Visiting the troops: Morale-booster, or photo op?
November 2, 2010 for NationalSecurityZone.org
by Josh Lederman
WASHINGTON – They’re a staple of wartime media coverage: High-profile trips to visit the troops by presidents and vice presidents, members of congress and top military officials. Vice President Joe Biden, the president’s point man on Iraq, has made seven such trips to Iraq and Afghanistan since being elected, according to the Office of the Vice President. He made many other visits during his tenure as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
But do these visits really have an impact on troop morale, and to what extent are they photo opportunities intended for domestic consumption?
American troops who have been the recipients of such visits differ on what effect they say they have in the warzone. Army Sgt. Maggie Martin, who served in the initial Iraq invasion, said soldiers in places like Iraq serve under extremely difficult circumstances, and a cheerleading visit isn’t enough to raise their spirits.
“I’m not going to let them trick me into being happy about this bullshit,” said Martin, whose opposition to the war led her to join Iraq Veterans Against the War. Another member of IVAW Marine Corps Cpl. Chantelle Bateman, said troops are only allowed to ask pre-screened, innocuous questions such as, “What’s your favorite football team?”
But Brian Jett, a Navy petty officer second class who has been deployed everywhere from the Persian Gulf to the coast of Haiti, said the visits make a huge difference. He recalled visits from politicians, prominent military figures such as Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and celebrities such as Neil Armstrong and James Cameron.
“You’d be surprised how much that helps and boosts morale, just spending a day with us,” Jett said.
Those sentiments are echoed by the Pentagon. Lt. Col. Elizabeth Robbins, a press officer with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, said that whether the visits come from top military leaders or elected officials, the troops appreciate the effort.
“They sense that when senior leaders see first-hand the conditions on the ground, as well as their
unit’s camaraderie and shared hardships, those leaders are in a better position to make key decisions when they return home,” Robbins said in an email.
The tradition of visiting the troops extends all the way back to the Civil War, when Abraham Lincoln went to console Union forces after they suffered defeat in the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861, according to H.W. Brands, who teaches presidential history at University of Texas at Austin.
Presidential visits stopped after the Civil War because presidents didn’t leave the country. They started again when Franklin D. Roosevelt traveled to the theatres of World War II, Brands said, though Roosevelt traveled under a veil of secrecy.
Then in 1952, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower announced that if elected president, he would travel to Korea.
“The mere statement he would go to Korea first of all guaranteed his election in 1952, and it encouraged the troops and allies to think, ‘Now this is a president who is going to take charge of bringing this war to an end,” Brands said. Since then, presidential and vice presidential visits have been not only typical but expected.
During a war that much of the American public opposes, such as Iraq, the importance of such visits increases, said Dr. Jerrold Post, a psychiatrist who directs the Political Psychology Program at The George Washington University.
“The unpopularity of the war has to be very difficult for soldiers to be fighting in,” Post said. “Having national leaders take the time to be out there, talk to them about the importance of the work, seems extremely important in terms of morale.”
But Post points out that the visits are also designed to take a figure who embodies certain admired qualities, such as the American G.I., and extend those qualities to the visitor.
Another incentive is the opportunity “to make yourself a specialist or credible in foreign and military affairs,” said H. Joachim Maitre, a former foreign correspondent who is now a professor of international relations at Boston University
Senior House and Senate members who serve on the prestigious committees that deal with armed services and foreign relations are particularly frequent visitors. Yet Brands noted that even low-level politicians jump at the chance to visit troops, especially when it means an opportunity to be photographed alongside America’s fighting men and women.
“Nobody criticizes American troops,” Brands said. “So if you’re standing next to the troops, some of the no-criticism zone extends to you as well.”