Rank and bile

G.I.'s speaking out, angry vets signing petitions, generals attacking him. George Bush's once-rosy relationship with the military is turning sour.

Published October 2, 2003 11:19PM (EDT)

Rarely in recent memory has a president seemed to enjoy such a close personal -- and political -- relationship with the U.S. armed forces as President Bush does. A few hundred of Florida's overseas military ballots narrowly helped him become president in 2000, after all. And since Sept. 11, the Bush White House has unleashed the armed forces to wage two wars in two years.

For the first time in a decade, Army generals have become household names, U.S. soldiers have discovered newfound admiration among the general public, and in May, Bush himself donned a flight suit in an elaborate visit to the USS Abraham Lincoln to announce that major fighting in Iraq had ended. Immediately after Bush's whirlwind victory in Iraq, his relationship with the armed forces seemed untouchable.

But in recent months, the GOP and the Bush White House have suddenly faced a new, increasingly chilly reception from men and women in uniform. There are the growing ranks of retired generals who have turned Bush critics, like Gen. Anthony Zinni, former head of the U.S. Central Command and a special envoy to the Middle East. Zinni endorsed Bush in 2000, but recently during a particularly scathing public critique compared Iraq war strategy to a "brain fart" emitted from a Bush "policy wonk."

But perhaps more troubling for Bush is the increasing frustration and anger being voiced by officers and enlisted personnel alike. It's a frustration fueled not only by the unexpectedly difficult military situation in Iraq and the absence of a clear exit strategy, but by broken promises over veterans issues. Could 2004 be the year when the military vote swings to the Democrats? That might seem too farfetched a hope for Democrats, who have watched the military become a solidly Republican bloc over the past 30 years, to the point where a recent study found Republicans outnumber Democrats 8-to-1 among today's officers. But that trend, at least, could very well come to an end -- and the entry of four-star Gen. Wesley Clark into the presidential race as a Democrat and powerful Bush critic surely helps.

"What you have going into 2004 is the potential for some [political] forces, usually pushing in the direction of Republicans, to not be pushing so hard, or some maybe even be pushing towards Democrats," says Peter Feaver, military expert and professor of political science at Duke University. Feaver says Bush starts out with the political support of the armed forces. "But if Iraq worsens -- if Bush faces hostile relations both on the ground overseas and economically at home -- and the Democrats nominate somebody who looks strong on national defense, like Wesley Clark, then the military vote becomes more ambivalent."

It's already easy to spot strains in the once unwavering relationship between the White House and the armed forces. The blunt assessments of the administration are often scathing. "[Bush] pats us on the back with his speeches and stabs us in the back with his actions," Charles Carter, a retired Navy senior chief petty officer, recently told a Knight-Ridder reporter. "I will vote non-Republican in a heartbeat if it continues as is."

A recent posting on a Military.com chat room bulletin board is not atypical: "It is likely a lot of Active and Retired Military who supported this President will find 'staying home' a strong option at the next election. We put our trust in President Bush and he has let us down."

Even more stinging was this first-person Army account: "For the past six months, I have been participating in what I believe to be the great modern lie: Operation Iraqi Freedom." That was published last month in the Peoria Journal Star, by a U.S. soldier named Tim Predmore serving on active duty with the 101st Airborne Division, based near Mosul in northern Iraq. (And there is this complaint of an ex-G.I. whose wife was deployed.) The harsh words from military men are especially poignant "when you consider how Bush became president by a few military absentee ballots," says retired U.S. Army Col. David Hackworth. "I suspect a huge number of those overseas ballots will not be marked Republican in 2004."

The reason is simple, says Hackworth, a White House critic whose Web sites, Soldiers for the Truth and Hackworth.com, have been documenting the contempt many service men and women feel for the Iraq war planners. "Most military guys who understand war, professional soldiers, they recognize America is engaged in its largest and nastiest war. And like in Vietnam, they don't see any light at the end of the tunnel," he says. "My e-mail, overwhelmingly from soldiers and vets, says these guys are really pissed off about the handling of the war. And what's amazing is the huge number of folks from this group no longer relating to the Republican Party."

Today's list of military complaints is long: Many fighting men and women are upset over how the war in Iraq has been conducted (i.e. trying to prosecute the war "on the cheap"); feel that forces are being stretched too thinly; think that Pentagon civilian planners are not listening to generals; worry that part-time National Guard and reservists are being asked to carry too much of a burden; and find the administration's rationale for the war slippery. They also seem to have a visceral dislike for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who's seen as having a vendetta against the Army, and think the Bush White House seems eager to send troops off to war yet reluctant to help Congress pass more comprehensive health benefits for disabled veterans.

