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2008

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When a Republican Goes to War

Bryan Catherman

In my desk drawer is a small collection of personal things: my military ID tags, political buttons, photographs, and wallet cards.  Next to my expired US Army identification card—with a photo of a younger, bald soldier on his way to Iraq—is a thin stack of Republican National Party membership cards.  They brandish a patriotic eagle and the year, but they don’t really mean all that much.  The Republican Party sends them with a letter begging for money.  The membership card is no more valuable than the stale gum that’s included with a pack of baseball cards.  I sent money to a Republican candidate once, so now I receive the requests every year.

Yes, I was once a Republican.  But I’m not embarrassed; it was years ago, when I believed the Republicans stood for local business owners, less government, greater privacy, and better fiscal responsibility.  More importantly, I thought the Republican Party was the party of morals and values, whatever that really means.  The Republican Party was the party for the Christians, right?  Well, that’s what I thought and it seems many Christians still believe so.

But it was more than just those membership cards.  For college credit, I worked on the campaign of a local Republican candidate.  We knocked on doors and hammered in lawn signs and talked up the issues and asked for votes.  On Election Day, we stood on a busy street corner and waved at passing cars; I guess hoping to remind them to vote our way.  I could’ve picked a Democrat, or any candidate for that matter, but the Republican seemed okay with me.  Besides, I was a Christian and all the Christians I knew were Republicans.  That was before January of 2003.

As President Bush was building the case against Iraq, John McCain spoke at my university.  I thought he was great; not that he said anything different from his stock stump speech that year.  I waited around afterward to have my picture taken with him.  (Ironically, the photograph didn’t turn out.)  Five days later, while McCain was collecting his check from the University of Utah, me and my duffle bag were on our way to Fort Carson, Colorado.

The first sign that my Republican idealism was in danger came after the active duty Fort Carson units packed up their M-1 Abrams and left for Kuwait.  Fort Carson was a ghost town and in the emptiness the local churches were heard signing the praises of President Bush and the Iraq War. 

Twenty other involuntarily activated Reservists were stuck in it with me at the JAG office (that’s the military’s legal department).  Curiously, the remaining active duty JAG contingent was taking their vacation time while we Reservists were away from our families and schooling.  Why?  For them the answer was simple: because with all the units deployed, there’s so little work to do.  While American taxpayers were paying my unnecessary salary, I started to question the wisdom of my Republican leaders.

Fourteen enlisted soldiers and maybe six or seven officers were activated to help the Carson JAG office.  During the pre-invasion run-up, Fort Carson was buzzing and we were busy.  Obviously, the Reservists were needed and I thought we’d fill the gap when the bulk of the active duty office deployed.  But instead, when thousands and thousands of combat and support soldiers left Fort Carson, only eight enlisted and five officers from the JAG office accompanied them.  The units fighting the war were grossly understaffed, while those remaining in the rear were scratching and picking at dust, trying to keep busy.  Plus, the rear contingent had a few more JAG bodies around, thanks to the presence of the activated Reservists.  The waste of labor and tax dollars made little sense.

After the war began, a deployed soldier returned home and I filled his spot with the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment.  They were in Anbar, Iraq.  Now, I thought, I can do my part for freedom and democracy.  But freedom and democracy in Iraq are abstract ideas and war is flesh-and-bones-real.  A war zone has no room for abstract concepts and even less space for Republican idealists.

In the combat zone, I taught Americanized classes to Iraqis.  I worked in detention facilities and briefed American soldiers, among a myriad of other duties, all in world ruled by the gun.

I’m not sure what really happened over there, but somehow, I lost the luxury of a black and white thinking.  The world is more than just good and evil, Democrat and Republican, believers and nonbelievers, them and us.  Of course, it wasn’t until I returned home that I started understanding this confusing metamorphous.

Back in the States, I found that things had changed.  It seemed that someone had hijacked the Republican Party, while at the same time the Republicans hijacked Jesus.  Almost everything they previously stood for was now in a political strategist’s trashcan, and not the blue recycle one.  Yes, they still appose abortion, hate homosexuals, and love their guns, but not much else is the same.  I no longer thought the Republicans were God’s Party anymore.  That idea just seemed silly.  The more I pondered the politics however, the more I concluded that the Party might have changed, but certainly less than I had. 

The boy I was is still lying on the battlefield somewhere, forgotten, left behind.  And the man I am today, a man who has experienced the Iraqi roads, breathed the air, and tasted the sand, is a muted voice to the Republican Party.  They don’t care about me and I don’t care much for them. It seems my only value to the Republicans was my money for the Party and another ballot in the box.

I don’t call myself a Republican any longer, but I don’t fully embrace the Democrats either.  Not yet, anyway.  I’m just one American voter, nothing more, and that’s all I want to be.    I still stand for local business owners, less government, greater privacy, and better fiscal responsibility.  But now I stand for so much more.  The social justice issues mean something.  Equality is important.  Feeding the poor and caring for my neighbors might not mean much to the Republicans and maybe not even to the Christians, but that’s what Jesus told his followers to do.  My faith is no longer tied to a political agenda.

I believe that if America is to be an example of freedom and democracy for the rest of the world to emulate, than maybe it’s time we seek freedom and democracy in America.  More importantly, if we want to spread God’s message of Christianity throughout the world, maybe we need to get to know Him at home first.

War killed one Republican idealist, maybe more, but from the smoldering ashes rose at least one new American.  Through the death of my shallow Christian self, a new believer was born. I see the danger in allowing politicians to use words like freedom or democracy or war or morality or values in abstract terms.  It’s time Americans, especially the Christians, finally cut through the smoke screen and stop allowing politicians to twist faith and morality and patriotism into blind action in the voting booth.