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 Americas 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. Id 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 guysand being seen as suchand 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 Americas place in the world and keeps us safe. I think, given what Ive seen of the presidential field so far, that candidate will be a Democrat.
Thats 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.
Were entering a time of significant political shifts. Thats 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 administrationthat the military was being overstretched and weakenedhas 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 presidents fitness to lead. Under Clinton, hostile relations with the military limited the White Houses 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. Its 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. Thats the nature, of course, of a forum. The point was to shed some light on something thats 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.