During a 1999 campaign speech at the Citadel military school in South Carolina, Bush complained that under President Clinton, military "resources are over-stretched. Frustration is up, as families are separated and strained. Morale is down. This administration wants things both ways: To command great forces, without supporting them. To launch today's new causes, with little thought of tomorrow's consequences."

Today, those critiques strangely mirror the precise complaints being leveled against the Bush White House by some within the military. Veterans groups, for instance, are furious that the White House is blocking legislation that would help ease the burden of medical bills for 670,000 disabled vets. The Pentagon says it cannot afford the $5 billion-a-year budget buster and has recommended a presidential veto.

Vets fume when they contrast that belt-tightening talk against Bush's request to Congress for $87 billion to secure and rebuild Iraq, a number that's sure to escalate in the coming years. The former G.I.'s have even launched an online campaign, dubbed "Out the Door in 2004," targeting politicians who stand in the way of the bill's passage. Chief among those politicians is Bush.

The veterans bill remains bottled up in Republican committees -- and in a strange role reversal, it's the Democrats wearing the white hats in this Capitol Hill showdown over the military. Democrats are collecting congressional signatures for a "discharge petition" in an effort to the get the benefits bill to the floor for a vote where it would certainly pass in an up-or-down roll call. The Republican leadership, though, has forbidden its members from signing the petition despite the fact more than 100 of them cosponsored the bill.

Drawing even more ire today is the stretched-too-thinly troop rotation schedule for Iraq, exacerbated by the administration's inability to get additional allies to send soldiers to ease the burden on the U.S. That failure has placed extraordinary strains on young families in America, especially for National Guard members and reservists, some of whom, instead of being called up for five days of local flood duties, are being lifted out of their communities and jobs for more than a year at a time to serve in Iraq.

Adding to the drip-drip frustration was a trial balloon floated this summer by the Pentagon to cut hazardous pay for soldiers in Iraq. Also, some G.I.'s recovering from battle wounds were getting billed for their hospital meals.

"An opportunity has been created to talk to this group. We'll see if Democrats take advantage of it," said Steven Nider, director of foreign and security studies at the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank in Washington. It will be tough. In part, because Democrats will have to thread the needle in criticizing the Iraq war effort without being seen as criticizing the troops.

More importantly, the military, once seen as so apolitical that Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower's party affiliation remained a mystery right up until he entered the 1952 presidential campaign, has become an increasingly Republican voting bloc.

During the post-Vietnam 1970s, Democrats were perceived as being anti-military. In the 1980s, President Reagan broke ranks with traditional fiscal conservatives and ushered in massive defense spending increases. And during the 1990s, President Clinton forever alienated the military with his gays-in-the-military initiative.

A 1999 survey directed by Feaver and historian Richard H. Kohn, conducted for the Triangle Institute for Security Studies, found that 64 percent of officers identify themselves as Republicans, while only 8 percent call themselves Democrats. Indeed, Clark himself recently admitted that as an officer he routinely voted for Republican White House candidates. (It's true the Army's enlisted ranks are made up increasingly of minorities and women, but studies show those soldiers vote for a more conservative ticket than their counterparts in the general population, who lean strongly Democratic.)

Merle Black, professor of government at Emory University in Atlanta and an expert on politics in the modern South, thinks that for now the military is with Bush. But a change in fortune would be disastrous for the White House: "If Bush loses the military vote, he loses the election," says Black. While the number of votes that come out of the military community, including family members and retired veterans, is relatively small in comparison to all the ballots counted on Election Day, Florida's disputed recount proved just how critical a voting bloc it is. (As a political entity, there are roughly 2 million active-duty soldiers and reservists currently serving, not to mention their extended families. There are an additional 10 million veterans, with the largest percentage made of up of aging World War II fighters.)

More importantly, the voting bloc represents a larger civilian population, largely white, male and somewhat Southern, that today places national security at the top of its concerns. It's a voting bloc that has become increasingly hostile to the Democratic Party in recent years.

That's where the Democrats' retired general comes in. "If Clark were able to pull the military his way, the likelihood is he would have greater support from the general population as a whole," says ex-Marine Lou Cantori, who has taught at West Point and is an expert in military policies in the Middle East at the University of Maryland.

"That's why Republicans fear him the most," says Clark campaign advisor Mike Frisby. "He's the one Democrat who can attract attention from that segment of the American society that care about our military and America being strong in the world."

To be sure, Clark does not enjoy unanimous support within the military community. Last week, Clark's former colleague, retired Gen. H. Hugh Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on 9/11, made it known that if Clark were nominated by the Democrats, "Wes won't get my vote." Some old Army professionals, who say Clark had the reputation as a brown-noser, joke that the applause he won upon entering the presidential race was equal to the applause he received behind his back when he exited the Army. But Hackworth, who recently posted an interview with Clark on his Web site, reports that two former three-star generals called asking for Clark contact information because they want to establish "generals for Clark" fundraising programs. "There is a certain amount of magic that comes out of West Point," he says.

