Last week, the day before a crucial anti-surge amendment proposed by
Senator Jim Webb came up for a vote, Senator George Voinovich-- a
moderate Republican on the fence about whether to support the
legislation-- was besieged by lobbyists. They were not the usual K
Street denizens, though. Instead of silk-shirt-and-cigar chic and
libertine conviviality, these people had a decidedly military
aspect: Close-cropped hair. Great posture. Extreme politeness.The veterans of the Iraq war had come for Voinovich, part of
organized campaigns by both the anti-surge group VoteVets and the
pro-war Vets for Freedom (VFF) to influence the fate of Webb's
amendment. Although they're not supposed to lobby in their
uniforms, the veterans were playing their combat experience to the
hilt. "We use a lot of military philosophy" in approaching
lawmakers, explains Shelly Burgoyne, a former Army officer now with
VoteVets. That means breaking into squads, maintaining focus ("like
on a road march"), and "no wacky hair." VFF even clad its troops in
matching fatigues-brown polo shirts.
Until recently, veterans remained relatively quiescent on the
nastier politics of the war on terrorism. But the fifth year of the
Iraq war has brought not only a surge of American soldiers to Iraq,
but a surge of Iraq veterans to Washington: For the Webb vote, 40
VoteVets members and 250 VFFers descended on Capitol Hill. There
were so many vets walking around last week that you could have
mistaken the hallways of the House and Senate Office Buildings for
Not all the vets met with equal success. "We tried to do a sneak
attack," says Burgoyne of an attempt to see Voinovich. But her
platoon of six in favor of Webb failed to breach the senator's
office, while an anti-Webb detachment of veterans managed to slip
inside for a chat.
Their attention to lawmakers is eagerly reciprocated. Fully aware of
the status of combat experience as an argumentative trump card
(what do you know about Iraq compared with somebody who actually
fought there?) and the deference accorded a chest full of medals
(The New York Times ran a graphic detailing David Petraeus's
hardware just before his recent congressional appearance),
politicians on both sides of the Iraq debate have been busy
up-armoring themselves with veterans. At a recent Iraq-boosting
rally on the Senate lawn featuring the VFF and John McCain, Senator
John Cornyn explained the appeal of the vets arrayed behind him:
"They've walked the walk." At a parallel VoteVets photo op with
congressional Democrats, Senator Dick Durbin, his podium barnacled
with veterans, stressed the importance of letting vets spend time
with their families. "We should never take advantage of the fact
that [the veterans] are flesh and blood," he said, apparently
without noticing any irony.
The problem here, of course, is that, while veterans seem to put the
stamp of unimpeachable truth on any argument about Iraq, different
veterans are making very different arguments. On this battlefield,
who beats whom?
Earlier this year, it was the anti-Iraq contingent that had more
veterans speaking out on its side, thanks to VoteVets's hearty
opposition to the surge on the Hill and in TV ads--a dynamic that
surely irked Republicans used to strong support from the military
community. It also irked VFF's Pete Hegseth, a perky former Army
lieutenant who served in Baghdad and Samarra and received the
Bronze Star. (Inspired to join VFF after Bush announced his surge
strategy, Hegseth ascended quickly through its ranks to become
director in May.) "They had co-opted the debate!" he recalls
angrily. "When [VoteVets] gets on Capitol Hill--they just don't
represent most veterans, but they purport to." To make matters
worse, as spring turned into summer, a narrative of growing
military dissatisfaction with Iraq seemed to be taking shape,
encapsulated in a front- page New York Times story that ran the
very same day Bush had to present a report on Iraqi benchmarks to
Congress: as loved ones fight on, war doubts arise, it blared.
Hegseth posted the story on the conservative blog Townhall. com to
help lure pro-war vets to Washington.
Arriving here en masse last week, the VFF vets discovered that it is
sweet to bear the message people want to hear. With lawmakers
looking to shore up the fragile hope Petraeus had given them the
week before, VFF was able to get meetings with 40 senators or their
staff, a big uptick from a similar campaign they ran in July. While
VoteVets's welcome involved a meal with one-time presidential
candidate Wesley Clark at a McCormick & Schmick's in Crystal City,
the VFF vets were treated to a breakfast on the South Lawn of the
White House, where they were served fresh figs and pastries and got
to shake President Bush's hand for "what seemed like three hours,"
exults David Elwell, who served in Balad and is now with a
VFF-associated vets' group.
Now it is VFF whose position seems more secure. At the VFF rally,
John Soltz, the head of VoteVets, stood off to the side, regarding
a scraggly line of anti- Iraq protesters mournfully and expressing
the wish that he and Hegseth would make nice. "Pete, I talk to him
sometimes, I respect [his] opinion," says Soltz. Does Hegseth
return Soltz's warm feelings? "No," Hegseth says dismissively.
"John Soltz is a fixture with Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid."
But it's not always so easy for Hegseth's comrades to dismiss the
opposition. VFF likes to call its behavioral creed "the opposite of
Code Pink"-- a reference to the loud and wackily attired protest
group--which means stoic rectitude in the face of antiwar types.
While the protesters heckled the VFF rally, "our people stood there
silently," Hegseth explains. But that wasn't entirely true. Most of
the pro-surge veterans behaved well, but one grim-faced crew in the
back of the crowd tussled with two men in Iraq Veterans Against the
War t-shirts who had shown up to watch quietly. The police ended up
ejecting the two men across the lawn, where they had to stand in
exile with the ladies in googly glasses and pink face-paint.
Hot emotions are understandable here. Each veterans' group claims to
represent the opinion not just of certain veterans but of "Iraq
vets" as a whole class. This is partly a political tactic--who
would listen to a group called "A Few Iraq Veterans for
Freedom"?--but it also reflects the veterans' sincere conviction
that their stance reflects the only honest conclusion to be drawn
from the Iraq experience. Some Iraq vets I talked to were even
skeptical that their political opponents could actually be real
veterans. "A lot of those people weren't Iraq or Afghanistan vets,"
said VoteVets member Andrew Horne of the men and women at the VFF
rally. "I know they're wearing the shirts, but I saw a lot of guys
who were older than my Dad."
So which group really does speak for those who have fought in Iraq?
A widely cited Military Times poll taken last December found that
72 percent of active- duty soldiers thought the war was spreading
the force too thin. But, somewhat confusingly, half the respondents
also said we should deploy more troops to Iraq. In the end, it
"depends on how you ask the question," admits Adriel Domenech,
VFF's spokesman. Do you want to go home? "Of course" can get a
troop counted among the ranks of the dissatisfied. Do you want to
give up? "Well, hell no!" can make you a supporter of a policy that
would have us in Iraq for decades. This ambiguity reflects the
broader political landscape of the war: Battle lines are starkly
drawn, but, behind them, the combatants hold views more
similar--and complicated--than they are willing to let on. Most want
to leave. Few want to fail.
Military experience--or support from those who have it--cannot
resolve that paradox. Maybe that's why appeals from veterans have
begun to blur together. The day after his meeting with VFF vets,
Voinovich voted against the Webb amendment--just as the group had
wanted. But VFF shouldn't take too much credit. A Voinovich aide
contacted shortly after the vote recalled that some veterans had
indeed visited the senator--they were "very respectful," he said.
But, as for which group they were from or what creed they espoused,
he couldn't remember.