have a confession: I used to be a Republican. And not just
a registered Republican, but a fairly active one. I volunteered
for the Bush-Quayle advance team in Los Angeles
in 1992; I attended the Republican National Convention in
Houston as a youth delegate in 1992; and I canvassed neighborhoods
for Richard Riordan, the centrist Republican megamillionaire
who ran for mayor of Los Angeles in 1993 and led
the city from 1993 to 2001.
Things began to change for me in 1995 when I joined the
Army ROTC program at UCLA. I entered the Army just as the
deployment to Bosnia was taking shape. That mission held a
great deal of appeal for me, both as someone committed to
idealism in American foreign policy and as the grandson of
Holocaust survivors who felt that stopping genocide was a noble
raison d’etre for this country. I adopted a worldview that
hewed closely to the internationalism espoused by then President
Clinton and the first President Bush. When the time
came to pick a military branch, I chose to be a military police
lieutenant, so that I could be on the front lines of America’s
future peacekeeping and nation-building endeavors.
After graduating from UCLA, I went to Korea, where I led
a military police platoon of twenty-one American and eight
Korean soldiers near the heavily militarized border with
North Korea. My next assignment was to Fort Hood, Texas,
where I led another platoon and trained for war in the California
desert. Somewhere along the way, I became a liberal,
at least by Army standards.
On foreign policy issues, I was already on board with
the Clinton administration. When the war in Kosovo broke
out, I felt we were on the side of right, and I supported the
subsequent deployment of troops to keep the peace there.
Although I recognized that there were limits to what military
units could accomplish in the Balkans, I had a deeper faith
that we could still make a difference there, and I remained
committed to that ideal. Democratic foreign policy, with its
fusion of realism and liberalism, appealed to this idealism
of mine, especially the idea that we could intervene to stop
wars instead of fighting them.
Rather, it was on the domestic policy side where I experienced
my greatest transformation. I grew up in the upper-middle-class suburbs of west Los Angeles, and my conservatism
was borne of privilege and distance from America’s
working class. I cared little for issues like health care and
welfare because I had never personally experienced financial
hardship, nor known many friends who had.
The Army changed that. Suddenly, I joined a world more
diverse than anything I had known. My platoons comprised a
mix of racial, religious, and socioeconomic groups unlike any
cohort I had worked with before. I’d like to think that I did a
decent job as their lieutenant, but the truth is that I probably
learned more from my soldiers (especially my sergeants)
than they ever learned from me. In addition to getting many
practical lessons about soldiering, I got lessons about life in
America. My men and women taught me about growing up
in rural American towns, where advanced high school classes
were taught three towns away. I learned that health care
benefits often shaped military families’ decisions to reenlist,
because no private-sector employer was half as generous as
Uncle Sam when it came to caring for spouses and children.
My African American and Latino soldiers taught me to look
at the military as an opportunity and a path to advancement
and to forever see affirmative action and diversity initiatives
through the lens of our military experience.
My second tour on active duty was in Iraq from 2005 to
2006, and it confirmed my conversion. There I worked with
the Iraqi police in the Diyala Province, living on a small compound
in downtown Baqubah with my adviser team, our interpreters,
and our Iraqi counterparts. We faced some difficulty,
however, because of the dissonance between our mission
to promote the rule of law and U.S. policies elsewhere
which undermined that principle. This made it harder for us
to earn the respect and support of the Iraqi people. I saw
firsthand the importance of being the good guys—and being
seen as such—and came to believe more deeply in a foreign
policy grounded in both our interests and our ideals, as well
as a deep pragmatism about the limits of military force.
I still care deeply about the social issues that I learned
to care about during my first tour on active duty. In 2008,
I will pay close attention to health care, immigration, and
taxation, because I think they have a profound effect on
my life and our country. What concerns me most, however,
is that for the past seven years our nation has drifted rudderless
through the war on terrorism. The “preventive war”
doctrine proved such a bust in Iraq that today we have no
strategy. In the absence of guidance from the White House,
decisions about military strategy and resources are being
made in a vacuum. In 2008, then, I will be looking for the
candidate who articulates a viable national security strategy,
and shows me the ability to implement it in a responsive and
flexible way that restores America’s place in the world and
keeps us safe. I think, given what I’ve seen of the presidential
field so far, that candidate will be a Democrat.
That’s my story, but I speak as only one military veteran.
Each of the 1.4 million veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq
has taken his or her own political path. Some, for example,
have moved from left to right rather than right to left. Others
have stayed in place. What nearly all have in common,
though, is a conviction that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan
are the most important issues facing the nation.
We’re entering a time of significant political shifts. That’s
reflected in the military, too. Three years ago, 60 percent of
military voters polled by the Military Times identified themselves
as Republican. Today, that number is down to 46 percent,
or less than half. While Democrats, once at 13 percent,
have inched up to 16 percent, most Republican defectors appear
to have become independents of some sort. Even the
officer corps, which in 2003 favored Republicans over Democrats
by a ratio of more than seven to one (the Military Times has not gathered more recent statistics), is reported to be
weakening in its support for the Republican Party. After all,
what they most feared would happen under a Democratic
administration—that the military was being overstretched
and weakened—has instead happened under a Republican
one. Although many military personnel still poll conservatively
on issues, they now show a deep disenchantment with
the Republican Party, and this administration in particular.
The sentiments of the military are viewed by the public as
an important barometer of a president’s fitness to lead. Under
Clinton, hostile relations with the military limited the
White House’s policy options on issues ranging from gays in
the military to intervention in the Balkans. Under Bush, support
from the military has led to the opposite extreme, enabling
the president to use force recklessly with the imprimatur
of military approval. Neither model of civil-military relations
is good for the country.
The question, now, is to what extent disenchantment
with the White House will affect the military vote. It’s possible
that the GOP, for all its shortcomings, is still seen as the
lesser of two evils. Then again, maybe not. So, what could get
a veteran to vote for a Democrat in 2008?
This is the question the Washington Monthly posed to a
group of military veterans of various ranks and political persuasions.
Some of the essays that follow come to conclusions
that conflict with the conclusions of other essays. That’s the
nature, of course, of a forum. The point was to shed some
light on something that’s a mystery to many readers: how
members of the military think about politics. Complementing
this collection is a reported piece by Spencer Ackerman,
who argues that Democrats are right on the merits of withdrawal
from Iraq but misguided on what message that will
send to our troops there. While many troops want to see the
war ended, Ackerman writes, many soldiers will see reason
for hope in Iraq and still want to persevere. Any withdrawal
proposal must account for both parts of this war-weary perspective.
With any luck this issue of the Washington Monthly
should help make that point of view clearer.
. . . return to cover story