’Support the troops’ – the transformation of a nation and its armed forces

I grew up wondering what it meant when, on American TV shows, the statement ‘Support The Troops’ always seemed to trump all other arguments. Saying it was usually followed by a moment of stunned silence while the person who had said it gloated and the opponent gathered himself from the shock of being accused of not ‘supporting the troops’.

Danish mentality vis-à-vis the army was more like “well, if we don’t have an army we will be kicked out of NATO and then no one can come and save us when the Russians invade.” Couple that attitude with strong appeasement efforts by a prominent left-wing that also, during the height of the Cold War in 1982-88, managed to force the Conservative government to opt out of every single NATO decision – the so-called Footnote Policies.

Historically the Danes had lost every single war the last 400 hundred years. What seemed at the time as a safe bet, allying with Napoleon, resulted in us loosing the greatest merchant fleet in Europe, when Lord Nelson in 1807 initiated the first ever shelling of a civilian city. Shells from the attack can still be seen lodged into walls here and there when you walk around in Copenhagen today.

1864 marked another large defeat when the iron chancellor Otto von Bismarck ran over the Danish defenses at Dybbøl and took a large humiliating bite out of the kingdom.

When Hitler attacked Denmark in 1940 the Danish army buckled within hours and the government decided to cooperate.

Since the Viking-ages, no engagement in any kind of military endeavor had ever produced a “positive” outcome for Denmark.

Those were the kind of historical lessons that had shaped my mind into wondering what is was about the Americans and their army that seemed to trump everything. The amazement went the other way as well. In 1998 American ambassador to Denmark Edward Elson decided to donate a painting of Danish soldiers that specifically did not portray them as losers.

In the past 15 years, however, the picture has turned. In 1994 a tank-battle in Bosnia was instrumental in returning a sense of pride in the Danish armed forces. The episode was later known as Operation Bøllebank, which can be roughly translated into something like “Operation Bully-Beatdown”.

While trying to come to the aid of a Swedish UNPROFOR observation post under heavy fire from Bosnian Serbs, a group of Danish Leopard 1A4 tanks also took fire from among other things, heavy mortars, machine guns and anti-tank weapons. The Danish forces decided to fire back and defeated the enemy positions killing upwards of 150 of their soldiers during the two-hour battle. Since then Bosnian Serbs were careful not to fire on the Danish part of UNPROFOR.

At the time the charismatic lieutenant colonel Lars R. Møller (see picture below), who had been a part of the decision to fire, became an important spokesman in the media that exposed the Danish public to a new reality: Danish forces were engaged in lethal battle for the sake of good – and winning.
Colonel Lars R. Møller
When later Anders Fogh Rasmussen (12th and current Secretary General of NATO) became Prime Minister he used this episode in an effort to try and redeem what he saw as a shameful recent history of the armed Danish forces. He initiated an activist foreign policy that came to include the supply of infantry, fighter jets, tanks and Special Forces to Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Army and the public still was not used to the new realities. In 2004 the elite Special Forces unit Jægerkorpset, as part of Task-Force K-BAR, was awarded the US Presidential Unit Citation for services in Afghanistan between October 2001 and March 2002. This is one of the highest military recognitions there is and had not been given to anyone since the Vietnam War. The Danish forces sent then chief of the forces Frank Lissner to pick up the medal in silence. According to a book (Jæger – I Krig Med Eliten) from 2009 by Thomas Rathsack who was part of Task-Force K-BAR, no one among the troops were told of the honor until a year later when then Military Attache at the American Embassy in Copenhagen Lt. Colonel Mike Schleicher showed up and praised the unit in high notes.

Later a Danish patrol leader JT is awarded the US Army Commendation Medal – again without telling the wider public or even other servicemen about the achievement.

The most recent development in the Danish public’s relationship with its armed forces is documentary, Armadillo, named after a Danish out-post in Helmand, Afghanistan. The film won the Critics’ Award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Watch the trailer here.

When the trailer came out it was immediately seized upon by the opposition as a means to criticize the government.

Many people on the left-wing in this country appear to exist in a John Lennon-esque parallel universe where soldiers’ only job, when they are not busy lining up evil capitalists against the wall, should be to hand out flowers. They are DEEPLY disappointed – almost offended – by the fact that there are still rich people here. A prominent politician of the sort recently wrote in all seriousness that the proper cure for Greece’s financial problems is to INCREASE public spending… Overspending by the government is what brought Greece where it is and there is no money left. I digress but I think it should be pretty obvious that these people in general are not very big on acting on the basis of reality.

