morale really be boosted by cookies, cedar boughs or even impassioned speeches by Myers and co? These suggested solutions treat falling morale as an individual problem, a bit like self-esteem, where improving a soldier’s quality of life and making him happier will help him ‘complete the mission’. But a soldier’s morale is shaped by his experiences on the battlefield, by his understanding of and attitude towards his mission or shared goal. And in Iraq, mission and shared goals have been notable by their absence, leaving troops with little means through which to make sense of their experiences.

Coalition troops have faced some gruesome incidents in Iraq in recent months – but by any historical comparison they have not been uniquely horrific. The shooting down of helicopters and the blowing up of soldiers are facts of war and occupation. The reason such incidents can appear so devastating to today’s troops, as ‘body blows’ to their morale, is because the troops have no broader framework through which to understand these attacks or to believe that they are worth risking. A Red Cross official no doubt spoke for many a coalition squaddie when she described suicide attacks on Red Cross workers in Baghdad as ‘totally un-understandable’ (6).

In Stars and Stripes’ survey, one of the main complaints made by US troops was that their mission was ‘not clearly defined’ or ‘not defined at all’. Looking back on what has taken place in the eight months since American and British forces invaded Iraq, troops could be forgiven for wondering what the war was for, whom it was against, whether or not they won, and what they’re supposed to be doing now.

This was a war without a casus belli. There was no incident or threat that triggered the start of the war, which might have made plain to troops why they were being shipped to Iraq and what they were fighting against – instead the war just kind of started, after months of war talk and stalling.

What was the war for? In March 2003, US Lieutenant General James T Conway told cheering troops that the invasion ‘was not a fair fight. But we didn’t intend it to be’ (7). Yet troops were also told that they were entering Iraq ‘with respect for its citizens, for their great civilisation and for the religious faiths they practice’ (8). British Lieutenant Colonel Tim Collins told them that ‘Iraq is steeped in history…. Tread lightly here’ (9). So it wasn’t a fair fight, but troops should be fair to the people – and they should somehow ‘tread lightly’ while going into battle.

The justification for the war changed almost daily. It started as a war to disarm Saddam of his ‘weapons of mass murder’, but soon became a war to deliver human rights. It has invariably been described as a war to protect Americans from the threat posed by Saddam, a war to protect Iraqis from the threat posed by Saddam, a war to protect Iraqis from the threat posed by foreign terrorists, and a war to protect the Palestinians from a spiralling crisis in the Middle East.

What was the role of the troops – fighters in a potentially bloody battle or ambassadors for human rights and decency? Before the war started, troops were warned that their mission (whatever that might be) required ‘bravery and selflessness, and true fighting spirit’. Yet they were also encouraged to behave like ‘diplomat-warriors’ for our new humanitarian age, rather than like the outright warriors of old. They were invited to enrol on ‘five-day courses on the basics of Arab culture’ in Qatar, as a means of trying to ‘get over the age-old problem of US troops appearing vulgar and arrogant’ (10). So they were fighters who might have to spill blood – but also Arab-aware diplomats who should avoid causing offence.

Which Iraqis were the enemy? Saddam? His Republican Guards? Iraqi conscripts – described by one US commentator as little more than ‘civilians in flak jackets’? US troops were told to avoid civilian casualties; US Major General JN Mattis advised them to ‘engage your brain before you engage your weapon’, and avoid attacking those who are ‘not part of this war’ (11). In other words, stop, look and think before attacking/not attacking enemy/non-enemy, and treat good Iraqis with respect but bad Iraqis with contempt. No wonder the military issued 52 playing cards with pictures of Iraq’s most wanted – a desperate attempt to give the enemy some definition.

Where was the enemy? After troops finally got to Iraq, there wasn’t much of a war to fight. The resistance in most towns and cities faded away. The ruthless regime that was supposedly holding the world to ransom with deadly weapons imploded, like the wretched state it was, as soon as coalition troops arrived on Iraqi soil. There was no major clash between coalition troops and Iraqi forces that could seriously be called a battle. Not surprisingly, a war that didn’t have a proper start, or a clearly-defined enemy, or any serious military clashes, has ended indecisively – and now, more US troops have been killed since the war ended than died while it was on.

