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Active-duty US troops become outspoken critics of Iraq war

Their public critiques represent a shift in the military's culture.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 29, 2007

A recent op-ed about the war in Iraq charged that upbeat official reports amount to "misleading rhetoric." It said the "most important front in the counterinsurgency [had] failed most miserably." And it warned against pursuing "incompatible policies to absurd ends."

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Five years into a controversial war, that harsh judgment in a New York Times opinion piece might not seem surprising, except for this: The authors were seven US soldiers, writing from Iraq at the end of a tough 15-month combat tour.

In books and professional journals, blogs, and newspapers, active-duty military personnel are speaking publicly and critically as never before about an ongoing war.

Respectfully, but with a directness and gritty authenticity that comes from combat experience – sometimes written from the battlefield – they offer a view of current strategy, military leadership, and the situation on the ground that is more stark than Pentagon and White House pronouncements.

Part of this reflects weariness with the war. But it also represents a shift in military culture where speaking up publicly is more usual and acceptable than in previous conflicts, experts say, thanks to changes in technology and society.

"This is the first post-Internet, post-digital-camera war" in which "the line between private lives and public lives has been blurred," says Eugene Fidell, a former military lawyer who teaches military justice at Yale.

Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), as long as uniformed critics do not speak or write using "contemptuous words" regarding the president or other senior officials, they are free to voice their opinions, notes Mr. Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice. "We're a nation built on free expression, and it can get pretty noisy."

Part of this criticism reflects weariness with the war, especially among those serving multiple extended combat tours.

"You could almost construct an equation to predict the rate at which dissension in the ranks will reach the public as support for a war sours," says military analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank in Arlington, Va.

"I have to tell you as somebody who deals frequently with the military, there's been a lot of disagreement for a long time about this war," he adds. "It just tends to get expressed obliquely and in private."

A May survey of Army soldiers in Iraq showed 45 percent with "low" morale compared with 19 percent who said their morale was "high." The percentage of West Point graduates who quit the Army after their five-year obligation has more than doubled since the Iraq war began in 2003.

More and more, a vocal minority is also speaking out publicly – a far cry from the World War II era when, in order to keep his political conscience clear, Gen. George C. Marshall never even voted.

Earlier this year, Army Lt. Col. Paul Yingling challenged his superiors head-on in an article in Armed Forces Journal.

The Vietnam and Iraq "debacles are not attributable to individual failures, but rather to a crisis in an entire institution: America's general officer corps," wrote the former West Point instructor and Iraq veteran who recently took command of a battalion. "In both conflicts, the general officer corps designed to advise policymakers, prepare forces and conduct operations failed to perform its intended functions.... As matters stand now, a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war."