Politics & Policy

Unfit & Unwelcome

What our troops think of Kerry.

One of the questions I longed to hear someone ask John Kerry during the presidential debates was this: “Senator Kerry, voters say the war in Iraq is one of the key issues of this election. You are a decorated combat veteran who wants to lead our soldiers in Iraq and elsewhere. And yet by overwhelming numbers, America’s fighting men say they don’t want you to lead them. Why do you think this is so?”

I would love to have heard Kerry’s response. With his fistful of medals and films of himself swaggering around Vietnamese jungles, Kerry undoubtedly thought he would drive an electoral Swift boat through a base that supported President Bush in 2000 (and whose absentee ballots helped push Bush over the top in Florida).

The delicious irony is that a recently released survey reveals that Kerry’s behavior in Vietnam, and afterwards, cost him the votes of soldiers serving now, decades in the future–men and women who may play a critical role in killing Kerry’s White House dreams.

The Military Times 2004 Election Survey, e-mailed to more than 31,000 subscribers in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, National Guard, and Reserves, invited them to share their opinions on the presidential race. It was a rare chance for the troops–normally compelled to keep their lips zipped when it comes to their opinions of civilian leaders–to lob a few verbal grenades onto the presidential battlefield.

Of those who responded–and this part is not a surprise–73 percent said they planned to vote for President Bush. Eighteen percent said they expected to vote for Kerry. While the poll did not randomly select those it questioned–meaning the results cannot be read as representative of the military as a whole–it does reveal that many serving in uniform have a low opinion of “war hero” Kerry. Extremely low.

“To me, he put himself in a position to where he is a traitor,” says 26-year-old Army Specialist John Bass, who is serving in Iraq. “I don’t want someone like him running this country.”

“It’s about honor and integrity,” adds Marine Sgt. Jason Jester, another Bush supporter.

More than two-thirds of those polled say Kerry’s antiwar actions turned them against him. And here’s where the survey gets interesting. More than one in five say Kerry’s celebrated combat record is the reason they’re embracing Bush. (In contrast, only 12 percent say George Bush’s National Guard service made them less likely to vote for him.) These warriors have evidently been listening to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth–men who knew Kerry 30-odd years ago and say he was an arrogant, difficult-to-control officer who refused to obey orders. They may also have read Unfit for Command, in which Swifties John O’Neill and Jerome Corsi describe how Lt. Kerry blundered into one of the most dangerous canals in Vietnam–one notorious for Viet Cong ambushes–risking the lives of his crewmen.

Now, if you’re reading Unfit in the mountains of Afghanistan or the deserts of Iraq–if you’re a soldier whose life depends on the character and competence of your leaders–the question boils down to this: “Who do I want to send me into battle?”

The Military Times survey didn’t identify all the reasons respondents disliked Kerry, so one can only speculate. Perhaps our soldiers suspect that a President Kerry will one day treat them the same way he treated his former Vietnam comrades–betraying them and accusing them of atrocities. Today’s soldiers, born long after the Vietnam War ended, know that Kerry bears much responsibility for the fact that his fellow soldiers were spat on when they returned from Vietnam.

Since this is America, home of the most honorable military men in the world, there is precisely no chance our fighting men will refuse to follow the orders of their commander-in-chief–even if they have to hold their noses while doing so. But one has to wonder what impact Kerry’s election would have on morale and recruitment. We may well end up with a draft if Kerry is president–because fewer numbers of people will volunteer to put on (or keep on) a uniform and take orders from a man for whom they feel little but contempt, not only for his past acts, but for what many suspect will be his future ones. Does anybody think that President Kerry would not immediately impose the P.C. upon those expected to fight a worldwide war on terror?

In his book, Weak Link: The Feminization of the American Military, Brian Mitchell describes an incident that took place in the woods of Fort Benning, Georgia–one that illustrates the importance of a president’s character for those expected to unquestioningly obey his commands. In November of 1980, Ranger Class 2-81, made up mostly of newly minted second lieutenants fresh from West Point, embarked on a three-month endurance test, cut off from civilization. As Mitchell relates, “At ten o’clock in the evening of the first long day, the class was struggling to stay alert after hours of patrolling instruction when a bull-faced Ranger instructor stepped forward and announced that Ronald Reagan had just defeated Jimmy Carter in the presidential election. The class erupted into a riot of fist-pounding, boot-stomping, hat-throwing, war-whooping joy. While their instructors stood by grinning,” the men “abandoned military courtesy” to cheer “the defeat of their commander-in-chief.”

“From the top down,” Mitchell writes, “the American military despised Jimmy Carter,” in part for his “penchant for putting politics before military preparedness.”

This story is part of why I wish, before the debates were over, someone had asked Senator Kerry: “Given the importance of the war on terror, shouldn’t we listen to the people who are waging it? And if these people believe you are the wrong leader in the wrong place at the wrong time, shouldn’t we honor that belief?”

Anne Morse is a freelance writer in Virginia.

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