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 Americas 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 towns outskirts that needed securing. Running in a file from our cover behind a train car to the building, we had strict orders to keep movingno 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 couldnt 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 soldiers 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 lessonwhatever you do, dont just stand there; do somethingis 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, wasnt 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, Bushs 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 ideawhatever that idea may beof 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 DemsDemocratic veterans such as Jim Webb, who ran for largely Republican-leaning congressional seats this yearrepresented 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 securitywitness our lack of options vis–vis the Iranians and the North Koreansbut 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.