Nothing concentrates the mind about the implications of presidential policy more than having your son shot at. I'm the father of a Marine who served in Bush's wars. Until I reregistered as an independent I was a life-long Republican. If Obama is nominated he will be the first Democratic candidate for the presidency I've voted for. My support for Obama is personal but I also think it represents a potential trend.
My son John volunteered in 1999. My son's service unexpectedly connected me to my country in a new way. Suddenly every young person wearing a military uniform, of whatever class, race or gender was my child and every military parent was my brother or sister. This visceral connection humbled me. I had never served. Why did I deserve the honor of belonging (even by proxy) to the diverse family of Americans who are willing to sacrifice for the rest of us? What could I offer in return? Nothing but solidarity, gratitude and a deeper love of country.
I'm no expert on the military. Nevertheless, I've learned as much as anyone in America about the military family. I know what I know because the military family has been talking to me -- literally.
As a writer, I explored my son's military involvement through several best selling military-themed books and many articles for the Washington Post and other newspapers. The response has been intense. In the last 6 years, I've received over 10,000 often heartfelt emails from military people. I have learned a lot about what they believe.
This year the Republicans can't count on the military family's vote. Because Obama was right about Iraq, he may become the candidate of choice for far more pro-military voters than pundits might expect. Note: Since Senator Clinton voted for the war in Iraq she doesn't present a clear alternative to McCain or to the Republican Party. Of the Democratic candidates only Senator Obama has a chance to win the support of the military family. Here's why and here's how.
If McCain would only say what I suspect he believes -- that the Iraq war was a tragic mistake, that his support was a mistake and that our policy should be to take responsibility for the mess we've made, but that the best we can do is get out of Iraq as fast as is possible while causing as little harm as possible -- I (and others who mourn Bush's folly) might vote for him. Instead he is talking about "winning" and staying in Iraq for many years. How do you win a war you never should have started which was based on misinformation that morphed into outright lies?
McCain is face-saving and pandering to the Republican base at the expense of our military family. (Disclosure: In 2000 I went on several radio shows to argue for McCain's candidacy. A few years later McCain wrote a kind endorsement for one of my military-related books. I think it is a national tragedy that the Republican establishment destroyed his chances in 2000. Had he been president on 9/11 I'm sure that however he reacted to the attack on America that his actions would never have included invading Iraq.)
It makes me sad that I can't support McCain but I can't because the Republicans and Democrats share something besides trying to figure out what to do about Iraq. Both parties share a primary election system in which the ideological fringes have outsized importance. To get the nomination, candidates pander to the extremes. This pandering has fatally undermined any Republican's ability to lead us out of the mess Bush made.
Obama panders too when he promises we'll be out of Iraq in a year or so. He knows this is fiction. But Obama's pandering to his base is less dangerous than McCain's "never surrender!" pandering. That's because the ideological fringe of the Democratic Party is less dangerous than the ideologically extreme wing of the Republican Party.
The Democratic ideologues are merely unrealistic idealists, the sorts of village idiots that picket Marine recruiters in Berkeley. The Republican ideologues are bellicose warmongers who tarnish America's reputation and get our people killed. They are the torture enthusiasts, the war-of-choice enthusiasts, the radio talk show jerks who send other people's children to wars their own kids don't volunteer for. The Republican fringe goads America into acting like a bully. They are believers in a form of American exceptionalism that -- spewed by bizarre apocalypse-obsessed religious right evangelicals and/or Dr. Strangelove neocons -- is a jingoistic, toxic, fear-driven myth of "they" against "us" that if unstopped, will result in wars without end. And above all the Republican fringe isn't a fringe at all: they've become the heart and soul of the ugly fear-mesmerized party in power.
Republicans may talk about patriotism and honor but in fact through their stubborn support for Bush's war they have become our military's worst enemies. They literally get our men and women killed. But many of us in the military family have had it with the Republican's bellicose nonsense -- Bush's "Bring it on!" and now McCain's version; "I'll chase bin Laden to the gates of hell!" Enough is enough.
Through countless discussions I've had via email and in person and while speaking at the War College and many other military venues, I've learned that people in the military (at all levels and whether they will say so in public or not) are torn over their initial support for the war in Iraq. Why did we in the military family support the war in Iraq, at least at first? Picture rooting for your kid in a baseball game times ten thousand! In other words any president can count on the root-for-the-home-team factor and more importantly, the protective edgy goodwill of military people, especially families, who are -- in equal parts -- incredibly proud of their child's (or spouse's) service yet terrified by its implications. This support has worn off.
Don't get me wrong, the military family's fierce loyalty to the military isn't wavering but there is a growing suspicion that America's military has suffered a grievous blow from an inept and intellectually unqualified president. Meanwhile our hard-fought legitimate war in Afghanistan is up for grabs. And even though post-surge some good things are indeed happening in Iraq, the military family knows that good things might happen anywhere in our troubled world that our military stepped in. If we were in Darfur we could stop a genocide. If we invaded Zimbabwe we'd be greeted as liberators. We could "solve" the nuke issue in North Korea... The list is endless. But everyone in the military family also knows that we can't be everywhere nor should we be. And except for the willingly self deceived, we know that Iraq had nothing more to do with 9/11 than the countries mentioned above. It would have made as much sense to invade Switzerland.