Did coalition troops even win the war? We know major operations ended in May 2003, but there is little evidence of a victory. UK prime minister Tony Blair said in mid-April 2003 that victory should not be celebrated ‘in any spirit of elation, still less of triumphalism’ (12). Britain also decided not to have a victory parade on the grounds that it might seem ‘arrogant or patronising towards the Iraqi people’ (in the words of Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, chief of defence staff, no less) (13).

US troops were warned ‘not to fly the Stars and Stripes for fear of wrecking Bush’s message that America is fighting the war to liberate, not conquer’ (14). One of the most controversial incidents was when US soldiers wrapped the face of a Saddam statue in the Stars and Stripes, no doubt thinking that they had won the war and could now celebrate. They might have ‘won’ – but the request from on high was for no victory parades, no flag-waving and no triumphalism. Historically, military machines have always had difficulty declaring and defining victories – but in Iraq, victory dared not even speak its name, as cautious coalition officials balked from displaying their superiority over Iraq.

Under these conditions – where troops were fighters and humanitarians, in a war that never quite started and never quite happened, treading lightly while invading – it isn’t surprising that they complain of an ill-defined mission. Even the one thing that might have made some sense of the war, the postwar scrabble for a casus belli in the shape of Saddam’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, has proved fruitless. Troops effectively fought a confusing war-of-sorts against a vague enemy for goals unknown.

Consider who has become one of Britain’s most prominent heroes of the war. In late October, as troops were rewarded for their efforts in Iraq, 19-year-old Christopher Finney from the Blues and Royals made the front pages of all the papers. Yet Finney was awarded the George Cross, Britain’s highest civilian award, rather than being given a military medal – and he was rewarded for rescuing his British pals from a burning Scimitar after it had been attacked by an American pilot who mistook it for an enemy vehicle. This is heroism for a confused war – a young man who took part in a rescue operation rather than a military fight and who stood up to American aggression rather than the Iraqi enemy.

It is this uncertainty about the war and what it was for, rather than any objective reality on the ground, that has impacted on coalition troops. In wars gone by, troops had to put up with far worse conditions, onslaughts and attacks than those that have been visited on today’s troops in Iraq – but soldiers in the past, who had some sense of what they were fighting for and against, saw such acts as part of their broader mission. They could cope with and make sense of such horrors; today, in a war without meaning, terrible things can simply appear senseless, bizarre and ‘un-understandable’.

In such a climate, sending troops cookies and the ‘sweet smell of home’ is likely to make them feel worse, rather than boosting their war-weary morale.

Read on

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) Survey: Iraq morale could be better, Fox News, 16 October 2003

(2) Adopt-a-Unit effort aims to boost morale, Fayetteville Observer, 7 November 2003

(3) Adopt-a-Unit effort aims to boost morale, Fayetteville Observer, 7 November 2003

(4) Families, others scramble to send holiday packages to boost morale for soldiers, San Diego Union-Tribune, 6 November 2003

(5) Troop morale taken ‘very seriously’, Pentagon leaders say, CNS News, 16 October 2003

(6) Attacks rock Red Cross, BBC News, 27 October 2003

(7) See A hollow war, by Brendan O’Neill

(8) Waging politically correct war: the inoffensive offensive?, Brendan O’Neill, Christian Science Monitor, 26 March 2003

(9) Waging politically correct war: the inoffensive offensive?, Brendan O’Neill, Christian Science Monitor, 26 March 2003

(10) See Gulf War meets Culture War, by Brendan O’Neill

(11) Marine General’s final message to his troops before the start of the 2003 Iraqi war, Keyt Law, 19 March 2003

(12) Why Britain rains on its own Iraq parade, Brendan O’Neill, Christian Science Monitor, 20 May 2003

(13) Why Britain rains on its own Iraq parade, Brendan O’Neill, Christian Science Monitor, 20 May 2003

(14) Waging politically correct war: the inoffensive offensive?, Brendan O’Neill, Christian Science Monitor, 26 March 2003

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Topics Politics


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