A fact that many of Ron Paul’s supporters mention to rebut claims that he is dangerous on national security is his overwhelming financial support from the military, and it’s true. While I don’t know the most recent numbers, as of mid-2011, he had received more money from service members than Barack Obama and all other Republican challengers combined. We’re not talking about large amounts of money (soldiers don’t make enough money to be big players in campaign finance), but still, the message seems pretty clear: Many members of our military are dissatisfied enough with what they perceive as the national-security status quo that they’re willing to invest in Ron Paul.
This support is inexplicable to many conservatives. Yet how many pundits, activists, and Republican leaders have had a candid talk with an experienced infantry NCO or company commander? Certainly many are well-connected with high-ranking members of the military command structure in Washington and have maybe even visited “downrange” on occasion, but have they gotten to know the troops?
If they had, they would have seen that years of war in the midst of the broken and dysfunctional societies of Iraq and Afghanistan have made soldiers remarkably (and understandably) cynical about the region. Simply put, preaching nation-building and democracy is one thing, fighting to make it happen is another thing entirely. In my experience serving with an armored cavalry squadron during the Surge, soldiers tended to fall into one of three general camps (these are rough generalizations, obviously, but still instructive):
1. The Middle East is a savage place that views human life cheaply and will never, ever be worth fighting to change, and in fighting to change these cultures, we simply make more enemies. So long as they don’t try to kill us at home, they can do whatever they want to each other, and if they do try to kill us at home, the response shouldn’t be nation-building or invasion but overwhelming punitive force designed to destroy our enemies, not transform cultures. We’ll call this school of thought “Rubble doesn’t cause trouble” (with a nod to Derb).
2. The Middle East is a savage place that views human life cheaply, but to defend our nation effectively we have to defeat the jihadists where they live. In some ways, this view is just as cynical as the “rubble doesn’t cause trouble” school (if not more so), but it takes the approach that the enemy can and should be defeated on its home turf because they can and will strike us at home otherwise. Defeating them on their home turf means beating them on the battlefield then leaving behind a force structure that can keep the remnants under an acceptable level of control. The only way we’ve seen to accomplish this strategy in a way that’s consistent with our national values is counterinsurgency, or COIN. We’ll call this school of thought (to quote a troop commander in Iraq) “COIN sucks but it works.”
3. The last ideological camp is the least-represented and most-mocked among those who’ve spent any significant time outside the wire. These are the idealists who seem to believe that just one more irrigation project, or one more new school, or a few more cups of chai (with some nice intercultural dialogue) will turn the corner in the Area of Operations. These people are frequently visited by the “good-idea fairy” and can get soldiers (and civilians) killed with their idealism. Good-idea fairies can swarm staff meetings, particularly at higher ranks, and it sometimes feels as if they can’t shake out of Sesame Street multiculturalism. We’ll call these guy “Three-cups-of-tea rubes.”
Almost every Ron Paul supporter I’ve ever known in the military (and I know quite a few) is in the “rubble doesn’t cause trouble” camp. They’re not idealistic about peace, and they don’t necessarily believe the rhetoric that if we leave Iraq and Afghanistan, we won’t get attacked. They instead think we responded the wrong way to 9/11 and that the last ten years of costly war have proven them right.
I disagree. I’m every bit as cynical about Middle Eastern culture, but I still think that we most effectively defend our country by the strategy we’ve pursued — upending hostile governments, defeating the jihadists where they live, and replacing the hostile governments with allies.
It would be a mistake, however, to believe that Ron Paul’s military supporters don’t have a coherent point. In fact, it’s far more coherent and defensible than the silly idealism fostered by the politically correct multiculturalism of the “three cups of tea” crowd. Additionally, if Obama’s proposed defense cuts actually happen, we’re more likely to see a modified Paul foreign policy — with fewer troops overseas and more reliance on air and naval assets to strike directly at threats rather than a heavy ground presence to change governments.
I know there are many other reasons why troops support Ron Paul (quite a few embrace libertarian economic principles), but this post is an attempt to explain his support within a national-security framework — how some of the most hardened warriors I know enthusiastically embrace a man whom others say is soft on national security. They don’t see him as soft. They see him as realistic. I disagree (strongly), but it’s an argument that won’t be defeated by ridicule, and it’s an argument grounded in a cultural reality that few Americans have experienced.
(And here’s my standard disclaimer in all election-related posts: I’m an evangelical for Mitt.)