Ron Paul and 'the Troops'

While driving through Nebraska on the way home to Los Angeles, I was out of music.  I had listened to all the CDs I had.  FM was a desert.  I switched to AM radio and since it was a Saturday, the only talk show I could get was a reprise of Sean Hannity's best moments for the week.

Speaking with a Ron Paul supporter who had called in, Hannity dismissed Paul's candidacy largely because of what he perceived as Paul's disregard for the military.  It seems that mainstream Republicans cannot tolerate Ron Paul's complaints against the military-industrial complex and invective against American imperialism.  Supposedly any such talk is an affront to "the troops."  I get the sense that Paul's views on defense were probably the central cause of the media embargo against him, which caused his second-place finish in Ames, Iowa to be mostly ignored.

Yet Hannity ought to spend more time talking to the soldiers whom I know, those who have served with me in the humble enlisted ranks (I never became an officer).  Ron Paul speaks to them in a way the other Republicans, with their familiar and predictable apostrophes to "the brave men and women serving," simply cannot.  It's worth contemplating why so many Republicans are so wrong about the troops, and why a septuagenarian eclectic like Paul could get them so right.

I went to the Ames straw poll and felt the overwhelming energy behind Paul's candidacy.  His signs were the most plentiful, his station the most amusing, his campaign the most infectious.  His supporters were the loudest.

They see in Paul a rare rhetorical opening, one of those scarce moments when a new idea forms.  A Republican who disdains war?  Could it be?  William Blake evicting the neoconservatives?

It is so.  While the Santorum supporters were churchy, the Bachmann supporters very suburban (Michael Savage recently joked that Michele looks like an Amway representative), and the Pawlenty supporters reminiscent of insurance salesmen and junior accountants, the Paul supporters were a class apart.  They were unique, difficult to square within the political characterizations of past campaigns.  You won't read Paul right if you fall back on parallels and analogies.

Republicans will also read military policy wrong if they fall back on parallels and analogies.  When asked about Afghanistan, Santorum relies on his bona-fides as a holdover from the neoconservative golden age (what a terrible idea), while others like Bachmann regurgitate the usual line about listening to commanders on the ground.  They are all relying on the enlisted troops to view the cheerleaders for war favorably and despise leftist hippie pacifists.  That old constellation is gone now.  Enlisted soldiers do not find the classic Republican "support the war effort" rhetoric magnetic, nor are they allergic to pacifism.  Most Republicans who serve with me favor Ron Paul.  In fact, I have taken a beating on Facebook from military folks who hate my resistance to Paul's rhetoric.

To understand Paul's appeal, the Republicans must stop and take some time to think about what it is like for enlisted troops right now.  We are in uncharted territory, because the United States has never been at war for this long, and the war is being conducted as conventional operations with an all-volunteer army.  The goals have become increasingly vague for officers, and officers have become increasingly ineffectual at projecting clear objectives to the enlisted ranks.  In other words, morale is depressed to low levels, to which past military engagements offer few useful comparisons.

But the soldiers themselves are also unlike the enlisted men and women of earlier ages.  The number-one change: overwhelmingly, the young privates and specialists of today signed up to serve to get tuition for college.  They plan to go to college and have elaborate educational dreams for themselves.  They are not gung-ho patriots and are not hypersensitive about people criticizing their war effort.  They are a new breed holding more in common with UCLA freshmen than with the Vietnam War veterans who haunt American Legion halls across the country.

Don't listen to the grouchy veterans who gripe about these folks being the "New Army."  For all the complaints about us being soft and less disciplined, we are the ones being asked to hold together the longest war effort in American history with the lowest level of civilian support and a tiny pool of exhausted volunteers doing multiple tours.

Most important of all, the young soldiers of today are comfortable criticizing policy, because they have developed an ability to think outside the narrow parameters dictated to them by officers.  Facebook, blogs, and the internet have undoubtedly changed this by giving servicemen and servicewomen access to alternative opinion wherever they are stationed.  When I was at Fort Leonard Wood, my comrades talked about their plans to write novels, direct movies, become professors, and run for office.  It never quite felt like the boot camp from 1940s movies, where everyone in the barracks talked about going back to a farm.

Paul does not repel the troops as much as Hannity might assume.  Like Thoreau and Socrates, Paul speaks to the young and creative mind.  When Thoreau writes in Walden that not one of the people reading his pages has yet lived a full life, who else sees this as a compliment but a young, creative person with rich dreams for the future?  Young, energetic, and idealistic, the Paulists rally behind him the same way that an eighth-grader can read Walden's closing line that "the sun is but an evening star" and find the line invigorating rather than platitudinous.

Today's recruits come to Basic Training having had years of full access to the internet.  They signed up, usually, after researching their MOS and bargaining with recruiters to get the assignment they wanted.  They were in second or third grade when 9/11 happened.  They have youthful idealism but not regarding the wars, which they view skeptically or even cynically.  The things Ron Paul says about American imperialism and the war machine connect with them.  So conservatives should leave their stereotypes about "pro-defense" Republican rhetoric and its appeal to the troops in the dustbin of history.  Whatever Ron Paul represents, it is a force that is not going to disappear.