Respond to this Article November 2003

Corps Voters

For over two decades, the bond between the GOP and the U.S. military has been getting stronger. Since the invasion of Iraq, that may be changing.

By Benjamin Wallace-Wells

The Jacksonville unit of the North Carolina National Guard held its mobilization ceremony on the lawn of the local armory during an unseasonably chilly day last month, and even the town cut-up came, a shambolic, gray bearded, big bellied man. He was wearing a neck brace so loosely fashioned that it looked less like a helpful medical device than a prop from a high-school play, and at 10 o'clock on this soberingly cold morning, he seemed drunk. Five minutes before the ceremony began, he lurched past the microphone: "Don't worry," he called out to the crowd, "I'm not the guy who's speaking." Most of the crowd giggled nervously, embarrassed for him. The company, 120 men standing in columns behind four sergeants, listened to speeches from a half-dozen local dignitaries about the importance of their mission, the pride the community had in them. Then a member of the company stepped up to the microphone with a black acoustic guitar and sang "I'm Proud to be an American" in a high, country-styled voice.

There's a line in the chorus that goes "I gladly stand up next to you/ and defend her still today," and when the singer hit "stand up" for the first time, the soldiers stiffened to attention. On the second chorus, the officers and dignitaries who had addressed the soldiers stood up, as one. The third time through, the crowd itself, a ragtag bunch that had come in run-down pickups and Trans Ams, stood up together, with military precision, with no prompting. I looked over at the town cut-up; his fingers were clutching his temples, and he was bawling his eyes out, loudly and unabashedly.

These are deep bonds. In an all-volunteer army buttressed by a volunteer reserve, soldiers don't fight simply for abstractions. When soldiers find themselves in tough spots, they tend to find solace and vigor in the conviction that they are fighting not just for their president or vague notions of patriotic duty, but for specific civilians they know from their hometowns, and that in battle they are defending the freedoms of the people they grew up with. The American military is composed of thousands of men and women who have made these deeply personal, I-and-thou contracts with their friends and families: The soldiers promise to die, if needed, to defend your freedoms, and the civilians promise to honor them.

In this section of coastal Carolina, fewer than 30 miles from the Army's Fort Bragg, the Marines' Camp Lejeune, and the Air Force's Seymour Johnson Base, these promises are made more frequently and taken more seriously than in most places around America. It is the presence of the military and their willingness to sacrifice that give this town its sense of its own values, that it is more than just another section of sprawling, strip-malled blacktop. It gives citizens the sense that everything they do to support the troops has deep import. In this deeply Southern town, a visitor comes across the unlikely sight of a white grandmother volunteering to pay for the meals of a couple of off-duty black enlisted men who are eating in the local Bojangles fried chicken joint. At the mobilization ceremony I attended, an old man with a veteran's cap told his grandson importantly, "Four companies in a battalion, four battalions in a regiment." And a sergeant acting as usher asked a lanky young man whether he was here with any families or friends with whom he wanted to sit, but the young man said no, "Just here to support."

Six months ago, that patriotic support extended to President Bush and the Republican Party. This section of coastal Carolina is staunch GOP territory, with Rush Limbaugh on the radio and flag decals--American mostly, but a few confederate--on the back of the pick-up trucks. "That's the recent tradition here--being a patriot and supporting the military means being a Republican," says Lockwood Phillips, publisher of the Jacksonville Daily News and conservative host of the local political call-in show. The Third Congressional District, which includes Jacksonville, gave President Bush a 23-percent margin over Al Gore in 2000, and even favored Bob Dole over Bill Clinton by 15 percent in 1996. Six months ago, you simply didn't hear anything against Bush in Jacksonville, and if people had doubts about the war in Iraq, they kept them to themselves. But these attitudes have begun to change. The local newspaper's editorial board, which has been vocally pro-Bush throughout his administration, ran an editorial at the beginning of October criticizing the administration's policies on Iraq, and suggesting that the campaign could end in a Vietnam-like quagmire. Soldiers' wives ask reporters why their husbands are still being sent off to Iraq, to face car bombs and chaos, months after the president said the war was over. Returned reservists, who saw their return dates pushed back again and again while they sat in a chaotic war zone, call the same radio station to say they didn't sign up for this sort of treatment, and they won't be reenlisting. If pressed, most people you talk to around here still say they'll support Bush. But their faith in him, and the GOP powers in Washington, has been rattled. "I'm a strong Republican, but the Republicans have been the problem; we've been treated like second-class citizens," a retired Vietnam Marine helicopter gunnery sergeant named Don Beaver told me in North Carolina. Elsie P. Smith, the town's Republican mayor, says: "There's a few people who have become very hostile [towards the Bush administration]... the longer the war goes on, the more of that subtle shift you're going to see."

