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 Camp Pendleton.
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 inner sanctum of 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.
EVE FAIRBANKS is an assistant editor at The New Republic.