War Stories

Where Are This War’s Winter Soldiers?

Why Iraq war veterans have not had much impact on the debate over the war.

A veteran protests the war in Iraq

Next week, Iraq Veterans Against the War will hold “Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan“—a four-day extravaganza designed to draw attention to the failures of U.S. foreign policy, the dehumanizing effects of counterinsurgency, and the inadequate provision of veterans’ benefits. Yet the event, meant to recall the famous hearings of 1971 at the height of the Vietnam War, highlights how little Iraq war veterans have featured in the national political debate over the war.

The Iraq war is shaping up, alongside the faltering economy, as one of the two pillars of the upcoming presidential election. That election will feature a decorated veteran of Vietnam, in the presumptive Republican nominee John McCain, who is devoted to seeing the war through to “victory,” against a nonveteran, be it Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, who wants to scale back the U.S. presence in Iraq. Still, while their predecessors who served in Vietnam lent themselves to iconic images of wartime protest, Iraq war veterans have so far been consigned to the margins—and seem likely to remain there. The U.S. military and U.S. society have changed a great deal since Vietnam, and IVAW has consequently found itself on the sidelines.

At its height, Vietnam Veterans Against the War boasted more than 30,000 members, and it had an articulate and recognizable spokesman in John Kerry. Its 1971 Winter Soldier Investigation, and especially the subsequent Senate hearings, rightly figure prominently in any historical account of the war and its domestic politics. Veterans were crucial in undercutting the war’s legitimacy, and the Nixon administration was acutely sensitive to their presence at anti-war rallies.

If Iraq war veterans have had less political impact, it’s certainly not for lack of trying. Formed in 2004, the IVAW has produced no latter-day Kerry, and as of late February it had only 800 members, despite the modern communications that have made it easier to contact potential members. Only some 2,100 active-duty soldiers, Reserve members, and guardsmen have signed its petition for withdrawal from Iraq. And it has received little press coverage, even as public opinion has turned against the war: A search of Lexis-Nexis turned up a mere 128 references to “Iraq Veterans Against the War” in “Major U.S. and World Publications” in the three and a half years since its founding. This is partly related to the struggles and missteps of the anti-war movement as a whole, but there are also reasons distinctive to today’s anti-war veterans.

We might have expected veterans to matter even more to the domestic debate over the Iraq war than to that over Vietnam. The Vietnam-era military was widely seen as suffering from a severe crisis of discipline. Especially in rear areas, the armed forces could not escape America’s deep divides over race and class. Fragging—attacks on superior officers, often by fragmentation hand grenades but also commonly by means that might be mistaken for “friendly fire”—reached unprecedented levels, with hundreds of incidents between 1968 and 1972. Drug use and addiction were rampant among U.S. forces stationed in Vietnam and elsewhere. Yet Vietnam veterans, witnesses to the war’s misdeeds and folly, remained voices of moral authority.

By the mid-1980s, the U.S. military had again become the most respected institution in the land. According to a March 2007 Harris Poll, nearly 50 percent of Americans had “a great deal of confidence” in military leaders; the heads of “organized religion” and Supreme Court justices clocked in at under 30 percent, the White House at just over 20 percent, the press at only 12 percent, and Congress at a mere 10 percent. In contrast to Vietnam, where the war’s falling fortunes were paralleled in public opinion toward the military, historically sky-high numbers of Americans have steadfastly clung to “very favorable” views of the armed forces. This is partly because, despite lapses, especially the regular Army has proved fairly disciplined in-theater and at home, and because politicians, no matter their stand on the war, have universally paid tribute to the troops. Were veterans to come forward in large numbers, they might enjoy unusual credibility with the U.S. public, and impugning their patriotism would be difficult.

Nevertheless, Iraq war veterans have been shunted aside for three reasons. First, veterans have shown even less interest in protesting the war than has the public at large. This is largely the legacy of the end of the draft. The installation of the all-volunteer force in 1973 over time produced armed forces that were less representative of society at large—racially but also politically. The officer corps is now composed disproportionately of self-identified political conservatives and Republican partisans, to the point that a brouhaha erupted in the 1990s over the “civil-military gap,” with some worrying (thankfully baselessly) that a coup might even be in the offing. The Iraq war has opened up an unprecedented partisan divide, and Republican support has been remarkably resilient. While there have been signs of mounting discontent—including surprisingly large active-military contributions to Ron Paul, the only Republican presidential candidate to oppose the war—the current crop of veterans is less fertile soil for the IVAW’s plow than for its Vietnam-era counterpart. Put simply, veterans have been quiet partly because many are strong partisans who, at least until quite recently, have been committed to the administration, the war, or both.

Second, if veterans’ will has been lacking, the political opportunities for protest have been few. On the one hand, counterinsurgency is a cruel business, in which the brutalization of civilians is, sadly, hardly exceptional. Although many Americans shrugged off revelations that U.S. soldiers were murdering, raping, and otherwise mistreating noncombatants in Vietnam, the disclosures transformed the nagging concerns of others, such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., into full-throated opposition. And these incidents created a special opening for veterans to bear witness against military transgressions and thrust them to prominence within the anti-war movement. Iraq has, of course, seen its share of U.S. violations of the principle of noncombatant immunity, but the scale of abuse has paled compared with Vietnam. Moreover, while the armed forces have predictably covered up abuses and impeded investigation, they have also taken serious and sincere steps to learn from their mistakes, and they have instituted standard operating procedures to limit the number of civilians killed and injured. The Army’s new counterinsurgency doctrine has taken the winning of Iraqi hearts and minds seriously and has mandated more discriminate uses of force. On the other hand, while the Iraq war has stretched the volunteer army’s manpower structures and has entailed mind-boggling economic and other costs, the United States has deployed only between one-third and one-fourth of the forces it sent to Vietnam, and casualty rates in Iraq remain comparatively low relative to that earlier military conflict.

Finally, the broader political environment has been less hospitable to veteran protest. Since the late 1960s, the United States has become more “liberal”—not in the usual political sense, but rather with regard to its conception of citizenship. The United States has shifted toward a culture of rights, away from its “republican” heritage in which the performance of civic duty was prized. As I have argued elsewhere, soldiers and veterans can make substantial political headway when the citizenship discourse is heavily republican; this, for example, explains why Druze Arabs, who serve in the Israel Defense Forces, have been able to garner disproportionate attention and resources in Israel, a Jewish state that historically has discriminated against its Arab citizens. A liberal political culture undercuts veterans’ capacity to make unusually weighty claims on the polity.

Where, then, are this war’s Winter Soldiers? Many are in permanent hibernation: They are committed political conservatives dismissive of evidence that the war cannot be won, fearful of the consequences of even a gradual U.S. withdrawal, eager for signs of a thaw in Iraq’s frozen communal politics. Others are on ice, still awaiting an opening to bring their personal testimonials to bear on American political debate—an opening that will likely never arise.

In general, veterans are a vanishing force in American politics. Notwithstanding the attention devoted to Iraq-war-veteran candidates in the 2006 elections, the 109th Congress has 13 fewer veterans than the 108th and 14 fewer than the 107th, and there are proportionally fewer veterans in Congress than in society at large. There is little evidence that veteran status matters much to contemporary elections, despite the post-9/11 focus on security—this has been true of both congressional and presidential politics. In this sense at least, John McCain represents the past of American politics, not its future.