This subtle distancing of Republicans from Bush has begun to show up, locally and nationally, even among those conservative politicians who spent this administration's first two years hugging the president as if their political future depended solely on the strength of their grip. Rep. Walter B. Jones Jr, (R-N.C.), Jacksonville's man in Congress, has joined other pro-military conservatives in stepping out of line with House leaders and criticizing the administration's policies towards veterans; Jones has said the administration treats vets like "second-class citizens." Conservative Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) and Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) led vocal Republican opposition to the administration's $87 billion supplemental spending bill for Iraq in September, a move which found conservative allies from Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Texas) to Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.). House majority whip Roy Blount (R-Mo.) has taken the administration to task over its troop-rotation policies.

A similar mood is emerging in small, patriotic towns around the country. According to a study conducted in mid-October by Stars and Stripes, half of American soldiers in-country say their units have low morale, that they were insufficiently trained, and that they won't reenlist. The ubiquity of email in Iraq means that husbands, wives, families, and friends of these troops have a mainline to these gripes, and to the day-to-day grit and threat of combat, that they haven't had in previous wars. Holly Rossi, whose husband, Rob, is an Army reserve engineer out of Londonderry, N.H., has watched the Family Support Group for his unit, wives who started the war as staunch pro-Bush patriots, come to doubt the political mission. "A lot of people feel tugged. We have built our lives around ... patriotism no matter what, but we're feeling very abandoned." Charles Carter, a retired Naval chief petty officer, told Knight Ridder: "I will vote non-Republican in a heartbeat if it continues as is."

Carter's opinion is representative. While the GOP hasn't lost the military vote, if present trends continue, it could see substantial defections in one of its core constituencies. Even small numbers can swing an election. Almost all observers concede that heavily Republican overseas ballots, with much of the margin coming from military personnel, handed Florida, and the presidency, to Bush in 2000. Some of the most closely contested states in the last election have the most dense populations of military voters: Tennessee, Missouri, Ohio, Arkansas, Nevada. But beyond the military voter is an even larger electoral bloc: tens of millions of "national security voters," who are not themselves necessarily connected to the military, but who judge a president's capacity to defend the country by how well he treats the troops, and by how much the troops support him.

The administration, armed with a new U.N. mandate, has recently begun a new effort to solicit money and troops from other nations, while maintaining that it is not willing to turn over control of Iraq. Unless these efforts are successful enough to permit the administration to withdraw large numbers of troops and unburden itself of the financial responsibility for reconstruction, the White House remains in an unenviable position. To quell the uproar among its own ranks, the administration will be strongly tempted to pull back troops and slight investment in Iraq. But that will almost certainly undermine the administration's stated policy of democratizing Iraq and, through it, the region. If, on the other hand, the White House chooses to maintain high levels of aid and manpower in Iraq, it risks fracturing the GOP and losing the 2004 election. Either way, the searing experience of young soldiers in Iraq today will likely have profound effects in coming years on the GOP's foreign policy and on the military's attitude toward civilian authority.

