Starting with the first tense days of the war against Iraq, I made it a point to watch American servicemen being interviewed on cable television. Every one of them, when asked why they were eager to fight in Iraq, in essence gave this unhesitating reply: "First, to destroy a murderous regime before it acquires the capability to attack our country and the rest of the free world with weapons of mass destruction." [It’s called "self-defense."] "Second, to liberate the people of Iraq from decades of oppression." [It’s called "compassion."]
But there was no avoiding another more troubling question. When embedded reporters pressed the troops on what they thought about large numbers of strident American antiwar activists carrying signs like "Saddam, Yes! U.S.A. No!" and labeling President Bush -- their Commander-in-Chief -- a Nazi and a mass murderer, every one of those servicemen gave virtually the same answer: They respected the First Amendment right of the antiwar protesters to hurl their insults and invective with abandon; to speak freely.
The answers were a little too pat, sounding more pained than convincing. They also sounded coached. I remember wondering if their commanding officers had strongly "suggested" they respond to questions about the protesters with impersonal politeness.
Regardless of whether the troops had orders from on high, or whether, on some level, they really believed what they were saying, their tone was conspicuously dutiful. I saw this discernible pattern disintegrate only once. It was shortly after news broke about the capture of members of the Army’s 507th Maintenance Company, and some grotesque photographs surfaced of an execution, Iraqi-style. A young officer, asked the same pat question about antiwar protesters maligning the President and the war effort, started to give the usual pat answer with tightlipped determination. His face crumpled in midsentence, his voice turning anguished. " . . . but it’s wrong!"
Let’s be clear about what’s "wrong" with this picture. It is not that the antiwar Left has a constitutional right, as it should, to proclaim its support of a brutal dictator. It is that men and women who are laying their lives on the line seem reluctant, for whatever reason, to express their honest convictions about the most virulent of these protesters and what they represent.
So why, when questioned about antiwar protesters, do the troops invariably fall back on the free-speech mantra?
One possibility is that the leadership in the field, the commanders and the NCOs, may not want the troops sounding off about antiwar rhetoric, fearing that it might prove provocative. So they condition their people to stick to the free-speech platitude about protesters -- no harm done – and everybody gets on with the business of war.
I submit that, potentially, the harm to the men and women at the Front is considerable.
Let’s say you’re a combat infantryman, you hail from Los Angeles, and a close friend was part of that 507th convoy that went astray. Mail call. Along with the homemade cookies, your mother includes an article from the Los Angeles Times (3/25/03) by University of Southern California Law School Professor Erwin Chemerinsky, who blithely asserts that since Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld continues to violate "international law" [the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals flatly disagreed] by the Guantanamo incarceration of "war captives" [read "enemy combatants", some of them proven terrorists], "the United States cannot expect other nations [read "Iraqi Death Squads"] . . .to live by the rule of law . . . ." [Read: "You can’t blame Saddam’s thugs for executing American POWs."]
Or maybe a Marine reservist left Columbia University to answer his President’s call to arms. His girl friend, a fellow student, keeps him apprised of college events. He’s just returned from a fierce firefight. His platoon lost four good men, and everyone is on edge about the possible capture and subsequent treatment of two buddies who went missing. During a brief respite, he opens a letter he’s had no time to read . . . and learns about Columbia assistant professor of anthropology, Nicholas De Genova, who distinguished himself at a six-hour antiwar teach-in by hoping for "a million Mogadishus" [read "a million of our troops tortured and mutilated, paraded through Baghdad, and executed"].
Along comes a reporter, understandably eager for a reaction to the "hot" Chemerinsky and De Genova stories. If the infantryman from L.A., outraged by the law professor’s ugly and inappropriate comparisons, feels constrained – for whatever reason – to come to the defense of Chemerinsky’s First Amendment rights, the harm he’s more than likely to suffer will be an inchoate sense of betrayal that, in turn, could spiral into a serious loss of morale. The harm to the Marine reservist could take the form of agonizing over mental images of his missing buddies: their torture . . . mutilation . . . execution . . . their burial in a shallow grave, the remains identifiable only by DNA – courtesy of the vicious mutterings of a previously obscure instructor of anthropology.
This is the inherent risk when men and women in harm’s way are conflicted about giving an honest assessment of the more virulent antiwar rhetoric.
In point of fact, commanding officers and NCOs may maintain a completely hands-off policy on how their troops respond to questions about the antiwar protesters. If so, an entirely different scenario may account for why the soldiers I saw being interviewed felt obliged to make a statement – albeit, unconvincingly – about the First Amendment rights of people they have every reason to despise. Our troops may have absorbed the free-speech mantra from the culture at large. (It is, after all, pervasive in the land.) Ironically, you hear it most often among well-meaning people who support the war, including the wives, husbands and parents of men and women at the Front. "Our troops," they intone – with a notable lack of enthusiasm – "are fighting to preserve the right of these protesters to speak out."
With all due respect, it’s the wrong message to be sending. Try this one: "We know why you’re really fighting, bro. To help eradicate a murderous regime. To make the world a safer place." Or this: "Antiwar protesters? You mean, a bunch of your fellow Americans whose hide you’re busy saving who deliberately or petulantly or irresponsibly twist out of all proportion what you and your embattled Commander-in-Chief are doing in Iraq and why?" Or, better yet, this: "Protecting the antiwar crowd’s right to protest is not your mandate, son. It is not the reason you’ve put your life on the line. And, by God, point the finger at these people, if you’ve a mind to. You got a right to free speech same as them ingrates."
Scurrilous attacks wielded by the America-hating Chemerinskys and De Genovas will continue unabated in this country. Their calumnies will continue to be mounted from prestigious, even supportive, platforms like The Los Angeles Times and Columbia University. And, depending on the makeup of the audience, there will be too many occasions when no one will rise up in defense of our defenders. (Out of De Genova’s hardly captive audience of 3,000 people, no timely objection was made.) Those of us who support our troops can help defuse such situations by taking a moral stand against the uncivilized rant of people with their own ugly agendas.
More importantly, we should take it upon ourselves to encourage the brave warriors at the Front to speak freely. By doing so, we can help boost troop morale – and in the conduct of this or any war, that’s crucial. Indeed, as to the toll Hanoi Jane Fonda’s conduct took during the Vietnam War, novelist Nelson DeMille has written: "As a combat infantry officer in Vietnam, I can attest to the fact that Jane Fonda, and people like her, succeeded very well in lowering troop morale, and as any combat vet will tell you, low morale leads to lowered effectiveness, and that leads to battlefield deaths."
Erika Holzer is a lawyer turned novelist whose last novel, Eye for an Eye, a Paramount feature film of the same name, was directed by John Schlesinger and starred Sally Field and Kiefer Sutherland. She is co-author with Henry Mark Holzer of the forthcoming Fake Warriors: Identifying, Exposing and Punishing Those Who Falsify Their Military Service. More about Ms. Holzer’s writing can be found at www.erikaholzer.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.