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They're Warriors, Not Victims

3:00 PM, Feb 27, 2009 • By THOMAS DONNELLY
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Here's the last part of today's speech by Obama:

Finally, I want to be very clear that my strategy for ending the war in Iraq does not end with military plans or diplomatic agendas ­ it endures through our commitment to uphold our sacred trust with every man and woman who has served in Iraq.

You make up a fraction of the American population, but in an age when so many people and institutions have acted irresponsibly, you did the opposite­ you volunteered to bear the heaviest burden. And for you and for your families, the war does not end when you come home. It lives on in memories of your fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who gave their lives. It endures in the wound that is slow to heal, the disability that isn't going away, the dream that wakes you at night, or the stiffening in your spine when a car backfires down the street.

You and your families have done your duty ­ now a grateful nation must do ours. That is why I am increasing the number of soldiers and Marines, so that we lessen the burden on those who are serving. And that is why I have committed to expanding our system of veterans health care to serve more patients, and to provide better care in more places. We will continue building new wounded warrior facilities across America, and invest in new ways of identifying and treating the signature wounds of this war: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury, as well as other combat injuries.

We also know that service does not end with the person wearing the uniform. In her visits with military families across the country, my wife Michelle has learned firsthand about the unique burden that your families endure every day. I want you to know this: military families are a top priority for Michelle and me, and they will be a top priority for my administration.

We'll raise military pay, and continue providing quality child-care, job-training for spouses, and expanded counseling and outreach to families that have known the separation and stress of war. We will also heed the lesson of history ­ that those who fight in battle can form the backbone of our middle class ­ by implementing a 21st century GI Bill to help our veterans live their dreams.

This is a very subtle form of the soldier-as-victim trope that is fast becoming an Iraq legacy. For soldiers throughout history--those who have endured physical and emotional sufferings of an essential similar quality, if less clinically expressed--the trials of war were at least partially ameliorated by the salve of personal honor and, if the battle went well, the celebration of a victory. The troops who have served and serve still in Iraq should be singled out not just for the burdens of the fight but because they emerge from it, as Bing West's book puts it, as the "strongest tribe."

No doubt there is a genuine tenderness in the president's feelings for soldiers. But there is little of the praise of warriors in his words. Gratitude or sympathy for suffering is quite different from honoring a sacrifice. I am sure Obama will honor his pledge to continue to ensure that people in uniform "form the backbone of our middle class." But the pay, the benefits, the programs alone are never enough and never, ultimately, what make the call to service worth answering.

It is never easy for a civilian to fully empathize with a soldier's experience, particularly with that of long-service professionals asked to serve constant watch on distant, dusty frontiers, in wars that ebb and flow but do not end. The only wisdom can come from acknowledging this almost unbridgeable gap and trying to mentally leap across it. Soldiers more easily see that we civilians are not like them; we civilians are mistakenly prone to think that soldiers are like us.

For the president, the civilian who stands at the beginning of the chain of command--who, by his constitutional authority as commander-in-chief really resides on the far side of the gap--making the leap is an obligation, not an option. He, above all, should speak to his troops in the language of duty, honor, and country which is their native tongue but seems to be such a foreign dialect to a detached, cool, post-modern politician. President Obama must not simply bind up the soldier's wounds or care for his widow, but lead him.