Since Franklin D. Roosevelt secretly flew to Morocco to finalize Allied war plans with Winston Churchill and surprise American soldiers stationed in the country, American presidents have engaged in the well-worn tradition of meeting with troops in combat zones. Bill Clinton met with troops in the Balkans; George W. Bush and Barack Obama both visited troops in Iraq and Afghanistan; Bush spent Thanksgiving with Americans in Iraq months after the invasion of the country.
It is this precedent that President Donald Trump is following with his visit to Iraq on Wednesday.
The unannounced stop should stifle some of the criticism Trump received yesterday when he became the first president in 15 years not to visit with American forces either at home or abroad on Christmas Day. (It will not prevent the condemnation of his order last week to withdraw the U.S. military from Syria, a decision that prompted the resignation of his defense secretary, James Mattis.) Trump’s unannounced stop in Iraq, where about 5,000 U.S. troops are present, is his first visit to a combat zone, and it comes a week after he declared victory over the Islamic State. Iraq is the country where Trump’s counterterrorism strategy has had its greatest success: driving out ISIS, which controlled large swaths of the country, including Mosul, the second-biggest city. (Though, as I reported this year, the group has since made steady gains.)
But do such presidential visits, especially in the current age, serve any purpose? Trump himself expressed skepticism when he told an interviewer in October: “I will do that at some point, but I don’t think it’s overly necessary.” Trump’s own supporters have argued that the president stayed away from combat zones because his presence there would validate missions that he wanted to end. But as my colleague David Graham has noted, that argument doesn’t hold up. “Obama ran for president against the war in Iraq,” he wrote, “but still visited the troops and still pushed hard for them to (mostly) leave.”
Writing in The Atlantic this month, Eliot Cohen argued that “presidents need to visit the troops” in part to remind them “that they are not forgotten.” This argument has merit. There is little doubt that the U.S. can win a conventional war against any nation-state rival, but a presidential visit can provide a different kind of boost. After all, many soldiers go months without returning to the United States even as their compatriots go about their lives with little sense of the service that is being performed in their name. Events such as a presidential visit not only shed light on what it is the military is doing, but give personnel a much needed break from their otherwise regulation-bound lives.
Visits such as Trump’s to Iraq give a president the opportunity to be photographed and filmed with members of the military, which can help politically—Trump’s approval rating among active-duty troops has fallen slightly since he assumed the presidency, though they still support him at a rate higher than other Americans do. More important, the visits also allow him to talk with officers and enlisted men and women about their needs and their ideas for things that can be done better.
A presidential visit to a war zone is also a way to show gratitude to those who have made sacrifices for their country. FDR’s visit to Morocco in 1943 was the first by an American president to a battle zone since the Civil War. He reviewed troops in Casablanca and Rabat, and was so moved by what he witnessed that, according to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, when he “returned home he wrote dozens of personal letters to the families of servicemen he met” as well as to the families of those who had died.
Ultimately, a presidential visit to a battle zone shows not only that the troops aren’t forgotten, but that the country honors their service. As Abraham Lincoln, who made more than a dozen battlefield visits during the Civil War, toured a field hospital in City Point, Virginia, doctors there tried to show him the facilities. He is said to have replied: “Gentlemen, you know better than I how to conduct these hospitals, but I came here to take by the hand the men who have achieved our glorious victories.”
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