n 2003, I spent the summer engaged in a three-month training
deployment to Fort Knox, Kentucky. Knox is best known
as the repository of America’s gold reserves, but it also
houses a state-of-the-art complex for training the Army in
urban warfare. Replete with an artificial sewer system, a piped in
muezzin calling the imaginary faithful to prayer, and paintballers
firing live rounds (of paint), the Knox site seeks to replicate
the intensity and claustrophobia of a nasty urban skirmish.
As my unit advanced upon our objective, we lumbered up to a building on the town’s outskirts that needed securing. Running
in a file from our cover behind a train car to the building,
we had strict orders to keep moving—no matter what.
Advancing, I felt a hard splat against my leg, and I froze.
I had never actually been fired at before, and the shock
stopped me. I couldn’t make a decision, and the advance
came to a temporary and frantic halt. With paintballs pouring
down on us, we had become stuck in a soldier’s worst
nightmare: the kill zone.
I was reprimanded for my inaction, of course, but it was
good that I learned my lesson while in training and not later,
when I was a paratrooper in Afghanistan. Indeed, this
lesson—whatever you do, don’t just stand there; do something—is central to the military mentality. It also explains
why so many servicemen and -women voted for George Bush
in 2004 and why I, a lifelong Democrat, briefly considered doing
the same. The president, for all his flaws, appeared to understand
the dangers of the kill zone intuitively. John Kerry,
on the other hand, seemed like a man afraid to lead. Fairly or
not, the flip-flop charge, especially in relation to his changing
positions on Iraq, worried people, and no one more than military
voters. He seemed like a man trapped in the kill zone.
Kerry, of course, wasn’t the first Democrat to suffer from
such perceptions. Among those in the services, Democrats
are thought of as unable to confidently make command decisions.
They are too eggheaded, too political, too weak. And
yet, today, Bush’s failures afford the Democrats a unique opportunity
to dispel such caricatures and make inroads among
those in uniform. As a recent Military Times poll shows, increasing
numbers of troops are now disenchanted with the
president and with the war. While the military in 2008 will
not necessarily be looking across the aisle to replace Bush,
it will be open to any candidate who can enunciate a clear
idea—whatever that idea may be—of where he or she will be
taking the country, especially in relation to Iraq. A Democrat
can tap into this vote simply by displaying clear leadership
on issues of war and peace.
A candidate who proposes a speedy withdrawal need not
fear an overwhelmingly negative reaction from the troops.
That would be the result only for a candidate whose position
seemed camouflaged in fuzzy language and hedged bets. The
“Fighting Dems”—Democratic veterans such as Jim Webb,
who ran for largely Republican-leaning congressional seats
this year—represented a good start at speaking clearly.
Certainly, leadership is not the only concern the military
has about Democrats. The red-blue cultural divide exists in
extremis between the military and Democratic voters. Kerry,
with his windsurfing and his Swiss-boarding-school education,
was only the latest in a string of candidates perceived as culturally
alien elitists, unable to connect at the gut. Guns, too, play a
role in losing votes. Until a Democratic nominee can convince
the NRA that he or she is no threat to the Second Amendment,
the party will have a hard time winning over new military voters.
It is easy to imagine the GOP attempting to shift the debate
back to these issues in the upcoming election.
But Iraq remains the critical issue facing the country, and
more and more troops have come to believe that victory is
impossible. They also know that the war is hollowing the
Army out. Not only does this harm our national security—witness our lack of options vis-à-vis the Iranians and the
North Koreans—but it also strains service members’ morale.
Since Republican policies can be directly linked to the
weakening of the Army, Democrats can credibly claim that
the GOP is endangering our national security.
In November 2004, most of my colleagues, officers and
enlisted alike, voted to reelect George Bush in spite of the
fact that he had sent them to fight a poorly planned war being
waged for ever-shifting rationales. They overlooked these
flaws because his firmness inspired their confidence. If Democrats
come out with equal firmness for withdrawal, they
may find themselves picking up some unexpected new military
votes. The men and women of the military fear, above all
else, someone who will abandon them to the kill zone. They
want someone who will lead them through it.
. . . return to cover story