If there is any magic surrounding Clark, it stands in stark contrast to the loathing that clouds Rumsfeld's relationship with the Army. "It's taken on an almost mythical, urban-legend quality," says Feaver, author of "Armed Servants," an examination of the civilian relationship with the military. "Everybody knows somebody who heard about how Rumsfeld dissed a general."

"This is the most anti-soldier secretary [of defense] we've had since Robert McNamara," says Ralph Peters, a retired Army intelligence officer, referring to the architect of President Johnson's Vietnam War troop buildup in the 1960s. "Rumsfeld is hated by the officer corps."

Part of the friction stems from Rumsfeld's obsession with transforming the "heavy" Army, equipped and trained to fight battles on the open fields of Eastern Europe, into something more modern, more agile and more responsive. He became convinced wars could be won with air power and small bands of special operations troops, not hundreds of columns of tanks.

In Iraq, a great showcase for his modern strategy, Rumsfeld got it half-right. The U.S. did not need 300,000 boots on the ground, or overwhelming force, to oust Saddam Hussein and take control of Iraq. But Rumsfeld's transformation blueprint has fallen apart during postwar reconstruction. The Army urged him to commit 200,000 troops to oversee a nation of 25 million. Rumsfeld refused, and today, in the wake of daily attacks on American soldiers and weekly terrorist attacks, there's near universal agreement that his Pentagon plan was a major blunder. (Rumsfeld insists the battle plan was approved by the Army; military critics say it was approved by a couple of chosen yes men.) "This administration came in with an idea of transforming the military into something -- God knows what -- lighter, smaller, quicker, whatever," says Zinni. "The bill payer was going to be [Army] ground units, heavy units. And now we have a shortage of exactly what we needed out there."

But the Rumsfeld-Army battle is not just over guns and ammo; it's also about a feeling that the secretary and his civilian Pentagon aides hold the Army in contempt. "Within the military there's a perception they don't care. That they -- Rumfseld and the OSP crowd -- have their strategy and don't care what the military thinks about how to conduct war in Afghanistan and Iraq," says Nider.

One former senior military official recalls the cynical joke making the rounds inside the Pentagon just days after the Sept. 11 attacks: "If Saddam Hussein wasn't responsible for 9/11, he should have been, because we're going to nail him for it." It was being told among officers who saw exactly where the administration hawks were taking the war on terrorism, regardless of whether the targets were connected to actual terrorist attacks.

According to one veteran military insider, Bush's political guru, Karl Rove, has been briefed about the growing political problem Rumsfeld is creating among military voters, but Rove made it clear that nothing is going to change since Rumsfeld has Vice President Dick Cheney's full backing.

Peters, a hawk on the Iraq war and a supporter of Bush's war on terrorism, doubts Rumsfeld will hurt the president politically. "Troops compartmentalize," he says. "One friend of mine, highly placed in Iraq and who hates Rumsfeld, who thinks he's put troops at risk unnecessarily, he said, 'I'd crawl over barbed wire to vote for George Bush again.'"

But for now, the frustration grows louder and louder as a traditional Republican bedrock community makes its feelings known about Bush.

Last week, Larry Syverson, a Richmond, Va., father with two military sons serving in Iraq, was featured in a full-page New York Times ad. "Donald Rumsfeld Betrayed My Sons and Our Nation. It's Time For Him to Go," read the headline. It called for Rumsfeld's resignation as secretary of defense.

Also last week, Fernando Suarez, whose 20-year-old son Jesus was among the first fatalities in Iraq, told reporters, "My son died because Bush lied."

In his Peoria Journal opinion column, the G.I. Predmore wrote: "There is only one truth, and it is that Americans are dying. There are an estimated 10 to 14 attacks every day on our servicemen and women in Iraq. As the body count continues to grow, it would appear that there is no immediate end in sight." He added, "I can no longer justify my service on the basis of what I believe to be half-truths and bold lies."

And at his Naval Institute address, Zinni, who served in uniform for 39 years, compared Iraq to Vietnam. Speaking of his contemporaries in the room, he said: "Our feelings and our sensitivities were forged on the battlefields of Vietnam, where we heard the garbage and the lies, and we saw the sacrifice. We swore never again would we allow it to happen. And I ask you, Is it happening again? And you're going to have to answer that question, just like the American people are. And remember, every one of those young men and women that come back [a casualty] is not a personal tragedy, it's a national tragedy."

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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