Virtually all close observers inside and outside the U.S. military estimate that anywhere from 70 to 80 percent of active duty servicemen, reservists and National Guardsmen voted Republican in the last presidential election.1Hard polling data of active-duty personnel remain elusive. The best indicators of how the active military voted are the Military Times readership poll of September 2004 and the National Annenberg Election Survey of October 2004. The former–which is likely skewed toward longer-serving, higher-ranking personnel–revealed a preference for Bush over Kerry of 73 to 18 percent. The latter–which included some family members of active-duty personnel–indicated 69 to 24 percent preferred Bush. I suspect that among the non-commissioned ranks of the combat arms community–the grunts–that figure may have been significantly higher. What makes me think so?
I spent part of the summer of 2004 in West Africa with a platoon of United States Marines. I would guess that, with few exceptions, they voted for President George W. Bush. Some of them feared that the Democratic challenger, Senator John Kerry, would end the war in Iraq before they themselves had a chance “to get in on the fight.” Election night found me in a restaurant-bar in central Alaska frequented by members of an army infantry brigade about to be deployed to Iraq. As the results from Florida and Ohio came in–and for days afterward–the mood was of relief sometimes bordering on euphoria. They, too, would get to fight. What the Ivy League professoriate is to the Democratic Party, the fighting units of the U.S. military are to the Republicans.
Wanting to fight is an ordinary emotion for those who choose combat arms as a profession. In My Early Life: A Roving Commission (1930), Winston Churchill’s memoir of his early life as a soldier and journalist, he writes of elation in the ranks when his unit of the Indian army was ordered from serene southern India to the Afghan frontier to fight rebellious tribesmen. He describes “the delicious yet tremulous sensations” that professional soldiers, bred in a time of peace, feel when approaching “an actual theatre of operations.” To a greater degree than today’s media commentators, Churchill has cut to the essence of America’s fighting units, liberated by 9/11 from a policy that did not allow for significant personal risk, particularly in the case of ground troops.
Owing to social changes in American society and structural changes in the American military, the combat arms community, which like all elite groups is self-selecting, has gradually become an antique world of warrior honor. That elite, in a very subtle but critical way, finds more kinship with Churchill’s concept of soldiering, as laid down in his early works about Afghanistan and Sudan, than with America’s own citizen soldiers of World War II. In fact, for grunts whose fathers and by now, yes, grandfathers fought in Vietnam, World War II lies so far in the past that it might as well be the Peloponnesian War–even though World War II happens to be the last war that the nation’s cultural elite feels comfortable celebrating.
Among Marines and Army Special Forces with whom I have embedded for long stretches, two favorite films are Mel Gibson’s We Were Soldiers (2002) and John Wayne’s The Green Berets (1968), both of which portray Vietnam in an heroic, somewhat romantic light–much the way old black-and-white movies of the 1940s and 1950s portrayed the Second World War. Truly, Vietnam has been discussed ad nauseam, especially in the 2004 presidential campaign. But the aspect of Vietnam that helps reveal why the grunts are so alienated from the political elite–and particularly from the Democratic Party–has rarely been discussed at all. While left-wing elites continue to refer to the Vietnam War as wrong and dishonorable, it happens to be the war where the antique code of honor had its birth for the present generation of American soldiery; as well as being the war of which the forebears of those now fighting in front-line units in Iraq harbor the keenest memories. As one Mexican-American Marine sergeant explained to me, fighting in Iraq was the only way he could prove to his uncle, a Vietnam veteran, that he was worthy of his legacy. When I asked another Marine in Iraq why he hated Senator John Kerry so much, he snapped, “Because he wasn’t proud of his service in Vietnam, he threw away his medals at a demonstration that only rich kids went to.” (Actually, Kerry only pretended to throw them away, but this Marine did not know that.)
Rather than a war of national survival, Vietnam was to a large extent an expeditionary struggle for the sake of strategic positioning, in which honor meant seeing the damn thing through, as well as keeping commitments to local allies. Because the reasons for waging it were debatable, it forged a caste identity for a newly established, volunteer military akin to that of the French Foreign Legion and some 19th-century British regiments. Unlike the wealthier members of their generation, the working-class volunteers of this new American military believed unambiguously in the essential goodness of their nation’s mission. Thus, they were not particularly interested in policy debates about where and where not to intervene–debates that, in any case, were above their pay grade. The more deployments they got, the happier they were. It was that simple.
President Bill Clinton encouraged this expeditionary spirit by employing the military often. Without a doubt, service in the Balkans constituted a morale boost compared to interminable training exercises in Germany. Nevertheless, in the 1990s, war for the American armed forces remained abstract: landing in Haiti after a deal for intervention had already been struck, or bombing from 10,000 feet over Serbia and Kosovo to avoid risk to our pilots. It was only George Bush’s response to 9/11 that released the spirit of this new warrior guild.
