WASHINGTON -- Support the troops if not the mission. That was the mixed signal on Bosnia sent from yesterday's Senate debate on the deployment of 20,000 U.S. troops.
"Dangerous and duplicitous," said Democratic leader Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, apparently worried that the confusing message could undermine military morale.
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, another Democratic supporter of the deployment, was moved to cite the Bible: "If the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?"
It was not a question that bothered many of those in uniform or veterans of previous wars. They voiced little concern that the lack of a ringing endorsement would revisit the doubts of the Vietnam era on the troops in Bosnia.
"Military folk tend to be focused on the mission," said Col. Fred Peck, a Marine Corps spokesman. "Certainly you would love to have the whole country standing and cheering [but] I don't think the average soldier in Germany getting ready to go down there is going to give it a lot of thought."
Inside the Pentagon, the official line was that the military is comfortable with the mission. It has been closely involved in planning the deployment, setting the size of the force, establishing strong rules of engagement, and defining an exit strategy to pave the way for withdrawal of the U.S. contingent in about a year.
Gen. Carl Mundy, retired Marine Corps commandant, said: "My experience with soldiers and Marines is not that they sit round and dwell nearly so much on the policy aspects as we who are back here [in Washington] do.
"It is good to know you have the support of the people back home, but that usually comes in the form of letters and cards."
To help the families left behind to send those letters and cards, the American Legion, which opposes the Bosnia mission but supports the troops, will open a 24-hour family support phone line. The number is 1-800-504-4098.
"At some point, the debate has to stop," said Phil Budahn, spokesman for the 3 million-member legion. "And we have to start doing whatever we need to do to start helping our service people. One of the things we don't want to do is send a message to any of the three major factions [in Bosnia] that if they inflict casualties on the U.S. we are going to cut and run."
According to retired Marine Lt. Col. Bill Corson, a veteran of World War II, Korea and Vietnam, morale in Bosnia is more likely to be affected by the weather, the terrain and hostile action, than by any vote on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Bob Dole, the majority leader, as he opposed a motion to cut off funding for the Bosnia deployment, noted that he had opposed similar moves during the Vietnam era: "I do not believe we should limit the funds for food, supplies and ammunition for our troops. It was wrong during Vietnam and it is wrong now."