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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 July, 2004, 16:06 GMT 17:06 UK
State Of The Union: The power of the armed forces
By Robert Hodierne
In Arlington, Virginia

Robert Hodierne, who edits publications about and for the US armed forces, assesses how the views of his readers could affect this year's race for the White House.

We're having a pretty lousy summer over here.

I don't mean to whine. No-one likes a whiner. But gasoline prices are the highest they've been in 30 years. All of our Olympic athletes seem to be on drugs.

We're constantly being warned that terrorists are about to strike. Or not. We're not really sure.

And from Iraq we hear the sickening, sucking sound of combat boots stuck in an oozing quagmire.

Demonstrators wait outside the Supreme Court for its ruling on the Florida vote
Al Gore lost the 2000 election after a recount of the vote in Florida
In some ways, here's the worst of it: We're caught in the middle of a presidential race.

Last time around, you may recall, more Americans voted for Al Gore than George W Bush.

But because we're a representative democracy and we don't elect our presidents through direct ballots, the other guy won.

And you may recall that the key state that gave President George W Bush that win was Florida.

Well, the battle continues this time around in the Sunshine State.

In America, it used to be if you were convicted of a serious crime - a felony - you lost your right to vote for the rest of your life.

Not many places still have that law. But Florida does.

Democrats have been busy in court trying to get that law changed. Apparently they see a lot of votes in the felon class.

On the flip side, the administration has been working hard to make sure it's easy for our troops overseas to vote.

For a boring variety of tax and retirement reasons, our military members tend to register to vote in just a handful of states.

Florida is one of them.

If, as many assume, most of the military vote Republican, then their votes in Florida the last time around might have tipped the balance for Bush.

Unease

How the three million men and women in the American military respond at the polls in November could be decisive.

And that possibility is a source of even further unease.

We Americans love our military. We've just never been very comfortable with it.

Over here we have a long, deep suspicion of large, standing professional armies.

Being the good small-R republicans that we are, we view such armies as a threat to civil authority, vaguely undemocratic.

After all, it was a people's militia - a rabble in arms, as one of your prime ministers so ungenerously described us - that whipped the British army back in the 18th Century.

And so we lurched from war to war with small standing armies that we treated with contempt until we needed them.

Vietnam

We lurched along just fine, building up our small standing armies with conscripts during World War I and World War II.

Fine, that is, until Vietnam.

When I first went to cover Vietnam as a photographer in 1966, the US military was largely made up of volunteers - professionals.

US soldiers in Vietnam run from a napalm attack
Up to 500,000 US troops were deployed in Vietnam
But as the war went on it bled the military dry.

By 1970, facing a third and even fourth tour in Vietnam, many of the career military had quit.

And many others were dead.

By the war's end, the US military was a drugged, undisciplined, unprofessional - well, there's no other word for it - rabble.

The cure was to abolish the draft and create an all-volunteer force.

Quality

The idea was to pay the military well enough and provide enough other benefits to attract a quality group of men and women.

The fear about creating an all-volunteer force was that the military would become the employer of last resort; that only America's poorest would end up fighting and dying - which was a pretty argument considering that's who did the fighting and dying when there was a draft.

There was also a fear - that latent, small-R republican fear - that a professional standing military would become a society apart.

More about that in a minute.

The men and women who lead the US military today started their careers in that poisonous, post-Vietnam atmosphere. It took the US military, especially the army, a full, hard decade to drain the poison of Vietnam from its veins.

Success

And today those leaders are proud of the military they have crafted.

There is almost no drug use in the military. Rather than the employer of last resort, it is the job of choice for many, especially minorities.

No American institution has paid to send more poor and working-class men and women to college than the military.

In many laudable ways, the all-volunteer force as a progressive social experiment has been a success.

I'm an editor at a group of private newspapers that serve the military community.

We publish Army Times, Air Force Times, Marine Corps Times and Navy Times. We're the largest non-government source of news about the military for the military.

