From Troops, a Few Votes for a Quick Way Home

by Rick Lyman

October 21, 2004

From Troops, a Few Votes for a Quick Way Home

By RICK LYMAN

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Specialist Zac Bullock leaned against a dust-caked wall in the shade of the abandoned Iraqi school that had become his temporary home, talking politics.

"Some of the guys don't talk about the election much," said Specialist Bullock, 20, a medic from Redding, Calif., who had just treated a gash two inches deep in an infantryman's foot. "But most of us discuss it. And for the most part, the big question is, which of those two guys is going to get us out of here sooner?"

Back home, nearly 7,000 miles away, a close-fought and bitter presidential election is reaching its indecorous denouement, dominated by sniping about the war in Iraq. For no Americans is the question more pertinent than it is for the troops themselves, the men and women who have braved uncertain terrors to do what President Bush has asked of them.

Despite the risks, United States combatants in Iraq are largely supportive of Mr. Bush, if interviews with about 40 soldiers stationed in Baghdad and in several provincial towns to the north are anything near representative. But in the discussions, in heavily fortified bases in Baquba, Balad and Tikrit, and in the midst of a three-day battle for control of Samarra, there was also widespread pessimism about the war, and about how long American troops will be needed here, though it was mixed with a deep desire that the war be seen as noble and justified.

This reporter, once embedded with United States forces, was given unrestricted access to the troops, who were free to speak without supervision. Yet some soldiers said they felt uncomfortable expressing criticism of their commander in chief or expressing a preference for Senator John Kerry, Mr. Bush's Democratic challenger, particularly because the military is, and has been for decades, predominantly Republican. Others said they believed that Mr. Kerry would fare better among the troops than a Democrat normally might, a reflection of the growing sense among soldiers that there is no end in sight to the conflict here.

Nevertheless, when asked who was to blame for what many saw as a deteriorating situation, soldiers were much more likely to cite Iraqi civilians or restrictive rules of engagement than Mr. Bush's policies.

And not a single soldier interviewed - even those who were most gloomy about the war - would say that it was a mistake to come here or that the war was a result of dissembling or miscalculation by Mr. Bush, which has been a common Democratic refrain in the campaign.

Staff Sgt. Tonya Aponte, having her first hot breakfast after four days of fighting in Samarra, lowered her voice in the mess hall near Balad when asked about politics.

"Bush has a lot of support in the military, but Kerry has a lot of support too," Sergeant Aponte said.

The most reliable indicator of where a soldier stood was whether he intended to make a career in the Army or looked to return to civilian life in the near future.

"The guys who support Bush tend to be those who want to stay in the Army and see the president as someone who will do more for the military in the future, while the guys supporting Kerry tend to be the ones who think he'll get us out of here sooner," Specialist Bullock said.

Many of the soldiers were reluctant to discuss their political choices.

"It's private," said Specialist Ryan Liberty, 23, a member of the New York National Guard and a radiology student from Plattsburgh. But of those who did, the most passionate were Bush supporters, who argued strenuously that re-electing the president was the surest way to get the job in Iraq done for good.

"I'm from the South, from North Carolina, so I'm a Bush guy," said Staff Sgt. David Dean as he stood in a small patch of shade in a heavily guarded compound in central Baquba. "Some of the more educated Iraqis are starting to ask me, hey, if this guy Kerry gets elected, is America going to pull out? I tell them, you ask me, you can't tell where John Kerry stands on anything."

Often, Kerry supporters presented themselves as wavering, and only in the process of discussing their position did it become clear that they were really leaning toward the Democrat but wary of expressing disapproval of their commander in chief.

"I come from Massachusetts, so I know John Kerry and I respect him," said Capt. Laurie Godin, who works in the Army's civil affairs division, setting up programs for Iraqi women in Baquba. "I think he'd make a really good president. But I'm also pretty conservative, too. So I guess I just don't know yet. I don't know."

Lt. Erik Sarson of Latrobe, Pa., fresh from an afternoon patrol in Samarra kicking down doors in search of arms caches, said that while people in the United States may have been obsessing about the presidential race for months, the constant tensions of the war and the sense of dislocation and unreality it creates have kept it from occupying the minds of most soldiers.

