Jewish World Review July 8, 2003/ 8 Tamuz, 5763

Wesley Pruden

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The barracks bellyache is an art of war | Donald Rumsfeld is trying to teach the ladies and gents of the press in Iraq a few things about the military life, but he has a way to go.

A few of the correspondents, who only recently learned to recognize a proper salute and the business end of a gun, have discovered that the dog soldier's lot, like a policeman's lot, is not always a happy one.

Our boys in Iraq are "facing extended danger, heat, and uncertainty of an Iraq occupation," reports the breathless correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, "and are suffering from low morale that has in some cases hit rock bottom."

Their wives back home are impatient; the husbands want to come home. Sleeping alone between sand and grit instead of between clean sheets is no fun. A few GIs have written to their congressmen. One or two have even asked the Red Cross for more than doughnuts.

Correspondents for The Washington Post, having failed earlier to get traction with complaining dispatches about strategy, tactics, quagmires and stalemates, are serving up a daily diet of gripes, beef and lamentation. "Rock bottom" seems to be the popular destination.

"Make no mistake," an officer of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division tells the Monitor, "the level of morale for most soldiers that I've seen has hit rock bottom." The reassuring thing about rock bottom, of course, is that we've been there before. There's another bottom just beneath rock bottom, and it's rocky, too. It's in the nature of a bellyache.

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GIs of every war, as every top sarge knows, are fond of bitching. It's what makes barracks life tolerable. A wise company commander begins to worry only when his troops quit their bellyaching. It's written in the stars. Rudyard Kipling's "Tommy Atkins," a barracks favorite of Britain's colonial constabulary, got it about right:

"We aren't no thin red 'eroes,

nor we aren't no blackguards too,

but single men in barracks,

most remarkable like you;

And if sometimes our conduck

isn't all your fancy paints,

Why, single men in barracks

don't grow into plaster saints;

You talk o' better food for us,

and fires, an' all

We'll wait for extry rations

if you treat us rational.

Don't mess about the cook-room slops,

but prove it to our face

The widow's uniform

is not the soldier-man's disgrace.

What we have in Iraq, however, is not the complaining of GIs, but the work of bored correspondents eager for scandal and longing to make Iraq II a really unpopular war, like the Vietnam war they've all read about. Life for the dog soldier in Iraq is, by all accounts, rough and unpleasant, uncomfortable and dangerous, though not necessarily as rough, unpleasant and dangerous as the life of soldiers in almost any of the nation's earlier wars. The complaints of the men (and women) in Iraq are actually no louder or longer than the complaints of soldiers of those earlier wars. By all accounts, they're eager to get on with the job they signed up to do. The occasional reporter, persuaded that there's a Pulitzer in here somewhere if only he could find it, makes bellyaching seem to be the universal order of the day.

Some of the reporting merely reprises story lines from earlier in Gulf War II, discredited tales of mistaking clotted cream for quagmire. Only five days into the war, television's lost regiment of talking heads pronounced American military strategy a miserable failure, and chided Gen. Tommy Franks and his Pentagon superiors for not taking enough troops to do the job. The grousing was silenced when the Iraqi army folded up like a pup tent in a sandstorm.

The talking (and some of the writing) heads are sounding the alarm again that the generals don't have enough boots in the sand. Nearly 375,000 troops are deployed overseas now, most of them in the Middle East. This constitutes nearly 40 percent of U.S. available troop strength. Gen. Franks told a television interviewer yesterday, his last day as commander in Iraq, that additional troops are not needed now. "What we want to do," he said, "is to continue to move forward toward establishing security by working with the Iraqis inside Iraq."

The Army is conducting a study now on how life in the Army affects life in the Army. "The cumulative effect of these work hours and deployment and training are big issues," says Col. Charles Hoge, director of the survey at the Walter Reed Institute of Army Research in Washington. "Soldiers are concerned about it."

Some no doubt are. It's probably inevitable that an Army that sends pregnant soldiers into combat, authorized or not, will soon supply regimental psychiatrists to get in the way of men at work at the grim tasks of war.

Gen. Irvin McDowell prescribed white uniforms for the correspondents accompanying his soldiers to Second Manassas, "to indicate the purity of their character."

McDowell, a miserable general, was nevertheless a man of his times, making his point with a derisive taunt. The correspondents of that primitive and benighted era were men enough to take offense.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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