War Funding and Soldier Welfare

A friend and I had lunch a few days ago, and somehow the subject of the Democrats' unconditional capitulation to the Bush war agenda came up. Both of us lamented the inability of Democrats to stand up to a clearly unjust policy - especially with such supermajority opposition to it among the population. Where we ended up disagreeing was on how the war should be ended. Specifically (and correct me if I'm wrong, anonymous friend), he objected to any measure that would decrease funding "to the troops on the battlefield", whereas I supported such a measure.

My friend's reasoning, which I find unobjectionable in the abstract, is that this is an all-volunteer force that has sacrificed and risked much to serve their country. Above all else, our government owes these people the best we can afford. While the war must be ended, defunding operations only puts soldiers at greater risk, thereby forcing them to bear the overwhelming cost of withdrawal, which he finds unjust. To end the war by increasing their vulnerability is unconscionable.

There is no doubt about the justice of the situation: soldiers are always the ones that suffer as a result of policy. The question is not the truthfulness about this argument, but what in fact we can do about it. Both of us acknowledge that pursuing the current strategy of police actions, local military training and support, and anti-insurgent operations is going nowhere. As I see it there are three basic options:

  1. Increase the intensity of our operations, which raises the costs of this war to the taxpayer and increases the danger to soldiers, or
  2. Decrease the intensity of our operations in preparation of withdrawal, which my friend argues increases the danger to soldiers even as it lowers the ongoing costs of the war, or
  3. Continue on our present course with which nobody is satisfied, and from which we can expect a steady stream of casualties (tragic, but at least Congress can't be blamed for growing the rate of dead and wounded).

Only one of these options leads to a final and foreseeable end to our troops being in harm's way: option 2. Option 1 depends on further investment of money and lives in a cause that the population of America - and the populations of Iraq and Afghanistan - no longer support. And option 3 is basically the same as option 1, since it defers to the military and political leaders who have managed this war from the get-go - those who have always been willing to endure a higher cost in money and lives.

So if troop welfare is what we're really interested in, and not the success of the operations in which those troops are engaged, then one has to seriously wonder why options 1 and 3 are preferable to option 2. Of course, cutting off funding for present operations could lead to less funding for force protection measures such as preemptive raids on insurgents, armor for soldiers and vehicles, and weapons and ammunition to repel attacks on our forces. But those measures only cost as much as they do because of the nature of the positively defined mission. Change the mission, change the costs and the danger.

In other words, it costs a lot to conduct raids, patrol unfriendly streets, and generally occupy a hostile nation. Not only that, engaging in those operations forces you to spend more on defense because they are inherently dangerous. Stop aggressive operations, and focus on protecting your own military, and costs are much, much lower. Sure, it may cost a lot to withdraw, but that's a sunk cost already - since even if we stay and "win" the war, we will have to withdraw at some point. The money is, effectively, already spent.

My friend believes that while the above may have some truth, we cannot count on the President to adjust his mission and strategy to the modified budget. Bush is such a lunatic that he would continue to prosecute the occupation even without the funding to ensure that troops get the most protection possible. In fact, a certain Republican has suggested that the President could unilaterally fund wars even after Congressional deallocation of money. I believe my friend's fear that the President might continue the war, troops be damned, is actually not unfounded.

Unfortunately, we are indeed in a tight spot with regard to our head of State. The President is the official Commander in Chief of the military, and the troops are pledged to follow his orders. If he ordered them into an unacceptably dangerous position and they obeyed, that would certainly be a monumental tragedy.

In a situation where it appears that American soldiers are going to be in danger no matter what we do, the best policy choice is to minimize the danger. If the President will not be reasonable, then there is nothing the Congress can do in the short term to help soldiers. Since it is out of Congress's hands, the best thing they can do is take the route of defunding the war in order to effect a long term improvement in the welfare and safety of the military (and, incidentally, our country).It must be understood that Congress is not currently responsible for immediate troop welfare - what they answer for is the policies that lead the President to take certain actions. If the President orders troops to prosecute a suicide mission, then he - and only he - must bear the responsibility. Indeed, it might provoke a revolt in the military against the President - as in Vietnam - which would be a far better check on fascist warmongering than any Congress could provide. That would certainly be the most just way to protect the troops - let the troops protect themselves, both against the Iraqis and their own government.

However, as we analyze the scope of what is politically possible, we should not forget that Congress created this situation. This body ceded their unique authority to declare war to the Executive: an unprecedented and horribly irresponsible act. That they can do nothing to help the soldier is a situation entirely of their own making. Congress bears full responsibility for this abdication of one of their duly appointed roles.

In fact, this brings us to a fourth option: Congress can revoke the President's authority to use the military in Iraq. This is a far superior option to the other three because it changes the mission, not simply the President's latitude to prosecute a mission of his choosing. Instead, it forces the President to begin withdrawal, rather than letting him decide when the war is over.

However, if we can't end the war directly via option 4, the next best choice for troop welfare and American security is option 2. Since my friend offers no alternative to option 2, he implicitly prefers option 3 - the current strategy - which has resulted in over 3,500 deaths and many times more injuries. I find it hard to consider that option more humane than immediately restricting the ability of the President to prosecute this war.

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Written on Sunday, June 10, 2007