Voting right

Trying to suss out the voting patterns of the military, and the ways in which their professional frustrations and satisfactions spill over into politics, has always been a murky, Kremlinology-like game. The Department of Defense, which since 1955 has had an office designed to promote voting among the military and track participation rates, does not keep statistics on how many soldiers vote Democrat or Republican, though it does know that they vote at slightly higher rates than average Americans. And ever since shortly after World War II, when academics first became numerous and frisky enough to want to poll soldiers, there have been laws making it illegal to do so. Scholars who study the politics of the military rely on what scraps of data they can assemble, and then, squinting, try to understand a pattern. They look at surveys of the political attitudes of high school seniors, cross-referenced by whether the students plan to go on to college, to work, or to the military. They note those national opinion surveys which ask participants whether or not they are veterans. They rely on the non-political surveys of the social and cultural attitudes of the military. They scan absentee-ballot returns in search of discernible patterns of military voting. Mostly, they talk to soldiers in the field and develop, over the course of their careers, anecdote-driven, rough senses of how soldiers are likely to vote. But the consensus view seems to be that the military as a whole votes Republican by a margin of slightly less than 2-to-1, with enlisted men and women Republican by 3-to-2, and Republicans outnumbering Democrats among officers by 8-to-1. (Thankfully for Democratic partisans, there are 15 times as many enlisted men as officers). Scholars know even less about how the military has voted in the past. But they have established a broad narrative of the demographics and shifting historical cultures of the military that helps explain its evolution as a political entity.

For the first half of the 20th century, the American military followed a "surge-and-decline" model of military staffing; in times of crisis, young men would be summoned through the draft, quickly trained, and sent to war, and then would be sent home when the war was over. But after World War II, the constant specter of a fight with the Soviet Union demanded a more comprehensive battle force. Military planners decided to keep a large enough corps of active officers to provide the shell of a military whose enlisted ranks could then be filled by a draft in the case of war: The men, the thinking went, would then at least have capable leaders.

In these early days, soldiers were kept nonpartisan by two institutions: the officer corps and the draft. In the emergent military academies and staff colleges that had been developed to continually train this new, permanent officer class, students were taught the George C. Marshall credo of military non-partisanship, and, historians say, it took hold. (Marshall, famously, had argued that soldiers should not vote or support politicians or parties because it would compromise their ability to do their jobs; though that standard has lapsed in today's military, soldiers still retain a distaste for officers they see as overtly political.) Then, too, the enlisted army was, when it swelled in times of war, comprised of draftees, and consequently was diverse enough to reflect the broadest political leanings of its generation. Historians think that during World War II, when most soldiers had grown up during the Roosevelt '30s, the military was more Democratic than Republican. By the early '60s, the ranks reflected the conservatism of the 1950s. Vietnam made the military even more conservative. First, the all-volunteer military established by the 1973 abolition of the draft gave the troops a different demographic cast. They were disproportionately Southern, rural, poor, and morally traditional-the cultural base which would drive Nixon's Southern Majority and, 30 years later, Red America. Second, and perhaps more importantly, scholars say, men who had fought in Vietnam came out of that era with the sharp sense that they had been abandoned by American liberals, and to a lesser extent by the nation as a whole. A profound cultural divide appeared to develop between civilians and the military, two institutions with different sets of values. The distinction served, social scientists say, to help sharpen the soldiers' conservatism.

Through the 1970s, this cultural conservatism was kept from becoming overtly partisan in part because the military was an interest group: Soldiers wanted more pay and better, newer equipment, and so needed to negotiate both with Republicans and with the Democrats who controlled Congress. The Republicans, moreover, still had a strong fiscal conservative wing, which made them leery of outsized defense spending, and the Democrats still had a strong defense hawk wing, led by Washington Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson, which made them more amenable to big outlays.

But Ronald Reagan's presidency, accompanied by dovish realignments within the Democratic party, shattered this construct. Reagan's program of massive defense spending, along with his rhetorical massaging of the military's damaged, wound-licking ego, "gave the military back the respect it felt had been stripped from it by liberals after Vietnam," said David Segal of the University of Maryland, a sociologist who studies the American military. Soldiers became not only more Republican, but also more overtly political: For the first time, in 1988, a retired four-star general publicly endorsed George H. W. Bush for president, the sort of public demonstration of partisanship that would have been unimaginable two decades before.

