The vital importance of the American soldier in the past seemed much more self-evident than it does today. From the Revolution to World War II, the United States soldier carried a reputation and esteem that went nearly unquestioned — at least in the popular imagination of today. Today, however, we need to force it a little more. We need to encourage each other a little harder to respect the American soldier. This is usually attributed to the types of wars we are fighting today, namely wars of choice as opposed to wars of necessity. This, however, is an incomplete explanation. I say this because even if the public was unanimously convinced in the necessity of an American military action, there would still be one major factor overshadowing the efforts of the American soldier: lethal, overwhelming, take-care-of-business weapons technology.
From nuclear weapons to drones, there is always some apparent technological alternative to the accomplishment of American military objectives. This means that the sacrifice of American lives can appear to be nearly entirely superfluous. Perhaps this is wishful thinking on the part of the public, or perhaps it is due to something else, but either way, a fallen American soldier no longer seems to have been an essential act in the cause of freedom. Rather, someone messed up in putting that soldier in harm’s way in the first place, because of the ready alternative of employing unmanned weapons, or the mission itself was misguided because America should be able to steer geo-politics with its economic preeminence and the threat of using its high tech weaponry in a targeted fashion.
I’m no historian, but I highly doubt that this was always the common view of the American people. You needed people to fight the wars of the past, otherwise America would lose the battles and the war. Maybe the shift in mindset started with Vietnam, as we sent more and more people over in what appeared to be a lost war. Escalating our troop presence appeared to be inefficacious, perhaps for the first time in American history. The other stuff mattered more for determining victory.
Fast forward to Iraq and Afghanistan and the same view seems to be reinforced. The public has been incredibly reluctant to credit the 2007 Surge in Iraq with having been essential to winning a stronger peace in that nation. Indeed, even Surge architect Gen. Keane emphasizes that it was the change in strategy rather than the increase of troops by itself that made the turnaround in that military effort possible. Even if technically (perhaps even obviously) Keane is correct, the message to the American public is consistent with what they already think: American soldiers shouldn’t die, so if they do, the question is who or what screwed up in the American government. And while increased public scrutiny over government decision-making and strategy is probably a good thing up to a certain point, the negative trade-offs for fallen American soldiers and their families are real and palpable.
Perhaps this is also partly why proposed strategies by politicians like President Trump that emphasize “bombing the hell outta them” are so attractive. Americans mind less the question of collateral damage in the country being bombed because they are in fact open to the view that the war is necessary to be fought. But because of changes in weapons technology, Americans cannot understand as well as they once did why American lives need to be risked and lost in those efforts.