Back on track. A couple of years ago a news-clip showed Danish soldiers cheering when one of them killed a member of Taliban who was firing at them from across the field. The prudish bleeding-hearts socialists who seem to have such easy access to media here in Denmark quickly went into overdrive over the appropriateness of such reactions. See the clips with subtitles here and here. (Oddly, this earlier but also fairly violent clip elicited almost no reactions.)

The trailer to Armadillo contains a clip where a wild-eyed young man, clearly still high in adrenalin after a vicious firefight, explains how he “liquidated” four Taleban in a ditch. The opposition took that as evidence that Danish troops are violating the Geneva Convention’s demand for soldiers not to kill incapacitated enemy combatants and started demanding this and that.

After seeing the film, General Secretary of International Red Cross in Denmark Anders Ladekarl stated, however, that it shows the grim realities of war but that Danish soldiers behave themselves surprisingly well and professionally. If it were him he would have thrown some more grenades…

Mix that with the incessant calls for elections and insinuations of war-crimes tribunals against people such as Anders Fogh Rasmussen and we have, what I think is, something very unpalatable. Grabbing unto things like the Armadillo trailer for political gain is just plain indecent. And it made me think to myself, for the first time ever: Support the f***ing troops.

1 comment

  1. Really interesting lesson on the history of the Danish armed forces. The only thing I can comment on is the American “support our troops” phrase. Can’t even really go into depth but in brief, this is what I see.

    First an overview of the major wars and Americans reactions (from what an average citizen would know)

    1. WWII – The good war. Allies win, evil defeated
    2. Cold War (Russia) – Top secret, nobody really knows what is going on but if we lose, it’s the end of the world.
    – Bay of Pigs – Something didn’t go right in Cuba. Apparently Russia had missiles there.
    – Vietnam War (or conflict – This is the first war to be shown on TV. People shocked over the brutality. Half the nation is against and half say “support our troops.” Causes a HUGE internal division. So bad that America stays out of wars except for some various things in the middle East. America takes a break from war while trying to get over the trauma of Vietnam.

    3. Gulf War – Iraq did something bad (invades Kuwait). Over relatively quickly and America gains confidence again. The memory of Vietnam has faded

    4. Bosnia – Something going on over there, some blurbs on the news. Not a huge deal domestically as nobody knows anything about Bosnia. Something about Serbia, wherever that is.

    5. Afghanistan – 9-11 happened and America goes on the offensive. No real opposition to invading Afghanistan since for the first time since Pearl Harbor America was attacked so people pretty much support.

    6. Iraq – George W says something about WMD. People ask if they are responsible for 9-11 and the Bush Administration tries to create a link. (failed) So they go with the WMD reason and half the nation agrees, the other doesn’t. The “Support Our Troops” phrase makes a big comeback. For half the nation it is support the troops no matter what the reasoning and for the other half it is support the troops – Bring them home because they shouldn’t be at war for a reason that they believe not to be true.

    – People start drawing parallels to Vietnam but the comparison really doesn’t take off.

    Fast forward to today the domestic problems have taken center stage. There are a few blurbs now and then about what is going on over in Iraq and Afghanistan but people really are not that interested anymore and the news organizations understands they can gain more viewers by reporting on the domestic issues (Healthcare, Immigration etc.)

    Now, I rarely see anymore “support the troops” signs or people yelling for or against the war. It kind of seems like we have a very short attention span in this country. The last major news piece was if Obama was going to pull out of Iraq and increase the troop count in Afghanistan. He is doing both but again, people have lost interest.

    In closing, “support the troops” always seems to be like a trump card for the politicians. The supporters of war can say this and the opposition really cannot disagree too firmly because what would they say? “Don’t support the troops?” Also, explaining that they do support the troops but don’t think they should be involved takes too long to say and get the point across. Much easier to simply yell “Support the Troops.”

    Also, the news does a horrible job of explaining all the variables and different points of view on the conflict. Rather, conflicts are portrayed as “The other guys are bad, America is good, Support the Troops!” Yet, some remember the bad days of the Vietnam conflict and dig further into exactly why any certain war is going on. But again, very short attention spans and details are too boring and complex for the viewership. Much easier to just say
    America = Good
    Others = Bad
    Support the Troops!

    *Footnote – Not supporting or objecting to any certain war in this post – Just reporting what I, as an average citizen see as having happened.

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