Bill Clinton's presidency galvanized the base even more strongly. "There was a lot of anger towards the administration," said Wade Sanders, who served as deputy assistant undersecretary of the Navy from '93 to '98. Sanders says that even to military administration higher-ups like him, "it was clear that with the exception of [defense secretary] Bill Perry, nobody we dealt with understood the soldiers or were interested in making the services work better--they had fear of us, but no respect." The pattern of base closings initiated during the Clinton administration as part of the post-Cold War draw-down ended up relocating much of the nation's fighting forces to the South and the Southwest. This not only reinforced the military's southern cast, but meant that the local congressmen who would fight most strongly for the people on the military bases were Republicans.

It was during the mid-1990s, sparked by the rather overt and sometimes borderline disloyal antagonism members of the officer corps showed for the commander-in-chief, that clued-in academics and journalists began to worry about the "civil-military divide." Their thesis was that the nation's soldiers, since Vietnam, had been drifting in a profoundly right-wing direction, and now found themselves out of step with the more liberal values of the rest of the country. Thomas E. Ricks, a Washington Post reporter then with The Wall Street Journal, wrote a remarkable journalistic account of this divide in The Atlantic Monthly in '97, which found that soldiers tended to find civilians undisciplined, immoral, unpatriotic, and selfish. This divide, Ricks and others worried, was leading to a military that was increasingly unwieldy, and might grow impossible for civilians to really control.

Mind the gap

But when the first comprehensive academic study of the topic was published in 1999, it found that the divide was not as dramatic as had been assumed--a conclusion the study's lead author, Duke political scientist Peter Feaver, had not expected. He and his co-authors extensively polled soldiers on social issues and attitudes and found them "very much in line with what most of the country believed." But soldiers did differ profoundly from a group that the survey's authors classed as "cultural elites"--mostly liberal city-dwellers, people like the Clintons--and the soldiers believed their values, in some crucial ways, to be directly opposed to elite values. Soldiers, the study found, fitted firmly within the conservative end of the American mainstream.

One important moderating influence, sociologists think, has been the presence of large numbers of uniformed African Americans and, later, Hispanics and women. In 1973, when the brass tried to figure out how to staff a volunteer force, they chose to focus their recruiting efforts in large cities, where the most potential enlistees lived. By the mid-'80s, the military was the one place in America "where blacks regularly commanded whites," sociologist Charles Moskos wrote in 1984, and its reputation for giving minorities a fair shake drew increasing numbers of blacks, Hispanics, and women. Blacks now comprise almost a quarter of the military, women are nearly 15 percent, and Hispanics are more than 9 percent. The blacks, Hispanics, and women in the military are less liberal and Democratic than blacks, Hispanics, and women in the general population, but they are also less conservative and Republican than white men in the Armed Forces.

But the conservative base has remained the dominant political feature of the military, as the 2000 election showed. Agitated after eight years of the Clinton administration, enlisted men, officers, and veterans turned out strongly for Bush. George W. Bush found himself endorsed by more than 80 retired senior military officers--the sort of public, partisan support that would have been unthinkable 20 years earlier. There was a broad sense at all levels of the services, says Donald Vandergriff, an army major and a professor at Georgetown, that Bush "understood the military, valued it, that he would be their guy."

Flag poll

But there were signs of trouble from the beginning. From his first weeks in office, Rumsfeld initiated a series of semi-secret studies, as he prepared to revamp the entire military, from the way it deployed soldiers to the technologies it chose to purchase to the role of the reserves. By early May '01, Gordon Sullivan, the former Army chief of staff, sent an email to influential military personnel and thinkers in Washington sharply criticizing Rumsfeld's project; the note was published in National Journal, The Washington Post, and other publications, which took Sullivan's remarks as proxy for the opinions of a senior officer corps prohibited by law from speaking out themselves. "My sensing," Sullivan wrote, "is the Army will suffer greatly because of flawed assumptions and theories." Other voices quickly joined Sullivan's: "[Rumsfeld has] blown off the Hill, he's blown off the senior leaders in the military, and he's blown off the media," Thomas Donnelly, then a defense expert at William Kristol's neoconservative think-tank Project for the New American Century, told the Post.

