Martial Flaw

by Jonathan Cohn | September 12, 2005

From the day Cindy Sheehan, mother of a fallen American soldier, began her vigil in Crawford, Texas, President Bush left the job of attacking her to his henchmen in the Republican Party and his sycophants in the press. Instead, Bush has largely confined himself to one modest, respectful response: that Sheehan's opposition to the war in Iraq is a relatively lonely one within the military community. "I met with a lot of families," Bush explained at a late August press conference. "She doesn't represent the view of a lot of the families I have met with." Bush may be right about that. Sheehan's appearance on the national scene doesn't prove that most military families oppose the war any more than it proves that immediately withdrawing soldiers, the policy she has advocated, is the one the United States should now pursue. But Sheehan's value isn't as a barometer of public opinion or as a source of foreign policy wisdom. It's as proof of one very simple point: that a person can criticize the war and still support the troops. If that idea seems self-evident, then you haven't paid much attention to politics these past few years. Whenever Bush and his allies have faced rising opposition to some element of the Iraq war, they've tried to shut down the argument by suggesting that their critics are undermining the morale and safety of U.S. troops abroad--in effect, using American soldiers as human shields in a p.r. war. They did so most famously, and offensively, at the 2004 Republican National Convention, when an unhinged Zell Miller, the ostensibly Democratic senator from Georgia, accused Democrats of slandering the soldiers. "Democratic leaders see America as an occupier, not a liberator," Miller said. "And nothing makes this Marine madder than someone calling American troops occupiers rather than liberators." Republicans and their supporters launched similar rhetorical broadsides after rising insurgency activity in 2004 (when Representative Rob Portman said that criticizing Bush's leadership was "demoralizing" to the troops), after revelations this year about prisoner abuse in military detention facilities (when Deborah Pryce, another House Republican, attacked Democrats for "jumping at any chance to point the finger at our own troops"), and after a recent series of setbacks (when Oliver North lashed out at the "old, anti- military, 'Blame America First' crowd" for dwelling on them). These arguments have resonated because many Americans believe that the Democratic Party, or at least its more left-leaning elements, is hostile toward the military. And they believe this because, not that long ago, it was at least partly true. During the Vietnam era, the left frequently attacked the nation's soldiers as well as its political leaders, calling them baby-killers and ostracizing them upon their return home. And, starting in the 1970s, many prominent Democrats called for reduced defense spending, solidifying the impression that they wanted to weaken the military as an institution. But nobody in the respectable left is calling American soldiers baby-killers anymore--this, despite the fact that thousands of Iraqi civilians, many of them children, have in fact died because of the war. During the prison abuse scandal, the left directed its anger over the torture and humiliation of detainees squarely at the policymakers who allowed it to happen, not the frontline soldiers who carried it out. In Washington, the split between the military and Democrats flared up briefly in the early '90s, when President Clinton proposed allowing gays to serve openly in the Armed Forces. But, lately, when Democrats have been talking about military issues, it has been to castigate the president for not deploying more manpower and better equipment to Iraq--in effect, for doing to the military what critics said the Democrats were trying to do back in the 1980s. Have Democrats just become more politically savvy? In some cases, perhaps. The constant proclamations of patriotism--like the loud "U.S.A." chants at last year's Democratic National Convention in Boston--can have a forced, obviously self-conscious quality about them. But some of the change is real. During the 1960s and early '70s, the military stood for all of the values--conformity to prevailing social attitudes, blind obedience to authority, et cetera--against which the left was staging a full-scale social revolution. That's a big reason why it became the object of such ire. Today's culture wars, which are largely about sex, religion, and the intersection of the two, simply haven't provoked the same kind of widespread upheaval. And, however contrived patriotism by the Democrats may seem, the fact remains that many prominent Democrats are decorated war heroes who convincingly speak the language of honor and who seem genuinely dismayed that the administration left U.S. troops so obviously unprepared for the task at hand. That these shifts haven't registered fully in the national psyche is testimony, in part, to just how deep a scar the left's past contempt for the military created. It is also testimony to the way Bush and his allies have cleverly used the cultural distance between red and blue America to reinforce perceptions of liberal sentiment about American soldiers. But that's why people like Sheehan are so important. Critics can truthfully say that she doesn't understand foreign policy, that she hangs out with radicals, and that she espouses extremist views herself. But the one thing they cannot plausibly say is that she has contempt for American soldiers. Indeed, the basic rationale for her appeal is to get the troops out of harm's way--to keep them from dying and to spare their families from grieving. And she's not the only one talking that way. Quite apart from the surprisingly strong candidacy of Paul Hackett, an Iraqi veteran who opposed the war and nearly won an Ohio congressional election last month, reports from the front lines suggest many soldiers have started expressing their own misgivings about the war's rationale, execution, and feasibility. Noting the difficulty of fighting an insurgency with strong civilian support, one Marine quoted in a recent story by KnightRidder's Tom Lasseter asked, "Why do I feel like I'm in a f------ Vietnam movie?" If our soldiers are asking these kinds of questions themselves, surely they don't mind if we keep asking them, too.

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