The Troops Respond

Robert Alt

July 19, 2004

Tuz, Iraq—As I walked into the barracks, Sgt. Kevin Porter, a 23-year old trooper in the Ohio National Guard serving south of Kirkuk, Iraq, called me over. He had just received a package from his family in Bellaire, Ohio, which included a then weeks-old copy of his local newspaper. The op-ed page featured a column by Andy Rooney opining about the character and morale of servicemen in Iraq. Rooney offered five questions that he wished a reporter would ask soldiers in Iraq, a group he dubbed “victims” rather than “heroes.” Although Sgt. Porter is not someone who frequently talked politics or current events, this article struck a nerve with him and his fellow troopers. He asked if I might assist him and his fellow soldiers to respond to Rooney’s questions.

Some rightly may wonder why ink should be spilt on what is necessarily a belated response to Rooney, whose banal “did you ever notice” segments on “60 Minutes” have come to epitomize journalistic navel gazing. It is worth noting that Mr. Rooney was not always a curmudgeonly caricature. In WWII, his combat reporting for Stars and Stripes earned him the Bronze Star. Because of his admirable service, many Americans still lend their ears to what he has to say about our soldiers. Unfortunately, Mr. Rooney seems to have joined the ranks of journalists whose political disagreements with the current President and open disdain for the war in Iraq cloud their already questionable judgment. In this way, Rooney’s tirades and condescending tone directed toward the soldiers are typical of a sizable segment of today’s journalists, a group which a recent Pew survey confirmed to be more liberal than the public for whom they report. And so, after being told for the past year how the war is going, and how the troops are faring by those who are not doing the fighting, it is past time that the troops had their say.

Many of Rooney’s questions are skewed in a naked attempt to elicit a desired response. To the extent that he was not simply trying to score rhetorical points in his column, this reflects a belief that the soldiers can be easily led by the nose to tout a particular line. I do not share this opinion, and therefore I let Rooney’s questions stand in an attempt to show his calculation wrong. I did not color his questions, but assured they were asked verbatim by requesting that the troopers read Rooney’s written questions before answering. To the extent possible, I interviewed the troopers separately, so that they would not be influenced by another’s response, and I made efforts to assure that the most “pro-Rooney” responses that I found for each question were included. In the era of Dowd, I should note that any ellipses are not offered to alter the content, but for the traditional reasons of conciseness, grammar, and to show pauses.

Mr. Rooney’s first question was “Do you think your country did the right thing sending you into Iraq?” Cpl. Caleb Clark of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio offered an emphatic response: “Absolutely. I think that what we are doing over here has a direct effect on international terrorism. And I think the government should continue to send soldiers over here until the job is done. I feel that we would be cheating the soldiers who went before us if we didn’t finish the job.” Sgt. Porter shared the view of many soldiers who looked at the impact for future generations: “I think we did the right thing for the simple fact that if we didn’t, then our sons or grandchildren would have to come over here and do the same thing.” Spc. David James of North Royalton, Ohio offered his usual candor: “Yeah, I think as a whole, I’m glad we’re over here; and me, I’m glad to be part of that whole… If we didn’t step up, who the hell would?” Spc. Daniel Richmond of Akron saw the benefits for both countries: “[T]he country [Iraq] needed our help. And we needed to come over here for our own safety: to help our country deal with the terrorism. And to help them set themselves up with a better government, so that things like terrorism… [don’t] happen.” For Gulf War veteran Sgt. Joseph Black of Massillon, Ohio, the only complaint was that we waited this long: “Saddam should have been removed a long time ago, either by the United States or by the surrounding Arab states for the crimes he committed against his people.” As you would expect, however, there was not unanimity on the question. Spc. Dickens thought “that there were other places that needed attention first,” however, he recognized something that the question failed to address: the implications of agreement or disagreement with the war decision for the future. “[N]ow that we are here, we need to finish the job,” he mused.

Mr. Rooney’s second question was: “Are you doing what America set out to do to make Iraq a democracy, or have we failed so badly that we should pack up and get out before more of you are killed?” This question drew a unanimous and emphatic response from every trooper with whom I spoke. Spc. Dickens explained that “[w]e’re doing exactly what we set out to do.” As for pulling out, he took the prospect quite personally: “We’ve told the people that we are here to help. If they pull us out now, they would make me into a liar.” Spc. Richmond recognized a simple fact which too many armchair analysts in the States overlook: “We are doing what is necessary to make Iraq a Democracy—it takes time.” Sgt. Black echoed this sentiment, in stating that “[a]nyone who thinks that we could undo 35 years of brutality with a band-aid is sorely mistaken.” Black emphasized the work that was being done by the his troop, including training the Iraqi National Guard and digging wells for local villages as evidence of the good that is being done on a daily basis by the military here in Iraq. Sgt. Porter pointed to the fact that his troop is “helping the Kurds and the Arabs to work together,” something I witnessed in a contract which the platoon helped to negotiate between two villages, one Kurdish and one Arab, which had previous harbored distrust toward each other. And again, the irrepressible Spc. James offered candor: “Who the hell is saying we failed?” He conceded that “it’s tough over here, but you expect that… This is a war against terrorism; this is about winning the peace. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t going to be any fighting.”

