Many servicemembers say morale is low; leaders say job is getting done
Day Two of a seven-day Stars and Stripes series.
What is the morale of U.S. troops in Iraq?
Answers vary. High-ranking visitors to the country, including Department of Defense and congressional officials, have said it is outstanding.
Some troops on the ground have begged to differ, writing to Stars and Stripes and to others about what they call low morale on their part and on the part of their units.
There was a correlation between such things as local services and release dates on the one hand, and morale on the other.
Stars and Stripes sent a team of reporters to Iraq to try to ascertain the states of both conditions and morale. Troops were asked about morale, among many other issues, in a 17-point questionnaire, which was filled out and returned by nearly 2,000 persons.
The results varied, sometimes dramatically:
¶ Among the largest group surveyed, Army troops, the results looked much like a bell curve. Twenty-seven percent said their personal morale was “high” or “very high.” Thirty-three percent said it was “low” or “very low.” The largest percentage fell in the middle, saying it was “average.”
¶ Among the second largest group, reservists and National Guard members, the differences were much starker. Only 15 percent said their own morale was “high” or “very high,” while 48 percent said it was “low” or “very low.”
¶ Among Marines, the next largest group, 44 percent said their morale was “high” or “very high,” and only 14 percent said it was “low” or “very low.”
¶ Among airmen, the smallest of the four major groups surveyed because fewer questionnaires were allowed to be circulated to them, the results were also very positive. Thirty-nine percent said their morale was “high” or “very high,” and only 6 percent said it was “low” or “very low.”
¶ Very few Navy servicemembers could be found to question in Iraq.
The questionnaire findings can’t be projected to all the servicemembers in Iraq. Still, the reporting of “lows” among the two largest groups surveyed, Army and Reserve/National Guard, seemed significant. The views of these troops, at least, appeared to contrast sharply with those of the visiting VIPs.
Respondents to the survey were not given a definition of morale. They responded according to what they interpreted the word to mean. Some believe morale reflects the degree of well-being felt by the servicemember. On the other hand, commanders say that in measuring morale, they want to know if the servicemember is following orders and getting the job done.
Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top U.S. officer in Iraq, said that low morale isn’t an issue because troops are fulfilling the mission.
“Morale is … not necessarily giving them Baskin-Robbins,” he said in a Stars and Stripes interview. “Sometimes it’s being able to train them hard and keep them focused in a combat environment so they can survive.
“So at its most fundamental level within our Army, taking care of soldiers and their morale could have very few worldly comforts. But the morale of the soldier is good. He’s being taken care of, he’s accomplishing his mission, he’s being successful in the warfighting.”
Other military leaders say they are always looking at ways to improve the morale of their troops. “Morale begins with caring leaders looking their soldiers in the eye,” said Lt. Col. Jim Cassella, a Pentagon spokesman. “When senior leaders visit the troops in Iraq, they relate that the troops tell them that morale is good, a fact that’s backed up by re-enlistment and retention rates.”
(These rates have been acceptable or good for the services overall. Figures for re-enlistments in Iraq are not available yet, officials said. In the Stripes survey, half or more respondents from the Army, Marines and Reserves said they were unlikely to stay in the service. Officials say re-enlistments normally drop after conflicts.)
Cassella said that leaders visiting Iraq seek out the opinions of troops. Some say the views expressed may be distorted as a result of the nature of the get-togethers, “dog and pony shows,” in the words of combat engineer Pfc. Roger Hunsaker.
“When congressional delegations came through,” said one 36-year-old artillery master sergeant who asked not to be identified, commanders “hand-picked the soldiers who would go. They stacked the deck.”
Others on the ground in Iraq think top leaders are right more times than they are given credit for.
“I heard that reporters/politicians were trying to say morale was down out here,” Petty Officer Matthew W. Early wrote on his questionnaire at Camp Get Some in southern Iraq. “What do people back home expect us to feel after a war? Are we supposed to be as happy here as we are with our friends and families back home? Hell no.
“Of course, when confronted by reporters, we’re going to voice our opinions about our situation. Unfortunately, some people like to complain about how they live or what they don’t have. The complaint concerning morale is the voice of the minority, not the majority.”
In the Stripes survey, troops consistently rated their unit’s morale as lower than their own. John Kay, marketing director for the Army Research Institute, said, “Soldiers always rate self [personal] morale higher than unit morale. This is nothing new.”
Troops may wish to report what they perceive as the true morale situation without getting themselves into trouble, a way of saying, “I’m OK, but the unit’s not.”
Some of the gap can also be the result of hearing other troops complain, compounding the impression that unit morale is low, even if each complainer believes his or her own morale is better.
“Both are true,” said Charles Moskos, a military sociologist with Northwestern University.
The military studies morale regularly, but “the further you go up the chain in the officer corps, the reality of day-to-day morale cannot register completely,” said Lt. Col. Daniel Smith, retired chief of research for the Center for Defense Information. “Whereas when you talk to the platoon sergeants, platoon leaders and even company commanders, you get a better sense of the true state of affairs. Do the weapons work? Are they getting hot meals? Are they getting enough rest? Are their leaders competent and not taking unnecessary risks?”
Unlike some officials who have visited Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, during a September stop in Iraq, spoke not about morale per se, but about the importance of the mission and about sacrifice.
“You’re people ... who weren’t drafted, you weren’t conscripted, you searched your souls and decided that you wanted to step forward and serve your country,” he told the 4th Infantry Division, according to a Pentagon transcript.
Another speech to air assault soldiers of the 101st Airborne division echoed the sentiment:
“The important thing I would also add is that every one of you is a volunteer. You all asked to do this, and that is impressive and it's appreciated.”
Staff writer Jon R. Anderson contributed to this story.
¶ The many definitions of troop morale.(Click here)¶ Esprit de corps is higher when the mission is defined.(Click here)¶ Latest war in sharp contrast to past efforts.(Click here)¶ Inventing ways to keep spirits up.(Click here)¶ Getting by with what's available.(Click here)