Wednesday, November 26, 2008

View of the US elections from Iraq

A note from a friend posted in Iraq about the election:

I woke at 3am in the bitter cold (I think it dropped to about 45 degrees that night) because my heater wasn't working. That adage about the desert getting cold at night isn't just a myth. Shivering and exhausted I flipped on the tv to watch the first returns come in. Armed Forces Networks has 9 channels and so ABC, CBS, FOX and MSNBC were all on.

In all of these letters, I've stayed as far away from discussing politics as possible. But a ton of people have asked what it was like to watch it from here and what was the reaction of Iraqis and my fellow Marines. Moreover, I think this past Presidential election does have relevance to my experience here. Firstly, because so many of my Iraqi counterparts themselves have asked me about it and its impact on what happens to US forces in Iraq. Secondly though because of how many of my fellow Marines reacted and for me its connection to why I joined the Marines. It is no secret that most of those in military are more conservative, and so were hoping John McCain would win. I on the other hand (I'm sure this is a huge shock for everyone) lean politically liberal and had voted for Barak Obama.

So it was a pretty lonely experience to be rooting for the Democratic candidate amid a sea of people cheering for the Republican… While Marines do whatever the President (Whoever that is) orders them to do, the culture since I joined back in 1991 has been one of very open anti-Democrat and pro-Republican bias. Mocking and ridiculing Democrats is openly socially acceptable, while doing so against Republicans is very frowned upon. That is not to say everyone in the Marines and military is a Republican, or that there are no Democrats. But it has been rare until very recently in my 17 years in the Marines to hear open expressions of Democratic support, but very common for such support for Republicans. I think most Marines just swallowed their dissappointement and decided to go on and do what they've always done, serve the Commander in Chief, no matter what party he is. On this massive Marine Corps base here in Al Anbar, you wouldn't really know an election took place other than it appearing on the TVs hanging in all the chow-halls. No one realIy talked about it or anything (except for the occasional contractor wearing an "Obama for President" shirt the day or two after the election. I should point out, that none of my commanders have ever discriminated against me at all for my (usually well known) political divergence from the social norm.

Recent events in Iraq, in the United States and across the world, especially under the little-liked Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, have for the first time since I joined, provoked and created a space for open political disagreement within military social circles though. This includes reconsideration by many troops that support for Republicans isn't as implicitly part of the definition of military service as many had believed in the past. Nevertheless, the significant majority of the military remains strongly conservative in political outlook and by wide margins support Republicans rather than Democrats. So, I didn't exactly have anyone with whom I wanted to watch the election returns, even if I expected to be happy about how it turned out.

Despite intellectually knowing that Obama had the upper hand going into election day, considering how the Democrats had become famous for bungling sure opportunities, I was quite nervous even as the returns rolled in through the early morning. Then of course, they called Virginia for Obama just before 7am. I would like to think that it was my personal vote that put him over the top there. And with Virginia, Obama crossed the threshold and was declared the next President of the United States. I just sat there stunned at the edge of my bed.

I sat there, soaking it in, flipping among the different channels to make sure MSNBC didn't just get trigger happy (remembering that such things actually have happened in very recent elections). Nope, it was true. However it was when they reported that hundreds of people had gathered right outside the White House to dance, sing, wave American flags and celebrate that I began to cry though. I was thinking that this is in part why I and many others were here in the Marines, in Iraq.

When we join the Marines, we swear an oath to, "support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America, against all enemies, foreign and domestic." We don't swear allegiance to any man, even the President, even to the Presidency itself. We follow only the President's legal orders as we are loyal in the end not to the President, only to the document which gives both the President and us legitimacy. It directs us to follow ALL of his legal orders, even if we disagree with his politics and policies. He is our Commander in Chief, but he, like all of us, is not above the Constitution. That there can peacefully be such a radical change from the Bush administration to the Obama administration… overnight, in one fell swoop…. That the system can work that way, that well, that peacefully, is why so many of us joined… because only in that kind of system can we all have the freedom to live and believe, and be as we would like.