But these rumblings were mostly confined to the senior level of the officer corps, those people who were directly involved in the creation of military policy. They were also particularly concentrated in the Army, the service branch that Rumsfeld had targeted for most dramatic reform. And even those gripes stopped, for the most part, after September 11, when Rumsfeld played what for most in the military was a hero's role during the attack on the Pentagon. He had been on the opposite side of the building when the hijacked plane crashed into the south side, and ran to the spot of the crash to help out those who had been hurt. The surge of patriotism and common purpose after September 11 was particularly strong within the military, and it quieted those officers who had been upset earlier.

Still, there was a persistent, if muted, sense among many in the senior levels of the officer corps that Rumsfeld's transformation of the military might be hasty and ill-considered. This opposition coalesced in the buildup to the Iraq war, and became particularly pointed after Rumsfeld's deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, pooh-poohed Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki's testimony before Congress that the occupation of Iraq would require "hundreds of thousands of troops;" Shinseki, not Wolfowitz, turned out to be right. There was great skepticism among many officers that Iraq was the right "next target" in the war on terrorism, and an emerging doubt that Rumsfeld and his lieutenants really knew what they were do-ing. But as the troops deployed, a sense of mission took over, and much of the grumbling stopped. Only in the aftermath of the conquest did there emerge a barely contained fury.

The military's gripes with the administration didn't grow widespread until after we'd conquered Iraq; the problems with planning, previously a matter of policy debate for top-level officers, translated into unpleasant realities for soldiers in the field. Many officers have become disenchanted with the continuing chaos in Iraq, and with the lengthening of in-country stays and the changing rotation schedules. "What I've seen throughout the officer corps is a real pendulum swing over the last three or four months, from being pro-Bush to anti-Bush," Vandergriff said. "The officers at the middle levels, who are traditionally the most Republican, are frustrated ... that there's no exit strategy," and worry that "this conflict could just drag on and on." Retired Gen. Anthony Zinni, who had been friendly enough with the Bush administration that he was sent last year as the president's special emissary to the Israelis and Palestinians, last month called the administration's policy a "brain fart." Says Richard Kohn, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina and a scholar of the military: "It is my belief that the Iraq war may be what forces the officer corps to return to the old George C. Marshall model of non-partisanship."

Corps voters

Discontented enlisted men and women have a separate set of provocations, which have been aired not only through the embedded media, but through weblogs updated and emails sent by soldiers in-country. Chief among these complaints is a widespread criticism that the military has fought this war with too few troops. The war in Iraq is already brutal enough day-to-day: Soldiers spend their days in hundred-plus degree heat, being shot at, peering anxiously into the distance, trying to pick out anyone likely to drive through a barricade with a car stuffed with explosives or whip a rifle out from under his robes and start shooting. They are facing an enemy who is not easily identifiable; when they are too aggressive, they are criticized by the press, and when they are not aggressive enough, they are reprimanded by their superiors, if they don't end up dead. In a chaotic situation like this, soldiers in-country live for the date on which they can return stateside. But many of them have seen that date pushed back, and then pushed back again, and then pushed back again. For a soldier, accustomed to regular, long-planned-for rotations, this makes the operation seem overwhelmingly open-ended-and is crushing to morale. "They feel overused, and under-appreciated, particularly in the enlisted ranks," Wilson said. Christopher Parker, a former Army captain and a political scientist at the University of California-Santa Barbara, put it to me more bluntly: "What we're seeing now is almost unprecedented, this widespread sense among people in the military that they're being jacked around."

Smaller slights have taken their toll, too. Those troops who have stayed in Iraq have been doing jobs that they have not been trained to do--most notably, combat units are doing peacekeeping. Just weeks after Condoleezza Rice promised that American troops would not be used to "escort Iraqi kids to kindergarten," newspaper photographs showed that they were doing exactly that. When Special Forces needed to be moved from Afghanistan to Iraq this summer, they were replaced by reservists who had been trained to speak Spanish and Russian. "There's a sense from everyone I talk to, even down at the unit level, that whoever planned this war simply had no idea what we were getting into," a retired Army captain told me.

