Barack Obama recently suggested that John McCain’s willingness to stay in Iraq until the war is won means the presumptive Republican nominee can’t possibly want genuine freedom for Iraqis — an assertion that reflects Obama’s now unsurprising inability to see the very nuanced complexities of war and foreign policy. He’s gotten considerable flack from Republicans and Democrats for his celebratory world tour and the many speeches he delivered while overseas, and he’s been called presumptuous and arrogant. If Obama wants to appear more "everyman," he needs to spend less time speaking, and more time listening.
Followed by a gaggle of press, he went ever-so-symbolically to Iraq and Afghanistan to spend time with the troops, their commanders, and Middle East officials in a hurried attempt to better understand, as he put it, "the situation on the ground."
It’s a shame he couldn’t have met Brian Bos, a US Air Force life support technician stationed at Kadena Air Force Base in Okinawa, Japan since late 2007. He expects to be sent to Afghanistan any day now, and says he’s both excited and "kind of scared" about his first deployment.
Brian is young. He will turn 19 in August, and he enlisted right out of Maize Senior High School in Wichita, Kansas, where he was born and raised. His Facebook page is a tightly-crammed tribute to all his favorite things: XBox 360, Linkin Park, "Anchorman" quotes, and his girlfriend back home, Jessi, who posts notes full of bubbly "lol"s and "ttyl"s. He is one of eight children, three of which are in the armed services. Kyle, 22, served with the Army in Ramadi, Iraq, and John, 19, is at Kadena with Brian.
In the inimitable, staccato dialect of a soldier, he calls me "Cupp," and admits upfront that he doesn’t follow politics too closely, an oversight he attributes to his near-constant routine of "either training or jumping out of airplanes."
But he knows he does not want Barack Obama to win in November, and his reasons are simple and straightforward. "Obama is against the war in Iraq, and wants to take troops out ASAP."
Some would attribute Brian’s narrow criteria for our next commander-in-chief as the result of his station as a soldier or his inexperience as a tax-paying American adult. And some would probably assume he’s just another action-hungry teenager raised on the violence of video games and 21st century war movies. After all, he professes to love the sound of an F-15 flying over his room in the morning and shooting his M-16A4 at the range, things that few civilians, or "civs," as he calls them, would welcome.
But he’s a far cry from the napalm-loving character portrayed by Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now. His understanding of his own role overseas is surprisingly nuanced, and informed by the kind of wisdom one only gains by seeing what he sees, and knowing what he knows.
He has watched his friends ship out to places far and exotic, places like Thailand, the Philippines, Guam, Myanmar, Korea, and Malaysia. Of those soldiers, he says their mindset is far more complicated than the rhetoric you hear back home, where troops are routinely summed up in caricature, either desperate to leave or lustily indulging their inner Rambo, waving their guns and humiliating the locals. It’s not that simple. "Yes they want to get out," he says, "but at the same time they don’t, because they became attached to the people over there and the poverty that has risen in those nations.. I would have to think that if you work in one place for so long, then it would be hard to leave the people you fought for."
If you believe much of the media and a swath of elected officials back in the States, we’re fighting for America and to satiate her overweening ego, her blood lust, her self-importance and self-interest. And while it’s true that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan satisfy important U.S. strategic and defensive needs, they also aim to serve and protect locals on the ground, innocent Iraqis and Afghanis, something 18-year-old Brian Bos inexplicably and innately seems to just know. "If you’re a soldier, you see things differently [than a] civ."
Indeed, you see through your own eyes and the eyes of your fellow soldiers some seldom-reported truths about the implications of war. "My brother just got back from Iraq, and he became very attached to some local nationals that he trained to be one of his kind to help build their military and their democracy. He was proud to see their progress, growth, and morale when he left his deployment." To that end, Brian says, "Then again, the Air Force is very caring like that. I’m pretty sure that’s why our boys are there."
Pete Hegseth was one of our boys. Now he is chairman of the non-partisan action committee Vets For Freedom and a bronze medal winner for his service in Iraq. Like Brian, Pete talks unmistakably like a soldier. (He once asked me, concerned about a small band-aid on my arm, “S.E., are you wounded?”) He’s the kind of guy who people listen to — people like the troops in his platoon in Baghdad, and people like the United States Congress.
“There is no way Obama understands U.S. troops — and what they ensure — as much as John McCain, a man who served with great distinction in combat,” says Pete. “In addition, McCain has two sons who serve, making his share of the war-time burden greater than 99% of Americans. Obama has never served, and doesn’t have any military training. Many of his public statements — talking about ‘swat teams in Baghdad,’ for example — demonstrate that he knows little about the military.”
But it’s not just Obama’s lack of tactical training or military service that should concern voters. After all, service isn’t a requirement for the presidency. But Pete suggests that Obama’s unwillingness to rely on experts far more knowledgeable is considerably worrisome. “Senator Obama’s apparent insistence that U.S. forces be rapidly withdrawn at all costs and regardless of circumstances is troubling and potentially self-defeating. If elected president, he seems willing to remove U.S. forces from Iraq even if such a decision contradicts the facts on the ground and the best advice of U.S. commanders.”
Sometimes the best explanations are the simplest ones, and even the ones that could be dismissed as naive and idealistic. "I put my uniform on everyday knowing that I make a difference," says Brian. And when he is deployed to Afghanistan, he "will go with the mindset to change multiple lives, and to lift their morale about the tyranny that was set forth in their nation." Time will tell what Obama learned from his tour, but it’s comforting to know there are soldiers like Brian, who fully understand "the situation on the ground."