OK, California just declared otherwise with regards to gays and lesbians. But that means for the second reason on this election day, Dr. Martin Luther King's declaration is awesomely prescient and appropriate that, "the arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice."

And of course this also is emblematic as to why this election is so relevant to motivations that drove so many of us choose to join the military. It is pride in the meaning of our country. When I say that, it isn't some knee-jerk, nationalism. It is not a mindless assumption of "my country, right or wrong" and that we are great, just because we are the strongest and wealthiest. It is instead a pride in the character and nature of our country. Pride in—among other reasons—that bedrock aspect of our culture that is a distinctly American belief in progress.

My friend who is Swiss, and others in the past as well, have noted to me this obsession with progress as being different than European cultures. And I have especially noted the striking contrast with Arab cultures. Embedded in the very Constitution that defines our country—which explicitly set out a path to alter it for the better as our society evolves—is a belief in progress. Around the world, Americans are viewed negatively for many reasons, we are often viewed as arrogant, ignorant, clumsy. But we are also perceived as almost absurdly reverent in our belief that progress is always possible. That no problem is insolvable, no conflict intractable, no destruction final, no barrier insurmountable. My Bosnian friend calls it naively optimistic. And deeply embedded in American culture is that belief. And Barak Obama's victory is—I think—the epitome of that ideal. In fact, for this reason, more than one fellow Marine told me since the election that although they voted for McCain, now that they think about it, they are happy Obama won.

I voted for Barak Obama because I like his policies more than John McCain's. But I think for millions of Americans (75% of whom apparently are happy he will be President, according to one poll, even if only 53% voted for him), it isn't even about him as an individual. Less than 100 years ago, neither he, nor Hillary Clinton nor Sarah Palin could vote everywhere in our country. He won on the ticket of the Democratic Party that was the party of slavery. It was the party of President Woodrow Wilson who banned all blacks from working in the federal government. And the state that put him over the top, was Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy. Even if he had lost, Sarah Palin would have become Vice –President. I wouldn't have been happy because of the policies she would have advocated. But at the same time, I would have been proud. Here was our female Vice-President, running on the ticket of the party that since the 1960s has used the term "feminist" (which my understanding is someone who wants equal rights for women) as an epithet. We move along in fits and starts, but we constantly push ourselves farther along.

It turns out actually, that I had any number of friends (many of whom I don't think even know each other) who were among those that poured into the streets of our capital on election night. They began walking, then flooding down across Lafayette Park onto Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House. At first they just strolled and stumbled, then they ran. Apparently they spontaneously came from all across the city by the tens that grew into hundreds. Of course, they were chanting for the new President Obama… and were taunting outgoing President Bush. But they were also there, proudly waving American flags, and then began singing the national anthem. Yes, they were celebrating President Obama, but they were celebrating just as much or more, that affirmation that Robert Kennedy so powerfully stated forty years ago to students struggling against South Africa's Apartheid Regime, "Our future may lie beyond our vision, but it is not completely beyond our control. It is the shaping impulse of America that neither fate nor nature nor the irresistible tides of history, but the work of our own hands, matched to reason and principle, that will determine our destiny."

Just a couple of days ago I was speaking with an Iraqi Lieutenant about their upcoming elections in January and he remarked about how corrupt the Iraqi government was and that he wanted a "great democracy like America's." I tried to explain that it has taken us quite a while to get to where we are, and it hasn't been easy and it still isn't perfect. Two years ago, a Democratic Congressman from Louisiana was found with like $80,000 cash in his freezer, which most likely were bribes from a Nigerian politician. And just this past month the sitting senior Republican Senator from Alaska was convicted of seven counts of bribery.

Then, exposing that American, optimistic naïveté, I noted that democracy is not a place to arrive at, but a path to travel. While the Iraqis are barely at the beginning of the road, they have at least found where it starts and are standing on it for the first time in their 5,000 years of history. We in America, with Barak Obama's election, have looked up, realized how different the landscape is around us and proudly noticed how amazingly far we have traveled… even in just the past 40 years.

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