Pollster John Zogby says he has been asked by senior military brass to give a presentation at U.S. Central Command in Florida about his firm's recent poll of American troops serving in Iraq. Good. The troops have said things that their commanders need to hear — including their commander in chief.
Among them is a feeling that quickly made headlines: only 23 percent of the troops surveyed want to stay "as long as they are needed," even though that is President Bush's often-stated policy.
Instead, 72 percent of the respondents, serving in various branches of the armed forces, said the U.S. should leave Iraq sometime within the next year, including a 29-percent minority who said we should pull out "immediately."
As soon as the poll was released last Tuesday (Feb. 28), commentators across the political spectrum rushed to their keyboards and microphones to distort what the poll actually says, inflating it or knocking it down to suit their various agendas.
For the record, the poll that Zogby International conducted in conjunction with Le Moyne College's Center for Peace and Global Studies did not conclude that most American troops are "begging to get out of Iraq," as at least one blogger put it.
"We didn't ask them, 'When do you want to leave?'," Zogby said in a telephone interview. "We asked when did they think U.S. troops should leave." That was wise. If the question were all about our fighting men and women as individuals, I'd be surprised if most of them did not want to leave "yesterday."
It is also significant to note that Zogby's poll showed Marines and regular army troops to be more gung ho about staying in-country indefinitely than reservists and National Guard members, who were called away from their hometowns as if they had been drafted.
Yet, with all that in mind, the poll results remind me eerily of the ambivalent troop attitudes during the last days of the Vietnam War. I was drafted near the end of 1969. Americans had grown weary of that war by then, including the Americans who were fighting in it. By then, the original mission was a vague memory. America seemed instead to be aimed to some vague goal that President Nixon called "peace with honor." I never saw combat, by sheer luck, but the prevailing mission for many of my fellow troops had become simply keeping themselves and their buddies alive long enough to get "back to the world," which was G.I. jargon for home. I hope the Zogby poll, conducted with the permission of field commanders at five bases in Iraq, does not reveal a similar sense of 11th-hour fatalism in today's troops, even though they appear to have ample reasons to feel that way.
Curiously, an overwhelming 85 percent said the U.S. mission is mainly "to retaliate for Saddam Hussein's role in the 9/11 attacks." Some 77 percent said they also believe the main or a major reason for the war was "to stop Saddam from protecting al-Qaida in Iraq." That should come as news to President Bush, Vice President Cheney and others who have said there's no credible evidence that Saddam had any role in the Sept. 11 attacks.
Nevertheless, Team Bush often has pushed a double message, putting Saddam squarely in the middle of their "war on terror," whether he is credibly linked to the Sept. 11 attacks or not. That double message appears to have reached our troops, although not in a way that parrots administration policy. Only 24 percent, for example, gave "establishing a democracy that can be a model for the Arab world" as a major reason for the war, despite the president's pronouncements to the contrary.
It is more likely that our troops are saying they see themselves as engaged in a long-term war against terrorism and that Iraq is only one battlefront on which America is currently engaged. That sounds a lot like the way folks in my day saw Vietnam: It was a hot battlefront in our worldwide "cold war" against the Soviet Union communism.
Our side lost Vietnam, but eventually won the cold war. Iraq's future looks just as uncertain amid erupting signs of religious and ethnic civil war that have little to do with America's war against al-Qaida. We owe it to our troops to give them the support they need. But the success of their mission ultimately lies with the Iraqis. The longer we stay, the more we become an impediment to their self-rule and extra targets for violent attacks. Our troops appear to be keenly aware of that. So should the rest of us.