imagine if you asked any good noncommissioned officer
why he votes Republican, he would simply answer,
“Because Democrats are a bunch of pussies.” (Sorry, but
that’s how soldiers talk.) I happen to be a Democrat, even
something of a Yellow Dog Democrat, but the perception of
Democratic weakness on matters of defense is pervasive both
inside the military and out. American liberalism fares even
worse. Someone once defined a liberal as the person who
leaves the room when a fight breaks out. And there’s the rub.
Republicans will fight, and the military holds that in high esteem.
Fighting is considered both an art and a science, worthy
of study. The military gives out medals for doing it well.
Cowardice can still be rewarded with a firing squad.
The Republican Party has done well in portraying itself as
the party of national defense. While that resonates with a
large swath of the electorate, for people in the armed forces
it’s more than just words. Traditionally, troops have believed that good things happen when a Republican is in office: they
get pay raises, funds get allocated for training, and at least a
portion of the money makes it through the Pentagon’s corrupt
procurement system for some useful equipment. In
short, military life improves. This received wisdom has been
wrapped in the flag and handed down by old soldiers to the
new. But it goes beyond finances. Conservatives appear genuinely
to respect people in the service. They don’t just assume
that soldiers are economic victims or refugees from an
unfair free market. They might even allow that one could enjoy
soldiering without being a nut, a sadist, or a fascist.
Most of my non-Army friends would identify themselves
as liberals or progressives or Democrats. My experience may
be atypical, because I tend to hang around with opinionated
people, but nearly all of them, I find, are suspicious of
the military. “They’ll change you,” most warned after I announced
my intention to enlist. “Don’t do it.” One acquaintance
suggested psychotherapy instead. (This was my personal
favorite in patronizing offensiveness.)
When, later, I failed to turn into a mindless
drone, they decided I would benefit from lectures
about the Contras, the School of the
Americas, or Augusto Pinochet. They’ve since
moved on to Gitmo and the war in Iraq. I usually
resign myself to the moralizing, turn to
the bartender, and start ordering doubles.
Let’s face it: while only a tiny percentage of
our total population has any direct relationship
with the military, those numbers are even
more anemic among the left-of-center types
that gravitate toward the Democratic Party. My peers in this
group have no qualms about holding forth about the armed
forces, an institution with which they have no experience.
Worse, when the windiness has subsided, they have no concrete
suggestions on defense policy. They’ll do butter, but they
won’t do guns. That would be someone else’s job. I suppose
this is still a lingering consequence of the hangover from the
Vietnam War, when cold war liberals brought us to the jungles
of Southeast Asia and found themselves discredited. After
that, Democrats abdicated national security to the Republican
Party. What was Bill Clinton’s very first foray into defense
policy? “Don’t ask. Don’t tell.” Well done, that. You wonder
why the military votes overwhelmingly for the GOP? I’d suggest
that for years they had little choice: the Democratic Party
gave up and left the room, and didn’t even pretend to want the
votes. Although Clinton later won a war in Kosovo and John
Kerry got endorsements from admirals and generals, neither
man could undo hardened perceptions of the party.
Nevertheless, with even a Pyrrhic victory in Iraq looking
ever more remote and Afghanistan (where I served) still a
mess, the myth of Republican strategic mastery may finally
have been shattered. When the legions return home and
the extent of the mendacity that led to this Iraqi adventure
sinks in, we might witness a sea change in American politics.
If those who fought and bled and died come to feel it was
for nothing, they’re going to be very, very pissed off. I doubt
they’ll quietly move to the margins of society. They’re the
best-educated military that the country has ever had, and
they’ll demand to be heard. My guess is that many will be
willing to shift their party allegiance.
Such political realignment won’t come easily or quickly. It
won’t come from having armies of paid consultants coaching
their candidates on how to project strength, which will only
come off as canned. Instead, Democrats would be better off
simply showing that they’ve come to terms with an obvious
truth: defense isn’t just one among many responsibilities of
government; it’s the primary function of government. Progress
and prosperity can come only after a state of physical
security is attained. Just ask the citizens of Iraq or any other
Hobbesian dystopia. Democrats know this, but they must
show they know this.
Part of that will involve simply leveling with people. The
electorate is fractured, war weary, and cynical. After the lies
of the Bush administration, some honesty will be more than
a little refreshing. Americans are owed at least that. Here’s a
start: while we don’t face exactly the “long war” that the administration
envisions, we will be at war for the foreseeable
future. The monsters unleashed by the war in Iraq will plague
us long after I and the readers of this column are dead. Two
million Iraqis are refugees, creating the largest displacement
of people since the creation of the state of Israel. Unifying
the generations of Iraqis who grow up in squalid refugee
camps will be an implacable hatred of the United States.
Whether we depart from Iraq in two days or in two years will
not change this fact. All we can do is try to manage it.
Democratic leaders who demonstrate a proper understanding
of national defense and who can tell it straight
should be able to win votes from members of the military.
If they could call on sacrifices from the civilian population,
their prospects might be even better. Military personnel and
their families can no longer carry the burden alone.
Liberals, to their credit, are starting to get this. Among
Democrats who embody the new ethos, Jim Webb, with his
square-jawed rebuttal to the president’s latest State of theUnion address, has been one of the most promising exemplars.
What makes the phenomenon of Webb all the more
promising is that the liberal blogosphere effectively recruited
him. Indeed, by putting war veterans such as Jim Webb
or Patrick Murphy in Congress, Democrats have finally presented
military professionals with leaders they can respect,
regardless of their views on Iraq. In the end, style matters.
Clinton may have won a couple of wars, but he was seen as
soft. Webb may be against a war, but he’s seen as tough.
When it comes to the presidential race, though, I’ll
be campaigning for Barack Obama. The party needs new
leadership and a fresh set of hands to take on the myriad
problems that beset the republic. What’s more, a surprising
number of my conservative colleagues have voiced support
for him. Although Obama often speaks in generalities and
has not served in the military himself, he seems to understand
the issues that matter, including, most crucially, Iraq.
As for Democrats who voted in favor of that misbegotten
Iraqi war, they must be held to task. We can ill afford excuses
from those who bear responsibility for so much lost
blood, treasure, and prestige, and our next president should
be someone who got it right from the start.
. . . return to cover story