Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, October 16, 2003; Page A01
A broad survey of U.S. troops in Iraq by a Pentagon-funded newspaper found that
half of those questioned described their unit's morale as low and their training as
insufficient, and said they do not plan to reenlist.
The survey, conducted by the Stars and Stripes newspaper, also
recorded about a third of the respondents complaining that their mission lacks clear
definition and characterizing the war in Iraq as of little or no value. Fully 40 percent
said the jobs they were doing had little or nothing to do with their training.
The findings, drawn from 1,935 questionnaires presented to U.S. service members
throughout Iraq, conflict with statements by military commanders and Bush
administration officials that portray the deployed troops as high-spirited and generally
well-prepared. Though not obtained through scientific methods, the survey results
suggest that a combination of difficult conditions, complex missions and prolonged
tours in Iraq is wearing down a significant portion of the U.S. force and threatening to
provoke a sizable exodus from military service.
In the first of a week-long series of articles, Stars and Stripes said yesterday that it
undertook the survey in August after receiving scores of letters from troops who were
upset with one aspect or another of the Iraq operation. The newspaper, which
receives some funding from the Defense Department but functions without editorial
control by the Pentagon, prepared 17 questions and sent three teams of reporters to
Iraq to conduct the survey and related interviews at nearly 50 camps.
"We conducted a 'convenience survey,' meaning we gave it to those who happened to
be available at the time rather than to a randomly selected cross section, so the results
cannot necessarily be projected as representing the whole population," said David
Mazzarella, the paper's editorial director here. "But we still think the findings are
significant and make clear that the troops have a different idea of things than what
their leaders have been saying."
Experts in public opinion and the military concurred that the poll was not necessarily
representative, but they characterized it as a useful gauge of troop sentiment. "The
numbers are consistent with what I suspect is going on there," said David Segal, a
military sociologist at the University of Maryland at College Park. "I am getting a
sense that there is a high and increasing level of demoralization and a growing sense of
being in something they don't understand and aren't sure the American people
The paper quoted Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq,
saying in a Sept. 9 interview for the series that "there is no morale problem." He said
complaints among troops are "expected" and part of "the Army's normal posture,"
whether the soldiers are deployed or not.
"We haven't had time to study the survey, but we take all indicators of morale
seriously," said Bryan Whitman, a senior Pentagon spokesman. "It's the reason we've
instituted several programs to address morale and welfare issues." A White House
spokesman had no comment.
Some military experts pointed to good news for the administration in the survey.
Military historian Eliot Cohen, who serves on a Pentagon advisory panel, noted that
the proportion that said the war was worthwhile -- 67 percent -- and the proportion
of troops that said they have a clearly defined mission -- 64 percent -- are "amazingly
high." He added that complaints are typical. "American troops have a God-given right
and tradition of grumbling," he said.
In the survey, 34 percent described their morale as low, compared with 27 percent
who described it as high and 37 percent who said it was average; 49 percent
described their unit's morale as low, while 16 percent called it high.
In recent days, the Bush administration has launched a campaign to blame the news
media for portraying the situation in Iraq in a negative light. Last week, Bush
described the military spirit as high and said that life in Iraq is "a lot better than you
probably think. Just ask people who have been there."
But Stars and Stripes raised questions about what those visiting dignitaries saw in
Iraq. "Many soldiers -- including several officers -- allege that VIP visits from the
Pentagon and Capitol Hill are only given hand-picked troops to meet with during their
tours of Iraq," the newspaper said in its interview with Sanchez. "The phrase 'Dog and
Pony Show' is usually used. Some troops even go so far as to say they've been
ordered not to talk to VIPs because leaders are afraid of what they might say."
The newspaper also noted in that interview that its reporters were told that some
soldiers who had complained of morale problems had faced disciplinary actions
known as Article 15s, which can result in reprimand, extra duties and forfeiture of
pay. Sanchez said he did not know of any such punishments, but he added that they
would have been handled at a lower level.
The paper's project recorded significant differences in the morale of various units, but
overall found that Army troops tended to sound more dissatisfied than Air Force
personnel and Marines, and that reservists were the most troubled.
Uncertainty about when they are returning home was a major factor in dampening
morale, according to the newspaper. The interviews were conducted at a time when
some reserve and regular Army units were learning that their tours had been
extended. The Pentagon has since sought to provide a clearer rotation plan and has
begun granting troops two-week home leaves.
Although Pentagon officials say they have seen no sign yet of a rise in the number of
troops deciding against reenlisting, the survey suggested that such a surge may be
coming soon. A total of 49 percent of those questioned said it was "very unlikely" or
"not likely" that they would remain in the military after they complete their current
obligations. In the past, enlistment rates tended to drop after conflicts, but many
defense experts and noncommissioned officers have warned of the potential for a
historically high exodus, particularly of reservists.