That the warrior class tends to think and vote conservatively goes without saying. You only have to spend twenty minutes in a military town to bump into a burly fella with a shoulder tattoo that reads something akin to ?I hate liberals,? although you?d probably already gotten the idea driving off the exit ramp behind a pickup truck with a bumper sticker that reads, ?At Least Bush Was American.? It might therefore come across as quixotic to suggest the Left stands a fighting chance at gaining the favor of what has traditionally proven a reliable right-wing constituency. But as someone who was immersed in barracks life for nearly five years, both in the enlisted and officer ranks, both at home and abroad, I suspect that you?re wrong, and that the Left does stand a chance, and a quite credible one at that.
The key text here is Thomas Frank?s What?s the Matter with Kansas? The book has already been discussed ad infinitum, so I?ll spare you the nuts and bolts. Suffice it to say Frank makes a compelling argument that a significant portion of ?middle America? votes against its economic interests (that is, votes Republican) as a matter of cultural principle. Even though the rise of unions proved the greatest boon to working-class and middle-class Americans in their history, and even though progressive taxation ensures a power and wealth distribution they might find enticing, both causes fail to be accepted?or even opposed?on their individual merits, but instead are subsumed into larger soap operas about commies versus capitalists, abortionists versus Christians, gays versus straight folk, and traitors versus patriots. I would add preventing costly and immoral wars to Frank?s list of reasonable policies historically rejected out-of-hand by the working-class and middle-class Right.
I don?t believe, then, that strong military support for Ron Paul should be dismissed as a lone curiosity. Ron Paul?s devoted following in the Republican primary, especially among our nation?s war-fighters, does not merely represent a symptom of grassroots libertarianism, but indicates a growing frustration among our foot soldiers, their families, and their communities with American foreign policy in toto. They, along with millions of foreign civilians, have been forced to bear the brunt, going on sixty years now, of America?s failed and demoralizing tries at ?muscular? intervention. It appears the question is finally being asked, on the part of those who should be the ones asking: ?Are our blood, sweat, and tears truly worth it anymore??
For the moment, this question is largely being asked in right-libertarian precincts, and there it might remain. But the Left could win the hearts and minds of some of America?s most committed citizens, and perhaps even a sizable portion of their neighbors, if it is genuinely interested in doing so. Moreover, for those of us who find our foreign policy not only inadvisable but repugnant, engaging with our nation?s service-members becomes more than a matter of Democratic Party strategy, but an attempt at real seismic change. Here?s a preliminary sketch of what this engagement might look like.
1. Seize the Airwaves, Stack the Congress: As a Pew poll back in October revealed, only one-third of post-9/11 veterans believe our campaigns in both Afghanistan and Iraq were worth fighting. Among the pool of doubters, there exists an impressive fraction of men and women who are willing and able to speak compellingly about the costs of war. This number will likely accrue if and when the situation in Afghanistan deteriorates further and we approach the Afghan version of the Vietnam airlift. If the Taliban reclaims the Helmand, Kandahar, and Kunar provinces (among others), and such footage makes its way, real-time, to the screens and tubes of Americans who risked life and limb in those very deserts and valleys, frustrations will mount. Vets will be eager to speak their minds (many already are so eager), and left institutions ought to be the ones providing them with the venue. While this would prove a long-haul effort?requiring a deliberate effort to increase the number of vet spokespeople, writers, forums, protests, and congressional candidates?the latest saber-rattling on Iran disallows for any dawdling. Veterans for Peace, Andrew Bacevich, and military support for Ron Paul signify only the most visible rumblings of a far deeper eruption, but it?s up to us to redirect the fallout.
