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Morale Is Called High in 'a Frustrating War'

Soldiers in Iraq are in good spirits, some commanders say. But a Stars and Stripes survey finds 49% of troops describe mood as poor.

November 10, 2003|David Lamb | Times Staff Writer

MASHAHIDAH, Iraq — On the rooftop of the old Baath Party headquarters here, Pfc. Sung Hwang sits behind a .30-caliber machine gun, hour after hour, his sights trained on the marshlands where any manner of danger can lurk, including Saddam Hussein loyalists with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.

"In the first couple of months, I'd say our morale was kind of low. Time dragged," said Hwang, 20, a member of the 4th Infantry Division who arrived in Iraq seven months ago. "Now morale's good. We're used to the life. You don't ask why you're here. You just go out on mission and do it. The whole purpose is to find the bad guys."

"This is a frustrating war to fight," said Hwang's company commander, Capt. Brian Ridley, "but my soldiers' morale remains really high. You don't have to worry about them messing up. They stay focused and they have a sense of purpose. Of course, when you're getting attacked, like we've been, you don't have to push very hard to explain to someone why he has to do what he does."

In any war, morale is an intangible element that can influence the outcome of battle. It is rooted in many things: unit esprit de corps, leadership and training, belief in the mission, a sense of shared destiny with one's fellow soldiers. When morale is good, a unit becomes like family. When it is bad, a unit is just a collection of people, all looking out for themselves.

With attacks on coalition forces mounting six months after President Bush declared "major combat" over, there is growing concern about the morale of U.S. troops in Iraq. Individual soldiers have complained about tours stretching to a full year with no definite departure date, primitive living conditions and, in some cases, inadequate equipment.

Last month, the Army said 13 U.S. troops had committed suicide in Iraq and announced that a mental-health investigative team had been dispatched to the combat theater.

And Stars and Stripes, a newspaper funded by the Pentagon, conducting an unscientific but extensive survey in Iraq, reported that 49% of troops said their unit's morale was low or very low. (About 16% rated it high or very high.) Generally, National Guards and reservists gave more critical ratings to questions about morale than did members of the regular service.

But defining morale -- and assessing its level -- is a difficult and imprecise science. While the Stars and Stripes survey appeared to be cause for alarm, soldiers here in Mashahidah, in the area northwest of Baghdad that has seen some of the most intense fighting since Hussein was deposed, insisted that morale was not a problem.

"These guys gripe, make no mistake," said Sgt. 1st Class Robert Loesch. "They gripe about the mail being late, about the chow, about a lot of things. If a soldier doesn't gripe, there's something wrong. But griping is one thing, bad morale, another. And the fact is the performance of these soldiers is great. They do everything they're asked to do."

In its poll of nearly 2,000 service personnel, Stars and Stripes reported that about two of every three respondents said the war in Iraq was worth fighting and about the same number said their mission was "clearly defined."

Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of coalition forces, told reporters last month that military leaders are responsible for sustaining morale in a "tough environment" like Iraq, and are succeeding.

"When I walk around units, the soldiers I find are dedicated. They're missing their families, but they are committed to accomplishing the mission," he said. "Retention rates are high. The soldiers' quality of life is better than it was during the summer. Morale is very good."

Forty-nine percent of Stars and Stripes respondents said it was unlikely they would stay in the military when their current obligation was completed.

Sanchez, however, said reenlistment had exceeded commanders' goals by at least 20% in four divisions serving in Iraq -- the 101st and 82nd Airborne, the 1st Armored and the 4th Infantry. The 5th Corps, which is also here, has the highest reenlistment rate in the Army, he said.

The report of the military mental-health team that visited Iraq has not been made public. But Pentagon officials said 13 suicides in a force of 130,000 personnel is in line with statistical norms during combat. Taking into account periods of both peace and war, the Army and Navy annually average about 11 suicides per 100,000 personnel, the Air Force about 9.5 per 100,000 and the Marines about 12.6 per 100,000, spokesmen said.

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