A movement has sprung up in the United States demanding that U.S. troops get out of Iraq. Is this a sign that Iraq is becoming a potent political liability for U.S. President George W. Bush?
Washington, 15 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The families of some U.S. soldiers have begun to form groups to protest the continuing war in Iraq, and some observers say their message might become a political liability for U.S. President George W. Bush.
Several of these groups already have gained limited national prominence. They include Military Families Speak Out and Bring Them Home NOW!, which together sponsored a news conference last week in an office building used by members of the U.S. House of Representatives.
At that event, Nancy Lessin, a founder of Military Families Speak Out, summarized the philosophy of these new groups: "Our loved ones took an oath to defend country and constitution from all enemies foreign and domestic, but there is a commitment that our government makes to our troops -- that it will not send our young men an women in uniform into reckless misadventures that put them at risk needlessly. This is the part of the bargain that has been broken here. Yes, war is hell. But this is something else and our loved ones, our troops, have been betrayed. We were all betrayed." Lessin has a stepson who recently returned from a tour of duty in Iraq.
It is impossible to tell how large these organizations are, or how many members of the U.S. armed services share these beliefs. But analysts interviewed by RFE/RL say their influence could grow into a force that could have a powerful effect on the presidential election in November 2004.
The U.S. military is structured in such a way that each branch -- the Army, Navy, and Air Force -- is led by a civilian, and the entire U.S. military structure is under a civilian secretary of defense. Traditionally, members of the armed services are comfortable with that arrangement, according to retired General Edward Atkeson, who served as an intelligence officer in Europe when he was on active duty. He said soldiers are willing to do their duty and leave politics to civilians.
But Atkeson told RFE/RL that while an active-duty soldier is expected not to publicly air any political grievances he might have, members of his family face no such constraints. "They're free agents, they can do as they please, and it certainly doesn't reflect upon their spouses' involvement or fathers or mothers or whatever it is. Part of the reason for fighting wars is to maintain their freedom to express their views," he said.
What is uppermost in the minds of these groups is the daily death toll of U.S. forces in Iraq -- two soldiers one day, three the next -- at the hands of guerrillas.
Theresa Hitchens, the vice president of the Center for Defense Information, a private policy-research institution in Washington, told RFE/RL that most armed-services personnel believed before the war that the conflict would be over quickly. "I do think that there's widespread unease about the continuation of casualties in Iraq," she said. "I think that there [was] a sense, at least during [major combat] that it was going to go OK [for the Americans]. Now there seems to be a sense of foreboding, that this [guerrilla phase] could be lasting much longer than we thought."
General Atkeson said he is reluctant to make a political evaluation of this movement, which he acknowledges is now only embryonic, but he said it has "potential" as a force against Bush as he runs for re-election next year.
The reason, Atkeson said, is the quality of the people who make up these groups -- they are intimately familiar with the lives of service personnel. "They're probably far more knowledgeable and insightful, and certainly they feel the impact of questionable practices more personally than does the public at large," he said. "They're credible and knowledgeable, and people recognize that."
Hitchens said she envisions more than just potential trouble for Bush. "I do think there could be some political traction [in the military families movement]," the analyst said. "If things continue to go the way they're going, if in six months the economy continues to stagnate and we're losing [three young soldiers] a day in Iraq, that's going to mean something."
Another potent issue is the nature of the war -- a preemptive strike rather than a response to direct aggression. Hitchens said overthrowing Saddam Hussein was not essential to U.S. security when U.S. forces invaded Iraq, and that military officers do not like to endanger the lives of their soldiers -- and their own lives -- by fighting a war that is not necessary.
"This is what's called a 'discretionary war' -- we didn't have to do it, and we certainly didn't have to do it when we did it," she said. "The military doesn't like discretionary wars. They don't mind going to war if they think it's in defense of the country and that it's required, but just sending folks for the fun of it [for no substantial reason] is not something that your commanders want to do."
Hitchens noted that the chief supporters of the war were -- and still are -- civilians in the Defense Department, and recalls some analysts and columnists have referred to them as "chicken hawks" -- people who are eager for war but who have never experienced it themselves.
She said if Bush and his advisers cannot quickly find a way to improve the situation in Iraq, they will be unemployed -- like so many other Americans -- after the 2004 election.