Veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are largely united in their ardent support for victory on those battlefields. At the same time, they represent a cross-section of the political spectrum in the U.S. I patrolled Iraqi streets with conservatives and liberals, blue and white collars, believers and atheists. But about the mission, there was very little doubt. To adopt an old saw: there are no anti-American GIs in Mideast foxholes.
Once back home, veterans—and the groups that speak for them—are pressured to represent the political camps that most closely cohere with their battlefield experience. Veterans who support continuing our work in Iraq seek out Republicans, and disenchanted or outright anti-war veterans cozy up to Democrats. Had the parties represented different positions, the alignment might also be different.
Such developments are to be expected, since politics has a tendency to narrow even the most independent minds. Every policy position has a political camp, and as time and distance away from the battlefield extends, the slow creep of partisanship can supplant the oath to “defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
The slow erosion of a “country first” ethos—prominent in the politicization of some Iraq and Afghanistan veterans at home—comes at a high cost for the military, most significantly and consequentially in the eyes of the general public. When politicized, the military becomes a predictable messenger for a partisan camp rather than a personal and passionate messenger for the best tactical and strategic national-security policy. Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are ambassadors for the military and those still serving—and our actions shape public perceptions of our profession.
As the famous military theorist Carl von Clausewitz once observed, “War is the continuation of politics by other means.” For our generation, the inverse of that statement—politics a continuation of war by other means—is also true. Some veterans, and others invested in America’s conflicts, have turned the policies of war overseas into a zero-sum political battlefield for public opinion at home.
As conditions in Iraq deteriorated, any semblance of dispassionate advocacy on the war evaporated. Anti-war veterans' groups seized on the situation and Iraq became “George Bush’s war,” rather than our war. And when conditions worsened considerably, prospects for battlefield success became linked to disdain for President Bush. For many veterans, defiance of the commander-in-chief started to look like a duty.
I, too, was frustrated by the conduct of the war when I returned from Iraq in mid-2006, and advocated a new strategy. Had America continued a fundamentally flawed policy—at the cost of even more lives—I would have constructively opposed those who decided upon such a continuation. But with the new surge strategy, the opposite occurred. America changed course in Iraq, and the war turned around. The test of intellectual honesty was thrust into the laps of those veterans who, nonetheless, continued to call the war a failure. Too many failed the test. Success on the ground in Iraq was politically damaging to their cause, and those veterans—aligned with many Democrats—ceaselessly took shots at President Bush, willing to sink the chances for their comrades in arms in order to sully a Republican president.
They did the same to John McCain, a fellow veteran, when he fought for the surge. And many veterans still call the surge a “failure” in the face of all evidence, spitting on the historic accomplishments of troops in order to establish or reaffirm partisan allegiance. It appears that nothing—save January 21, 2009—will change these veterans’ sentiments toward their commander-in-chief. And on that date, the aforementioned litmus test for intellectual honesty shifts to veterans who supported the surge and who still support victory in Iraq.
Our group, Vets for Freedom, ran millions of dollars’ worth of television and radio advertising this year that directly challenged Obama’s policies toward Iraq and the surge. We aggressively instigated his return trip to Iraq and called on him to tell the truth about the success of the surge. We believed his stated policy prescriptions for Iraq were outdated and pressured him to reconsider his rigid timeline for withdrawal.
But on Inauguration Day, our approach will change—as a candidate becomes our commander-in-chief. We will not do to President Obama what others did to President Bush. Our brothers are still in harm’s way, and Obama is their commander-in-chief, just as he is ours.
We will support President Obama whenever possible, persuade him at decisive and deliberative moments, and constructively oppose him when he pursues policies we deem detrimental to battlefield success. Success on the battlefield—as well as the health of our military—must be our lodestar, as we seek to help our new president defend our nation.
If we eventually end the war in Iraq with honor and in victory, it will be because President Obama continued effective policies and did not pull troops out precipitately. If we turn around the war in Afghanistan, it will be because President Obama empowered U.S. commanders and gave them sufficient resources—patience being the most important. If we grow our military to meet operational requirements, it will be because President Obama stood by his campaign pledge to increase our ranks. And if we increase military spending, as a way of both creating new jobs and replenishing war-torn equipment, it will be because President Obama saw the value in butter and guns. If so, we will be eager to give him credit.
If President Obama’s policies work toward the long-term security of our country, we will happily defend him against those who would seek to score short-term political points. We ask our fellow veterans to do the same. Too much is at stake for our nation, and for the reputation of our veterans.
— Lt. Pete Hegseth, who served in Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division from 2005 to 2006, is executive director of Vets for Freedom.