Inside dusty, barricaded camps around Iraq, groups of American troops in between missions are gathering around screens to view an unlikely choice from the US box office: "Fahrenheit 9-11," Michael Moore's controversial documentary attacking the commander-in-chief.
"Everyone's watching it," says a Marine corporal at an outpost in Ramadi that is mortared by insurgents daily. "It's shaping a lot of people's image of Bush."
The film's prevalence is one sign of a discernible countercurrent among US troops in Iraq - those who blame President Bush for entangling them in what they see as a misguided war. Conventional wisdom holds that the troops are staunchly pro-Bush, and many are. But bitterness over long, dangerous deployments is producing, at a minimum, pockets of support for Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry, in part because he's seen as likely to withdraw American forces from Iraq more quickly.
"[For] 9 out of 10 of the people I talk to, it wouldn't matter who ran against Bush - they'd vote for them," said a US soldier in the southern city of Najaf, seeking out a reporter to make his views known. "People are so fed up with Iraq, and fed up with Bush."
With only three weeks until an Oct. 11 deadline set for hundreds of thousands of US troops abroad to mail in absentee ballots, this segment of the military vote is important - symbolically, as a reflection on Bush as a wartime commander, and politically, as absentee ballots could end up tipping the balance in closely contested states.
It is difficult to gauge the extent of disaffection with Bush, which emerged in interviews in June and July with ground forces in central, northern, and southern Iraq. No scientific polls exist on the political leanings of currently deployed troops, military experts and officials say.
To be sure, broader surveys of US military personnel and their spouses in recent years indicate they are more likely to be conservative and Republican than the US civilian population - but not overwhelmingly so.
A Military Times survey last December of 933 subscribers, about 30 percent of whom had deployed for the Iraq war, found that 56 percent considered themselves Republican - about the same percentage who approved of Bush's handling of Iraq. Half of those responding were officers, who as a group tend to be more conservative than their enlisted counterparts.
Among officers, who represent roughly 15 percent of today's 1.4 million active duty military personnel, there are about eight Republicans for every Democrat, according to a 1999 survey by Duke University political scientist Peter Feaver. Enlisted personnel, however - a disproportionate number of whom are minorities, a population that tends to lean Democratic - are more evenly split. Professor Feaver estimates that about one third of enlisted troops are Republicans, one third Democrats, and the rest independents, with the latter group growing.
"The military continues to be a Bush stronghold, but it's not a stranglehold," Feaver says. Three factors make the military vote more in play for Democrats this year than in 2000, he says: the Iraq war, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's tense relationship with the Army, and Bush's limited ability as an incumbent to make sweeping promises akin to Senator Kerry's pledge to add 40,000 new troops and relieve an overstretched force.
"The military as a whole supports the Iraq war," Mr. Feaver says, noting a historical tendency of troops to back the commander in chief in wartime. "But you can go across the military and find pockets where they are more ambivalent," he says, especially among the National Guard and Reserve. "The war has not gone as swimmingly as they thought, and that has caused disaffection.
Whether representing pockets of opposition to Bush or something bigger, soldiers and marines on Iraq's front lines can be impassioned in their criticism. One Marine officer in Ramadi who had lost several men said he was thinking about throwing his medals over the White House wall.
"Nobody I know wants Bush," says an enlisted soldier in Najaf, adding, "This whole war was based on lies." Like several others interviewed, his animosity centered on a belief that the war lacked a clear purpose even as it took a tremendous toll on US troops, many of whom are in Iraq involuntarily under "stop loss" orders that keep them in the service for months beyond their scheduled exit in order to keep units together during deployments.
"There's no clear definition of why we came here," says Army Spc. Nathan Swink, of Quincy, Ill. "First they said they have WMD and nuclear weapons, then it was to get Saddam Hussein out of office, and then to rebuild Iraq. I want to fight for my nation and for my family, to protect the United States against enemies foreign and domestic, not to protect Iraqi civilians or deal with Sadr's militia," he said.
Specialist Swink, who comes from a family of both Democrats and Republicans, plans to vote for Kerry. "Kerry protested the war in Vietnam. He is the one to end this stuff, to lead to our exit of Iraq," he said.
Other US troops expressed feelings of guilt over killing Iraqis in a war they believe is unjust.
"We shouldn't be here," said one Marine infantryman bluntly. "There was no reason for invading this country in the first place. We just came here and [angered people] and killed a lot of innocent people," said the marine, who has seen regular combat in Ramadi. "I don't enjoy killing women and children, it's not my thing."
As with his comrades, the marine accepted some of the most controversial claims of "Fahrenheit 9/11," which critics have called biased. "Bush didn't want to attack [Osama] Bin Laden because he was doing business with Bin Laden's family," he said.
Another marine, Sgt. Christopher Wallace of Pataskala, Ohio, agreed that the film was making an impression on troops. "Marines nowadays want to know stuff. They want to be informed, because we'll be voting out here soon," he said. " 'Fahrenheit 9/11' opened our eyes to things we hadn't seen before." But, he added after a pause, "We still have full faith and confidence in our commander-in-chief. And if John Kerry is elected, he will be our commander in chief."
No matter whom they choose for president, US troops in even the most remote bases in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere overseas are more likely than in 2000 to have an opportunity to vote - and have their votes counted - thanks to a major push by the Pentagon to speed and postmark their ballots. The Pentagon is now expediting ballots for all 1.4 million active-duty military personnel and their 1.3 million voting-age dependents, as well as 3.7 million US civilians living abroad.
"We wrote out a plan of attack on how we are going to address these issues this election year," says Maj. Lonnie Hammack, the lead postal officer for US Central Command, an area covering the Middle East, Central Asia, and North Africa, where more than 225,000 troops and Defense Department personnel serve.
The military has added manpower, flights, and postmark-validating equipment, and given priority to moving ballots - by Humvee or helicopter if necessary - even to far-flung outposts such as those on the Syrian and Pakistani border and Djibouti.
Meanwhile, voting-assistance officers in every military unit are remind- ing troops to vote, as are posters, e-mails, and newspaper and television announcements. Voting booths are also set up at deployment centers in the United States.
"We've had almost 100 percent contact," says Col. Darrell Jones, director of manpower and personnel for Central Command, and 200,000 federal postcard ballot applications have been shipped.
"We encourage our people to vote, not for a certain candidate, but to exercise that right," he said, noting that was especially important as the US military is "out there promoting fledgling democracy in these regions." Many of the younger troops may be voting for the first time, he added.