20 September 2003
George Bush probably owes his presidency to the absentee military voters who nudged his tally in Florida decisively past Al Gore's. But now, with Iraq in chaos and the reasons for going to war there mired in controversy, an increasingly disgruntled military poses perhaps the gravest immediate threat to his political future, just one year before the presidential elections.
From Vietnam veterans to fresh young recruits, from seasoned officers to anxious mothers worried about their sons' safety on the streets of Baghdad and Fallujah, the military community is growing ever more vocal in its opposition to the White House.
"I once believed that I served for a cause: 'To uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States'. Now I no longer believe that," Tim Predmore, a member of the 101st Airborne Division serving near Mosul, wrote in a blistering opinion piece this week for his home newspaper, the Peoria Journal Star in Illinois. "I can no longer justify my service for what I believe to be half-truths and bold lies."
The dissenters - many of whom have risked deep disapproval from the military establishment to voice their opinions - have set up websites with names such as Bring Them Home Now. They have cried foul at administration plans to cut veterans' benefits and scale back combat pay for troops still in Iraq. They were furious at President Bush for reacting to military deaths in Iraq with the phrase "bring 'em on".
And they have given politically embarrassing prominence to such issues as the inefficiency of civilian contractors hired to provide shelter, water and food - many of them contributors to the Bush campaign coffers - and a mystery outbreak of respiratory illnesses that many soldiers, despite official denials, believe is related to the use of depleted uranium munitions.
"It is time to speak out because our troops are still dying and our government is still lying," Candace Robison, a 27-year-old mother of two from Krum, Texas, and a politically active serviceman's wife, told a recent protest outside President Bush's Texas ranch. "Morale is at an all-time low and our heroes feel like they've been forgotten."
How deep the anti-Bush sentiment runs is not yet clear, but there is no doubt about its breadth. Charlie Richardson, co-founder of a group called Military Families Speak Out, said: "Our supporters range from pacifists to people from long military traditions who have supported every war this country has ever fought - until this one.
"Many people supported this war at the beginning because they believed the threat from weapons of mass destruction and accepted the link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qa'ida ... Now they realise their beliefs were built on quicksand. They are very angry with the administration and feel they've been duped."
Most of the disgruntlement expressed in the field has of necessity been anonymous, so Tim Predmore's counterblast in the Peoria Journal Star felt particularly powerful. Having been in the army for five years, he is just finishing his tour of duty in Iraq. He wrote that he now believes the Iraq war was about oil, not freedom, "an act not of justice but of hypocrisy.
"We have all faced death in Iraq without reason or justification," he added. "How many more must die? How many more tears must be shed before Americans awake and demand the return of the men and women whose job it is to protect them rather than their leader's interest?"
Less visible, but no less passionate, has been the ongoing voicing of grievances over the internet. A prominent military affairs specialist, David Hackworth, keeps a website filled with angry reflections on conditions in Iraq for both the military and the local civilian population, and the government that put the troops there. "Imagine this bastard getting away with such crap if we had a draftee army," runs one typically scabrous anti-Bush line from Mr Hackworth.
More considered analysis is also available online, such as this reflection from a 23-year-old serving in the US Air Force, who wonders what the Iraq mess is going to do to the future of the US military: "The powers that be are destroying our military from the inside, especially our Army.
"How many of these people that are 'stranded' (for lack of a better term) in Iraq are going to re-enlist? How many that haven't deployed are going to re-enlist ... how many families are going to be destroyed?" he asked.
One big rallying point for the critics is the Pentagon's budget plan, which proposes cutting $1.8 billion (£1.1bn) from veterans' health benefits and reducing combat pay from the current $225 a month to $150, which is where it stood until the Iraq war began in the spring. The budget will not be finalised until later this month, and the White House - embarrassed by editorials in the Army Times and by news stories in the mainstream press throughout America - says it won't insist on the combat pay cutback.
Another rallying point is the lack of official explanation for more than 100 cases of respiratory illness in the Middle East. According to the Pentagon, 19 soldiers have required mechanical ventilation and two have died. Military personnel believe the use of depleted uranium may have played a part in this mystery illness.