I am a 28-year veteran of the active Army and Reserves, having served the nation in civilian and military assignments in Grenada, Honduras, El Salvador, Somalia, Haiti, Afghanistan and Iraq.
I am the son of an artillery forward observer who fought in the Pacific in World War II, the father of a young man who will reach military age during the next administration and is anxious to get into uniform, the uncle of a Marine who was on his way to the Ramadi-Fallujah area of Iraq (his second deployment), and the second cousin of a young soldier who recently returned from a year in Sadr City.
I am from the class of Americans that fights our wars, as opposed to the class that theorizes and fantasizes about them. As I vote Nov. 2, I will not take with me the impressions garnered from the candidates' use of the armed forces as campaign props in the conventions and debates. Rather, I will ask the following questions about how the next president will organize our military for war and how he will position our country in the world:
Will you increase the size of the military? I have yet to meet anyone in uniform at any rank who believes that the current force is large enough to manage the totality of America's threats. In the wake of 9-11, we are involved in a manpower-intensive fight with huge unknowns. We need a big increase in our armed forces to manage the threats, several new permanent divisions for the Army and Marines and large increases in our special operations forces and reserve force, at a minimum.
Will you maintain the post-Vietnam force structure? After Vietnam, our military was restructured so that it would be impossible to go to war without a national consensus by making Reserve and National Guard units essential to any large campaign. This made deployments slightly slower but enhanced long-term national support for our operations. I would be extremely leery of moves to return the military to a federal force that could be deployed without this consensus.
Will you build lasting alliances? Forget the go-it-alone machismo. It might bring the crowds to their feet on the campaign trail, but for the soldiers and Marines who are now deploying for the second time in Iraq, more allies would be welcome.
Will you carry out policies that will anger the world? There is an endless supply of recruits for al-Qaida and other terrorist spin-offs, part of the huge middle ground that is waiting to be persuaded to fight against us or to leave us alone. How we conduct ourselves in the world will help determine which way the middle moves. I want a president who inspires respect and is viewed positively, not one who enrages and infuriates.
Will you forcibly repudiate Abu Ghraib? The Abu Ghraib prison scandal may be the biggest foreign policy disaster since Vietnam. By leaving in its wake images of American sexual and physical domination of Arab men, it will inspire our enemies and enhance recruiting for groups that wish to hurt us at a time when the ability to damage us has increased manyfold. I seek a president who will forcibly repudiate these actions and contain their long-term damage.
Will you listen to your military advisers? It is understood by civilian leaders of the armed forces that their job is to set policy and allow the military to carry it out. When the civilian leadership gets too deeply involved in the nuts and bolts of military operations, things tend to go awry.
Do you have a strategy? Since 9-11, we have devised a number of tools for fighting terrorism but have yet to develop a toolbox. Neither candidate has laid out a comprehensive strategy for our current conflict or a paradigm for the post-Cold War world. I would be interested in a doctrine, however flexible and broad, that could replace containment and guide our policies and practices, giving us something more creative than simply "staying the course."
Do you understand the world? While it is not the nature of our political system to offer leaders who are well traveled and have lived abroad, some understanding of the world would be helpful for a wartime leader.
Bush and Kerry may continue to waste money on petty attack ads and counterattack ads if they like, but to win this veteran's vote, they would do better to answer these eight simple questions.
Keith W. Mines is a major in the Army Special Forces Reserve.