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 thats 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 theres 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 its 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 Pentagons 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 dont 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. Theyll change you, most warned after I announced my intention to enlist. Dont 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. Theyve 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.
Lets 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. Theyll do butter, but they wont do guns. That would be someone elses 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 Clintons very first foray into defense policy? Dont ask. Dont tell. Well done, that. You wonder why the military votes overwhelmingly for the GOP? Id suggest that for years they had little choice: the Democratic Party gave up and left the room, and didnt 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, theyre going to be very, very pissed off. I doubt theyll quietly move to the margins of society. Theyre the best-educated military that the country has ever had, and theyll demand to be heard. My guess is that many will be willing to shift their party allegiance.
Such political realignment wont come easily or quickly. It wont 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 theyve come to terms with an obvious truth: defense isnt just one among many responsibilities of government; its 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. Heres a start: while we dont 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 presidents 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 hes seen as tough.
When it comes to the presidential race, though, Ill 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. Whats 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.