That spirit is giving rise to a particular community. Michael Vlahos of Johns Hopkins University writes in a monograph, “Culture’s Mask: War and Change After Iraq”, that today’s post-9/11 military–with four years of ground combat deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq behind it, not to mention Special Operations deployments in dozens of other countries on a regular basis–constitutes a class of crusty, colonial-like veterans ready to rule as well as fight. The parents of many of these soldiers are often soldiers themselves. Thus, Vlahos continues, the military profession has become a family affair. The introduction of more women, he argues, rather than softening the military as many liberals would no doubt like to believe, merely completes its internalization as a separate social order. After all, the overwhelming majority of the women who serve are enlistees who come from the same backgrounds as the men.
The striking affection for Donald Rumsfeld that one regularly encounters among grunts is an indication of just how removed many of them are from the thinking that pervades the national elite, and even some of their own officers. Rumsfeld is the first Secretary of Defense in recent memory who has made a strong impact on the non-commissioned ranks. Ask infantry sergeants in the service since the mid-1990s about William Cohen or William Perry and you’ll draw blank stares. But “Rumsfeld”, despite his massive miscalculations, signifies a “kick-ass” leader whom quite a few feel they know and identify with.
Take the scandal about the lack of steel-plated humvees. In Iraq, I rode in humvees with and without plates. Outside of the perfunctory four-letter words, I never heard a Marine complain much about the lack of protection. Wars are full of screw-ups, as anyone familiar with them knows. Soldiers who ask critical questions at televised press conferences–like those in the combat arms community–are also a self-selecting breed. If I am wrong, then how does one explain the disconnect between the media stories about that soldier’s dissatisfaction with the war, and the overwhelming support the military gave the Republicans at the polls? I would wager that some of these lugubrious stories are accurate in the narrow, fact-checking sense, but not in the larger statistical sense.
“I like Bush because he’s dumb and stubborn like us”, one Marine corporal in Iraq told me only half in jest. “He’ll fight to the finish here no matter how bad it looks now.” In other words, pace Harvard’s Harvey Mansfield, in his forthcoming Manliness: A Modest Defense, Bush is a man who, like the grunts, comprehends that duty takes precedence over perfect virtue.
Grunts–men, too, in Mansfield’s definition–hate being portrayed as victims just as much as they hate being portrayed as war criminals: whether victims of not enough up-armored vehicles or of an ill-begotten war. Marines, in particular, have always taken pride in making due with inferior equipment. That’s because they see themselves as warriors, which is exactly how Rumsfeld sees them. If Democrats see our armed forces likewise, they haven’t satisfactorily communicated it to the troops. I am not justifying the lack of steel-plated humvees and other equipment-related instances of Pentagon mismanagement, but I am saying that this has not led to a morale crash in Iraq, or anything near it. The last thing the grunts want is pity, which, sadly, is too often the preoccupation of Democrats.
I have found that the relatively few dissatisfied soldiers have a tendency to be more vocal and articulate. They bond with reporters more easily than other grunts, too, especially reporters who appear for short stints. The most reliable types for gauging opinion in the barracks are the quiet ones, the ones who seek to avoid journalists altogether–the ones it takes weeks to get to know. One unassuming Marine rifle instructor from Georgia, whom I met in West Africa, e-mailed me a few months later from Iraq, where he had become the senior advisor to an Iraqi army unit on the outskirts of Fallujah during the heavy fighting there last November. He was flush with pride about the performance of the Iraqis under his command. He told me that he wouldn’t have traded the opportunity of fighting in Iraq for anything.
Such warrior consciousness will intensify as the identities of the four armed services become increasingly indistinct. Rather than Army green, or Air Force blue, or Navy khaki, for example, the trend is toward purple–the color of jointness. That is not to say that the services are losing their individual cultures and personalities, only that operations both big and small are more and more combined affairs. As each year goes by, the interaction between the services deepens. The Air Force, with its once cushy, corporate way of existence, is becoming a bit more hardened and austere like the army, even as the Big Army becomes more small-unit oriented like the Marines. The Big Navy, meanwhile, with its new emphasis on small ships to meet the demands of littoral combat, is becoming more unconventional and powered-down like the Marine Corps.
As such fusion gathers strength, the guild consciousness of the military solidifies around a combat arms spirit to compensate for the weakening of service identity. In decades hence, the U.S. military will be less Army, Marines, Navy and Air Force, and more and more “purple warriors.” Military brass is comfortable with this evolution, which is also why the troops are uncomfortable with the idea of a draft. A draft would make this emerging caste less of a professional elite, with less to take pride in.
