Commentary: Remember the troops at Christmas

It’s Christmas and time for remembering, for families and good cheer. Communities normally pull together and during World War I, soldiers on the Western Front in France conducted a voluntary, ad-hoc cease-fire for most of a day, to the consternation of senior military commanders on both sides of the conflict. Measures were put in place to ensure such an ad hoc and totally unauthorized truce never occur again and it didn’t. From a soldiers’ perspective, I sympathize with the troops over military expediency.

We just watched a quasi-documentary on the life of the British soldier on the Western Front of WWI called “They Shall Not Grow Old.” It was produced by an eclectic New Zealand film director who culled over 600 hours of WWI film and hundreds of hours of oral interviews of WWI veterans, courtesy of the Imperial War Museum in London.

Life on the Western Front in the trenches was brutal, degrading and brought personal misery to previously unheard of levels. British troops were issued only one uniform and that not always complete which was supposed to last for the duration of the conflict. They lived in mud, freezing mud during winter, were lice-infested, had no means of cleaning themselves while in the trenches, ate miserable food and virtually all had terrible teeth. Quite possibly this was a result of enforcing harsh military discipline on any soldier with dirty brass buttons on their uniform; the troops used their toothbrushes to keep their buttons properly maintained. There was neither toothpaste nor toilet paper, very little soap and hot water was procured by draining the cooling water from their Maxim Machine-guns which heated during firing.

Casualties in WWI were experienced at a much higher rate than during WWII, for instance, American casualties in WWI from all causes exceeded the casualty rate for both the Korean and Vietnam Wars but also occurred overwhelmingly in the last five months of the war. The Autumn Allied offensive in the Meuse-Argonne Forest inflicted over 36,000 casualties on American forces in just the months of mid-September through October 1918. The British had similar experiences throughout the war, bringing to mind the Battle of the Somme in July 1916. On the first day of that battle, the British lost over 60,000 men, the highest casualties ever experienced in one day for Britain’s entire history.

Fortunately for American military personnel today, we are not involved in any such high-intensity conflict and hopefully we won’t be again anytime soon. We currently count our casualties one at a time as casualties so few we are spared the numbness that occurs when casualties become numbers and not people. Nevertheless, even one fatality is too many, especially if it involves a loved one.

The types of wars we are involved in today are low intensity, expeditionary campaigns involving primarily the “Regular forces” with only small numbers of reservists or National Guardsmen involved. The nation is not mobilized, hasn’t been since WWII and the burden of national defense continues to fall upon an ever-smaller segment of our society. Most Americans today don’t know anyone in the Armed Forces let alone having served in uniform themselves. Less than 1 percent of the nation wears a military uniform and some studies suggest the number is closer to less than ½ of one percent. One consequence of this is that active-duty military members are continuously deployed, some serving 3, 4 or more combat tours overseas. That takes a toll on families with divorce rates among military families at times approaching 75 percent. That in itself is tragic and will exact a high psychological toll on the children of military families. Logistic support of deployed troops has been shredded in some combat zones and basic items we take for granted like hygiene items are often in short supply or even non-existent in forward areas. Much of the effort to fill this gap has been taken up by civilian volunteer organizations sending care packages to deployed troops.

One of the consequences of the recent election is a return to inadequate funding for the armed forces. Yes, they got a massive budget last year but that was after massive cuts under President Clinton, the escalated operations tempo under President Bush for the War on Terror and the sequestration cuts initiated under President Obama. One year of fat does not cure 24 years of neglect. The first funds to be cut are almost always basic such as fuel, training, spare parts and maintenance. Maintenance is deferred and then deferred again. Flight hours are reduced as is time at sea which did result in a series of fatal aviation accidents and poor ship-handling at sea. We’ve reached appalling levels of disrepair and obsolescence for key weapon systems with entire squadrons of aircraft grounded for lack of parts. Currently, nearly two-thirds of our front-line fighter aircraft are not air-worthy; four of our nuclear-powered attack submarines failed qualification for diving and the list goes on.

This Christmas, be thankful for the blessings we have. Remember the troops who are away from families again in remote parts of the world and don’t forget to wish a member of the armed forces a Merry Christmas when you thank them for their service on your behalf.


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