"In this time of testing, our troops can know: The American people are behind you," George W. Bush said in his national address last Tuesday night at Fort Bragg. "This Fourth of July, I ask you to find a way to thank the men and women defending our freedom -- by flying the flag, sending a letter to our troops in the field, or helping the military family down the street. The Department of Defense has set up a website -- AmericaSupportsYou.mil. You can go there to learn about private efforts in your own community. At this time when we celebrate our freedom, let us stand with the men and women who defend us all."
Traffic to the Pentagon's website, launched in November 2004, spiked with Bush's prime-time plug. "After the President's speech last night, the website was experiencing more than 10,000 hits per second," White House spokesman Scott McClellan told the press corps. "Prior to the speech, it was about 103 hits per second."
A visit to AmericaSupportsYou.mil, however, raises questions about what the website is actually accomplishing. Could the site be nothing more than another Pentagon attempt to boost public support for war and distract the public's attention away from criticisms?
The site's primary function appears to be that of a message board offering words of encouragement and thanks to soldiers. At this writing, the site claims to have gathered over 98,000 "messages of support." A quick skimming of the messages suggests that most are thanking the troops and invoking God's blessings. "You have our deepest respect and heartfelt thanks. America is still a great nation, and you are putting yourself in harm's way to protect it. We hope you enjoyed the books, tapes and goodies we have sent through various collection groups here in our city. We will continue to pray regularly for you. God bless you. God bless America," write Bill and Helen, Lake Charles, Louisiana.
When it comes to offering more concrete support, one click takes site visitors to the "How You Can Help" page, where there are dozens of links to "organizations that will help you send messages and packages as well as provide other support." A lot of the links are specifically for sending messages and packages to soldiers. Many links go to the web pages of private groups trying to address the short- and long-term needs of returning soldiers, particularly injured soldiers who may face long recovery periods and disability issues. Other links are to organizations working to provide relief to financial and family stresses face by reservists. There is no doubt that these efforts are well intentioned -- or that messages of support to soldiers under fire have fire. But simply placing numerous links on one crowded web page makes it hard for Americans to provide more tangible forms of support.
The rest of AmericaSupportsYou.mil looks like a standard PR effort, featuring press releases, links to recent news stories, promotional video, inspirational songs, downloadable America Supports You logos, a radio public service announcement featuring actor Gary Sinise and a list of "Corporate Team Members." A read through of the site's "About Us" section leaves the distinct impression that publicizing citizens' good deeds for the troops ranks higher as a priority than encouraging them. In eight bullet points, the "About Us" page lists how the site will "recognize" and "communicate" citizens' support for the military. And as every good PR campaign benefits from some kind of paraphernalia, there is a bullet point for that, too: "The America Supports You Dog Tag, emblazoned with the America Supports You logo, will be the official emblem of the program, and serve as a visible force multiplier in projecting the message that America supports our military men and women."
The liberal foreign policy blog Democracy Arsenal evaluated Bush's national address, giving the speech a "D" in the category "Commitment to Stronger Support for U.S. Troops." Democracy Arsenal writes, "Bush urged flag-waving and letter writing, but said nothing about doing more to tangibly support military families or veterans. This was a surprising gap and will hurt efforts to heighten public support." The Pentagon's AmericaSupportsYou.mil may purport to bridge that gap, but offers only small, uncoordinated efforts to address the very real needs of current and past soldiers and their families.
Questions about the administration's support of veterans have filled the halls of Congress as well. Prior to Bush's address, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) belatedly revealed $1 billion shortfall in operating funds for the current year and then projected being short $2.6 million for the next year. The VA, which provides services to veterans, said it had undercounted the number of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan seeking medical treatment, saying original estimates were based on outdated assumptions from 2002.
Senate Democrats jumped on the VA's budget shortfall. "This is just the latest example of how poorly the administration planned for and prepared this nation for what would be required in Iraq and the war on terror," said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev). The day after the President's speech, Senate Republicans, "embarrassed and angered," responded, announcing plans to pass emergency legislation to add $1.5 billion to the fiscal 2005 appropriation. "The move is designed to appease angry veterans' groups and preempt a Democratic proposal calling for $1.42 billion in increased VA spending," the Washington Post reports.
Republicans had more to worry about than just looking bad due to an accounting error. Some Democrats on the Hill had been raising the red flag on veterans' issues for months, only to have their amendments increasing VA funding repeatedly defeated. "I looked at the numbers, and it was very clear to me that the VA had not calculated correctly for returning veterans," the Associated Press reported Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash) as saying recently. "We're finally here to say I told you so."
The Bush administration, however, is betting that veterans' issues won't be the key factor determining public support for its Iraq policies. Instead the White House is following "a purposeful strategy" based on the work of Duke University political scientists Peter D. Feaver and Christopher F. Gelpi, the Washington Post's Peter Baker and Dan Balz report. The academics' studies of public opinion during wartime have influenced the administration's efforts to manage public opinion on Iraq. "The most important single factor in determining public support for a war is the perception that the mission will succeed," Gelpi told the Post.
For the time being, the Bush administration will continue to paint a happy face on the growing fiasco in Iraq, desperately aware of waning American support for military action. Even though veterans' issues may not be the most sensitive pressure point in shaping public opinion, it is still significant. The administration's attempt to shift focus away from poor planning and towards maintaining military morale is a cynical dodge of responsibility.
USA Today recently reported, "Halliburton has billed taxpayers more than $1.4 billion in questionable and unsupported charges for logistics and other services in Iraq." It's obvious that money could have gone to something better, perhaps funding VA programs that actually recognize the sacrifices military members and their families have made to fight a dubious war. The Bush administration propaganda paved the road into Baghdad. Whether or not top officials were surprised by the absence of flower throwing Iraqis when U.S. troops arrived, it is they who should be held accountable for the deaths and injuries of thousands of U.S. soldiers and the loss of billions of dollars to corrupt and irresponsible private contractors.