The Democrats hate the draft, too, to judge by the scare tactics they employed about the reinstitution of one in the final weeks of the 2004 election. So it should logically follow that the Democrats are comfortable with the warrior personality of the military as it is–and as it is evolving. But that simply can’t be true, given how uncomfortable the armed forces are with the Democrats, to judge by how they voted. Therefore, one has no choice but to conclude that the post-McGovern Democrats still have a fundamental problem with a fighting American military of any kind. The degree to which the party highlighted support from political generals like Wesley Clark and John Shalikashvili at its recent convention–to a far more obsessive-compulsive extent than did Republicans with their political generals at their convention–was a declaration of insecurity in this regard. When the Democrats are truly comfortable with a military that fights, you’ll know it from the talk in the barracks; then they won’t need generals at their convention any more than Republicans do.
Another aspect of today’s American military that Democrats can’t be happy about is the regionalization of it. A citizen army is composed of conscripts from all classes and parts of the country in roughly equal numbers. But a volunteer military will necessarily be dominated by those regions with an old-fashioned fighting ethos that a working-class existence helps preserve. I am referring to the Deep South and the adjacent Bible Belt of the southern Midwest and Great Plains. Marine and Army infantry units, particularly some Special Forces A-teams, show a proclivity for volunteers from the states of the former Confederacy, as well as Irish and Hispanics from poorer, more culturally conservative sections of coastal cities. Rather than a new trend, this is actually a return to the kind of military we had on the eve of World War II.
The “greatest generation” may have come from all walks of life and all regions of the country, but when it got to boot camp the trainers were professional soldiers, often with Southern accents, intent on doing their 30 years. The phenomenon of a conscript military emerging out of a volunteer one was faithfully described by Leon Uris, a drill instructor at the Marine Corps Recruit Training Depot in San Diego, as well as a radio operator during the bloody Marine landings at Guadalcanal and Tarawa. In his first novel, Battle Cry, published in 1953, Uris opens with a soliloquy by a salty veteran that still captures the mindset of America’s expeditionary military a half century hence:
You can best identify me by the six chevrons, three up and three down, and by that row of hashmarks. Thirty years in the United States Marine Corps.
I’ve sailed the Cape and the Horn aboard a battlewagon with a sea so choppy the bow was awash under thirty-foot waves. I’ve stood Legation guard in Paris and London and Prague. I know every damned port of call and call house in the Mediterranean and the world that shines
beneath the Southern Cross like the nomenclature of a rifle.
I’ve sat behind a machine gun poked through the barbed wire that encircled the International Settlement when the world was supposed to have been at peace, and I’ve called Jap bluffs on the Yangtze Patrol a decade before Pearl Harbor.
I know the beauty of the Northern Lights that cast their eerie glow on Iceland and I know the rivers and the jungles of Central America . . . [and] the palms of a Caribbean hellhole.
Yes, I know the slick brown hills of Korea just as the Marines knew them in 1871. Fighting in Korea is an old story for the Corps.
Iraq is just one aspect of this new-old world of professional soldiering that defines America’s imperial-style military: a military whose warrior spirit happens to fit well with that of the Old South.
Because the Democrats see the Old South only in terms of its racist legacy, they are blind to the Confederate spirit of warrior honor that still percolates through the military. The late historian and Wesleyan University professor, William Manchester, was not blind to it, though. In Goodbye, Darkness (1980), his memoir of his fighting days as a Marine in the Pacific, he pays tribute to Southerners battling the Japanese on Pacific atolls, charging “fearlessly with the shrill rebel yell of their great-grandfathers.”
This Confederate warrior spirit, in turn, is linked indelibly to Christian Evangelicalism, a movement defined by its emphasis on the Hebrew Bible. A stirring example is the romantic figure of Lt. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson of the Army of Northern Virginia: the reincarnation of the biblical warrior Joshua, according to historian Douglas S. Freeman in his classic, Lee’s Lieutenants: A Study in Command (1942). Freeman depicts Jackson as someone who lived by the serenity of the New Testament and fought by the smoldering thunder of the Old. The same is true of some of America’s elite ground fighting units today, whose Christian prayer services prior to combat place an emphasis on readings from the Old Testament.
This religious phenomenon, because it has fortified morale at critical moments during the difficult and bloody counterinsurgency struggle in Iraq, cannot necessarily be derided as a bad thing. If Democrats cannot be comfortable with it, then they cannot be comfortable with significant segments of the military, as well as with significant segments of the electorate. Whereas the professoriate leads to the outer world and cosmopolitan Europe, where there are no votes, the military leads back into the country itself–into its very soul–where elections are always decided.
Of course, Democrats yearn to believe that the age of wars is past. But it never is, whatever we might think. Democrats have to act more like men, who can stubbornly stick it out through weeks and weeks of awful headlines–rather than brilliantly analyze everything into failure and oblivion. Obviously, it’s something a woman can do, too.
1 Hard polling data of active-duty personnel remain elusive. The best indicators of how the active military voted are the Military Times readership poll of September 2004 and the National Annenberg Election Survey of October 2004. The former–which is likely skewed toward longer-serving, higher-ranking personnel–revealed a preference for Bush over Kerry of 73 to 18 percent. The latter–which included some family members of active-duty personnel–indicated 69 to 24 percent preferred Bush.