2. The Ghost of Smedley Butler: It?s one of those charming, if not ominous, ironies of Marine Corps boot camp that all recruits, at one point or another, find themselves chanting, ?It was good enough for Smedley Butler?and it?s good enough for me.? Aside from departing as the most decorated U.S. Marine in history (Chesty Puller would later snatch the prize), Major General Butler made a name for himself as the author of War is a Racket and countless other attacks on what would later be derided as the military-industrial complex. His favorite target was war profiteers, and it is this legacy that is most relevant to our current woes. It?s not an overstatement to say that the group who despises America?s military contractors the most (other than disgruntled leftists) is the military. Most of the contractors found loitering about the forward operating bases make twice (sometimes three or four times) as much as your average gunslinger, and most don?t have much to show for it, except maybe a world-class belly. What?s worse, their bosses back home, living it up in the elite enclaves of northern Virginia and Maryland, rake in millions. There?s an obvious and justified resentment among the ranks, and were these folks offered the voice they deserve, some comeuppance might be had. They certainly have their stories to tell. What?s needed is a full-throttle assault on our merchants of death, and a widespread investigation of their actions over the last decade, spearheaded by the Left and sustained by the troops.
3. From the Front Lines to the Classroom: Although the Post-9/11 GI Bill (passed in August 2009 and updated in January 2011) has certainly made it easier for the uniformed service to enjoy a free and worthwhile education, we still have a ways to go. The latest statistics aren?t out, but it can be assumed reasonably that only a minority of eligible participants are taking full advantage of their benefits, and a disconcerting portion of those doing so find themselves mired in predatory debt, thanks in large part to educational for-profits. The student debt relief movement ought to seek out these beleaguered comrades (if they haven?t done so already), and the snake-oil salesmen involved must face the same wrath as Halliburton and Raytheon.
But the Left as a whole should make it a priority to move the focus of service-member benefits away from piecemeal enhancements to a substantive framework. This would entail the government committing to, say, 70 percent participation among eligible candidates, with, say, 70 percent of that group attending four-year public and private colleges?and doing whatever it takes to get there. VA rigmarole would be heavily streamlined, which I suspect is a significant if unspoken barrier to enrollment, and outreach efforts would extend beyond a perfunctory ?VA Benefits? class during entry-level and separation training. If the Left is really interested in gaining the support of our warriors, not to mention paying for the above, it?ll tie the effort up with the anti-war-profiteering campaign, demanding that (for example) KBR?s profits over the years be commandeered to subsidize the education of our nation?s few and proud.
4. Occupy the Workplace: My final recommendation is clearly the most (if not only) radical one, and it?s as much a broad-brush prescription for the twenty-first-century Left as it is a provisional attempt at scooping up the military vote. As a matter of full disclosure, I?m something of a Wobbly, and I agree with David Schweickart and Seymour Melman (among others) that the best hope for a more equitable society ?after capitalism? involves securing democratic vibrancy in the workplace. I believe America?s veterans are better primed for this sort of thing than almost anyone else. To put it bluntly, the majority of vets are confident, they?re experienced in the art of teamwork, they?re fierce partisans of ?small-unit leadership,? they?re all about solidarity (what they call ?camaraderie?), and they fucking hate their superior officers (the managerial elite). In other words, they mark a natural body of recruits for any anarcho-syndicalist revival, and I?m certain many would jump at the chance to take part in such a movement were we to invest in one, particularly one that welcomes their contributions. From occupying foreign lands to occupying the workplace?
As many commentators?most prominently the voices of Occupy?have been quick to note, we?re living through a pivotal moment. Workers continue to be stripped of hard-earned gains, and youth are increasingly beholden to student debt, the middle class to mortgages and plummeted savings, and the aggregate to an all-encompassing squeeze from the oligarchs above. This is a plea to include America?s service members in the mix, not only as a mutually inclusive faction, but also as a distinct minority with distinct grievances. Moreover, it?s a plea to understand veteran discontent not only as a vulnerability for national war policy, but as a possible weapon of opportunity for those of us questing for sweeping cultural and social change. At some point down the road, America will find its military conducting itself much like other militaries around the globe?protecting its territorial integrity, defending its nation from foreign attack, supporting its communities in disaster relief, and taking part in the occasional international peacekeeping endeavor overseas. It?s my conviction the quicker we integrate our fighting men and women into movements of purpose here at home, the less likely we?ll find them dying (and killing) for aimless causes abroad.