The Magazine

Marching to November

From the August 30, 2004 issue: The politics of chest-thumping.

Aug 30, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 47 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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FOR THE PAST couple weeks Republican activists have bent themselves to the task of proving that John Kerry, who was awarded five medals during four months of service in the Vietnam war, isn't a war hero, and the marvelous intensity of their exertions started me thinking.

As normal Americans lose interest in politics, and as their moderating influence fades from the general conversation, politics has become increasingly the plaything of obsessives. And what obsessives bring to politics, unsurprisingly, are their own obsessions, rooted in the uneasiness and insecurities that we all share to one degree or another. Punditry may not be a branch of psychopathology--not yet, anyway--but in some cases the most penetrating political analysis should follow the method of Bertie Wooster's valet, Jeeves: "The first essential is to study the psychology of the individual." Both Bertie and Jeeves, by the way, were paleocons.

It's amazing, the mysteries that can be illuminated by the psychological approach. Consider the recent self-presentation of the Democratic party. The party as we know it today was founded in 1972, when its old guard was swept away by the McGovernite revolution. The party's purpose and image were unambiguous. It was the peace party. And it remained such through the rest of the Cold War, even when--as in '72--it nominated a decorated war hero as its presidential candidate.

Over the years a few Democrats have objected to this reputation, of course, and the cleverest polemicists have even flipped their party's peacenik image against their opponents in the war party. Beginning in the 1980s, Democrats have delighted in scolding various Republicans as "war wimps"--public officials and think-tank types who advocate the use of military force and who did not themselves serve in the military.

On the kindest interpretation, the "war wimps" charge is based on a non sequitur, linking two things that have nothing to do with each other (military service as a young man, on the one hand, and sound judgment in geopolitical affairs, on the other). On a not-so-kind interpretation, it entails the repudiation of a crucial democratic principle: civilian control of the military. After all, if only men with military experience are justified in ordering other military men into combat, then national security has been ceded to an unsupervised warrior class--something that Democrats used to warn us against. And besides, by this definition, several of the country's wartime presidents, including Democrats Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, were war wimps.

As an argument, then, the war-wimp charge is incoherent, even illiberal. It's also inexplicable--until you realize that it isn't an argument at all, but a sign of severe psychological frustration, a means by which a desperate Democrat might overcompensate for years of being called a peacenik wimp. The same frustration led directly to the bizarre outcome of this year's primaries, when Democrats nominated a charmless and undistinguished candidate whom no one seemed to like very much and who displays a dazzling lack of the most elementary political skills, such as being able to deliver a speech without boring half his audience into paralytic catatonia.

But he had a single qualification that overwhelmed his many shortcomings. John Kerry is a war hero. John Kerry fought Charlie in 'Nam. John Kerry wore the brown bar and ate the chop-chop. John Kerry was in the shit and came out alive. (Democrats can speak the lingo too, you know.) So who you calling a "peace party" now? Huh?

Hence the Boston convention--a celebration of hairy-chested militarism that would have made Generalissimo Franco blush. A press release outlined a theme for each night of the convention. Monday: "The Kerry-Edwards plan to make America stronger . . ." Tuesday: "John Kerry's lifetime of strength . . ." Wednesday: "Creating a stronger, more secure America . . ." If you listened close you heard Sousa marches tucked between the rap music interludes. On Thursday night, there was the Parade of Generals and Admirals, each warrior marching across the convention stage to riotous applause. (They had the decency to wear civilian clothes.) Finally, the war hero himself appeared, greeted by a phalanx of former soldiers. He climbed the stage and promptly gave a military salute. He said he was "reporting for duty." Juntas have taken power with less pomp.

The vets in formation, the generals strutting the stage, the teary-eyed tributes to those fallen in battle, even the nominee himself--it is difficult to explain any of this martial bluster except as a function of psychological necessity: Democrats need to reassure themselves they aren't wimps.

But now Republican activists are forcing on the campaign obsessions of their own--almost a mirror image of the Democrats' desperate overcompensation. The dissonance and frustration this year's election rouses in the mind of the dedicated Republican cannot be underestimated. Conservatives actually do revere the military, without reservation. It is not their inclination to debunk combat heroes. Some Republicans, when they drink enough beer, really do wonder whether civilian control of the military is such a great idea. For them, it was never plausible that our boys in Vietnam had "personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads . . . cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians," and so on, as young John Kerry testified they did.

Yet in 2004, Republicans find themselves supporting a candidate, George W. Bush, with a slender and ambiguous military record against a man whose combat heroism has never (until now) been disputed. Further--and here we'll let slip a thinly disguised secret--Republicans are supporting a candidate that relatively few of them find personally or politically appealing. This is not the choice Republicans are supposed to be faced with. The 1990s were far better. In those days the Democrats did the proper thing, nominating a draft-dodger to run against George H.W. Bush, who was the youngest combat pilot in the Pacific theater in World War II, and then later, in 1996, against Bob Dole, who left a portion of his body on the beach at Anzio.

Republicans have no such luck this time, and so they scramble to reassure themselves that they nevertheless are doing the right thing, voting against a war hero. The simplest way to do this is to convince themselves that the war hero isn't really a war hero. If sufficient doubt about Kerry's record can be raised, we can vote for Bush without remorse. But the calculations are transparently desperate. Reading some of the anti-Kerry attacks over the last several weeks, you might conclude that this is the new conservative position: A veteran who volunteered for combat duty, spent four months under fire in Vietnam, and then exaggerated a bit so he could go home early is the inferior, morally and otherwise, of a man who had his father pull strings so he wouldn't have to go to Vietnam in the first place.

Needless to say, the proposition will be a hard sell in those dim and tiny reaches of the electorate where voters have yet to make up their minds. Indeed, it's far more likely that moderates and fence-sitters will be disgusted by the lengths to which partisans will go to discredit a rival. But this anti-Kerry campaign is not designed to win undecided votes. It's designed to reassure uneasy minds.

Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.