Poll

Last year we conducted a poll of our active-duty readers.

We found that, in many ways, the American military is a society apart.

For example, the military is noticeably more religious than most Americans. And they see themselves as more moral.

Two-thirds of our sample told us that they believe the military has higher moral values than their society at large. Two-thirds!

Politically, they describe their beliefs as more conservative than the rest of the country's. You can go a long time without stumbling across a liberal in uniform.

But they surprise you, these folks in the military.

Feminism

They overwhelmingly approve of women in combat. Who'd think a conservative stronghold like the military would be a bastion of feminism?

On the other hand, just as overwhelmingly, they don't want gays serving.

In America the general population describes its political affiliation in an almost even three-way split: a third Republican, a third Democrats and a third independent.

But almost 60% of our military sample said they were Republicans, nearly twice the rate of the general population.

And that, on the surface, would seem to be good news for President Bush.

If everyone in the military and all their spouses voted, they'd make up just 5% of the voting population - a noticeable but not necessarily commanding bloc.

Symbolic influence

But remember Florida. There the military vote could easily have tipped the balance four years ago.

But numbers don't tell the whole story.

Beyond their actual numerical influence is the military's symbolic influence. They're like canaries in a coal mine.

Picture of Iraqi prisoners being abused at Abu Ghraib (AP Photo/Courtesy of The New Yorker)
A senior US general is investigating abuses at Abu Ghraib prison (AP Photo/Courtesy of The New Yorker)

If a sitting Republican president in time of war cannot hold the military vote, then he's in trouble.

There are many in the military deeply unhappy with the way the war in Iraq is going.

Those photographs of American soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners disgust the men and women in the military.

Remember, these people think of themselves as more moral than the rest of us.

Dishonourable

And remember, too, those guards weren't active-duty soldiers. They were poorly trained, poorly led reservists, who were thrust into that prison because there aren't enough "real" professional soldiers to do the job set before them in Iraq.

Many in the military believe it is dishonourable for those up the chain of command to put all the blame on those lowly enlisted soldiers. Which is what appears to be happening.

When my papers wrote an editorial calling for those at the highest levels in government to be held accountable, we heard from our readers.

Some were furious. How dare we challenge their bosses? they asked.

Others praised our point of view. And privately what we heard from the very highest officers was: Thank you.

Breaking point

President Bush has promised to keep 138,000 American troops in Iraq for some unknown time.

This is straining the American armed forces, some would say to the breaking point.

We are pulling troops out of Korea to send to Iraq. We've called back to active duty soldiers who'd thought they'd finished their service.

We even shipped out soldiers from the ceremonial "Old Guard."

These are soldiers whose last duty was guarding the tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

It would be like the British sending Beefeaters to Iraq.

US soldiers secure the site of a car bomb in Baghdad
The situation in Iraq is putting a strain on US armed forces
In February, when I was last in Iraq, two-thirds of the soldiers in our best infantry divisions had already served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

They all know that if they stay in the military they will be back for at least a third tour.

This week we reached a grim milestone - the 1,000th American death supporting combat operations in the wake of 9/11.

The men and women who built this well-crafted war machine feel like the mechanic at the Maserati shop. He watches a rich owner drive his $250,000 high performance car flat out for months without changing the oil.

Driven that hard even a Maserati will break.

Bitterness

It was the prospect of a third combat tour in Vietnam that started hollowing out the professional America military of the 1960s.

And that left our armed forces with poorly trained, poorly led troops thrust into jobs they weren't prepared for. Like those reservists at Abu Ghraib.

Whatever bitterness exists within the ranks will remain largely hidden. You won't see much in the way of public protest.

Our military doesn't do that. Our soldiers believe the civilians - no matter how wrong - are in charge.

But in the privacy of the voting booth, they may end up casting their ballots to put different civilians in charge. And, like the last time, the military voting bloc could tip the balance.

The new BBC series State Of The Union is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Fridays at 2050 BST and repeated on Sundays at 0850 BST.


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