We need a new beginning. McCain and/or Clinton are more of the same: leaders who contributed to a historic mistake that resulted in 4000 Americans needlessly killed and tens of thousands wounded, and a wave of anti-American hatred sweeping the world. McCain and Clinton won't apologize for their error. And a failure to tell the truth is no foundation on which to build a presidency.
Obama was right on Iraq from the start. Moreover because of his serendipitous ethnic, social and political background, Obama is uniquely positioned to reach out to the world and help restore America's image and thus make all our men and women in uniform somewhat safer. Thus a vote for Obama is the true pro-military vote. And it is also a vote for honor because honor rests on truth.
Nevertheless if Obama is to win the military family vote and more importantly to be an effective commander-in-chief, he needs to convince the military family (and countless moderate Republicans and independents) that their perception that Democrats are reflexively antimilitary is wrong when it comes to him. So here are some ideas for Senator Obama to consider.
First: Avoid the usual condescending liberal language when speaking about the military. Nothing turns off military people faster than being talked about as if we are victims. Liberals don't seem to get that military people are proud of their service and mostly pleased with their choice to serve. That is why so many reenlist.
Second: You need to talk positively about military service as a life where tens of thousands of Americans find meaning, community and happiness because the military exemplifies fairness and opportunity. For instance, when you are looking for a good social model point out that the pay of a 4-star general is only 9 times higher than that of a private, in contrast to the example you often give about a CEO earning in 10 minutes what one of his workers earns in a year.
Third: When you talk about your program for helping college students financially and say that they should owe their country something in return, you list organizations such as the Peace Corps as the sort of group they should join to "give something back." Add military service to your list.
Fourth: Do what no leading Republican or Democrat has had the courage to do. Talk about the unwitting collusion between the Pentagon's recruiting planners, our top universities and the upper-middle-class. ROTC was kicked off campuses back in the early 1970s. That was about politics. Now it's also about upper class snobbery and "me" selfishness. The heavy lifting should be shared more evenly; that or we need a draft. Let America know that as President you'll call for shared military sacrifice by all classes, just as you are calling for fairer taxes. In a Nixon-goes-to-China type reversal against stereotype call for Harvard, etc., to bring the ROTC back to their schools. (The gays in the military issue has been a smokescreen to hide antimilitary not-with-my-child sentiment at the Ivy League. Military policy on gays can only be changed by the President and Congress.)
Fifth: Don't rely on a few retired generals for advice on the military. Between now and November get to know the enlisted military on a personal level in the same way as (according to press reports) you have enjoyed getting to know your Secret Service detail. Spend a few days on Parris Island watching recruit training. Go light-to-lights with a platoon, watch the best teachers in America--USMC drill instructors--work. The spirit you'll discover will resonate. It's the same uplifting spirit you found in so many people who sacrificed to work with you on the streets of Chicago.
Sixth: Ask either Senator James Webb or Senator Joe Biden to be your running mate. Besides their other obvious qualifications, Webb and Biden have the moral authority of parents with sons serving.
Seventh: Tell the truth about how hard it is going to be to extricate ourselves from Iraq, and how long the road may be in Afghanistan. Military people will respond to a call for sacrifice better than to anything that sounds glib. Give us the bad news straight.
In conclusion: Bush, and those who voted for his misbegotten war in Iraq, have abused and demoralized our military. Deployments seem endless. Families in the military are breaking up. The National Guard has been misused. The military has been dishonored by having 150,000 contractors foisted on it in Iraq, many of whom are mercenaries outside the military chain of command. For the sake of our military and national security, the Bush war on our military must not be continued just to appease Republican's pride or to give a "win" to some members of an aggrieved boomer generation that is still asking "who lost Vietnam?" Moreover the needless Bush war is costing us at least two trillion dollars that will threaten our economic and thus actual national security, for a generation. We must choose good judgment over experience, loyalty to country over loyalty to party, the long-term good over short-term "winning," real security and honor over hubris.
McCain is a courageous man. So is Obama. Obama has shown incredible courage by running for the presidency as a black man, something that General Powell refused to do, given the all-too-real threat faced by any black candidate in this gun-crazy, residually racist country of ours. Obama's courage is exemplary, dare I say valorous and martial in character.
I don't know if Obama will be a great commander-in-chief. Time will tell. But Obama gives me hope for a better American future. And hope is not an empty word, as I learned during the many long days and nights when my son was at war.
Frank Schaeffer is a writer and author of "CRAZY FOR GOD-How I Grew Up As One Of The Elect, Helped Found The Religious Right, And Lived To Take All (Or Almost All) Of It