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The Political Awakening of a Republican: 'I Had Viewed Whole Swaths of the Country and the World as Second-Class People'

A former Republican tells about how his experiences in post-Katrina New Orleans and then Iraq destroyed his Republican worldview.

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How I Learned to Stop Loving the Bombs

In order to learn more -- and to secure my membership in what Karl Rove sneeringly called the “ reality-based community” -- I joined a social science research institute.  There I was slowly disabused of layer after layer of myth and received wisdom, and it hurt.  Perhaps nothing hurt more than to see just how far my patriotic, Republican conception of U.S. martial power -- what it’s for, how it’s used -- diverged from the reality of our wars.

Lots of Republicans grow up hawks.  I certainly did.  My sense of what it meant to be an American was linked to my belief that from 1776 to WWII, and even from the 1991 Gulf War to Kosovo and Afghanistan, the American military had been dedicated to birthing freedom and democracy in the world, while dispensing a tough and precise global justice.

To me, military service represented the perfect combination of public service, honor, heroism, glory, promotion, meaning, and coolness.  As a child, I couldn’t get enough of the military: toys and models, movies and cartoons, fat books with technical pictures of manly fighter planes and ships and submarines.  We went to air shows whenever we could, and with the advent of cable, I begged my parents to sign up so that the Discovery Channel could bring those shows right into our den.  Just after we got it, the first Gulf War kicked off, and CNN provided my afterschool entertainment for weeks.

As I got older, I studied Civil War military history and memory.  (I would eventually edit a book of letters by Union Gen. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.)  I thought I knew a lot about war; even if Sherman was right that “war is hell,” it was frequently necessary, we did it well, and -- whatever those misinformed peaceniks said -- we made the world a better place.

But then I went to a war zone.

I was deployed to Baghdad as part of a team of RAND Corporation researchers to help the detainee operations command figure out several thorny policy issues.  My task was to figure out why we were sort-of-protecting and sort-of-detaining an Iranian dissident group on Washington’s terrorist list.

It got ugly fast.  Just after my first meal on base, there was a rumble of explosions, and an alarm started screaming INCOMING! INCOMING! INCOMING!  Two people were killed and dozens injured, right outside the chow hall where I had been standing minutes earlier.

This was the “surge” period in 2007 when, I was told, insurgent attacks came less frequently than before, but the sounds of war seemed constant to me.  The rat-tat-tat of small arms fire just across the “wire.”  Controlled detonations of insurgent duds.  Dual patrolling Blackhawks overhead. And every few mornings, a fresh rain of insurgent rockets and mortars.

Always alert, always nervous, I was only in Iraq for three and a half weeks, and never close to actual combat; and yet the experience gave me many of the symptoms of PTSD.  It turns out that it doesn’t take much.

That made me wonder how the Iraqis took it.  From overhead I saw that the once teeming city of Baghdad was now a desert of desolate neighborhoods and empty shopping streets, bomb craters in the middle of soccer fields and in the roofs of schools.  Millions displaced.

Our nation-building efforts reeked of post-Katrina organizational incompetence.  People were assigned the wrong roles -- “Why am I building a radio station?  This isn’t what I do.  I blow things up…” -- and given no advance training or guidance.  Outgoing leaders didn’t overlap with their successors, so what they had learned would be lost, leaving each wheel to be partially reinvented again.  Precious few contracts went to Iraqis.  It was driving people out of our military.