Troops have been charged a dollar a minute to call home, newspapers have reported, and soldiers have to buy calling cards from Iraqi kiosks. Tens of thousands of troops have been sent to Iraq with flak jackets from the Vietnam era which, unlike the modern Kevlar, can't stop rounds from the Kalashnikov rifles typically fired by the Iraqi enemy. The Pentagon, looking to trim costs last spring, floated a plan to eliminate the pay benefits soldiers got for serving in so-called "hostile areas"; after a loud outcry from the ranks, they killed the plan. Some injured reservists were billed for food they were served while in the hospital. And veterans' groups are up in arms over the concurrent receipt issue, a military regulation which mandates that no retired soldier receiving his pension from the Department of Defense can also qualify for disability. As veterans' groups have pointed out, retired soldiers (who have more legitimate per capita disability claims than any other group of federal workers) are the only group of employees in the civil service who are barred from drawing simultaneous pensions and disability payments. The regulation has been in place for half a century, but veterans' groups had begun pushing aggressively for a regulation change in the last years of the Clinton administration, and there was a widespread expectation that Bush would reward the vets for having supported him so robustly in the election. "There are six hundred thousand disabled veterans, and they are furious," Joseph Galloway, Knight Ridder's esteemed military reporter, told me.

Reservists may be the tipping point. The reserves have been summoned nine times in the last 12 years, to meet American obligations around the world, after having previously been summoned only six times since World War II. Reservists who have been sent to Iraq recently have found themselves vastly under-equipped. Things have gone so badly for the reservists that many senior officers, like Helmly, expect a staffing crisis when the current tours are up.

Values and weathervanes

The effect of all of this, says Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel and professor of political science at Boston University, is that "the soldier vote and the pro-military vote are in play." In 2004, says Feaver, the military sociologist at Duke, "there is the potential for these forces which have always pushed towards the Republicans to be neutralized, or even pushing towards the Democrats."

If these frustrations spill over into politics in the next election, they could profoundly shift the structural underpinnings of the current nearly 50-50 American split. This country has 1.4 million active duty soldiers, and 1.2 million reserves. It also has 26.4 million veterans, nearly 13 percent of the nation's adult population. Politicians and activists involved in veterans affairs take it as a truism that a defining feature of veterans' politics is their perception of how the active military is being treated, and used. Subtle shifts in the way that massive population votes could obviously have far-reaching impacts in national politics.

A reassignment of less than two-hundredths of 1 percent in the military vote to the Democrats from the Republicans in Florida in 2000 would have moved that state to the Democratic column, and a similar shift of less than 5 percent in the veteran vote alone would have given Arkansas, Nevada, and New Hampshire's electoral votes to Gore, not Bush. And Pennsylvania and Ohio, expected to be crucial swing states in the next presidential election, each have more than a million veteran voters.

But the military and veterans' communities don't simply deliver their own votes. All over America, voters look to the military as a sort of weathervane--an institution whose values civilians trust and want politicians to support. This is particularly true of working-class white swing voters, many of whom have a soldier in their family or know someone who does. The attachment to the military is even more potent among certain occupations-police, firefighters, engineers--whose ranks are heavily represented in the reserves. The policemen, firemen, and engineers who stay at home look across the room each day at the empty desks of their colleagues fighting in the Iraqi theater. They check email each day for personal dispatches from the front lines. They drop off food for the left-behind families.

Then there are those who are not personally connected to the military, but for whom honor of the military and the military's opinion acts as a moral barometer, revealing which politicians have the right values and which don't. The military is a deeply trusted and honored institution in American life-far more important than the media, politicians, or teachers. To respect the military doesn't simply require the sort of offhand pieties that liberal politicians frequently toss at it, but a deeply felt sense of belonging, a sense that the military embodies values which most of the country believes in. Treatment of the military consequently acts as an indicator for tens of millions of Americans who aren't enlisted of how seriously a party, administration, or politician takes the nation's security, and how competent he is to defend it. Political scientists call these people national security voters. "[They] are not so minutely interested in issues like health care for the military or how many reserves are in Iraq at one time," said Feaver. "These people rely heavily on general impressions of whether a particular politician or administration is good for the military or bad for the military. What should really worry the Republicans is the potential for all of these problems you hear about to add up to an impression for the national security voter that the Republicans may not be so good for the military."

