- WASHINGTON - Inside dusty,
barricaded camps around Iraq, groups of American troops in between missions
are gathering around screens to view an unlikely choice from the US box
office: "Fahrenheit 9-11," Michael Moore's controversial documentary
attacking the commander-in-chief.
- "Everyone's watching it," says a Marine corporal
at an outpost in Ramadi that is mortared by insurgents daily. "It's
shaping a lot of people's image of Bush."
- The film's prevalence is one sign of a discernible countercurrent
among US troops in Iraq - those who blame President Bush for entangling
them in what they see as a misguided war. Conventional wisdom holds that
the troops are staunchly pro-Bush, and many are. But bitterness over long,
dangerous deployments is producing, at a minimum, pockets of support for
Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry, in part because he's seen as likely
to withdraw American forces from Iraq more quickly.
- "[For] 9 out of 10 of the people I talk to, it wouldn't
matter who ran against Bush - they'd vote for them," said a US soldier
in the southern city of Najaf, seeking out a reporter to make his views
known. "People are so fed up with Iraq, and fed up with Bush."
- With only three weeks until an Oct. 11 deadline set for
hundreds of thousands of US troops abroad to mail in absentee ballots,
this segment of the military vote is important - symbolically, as a reflection
on Bush as a wartime commander, and politically, as absentee ballots could
end up tipping the balance in closely contested states.
- It is difficult to gauge the extent of disaffection with
Bush, which emerged in interviews in June and July with ground forces in
central, northern, and southern Iraq. No scientific polls exist on the
political leanings of currently deployed troops, military experts and officials
- To be sure, broader surveys of US military personnel
and their spouses in recent years indicate they are more likely to be conservative
and Republican than the US civilian population - but not overwhelmingly
- A Military Times survey last December of 933 subscribers,
about 30 percent of whom had deployed for the Iraq war, found that 56 percent
considered themselves Republican - about the same percentage who approved
of Bush's handling of Iraq. Half of those responding were officers, who
as a group tend to be more conservative than their enlisted counterparts.
- Among officers, who represent roughly 15 percent of today's
1.4 million active duty military personnel, there are about eight Republicans
for every Democrat, according to a 1999 survey by Duke University political
scientist Peter Feaver. Enlisted personnel, however - a disproportionate
number of whom are minorities, a population that tends to lean Democratic
- are more evenly split. Professor Feaver estimates that about one third
of enlisted troops are Republicans, one third Democrats, and the rest independents,
with the latter group growing.
- Pockets of ambivalence
- "The military continues to be a Bush stronghold,
but it's not a stranglehold," Feaver says. Three factors make the
military vote more in play for Democrats this year than in 2000, he says:
the Iraq war, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's tense relationship with
the Army, and Bush's limited ability as an incumbent to make sweeping promises
akin to Senator Kerry's pledge to add 40,000 new troops and relieve an
- "The military as a whole supports the Iraq war,"
Mr. Feaver says, noting a historical tendency of troops to back the commander
in chief in wartime. "But you can go across the military and find
pockets where they are more ambivalent," he says, especially among
the National Guard and Reserve. "The war has not gone as swimmingly
as they thought, and that has caused disaffection.
- Whether representing pockets of opposition to Bush or
something bigger, soldiers and marines on Iraq's front lines can be impassioned
in their criticism. One Marine officer in Ramadi who had lost several men
said he was thinking about throwing his medals over the White House wall.
- "Nobody I know wants Bush," says an enlisted
soldier in Najaf, adding, "This whole war was based on lies."
Like several others interviewed, his animosity centered on a belief that
the war lacked a clear purpose even as it took a tremendous toll on US
troops, many of whom are in Iraq involuntarily under "stop loss"
orders that keep them in the service for months beyond their scheduled
exit in order to keep units together during deployments.
- "There's no clear definition of why we came here,"
says Army Spc. Nathan Swink, of Quincy, Ill. "First they said they
have WMD and nuclear weapons, then it was to get Saddam Hussein out of
office, and then to rebuild Iraq. I want to fight for my nation and for
my family, to protect the United States against enemies foreign and domestic,
not to protect Iraqi civilians or deal with Sadr's militia," he said.
- Specialist Swink, who comes from a family of both Democrats
and Republicans, plans to vote for Kerry. "Kerry protested the war
in Vietnam. He is the one to end this stuff, to lead to our exit of Iraq,"
- 'We shouldn't be here'
- Other US troops expressed feelings of guilt over killing
Iraqis in a war they believe is unjust.
- "We shouldn't be here," said one Marine infantryman
bluntly. "There was no reason for invading this country in the first
place. We just came here and [angered people] and killed a lot of innocent
people," said the marine, who has seen regular combat in Ramadi. "I
don't enjoy killing women and children, it's not my thing."
- As with his comrades, the marine accepted some of the
most controversial claims of "Fahrenheit 9/11," which critics
have called biased. "Bush didn't want to attack [Osama] Bin Laden
because he was doing business with Bin Laden's family," he said.
- Another marine, Sgt. Christopher Wallace of Pataskala,
Ohio, agreed that the film was making an impression on troops. "Marines
nowadays want to know stuff. They want to be informed, because we'll be
voting out here soon," he said. " 'Fahrenheit 9/11' opened our
eyes to things we hadn't seen before." But, he added after a pause,
"We still have full faith and confidence in our commander-in-chief.
And if John Kerry is elected, he will be our commander in chief."
- Getting out the military vote
- No matter whom they choose for president, US troops in
even the most remote bases in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere overseas
are more likely than in 2000 to have an opportunity to vote - and have
their votes counted - thanks to a major push by the Pentagon to speed and
postmark their ballots. The Pentagon is now expediting ballots for all
1.4 million active-duty military personnel and their 1.3 million voting-age
dependents, as well as 3.7 million US civilians living abroad.
- "We wrote out a plan of attack on how we are going
to address these issues this election year," says Maj. Lonnie Hammack,
the lead postal officer for US Central Command, an area covering the Middle
East, Central Asia, and North Africa, where more than 225,000 troops and
Defense Department personnel serve.
- The military has added manpower, flights, and postmark-validating
equipment, and given priority to moving ballots - by Humvee or helicopter
if necessary - even to far-flung outposts such as those on the Syrian and
Pakistani border and Djibouti.
- Meanwhile, voting-assistance officers in every military
unit are remind- ing troops to vote, as are posters, e-mails, and newspaper
and television announcements. Voting booths are also set up at deployment
centers in the United States.
- "We've had almost 100 percent contact," says
Col. Darrell Jones, director of manpower and personnel for Central Command,
and 200,000 federal postcard ballot applications have been shipped.
- "We encourage our people to vote, not for a certain
candidate, but to exercise that right," he said, noting that was especially
important as the US military is "out there promoting fledgling democracy
in these regions." Many of the younger troops may be voting for the
first time, he added.