Mr. Rooney’s third question was: “Do the orders you get handed down from one headquarters to another, all far removed from the fighting, seem sensible, or do you think our highest command is out of touch with the reality of your situation?” Cpt. Trampes Crow, a civil affairs officer from Alabama, gave a response that was typical of the troops: “Every soldier thinks that headquarters is out of touch… What kind of question is that? Of course he is going to get the kind of answer he wants.” Sgt. Black seconded this sentiment: “I think that is just a bogus question and a waste of ink. I think that every soldier going back to the days of spears and slingshots thought that their leaders were out of touch… But with modern communication, they are probably more in touch.” Sgt. Porter thought that the “highest command has some sense of what’s going on, but they don’t know exactly what’s going on. But then, we don’t know what’s going on in headquarters, and if we did, [the orders] might make more sense.” Spc. Richmond had his doubts, suggesting that “a lot of the commands they give us are out of touch with reality, even if they are for our safety.” And 1Lt. Barry Naum of Chardon, Ohio offered something of a historical perspective: “[The orders] seem more sensible than if someone told me to get on a boat and charge on a beach filled with German machine guns. When have orders ever ’made sense’ to a soldier?”

Mr. Rooney’s fourth question descended into rhetorical absurdity: “If you could have a medal or a trip home, which would you take?” Not surprisingly, all of the guys said they would prefer to be at home, something Spc. James expressed poignantly in noting that “[g]etting to see your family is better than any medal out there.” But Cpt. Crow got to the larger question—and addressed what seemed to be the motivation behind Rooney’s simplistic question: “Who wouldn’t want a trip home? If he is getting at the bigger question of whether we should be here or whether we should go home, then we need to stay here to finish the job.” Sgt. Porter suggested likewise: “Who doesn’t want to come home? But it’s not like you hear ’We want to go home! We want to go home.’”

And finally, Mr. Rooney’s fifth question: “Are you encouraged by all the talk back home about how brave you are and how everyone supports you?” A lot of the guys had problems with the use of terms like brave or hero. Sgt. Porter’s response is representative: “Encouraged, yes. It’s good to hear that people are remembering you. But brave isn’t really a term we use. It’s just doing your job.” Similarly, Sgt. Black stated: “Absolutely, I’m encouraged by the words of support back home. Am I brave, no. I’m just a guy; I’m just a soldier. But I’m very happy to have the support of my nation. I was blessed to have the support of the nation in the two wars that I have been in.” Spc. James explained how much the support means: “Oh yeah, it’s a big motivator. Puts a smile on my face. You got kids from school writing you letters, and you’ve got family and friends. It’s a big help… A lot of people, they look up to you. I’m sure when I get home and I put on that uniform… it’s truly an honor to wear the uniform. You get treated better when you wear the uniform.” Finally, Lt. Naum opined: “Yeah. It’s more encouraging than what the press is saying… It’s more encouraging than him telling me that I’m a victim. I’ve never been a victim.”

Lt. Naum was referring to Mr. Rooney’s assertion later in the article that the National Guard members are predominantly serving just for the money, that they didn’t think that they would be called up, and therefore are they really victims rather than heroes. Sgt. Porter also protested that “We’re not victims. We signed up for this. Many of us re-enlisted.” Refuting the idea that the National Guard members did not know what they were getting into, Lt. Naum noted that the vast majority of the soldiers who are E-4 and below enlisted after 9/11—after we were at war and at a time that they knew they were likely to be called up. Sgt. Black explained that many of the men not only volunteered once to join the National Guard, but volunteered a second time to come to Iraq. Indeed, a number of the men in this very platoon either transferred into the platoon to serve in Iraq or specifically volunteered to be deployed.

I wish that Mr. Rooney’s patronizing column was an isolated occurrence, but his style of talking down to the troops as simpletons who don’t know what they are doing or imputing negative morale is reflective of the current mode of journalism. Because quasi-journalists like Mr. Rooney do not agree with the war and believe that it was not justified to their standards, they extrapolate that the men must not have a sense of purpose. But as the soldiers’ responses to his poorly formulated questions ably demonstrate—he and his colleagues are sorely mistaken.

Robert D. Alt is a Fellow in Legal and International Affairs at The John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University currently reporting from Iraq. You can follow his daily progress at No Left Turns.