The current rough balance in national politics between Democrats and Republicans is due in large part to a delicate calibration between a Democratic advantage on domestic issues and a Republican edge on national security. "Those two things determine the country's political structure; when they cancel each other out, then other issues, like health care, education, or social issues become important, but that pretty much only happens when the economy and national security are not decisive," says John Aldrich, a political scientist at Duke University. The Republicans have maintained an advantage of between 15 and 20 points on national security for the last 20 years, since Ronald Reagan's massive defense spending bills, an advantage which right now equals the Democratic advantage on the economy. The calibrations are so precise that minute shifts matter. The great political triumph of Bill Clinton's presidency was to move the Democratic advantage on the economy by between two and three points; this slight shift, Aldrich and other political scientists say, boosted him to sweeping reelection victory in 1996, and enabled his party to improve their congressional advance in 1998, an historic achievement for the party of a second-term president. What has some Republicans scared is the specter of a similar shift, numerically small but profound, that dents the GOP's advantage on national security and threatens their slim electoral majority. This is the kind of vulnerability that could change the structure of American politics.

Imperial anachronism

But the current discontent among troops will reverberate far beyond the next election. "Failed wars are momentous occasions in any nation's history," observes William Lind, Director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism at the Free Congress Foundation. And while the ultimate success or failure of the current war has yet to be determined, Lind notes that "the consequences of what is happening in Iraq are likely to be complex and profound." The effects of military failure in Vietnam lasted for decades, as young officers who served in the rice paddies rose in the ranks, eventually translating their searing experiences into new politics (a heightened distrust of liberals) and new policy (the Powell Doctrine of overwhelming force). Similarly, those young officers currently coping with the lethal chaos of the Sunni triangle will forever remember the false assumptions and outright deceptions that put them in that position. And while it is impossible to know exactly what their long-term reactions will be, two possibilities come to mind. First, having strongly supported the GOP, only to watch some of its leaders dismiss their concerns, many members of the uniformed military-especially in the Army-may conclude that it is a mistake to bestow their loyalties on to any one party. Second, having allowed Bush administration officials to quash their advice and analysis, military leaders may decide that next time around, they will be less deferential to policymakers. In other words, the military may become both less partisan and less respectful of civilian authority-or at least more willing to challenge that authority when it seems warranted.

Similar reverberations are likely to alter the Republican Party's conduct of foreign policy. The GOP has never been a foreign-policy monolith. Its thinkers span a broad spectrum, from patriotic isolationists like Pat Buchanan, to go-it-alone interventionists like Rumsfeld and Cheney, to more moderate figures like Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), who value of institutions like the United Nations. If there was a majority foreign-policy position among conservative voters and activists before 9/11, it tended to be closest to the Buchananite wing. Indeed, for the first few months of George W. Bush's presidency, his foreign policy was cautious, minimalist, and incited little opposition. But September 11 empowered the administration's unilateral interventionist wing, and pushed isolationists and multilateralists to the sidelines. The White House began to adopt policies that matched the strategic disposition that such officials as Rumsfeld, Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz had had all along: a belief in the necessity of aggressive preventative action abroad, and a conviction that international institutions held values which were at best inconsistent with, and at worst antithetical to, American principles and interest. Ever since September 11, Bush has taken most of his advice from "what is really a very, very narrow range of Republican opinion," says James M. Lindsay, vice president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a scholar of presidential foreign policy. Republicans (and Democrats) in Congress went along with the shift-in part, no doubt, from a sense that perhaps international politics had changed irrevocably and that the way Americans pursued their goals needed to change, too, but also because of the political pressures of the moment: It seemed foolhardy and unpatriotic to criticize a war president with 90 percent approval ratings. This state of affairs continued until the last few months, when the Bush administration's failure to find weapons of mass destruction, a mounting death toll, and sticker shock over the bill in Iraq ripped open the old divisions.

