How to Combat Sinking Troop Morale in Iraq

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This is a partial transcript of The Big Story With John Gibson, July 16, 2003, that has been edited for clarity. Click here to order the complete transcript.

JOHN GIBSON, HOST: Daily attacks [on U.S. troops in Iraq are] taking their toll on morale, especially on soldiers who thought they would be home by now. But the level of Iraqi resistance is forcing the Pentagon to keep troops in the region longer than the troops expected.

Wayne Smith was a U.S. army medic in Vietnam. That's today's big question. Do American troops need to know precisely, Wayne, when they can come home?

WAYNE SMITH, FMR US ARMY MEDIC: I think they do, John. It's no doubt about it that the troop morale remains generally quite strong, as does the support here in America. But increasingly with the ambiguity, the uncertainty as to when combat is really going to end, [that] weighs on the minds and the morale of U.S. soldiers.

GIBSON: How much of a factor in the sinking morale problem, as it's described by some, is the fact that they are getting shot at every day, a guy is getting killed fairly frequently and the attacks don't seem to be subsiding?

SMITH: It's a cumulative effect. The point is that, I think, the president was premature in saying that the war was over. It is evident that the classic war, tanks against tanks, heavy artillery, airpower, that has ended, but the guerrilla war, as you talked about — and some in the administration are finally starting to acknowledge — really helps to give the perspective of the troops on the ground. I think they've known for some time that the war is not over, but there is a need for diplomacy to take over and to assure the troops that this is limited. The job is going to be finished in a very decisive way, and we can go on about the business of rebuilding democracy in Iraq.

GIBSON: Wayne, the American troops have been involved in major operations for a couple of weeks seeking out the Saddamistas, those Fedayeen (search) that are left over that are shooting at them. They're not just passively sitting there and happen to get shot. They're going out, they're working, trying to find these people and coming under attack. Would a U.S. Army soldier find that so surprising?

SMITH: Not at all. I mean, again, the fact is that soldiers who are on the ground, as I was and as thousands of my friends were in Vietnam, understand more than the military leaders in the rear, and certainly much more than the politicians, when the shooting ends and when, in fact, hostilities have ceased. That is not the case. The war's continued. It has simply changed gears, John. For the soldier on the field, they need to know that they have the support of the leaders and those at home, but also the troops that they serve with. [They need to know that] there is an end in sight and that's the difficulty right now.

GIBSON: Okay. The 3rd Infantry Division (search), [which spearheaded] the taking of Baghdad, is now being promised that they are certain to come home at the end of September. There was considerable unhappiness when it was said a week ago they would be there indefinitely. But now they know September. End of problem?

SMITH: It is not. It ends the problems for the 3rd Infantry Division, but they, too, have a collective concern. They're concerned about the other elements, the other Army, Marines and so forth who are on the ground in Iraq. Collectively, they all want to see an end to this war. So the fact that they're returning home, there is a modicum of relief, John, but the real relief, the real success is going to be when the war is finally over. And that, again, I will submit to you, is not over. The soldiers on the ground know it and this will continue to be a morale hurt, an injury to the moral rather, until they know that the war has ended, the job is complete and the rebuilding of the country has begun.

GIBSON: Sen. Ted Kennedy (search) is calling for the president to get over it, essentially, to go to the U.N. and cooperate with the U.N. in order for U.N. troops to go in and take the place of some Americans. France, and India and Russia have said no until there's a U.N. mandate. That essentially would give the operation over to the French, who are running the U.N. Would the American soldiers, considering how many have died, do you think approve of an arrangement in which the U.S. was simply no longer in charge?

SMITH: I think they would. Again, we did not go to war as an America versus Iraq. I think most of the American army; certainly most of the American people who supported the war recognize that the regime needed to be changed. It seems to me that it's time for the administration to raise the ante on the diplomacy side. That is that Russia has some $60 billion, Russia, Germany and France, collectively, have $60 billion in debt that is owed by Iraq. And, in fact, it is in their interest to be assured that there is sustainability for peace in Iraq. So it seems to me that the diplomats must work out this negotiation.

The U.N. must go in as a united allied front. Not simply one or two or a half dozen sending 4,000 soldiers… that is simply inadequate. Colin Powell declared some time ago the so-called Powell doctrine, that the use of the military in waging war is that it should be complete and decisive with clear boundaries and have the full support of the American people. We must similarly adopt that philosophy, I think, with the United Nations and the other countries that have a vested interest in having a peaceful Iraq.

GIBSON: Wayne Smith, Wayne, thank you very much. Appreciate it.

SMITH: Pleasure to be with you.

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