This week, the anti-war group VoteVets.org took to the airwaves with a television advertising campaign aimed at several vulnerable Republican incumbents.
The ads feature John Batiste and Paul Eaton, two U.S. Army veterans who served as major generals in Iraq, criticizing President Bush’s handling of the war. Off-camera, the man behind the half-million dollar ad blitz is Jon Soltz, a Jewish army veteran who served in Bosnia and Iraq before becoming co-founder and chairman of VoteVets.org.
Soltz, 29, is one of the leading protesters of the Iraq War, but don’t call him a pacifist. A self-described “security hawk,” he fell in love with the idea of military service while touring Israel as a teenager. He describes himself as a “pro-Israel, pro-military guy.”
And in May 2003, he arrived for duty in Iraq as a supporter of the war.
“When I went to Iraq, I didn’t change my dog tags — I kept ‘Jewish’ on my dog tags because I believed in the war, because I believed, when I watched the president, that I was fighting for the national security of America,” Soltz recalled. The decision to keep his faith close to his heart, he noted, could have landed him “in big trouble” if he were to be captured by Iraqi insurgents, but he said he felt it was “the morally, religiously, right thing to do.”
By the time that Soltz returned home in September 2003, having served as an operations manager for logistics convoys, he was worried that the troops, stretched too thin with too few resources, were on an impossible mission. It was a fateful conversation with Senator John Kerry, a fellow war veteran who also became famous as a protester, that convinced Soltz to speak out. In the spring of 2004, he signed up as the Pennsylvania state co-coordinator for the group Veterans for Kerry and co-founded VoteVets.org.
While various peace groups on the left, some also led by veterans, oppose war in general or argue that the Iraq invasion was fundamentally immoral or illegal, Soltz and VoteVets.org want American troops out of Iraq because they believe that the mission is not achievable and that it is compromising American security.
“You don’t want to protect a dictator who’s killed thousands of people and wants to blow Israel off the face of the earth,” Soltz told the Forward. “So arguing morality here is a failed argument; you’ve got to make a security argument.” While VoteVets.org does not advocate an immediate withdrawal of all American troops, or a cutoff of funding, the group is supporting Democratic efforts to force a large-scale redeployment and redefinition of the mission.
In recent months, VoteVets.org also has been among those turning their attention to the possibility of military intervention in Iran. In January, former general Wesley Clark — who serves on the group’s board of advisers and works closely with Soltz — drew ire from some Jewish communal leaders when he claimed that “New York money people” are pushing for military confrontation with Tehran.
Asked about the controversy, Soltz blamed the uproar on a right-wing “smear” campaign. He rejected as “absolutely ridiculous” any claims that the general — who discovered as an adult that his biological father was Jewish — harbors antisemitic animus.
Like Clark, Soltz insists that further diplomatic efforts are needed to deal with Tehran, and that pre-emptive military action against the regime could be more dangerous than living with the threat of the regime’s push for nuclear weapons.
“It’s dangerous for Israel in the short term,” Soltz said. “We have limited ground troops and assets, so because we can’t force regime change in Iran, we can’t invade Iran, so we’re assuming we can do this with air strikes, which is not necessarily the case.
“If you strike Iran and you don’t clean off the nuclear assets, then you’re going to have an expedited nuclear program; you’re going to see destabilization of Iraq.”
Soltz grew up in a Reform Jewish household in Maryland and played soccer at Washington & Jefferson College, which he attended on an ROTC scholarship. His lack of touch-feely liberalism quickly becomes apparent when he considers the Republican field of 2008 presidential candidates.
According to Soltz, Rudolph Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City who is widely viewed as a 9/11 hero and as the GOP frontrunner, is simply “not capable of being the commander in chief.”
“We are a professional military force with a tremendous amount of respect. We don’t need a commander in chief who dresses up in drag and does all this funny stuff,” Soltz said. “Don’t think I won’t run an ad of him dressed up in drag in Arkansas, with an Iraq war veteran saying this guy is a draft dodger; he’s got four military deferments; he’s not qualified to be a commander in chief.”
While Soltz campaigned for Kerry in 2004, after the recent GOP debate at the Reagan Library in California, he gave interviews praising Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, one of the most outspoken Republican critics of the war.
“Chuck Hagel would be capable of being commander in chief; absolutely he would,” Soltz told the Forward. “This nation is in peril. And Hagel is a guy who has the intellectual capacity and the moral leadership to be a strong commander in chief and get our national security back on the right course, and I have no problem saying that, if he’s a Republican. I could care less.”
When asked about the Democratic field, Soltz generally demurs. While VoteVets.org partisans are supporting a variety of candidates in the primaries, the organization plans to wait and flex its muscles in the general election.
Personally, Soltz is still grappling with the implications of his unlikely rise to the pinnacle of the anti-war movement. In addition to his work with the group, he is pursuing graduate work in international relations at the University of Pittsburgh, and beginning to think about settling down and starting a family.
With his service in the reserves almost up, Soltz is torn over whether to re-enlist. “Frankly, going back to Iraq would be very challenging on me because there’s no way that military force can provide victory in this war,” Soltz said.
“Now, why stay?” he added. “Because I love the military and I love the people that you meet in the military. They are the best people that I’ve ever met in my life. They are not the richest people, they may not be the smartest people, but they’re the best people. If I were to leave the army over my problems with this war, then it would deny me the honor of leading soldiers in the next one that might be important.”