So last week at CPAC, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and, to a lesser extent, Newt Gingrich measured dicks over their social conservative bona fides. Firing shots in a culture war flare-up. Actual military engagements were a less combustible topic. But these suits have not hidden their boyish aggression. Romney has demanded President Obama make it known to Iran that military action is a real option. On Meet the Press in January, Santorum said that if Iran didn’t abandon its nuclear ambitions, “we will degrade those facilities through airstrikes and make it very public that we are doing that.”
That these clowns are competing to be in charge of what some consider a military in disrepair got me thinking: who in the military gives a shit about the primaries?
I called Andrew Brice first, discharged from the U.S. Navy last August as a Petty Officer Second Class. At six-feet tall, with sandy curls crammed beneath his faded Red Sox hat, still lean enough to squeeze into an old little-league jersey, Brice was not unlike your typical recruit. Except he was old enough to have voted twice before boot camp. In 2004, he quit his senior year and enlisted to patrol the globe. It was that or cook the books for whoever would hire a Penn State graduate with an accounting degree. Brice again pulled the lever in ’04 and ’08—one of few Americans with a say in who their next boss will be. But result aside, he followed the commander-in-chief’s orders like everyone else in uniform.
Seven years in the Navy did not weaken Brice’s political curiosity. It did, however, require effort to maintain. “You had to know where to go for unbiased information, especially during the primaries,” Brice told me. “But it’s a lot more difficult to keep up with them in the military,” he remembers. “Initially, going in, you don’t really get the opportunity to think for yourself.”
By 2008, with his routine and rank established, dialing in to the primary machine that yielded President Obama wasn’t a challenge. Talking about it was. “My one chief would stir up conversations about it. But that’s not supposed to happen between ranks,” Brice explained. “It’s just one of those unspoken rules, you know, like you’re only supposed to have missionary sex.” The degree to which those around Brice cared about elections, much less the primaries, mirrored life. The younger sailors seemed unconcerned, and the older ones who were interested outranked him.
Others possess an apathy with longevity. “What these guys say and what they do are two different things,” one active-duty Army sergeant, a 23 year-old who’s toured the sandbox and now runs a recruiting center down south, told me. “They do whatever works for Washington, and say they’re going to help the troops. Great, but I never see it on my end. Until it comes down from the big man, and my commander comes to me and says we’re going, I just don’t even pay attention.”
The sergeant’s take is a shared one. Brice and I grew up in Pennsylvania with Jordan Spahr, now a Marine Corps captain, where Blackhawk helos trained overhead at nearby Indiantown Gap and our neighbors voted Santorum into the Senate in 1994. “I have become apolitical, mostly because events overcome campaign forums once someone assumes office,” Spahr admitted last week. “It is a huge juggling act, and soon they discover that some of the interests of the people who they aim to please are actually in conflict.” If they can’t execute their campaign promises, why bother caring?
Out in the field, interest takes varied forms. Foreign deployment is no longer as considerable an obstacle to keeping up on the political process at home. “Soldiers generally can be as informed as they want to be. They might be a few days behind the news, but they can always catch up if they want,” observed Neil Shea, a journalist who has embedded multiple times in Iraq and Afghanistan. Discussion about which stiff white guy would bear the torch for the Republicans was minimal. But uniforms can’t stifle every opinion. “I would meet soldiers who were particularly outspoken,” Shea said, “I’ll leave it to you to guess who they sided with.”
Former Army Lt. General Robert Gard, Jr., a senior military fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington, DC, is quick to emphasize that our fighters are citizens first, and greater civic involvement is good thing, to a point. “There’s been an evolution, clearly, and an increased consciousness in politics,” said Gard, who remembers when military members didn’t even vote. Yet he noted that it hardly reaches into the primaries. “There’s far more interest in the general election.” That’s not to say everyone wearing camo waits until November to publicize their leanings. On Friday morning, one of Gard’s Center colleagues saw people in uniform riding the D.C. Metro wearing name tags from CPAC. “That was unthinkable in my day,” the general said. He retired in 1981.
When primary season arrives, it turns out our men and women in uniform are just like the rest of us. Some care, others don’t, everyone has an opinion. If you don’t ask them, they probably won’t tell you.
As for 2012, pairing the Republican candidates’ hawkishness on Iran with their zero days of military service might be one reason the uniformed have paid them little mind. The warlords who know nothing about war, Lt. General Gard calls them. The only candidate who opposes attacking Iran? Ron Paul—also the only one to have served.
Guess who Andrew Brice is voting for.