Since we have a lot of talk floating around about "supporting the troops," it’s interesting to ask the reciprocal question: Whom do the troops support? On the morning of Wednesday November 3, 2004 American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines in the field answered that question resoundingly: George W. Bush. Marines actually engaged in combat operations around Fallujah, Iraq were cheering, laughing and exchanging high-fives over the president’s re-election victory.
From an outsider’s point of view this might seem odd. After all, Senator John F. Kerry ran as a war hero, a decorated veteran, and a man who pledged to "bring the troops back home where they belong." Throughout the campaign – indeed unceasingly since the 2000 campaign – Bush has been excoriated by the mainstream media as a draft-evader who hid in the National Guard, who was even absent without permission from that service (which they belittle). He was the son of an influence-peddling father who pulled strings to evade combat. He was a "chickenhawk" who dared to risk others’ lives (Bush lies; soldiers die) while avoiding risk of his own. With such a dismal, dare we say cowardly record how could it be possible that American service personnel support this guy?
John Kerry by contrast waved his medals, including his Purple Hearts around like a certain "civil rights" leader’s bloody shirt. He saluted (in an embarrassingly lame manner) to his primarily antiwar Democrat constituency as a convention kick-off then ran a Steven Spielberg-assisted editing job of a grainy black and white film that he had shot of himself during the Vietnam War engaging in heroic activities. He appeared at innumerable campaign sites in a leather bomber jacket and made certain that his advance people had sufficient number of American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars supporters in appropriate regalia seated in back of him during an appearance so that they would be highly visible in any camera angle.
Without question Candidate Kerry "talked the talk" about military experience, compassion for soldiers, and concern for their well-being. He spoke about bumping personnel levels and awarding pay raises and improving housing and all of the things that an outsider would automatically assume mattered to the troops and their families. But despite all of this he failed to pass the military smell test.
Unlike his global test, where the bar seems so high that it can never be met, the military smell test is rather basic. Many make the cut. All it takes to pass is truth, honesty, and moral/physical courage. No single group of people can see through a phony as rapidly and unerringly as the military. Attempts to fool them are always unveiled and mercilessly derided. Real soldiers know that approbation from peers – comrades in arms who shared the sacrifice equally – counts for more than medals and awards.
To Kerry’s chagrin he was never able – despite gargantuan efforts – to convince soldiers that he was one of them. From the start he made the egregious error that distinguishes the real from the pretend: he flaunted his valor awards and wounds. Unfortunately, what looked impressive from a distance wilted under close scrutiny: the inflated valor awards, the suspect Purple Hearts, manipulating the "three Purple Heart" rule to leave the war early, and worst of all abandoning his crew to the war from which he fled. The final blow was the appearance of peers – the Swift Boat Veterans and former POWs – who challenged his record and punctured his self-inflated balloon.
Rather than see Bush as a chickenhawk, the line that the Kerry people tried to sell, the military saw Kerry as "chickenshit," a term that in military jargon is about as nasty and degrading as it gets. Late historian Steve Ambrose documents the use of the term in his bestseller, Band of Brothers: someone who "generates maximum anxiety over matters of minimum significance." They watched Kerry posture and pontificate and contrasted his manner with that of Bush who projected sincerity, conviction, and moral clarity. It was no contest.
Most of the time the American military is apolitical. Service members have strongly held opinions and ideas but place the office over the man. You may think the colonel is a jerk but you salute the uniform, the rank, not the individual. That is the military way. On rare occasions, the military "adopts" a leader – a president, general, or sports figure – and idolizes that person. Always it is a mutual affection society. The late Bob Hope and Martha Raye were two Hollywood stars that were unquestioningly loved by the troops. General Omar Bradley was considered the "soldier’s general." And George W. Bush is quite simply the "soldier’s president."
These things are not planned; they just happen. But that confluence of mutual respect and affection is a bond more strongly held than most friendships. The loyalty of America's military to their commander-in-chief is something wonderful to behold because of the genuine, unaffected nature of the respect from all parties. It is an amazing morale boost for the troops that will help them through the tough times ahead. And President Bush would say the same thing from his perspective: knowing how the troops feel about him has to be a solace while occupying the most stressful leadership position in the world.
For Americans this fortunate happenstance is a unifying element that we ought to embrace with pride and comfort. We will need such unity of purpose in the difficult days ahead of us as we fight this brutal war to victory.