The unilateral interventionists still hold the reins of power within the GOP, largely because their champions dominate the West Wing and the Department of Defense. But their purchase on rank and file, Republicans especially among the military and national security voters, is slipping. That slippage will continue unless the Bush administration can secure enough international funds and troops so that the U.S. military presence can be scaled back without compromising the stability of Iraq. If these efforts fail, and if that failure contributes to Bush losing in '04, the unilateral interventionist wing will be disgraced. Power within the GOP will flow to the isolationists and multilateralists, respectively hampering or helping any Democrat who might win the presidency.

Six months ago, commentators of all ideological and strategic points of view were debating the merits, and potential form, of an American empire. But now, restive citizens are unhappy about the financial burdens of occupation, and soldiers are complaining to family and friends that they're sitting ducks and want out. The world-straddling, saber-rattling visions of the unilateral interventionists, who a few short months ago had Damascus, Tehran, and Pyongyang in their sights, now seem a little less like an imminent reality, and a little more like a bad dream.

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Sidebar

The Compassion Gap

While I was in North Carolina, I spent two hours as a guest on the local political call-in show. I came on right after Rush Limbaugh's nationally syndicated program, and just before the local host interviewed Rush's brother, David Limbaugh, who has apparently written a book about liberals' war on Christianity. ("What the secularists don't want to admit," David Limbaugh told the host, "is that the monks kept learning alive throughout the Middle Ages.") The callers were all conservative, and no more than one personal relationship removed from the military (their husband, son, or co-worker had just left for Iraq, or they themselves had just come back. To a caller, they were upset with the way the war had been conducted. "The president keeps dragging these boys over there to be shot at; we don't know when it's going to end," one widow, from Morehead City, whose husband had been a veteran, told me. But she, and the other callers, had a near-sputtering, subarticulate hatred towards the Democrats - from Wesley Clark on left. "The Democrats are the ones who drew down the forces to begin with," Tony, a young ex-marine from Havelock, N.C., told me. "They have no respect for what we're trying to do."

Misusing the military is one thing; failing to respect it is a much more grave offense. If Democrats are to take advantage of the Republicans' vulnerability among national security voters in the 2004 Presidential election, they're going to have to learn to speak the language of the military, and communicate a passion for and empathy with the soldiers that few Democrats so far have managed. Another scene I saw at the mobilization ceremony in Jacksonville suggests the Democrats still have a long way to go.

The Wolverines had invited both North Carolina senators, Democrat John Edwards and Republican Elizabeth Dole, to address them as they were sent off to six months of training and 18 months of war, but both had prior engagements. They sent letters instead, and the mobilization ceremony's MC, a North Carolina National Guard lieutenant colonel named Tom Harris, read both aloud, Edwards's first. It was five short sentences long.

"I write to wish you well as you assume a vital role in our nation's continuing war against terrorism," Edwards wrote. North Carolina Guardsmen represented the "best our nation has to offer." Edwards offered his "deepest thanks to you and your loved ones for the courage you so readily display and the sacrifices you so willingly make."

Dole's, by contrast, was wonderful, touching, and personal. She talked about the "trials" the soldiers would go through, and how proud and worried the families would be. She discussed the experiences of her husband, fighting through the mountains of Italy in World War II She wrote empathetically about the difficulties that families would face, and employers, and how crucial their small sacrifice was to the larger, so important sacrifice the men in the guard would be making. She mentioned the places the men in this company came from by name, and reminded them how proud they had made those towns. When Colonel Harris finished reading Dole's letter, the two women on my left were crying, for the first time in the ceremony, and the older gentleman in front of me began to applaud, quietly, to himself.

Any Democrat in the crowd or among the Wolverines would have cringed at the contrast. These letters are an unglamorous staple of life in political offices in Washington; 27-year old junior staffers, not Edwards or Dole themselves, wrote them. But they reflected quite clearly what many, many retired officers told me last month: The Republican majority in the military community is due less to any specific policies than to a sense that they "get" what the military is all about, while the Democrats don't. Elizabeth Dole's letter, compassionate and personal, "got" the military. John Edwards's perfunctory, bland sending off, which could have been a fare-ye-well to recently assigned airport security guards, did not.

Benjamin Wallace-Wells is an editor of The Washington Monthly.


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