"I've been a platoon leader for about a month," Lieutenant Sarson said. "And yeah, I hear the guys talking about the election. Both sides of it. We've got some voting one way and some the other, and they talk about it and argue about it. But most people, I think, are just starting to get their minds around it."

First Sgt. Mark Oldroyd, also taking a break from the Samarra fighting, agreed.

"A lot of the guys are vacillating," Sergeant Oldroyd said. "If they're staying in the military, they want to make sure whoever gets in there finishes this thing right so we don't have to come back here. The guys who are getting out have the same concerns as any other American who's voting. They're worried about jobs, stuff like that."

Although exact figures are unavailable, most campaign scholars agree that members of the military have tended overwhelmingly in recent decades to vote Republican for president. But Democratic strategists suspect that continued violence in Iraq might drive more soldiers, especially those in the lower ranks, to support Mr. Kerry.

A poll of active-duty soldiers and their families by the National Annenberg Election Survey in early October found a clear preference for the president, with 69 percent placing greater trust in Mr. Bush as commander in chief and 24 percent favoring Mr. Kerry. Of those surveyed, 43 percent identified themselves as Republican, 27 percent as independent and 19 percent as Democratic.

A recent survey of the 31,000 subscribers to the monthly publications Army Times, Navy Times, Marine Times and Air Force Times showed the president trouncing Mr. Kerry, 73 percent to 18 percent. The survey was unscientific. Subscribers, who tend to be older and higher-ranking than the average soldier, were sent an e-mail message and asked to respond, and 4,165 did so.

It is, nevertheless, a large margin.

And it was borne out by the interviews of soldiers in Iraq, creating a climate in which some Kerry supporters said they felt uncomfortable voicing their preference too loudly.

"I'm a Democrat," said one soldier in Tikrit, a platoon leader from Detroit. "I always vote Democrat, and I'm sure going to vote Democrat this year. We've got to get out of this mess over here, and I don't believe Bush has any idea how to do it. You say that out loud, though, you just get a bunch of people in your face."

The most recent Pentagon statistics show that, as of July 4, there were 19,097 officers and 138,835 enlisted personnel stationed in Iraq. Of the enlisted troops, the largest group, 68,050, were between the ages of 20 and 24. Only 12,646 were women. Most, 91,913, were white; 27,985 were black and 16,911 Hispanic. The vast majority, 124,698, had a high school diploma but no higher education.

Those are just numbers, though. The heart beneath the Kevlar is harder to read.

"You know, a lot of people are dying around here," Pfc. Samuel Daniels, 23, of Dallas, said as his armored Humvee bounced along a crowded, dusty street in Baquba. "We got bigger things on our mind to worry about than who wants to be president. We're getting ambushed and stuff."

A plateau of hardscrabble farms clings to the banks of the Tigris River in the area north of Baghdad, but most of the landscape is lunar. The surface is a thick coating of seemingly weightless, almost smoky sand that the soldiers call angel dust. It billows around each footstep and coats everything in reach.

Sgt. Amado Credidio, 23, from the East New York neighborhood in Brooklyn, scanned the knots of people on passing street corners, his fingers gently flicking the barrel of his assault rifle. "You got your Bush guys in the military, of course, but you hear a lot of guys talking about Kerry, too," he said. "It's not like everybody thinks the same way."

All politics is local, they say. And in this case that means that when soldiers do talk politics, the conversation tends to veer pretty quickly into such nuts-and-bolts issues.

"I think I was reading that John Kerry says he'll pull out the troops in six months if he gets elected,'' Private Daniels said. "Sounds good to me.''

Specialist Thomas Tucker, a medic from Buffalo, pulled down his armored window and spat into the rutted street. "That ain't gonna work,'' he said. "We ain't ever gonna just walk away from this country.''

In fact, Mr. Kerry ties a withdrawal of troops to a stronger international presence in Iraq and the training of Iraqi forces; he has said he hopes to begin rotating troops home six months into his term and have them all home within four years.

Private Daniels stared out the window for a few moments. "I also read that they're talking about shortening the tours from a year to six months,'' he said. "Man, that'd be sweet. Six months you can do easy, but a year is a long time. Who was saying that, Bush or Kerry? I forget.''


Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company