Morale: The Triumph Of The Fobbits

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May 31, 2007: In Iraq, clueless commanders and fobbits (troops who spend most of their time in base camps) are a major cause of low morale among combat troops. While the risk of getting hurt in combat is low (last year there were 7,000 dead and wounded, or about five percent of the troops), most troops get some exposure to personal danger. This year the casualty rate is closer to four percent, but the number of dead has increased. This is because the troops are operating more in neighborhood where the terrorists (mostly Sunni, but some Iranian backed Shia as well) are more numerous, and have more control over the civilians. That means it's easier to place roadside bombs, which are now causing about 80 percent of the casualties. The terrorists are not dumb, and avoid getting into gun battles with American troops.

While taking casualties hurts morale, over 60 percent of troops know someone who became a casualty, a major irritant is what happens on base. Only about a third of the troops go off base on a regular basis. Every day, ten of the thirty or so combat battalions will be out on a raid or other mission. That, plus dozens of smaller patrols and up to a dozen special operations (Special Forces, SEALs, Delta Force) operations. Actually, most of these operations take place at night, when there are fewer civilians about to get caught in the cross fire. Everyone spends most of their time on one of the bases, which are actually quite safe. At least from enemy fire. About a quarter of the troops hardly ever leave the base, Commanders obsessed with how the troops dress are a major complaint, and have been for generations. The World War II "Willie & Joe" cartoons made fun of this annoyance. This bothers the combat troops a lot more than the fobbits.

Another ancient complaint is how the fobbits (the guys who rarely leave the FOBs, or Forward Operating Bases), hog all the goodies. Something good comes into the PX (the army version of a general store), and the fobbits scarf it up first. It's rare for a commander to be astute enough to make sure some of these goodies are put aside for the guys working outside the wire. Same with access to Internet Cafes, or any form of entertainment. The troops doing most of the fighting, are getting the least support when it comes to living conditions. While many troops have air conditioned, two person sleeping quarters, many are still in tents or barracks holding a dozen or more people. The lack of privacy, and envy of what the others have got, grates and annoys. The combat troops accept it when they know there is no choice (like in small temporary bases), but not when they see lazy commanders screwing them out of ignorance or indifference.

It doesn't have to be this way. During World War II, for example, the Germans and Russians paid a lot more attention to favoring the combat troops. The rule was simple, whatever was available, the combat troops got first dibs. In the Russian army, combat support troops who ignored this rule were often shot by their officers (who feared having the same thing done to them by annoyed superiors). In the American army, even commanders with combat experience themselves, or who were otherwise effective combat commanders, often missed the boat when it came to idiotic, morale busting, rules and regulations. The initiative for change has to come from the top. General David Petraeus, had a reputation for looking after the combat troops when he was a division commander. But now he is in charge of a lot more, and nasty habits that are very hard to undo.

 


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