A Winter Soldier’s Quest for Congress

by , January 05, 2010

Ex-Marine, Iraq vet, and antiwar activist Adam Kokesh is finally ready to fight The Man – from inside the system. But as he makes the rounds through the New Mexico congressional district he hopes to one day represent, he’s finding out fast that people are more apathetic about U.S. interventions abroad than ever before.

"Nobody cares about the war. It’s predictable, but it’s sad," said Kokesh in a recent interview with Antiwar.com. "We have 300,000 troops serving in harm’s way, but I hardly get asked questions about that. I hardly get any questions about foreign policy."

Still, he is hopeful. With the deployment this year of 30,000 additional troops to a clearly troubled front in Afghanistan, coupled with varying degrees of voter disappointment with President Barack Obama’s inaugural year in office, Kokesh said, "I think there is a great opening here for the antiwar cause. There is a real opportunity to bring Left and Right together around a campaign that is antiwar for the right reasons and in the right way."

Kokesh is the guy to exploit even the tiniest of openings. The 27-year-old has spent the last few years preaching rebellion and resistance, serving in his own determined and charismatic way the meteoric rise of the Ron Paul revolution, all while adopting the Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) symbol, a raised fist laced with dog tags.

With the IVAW, Kokesh helped to organize, then participated in, the 2008 Winter Soldier events, for which Iraq veterans like himself spoke openly about the horrors and injustices they said they had witnessed and/or participated in during their tours in-country. Kokesh encouraged and engaged in the kind of testimony that, in part, kept Sen. John Kerry from winning the White House in 2004. He, too, was 27 years old in 1971 when he testified before the U.S. Senate, sharing tales of alleged atrocities he and his fellow Vietnam veterans uncovered in the very first Winter Soldier investigation.

"I have an unwavering faith in my country, and I know that the self-righting ship of the United States of America will one day regain its course, but only with the great toil, courage, and sacrifice that it demands of its Winter Soldiers. I am proud to call myself one of them today," Kokesh declared in the hearings.

To say that Winter Soldier failed to touch off a firestorm or fuel the momentum of a game-changing antiwar movement as it had did in 1971 is an understatement. The mainstream press deemed the 2008 hearings as unworthy of coverage, and the testimony of the Winter Soldiers was dismissed as the marginal echoes of the disillusioned, or worse, the deluded and traitorous Left among the growing population of modern vets.

But despite that, Kokesh believes that Americans made their stand against Bush-era militarism when they voted for Barack Obama over former POW John McCain in November 2008. Turns out Obama is no dove. So, now that buyer’s remorse is slowly setting in among the electorate, Kokesh senses it’s time to tinker with the inside of the machine, starting with the 3rd congressional district in New Mexico, a seat now held by freshman Democrat Rep. Ben Ray Lujan. Kokesh is running in the June Republican primary against at least one GOP challenger, Tom Mullins.

"I think a lot of people are realizing that the system we have right now stinks, and it’s motivating a lot of people to get involved. Adam is trying to bring the Republican Party back to its more traditional stance," said Ron Paul spokesman and Kokesh supporter Jesse Benton, who said Kokesh’s "real-world credentials" as a combat Marine, his "genuineness," and above all, his lack of ego have allowed him to make early inroads with voters.

Which is a quantum leap, politically speaking, considering that it was Kokesh who was dragged off by security guards for disrupting McCain’s acceptance speech for the nomination at the Republican National Convention in 2008 (footage here). High up in the rafters, Kokesh unfurled a banner and shouted so loud that the annoyed audience was forced to chant like 20,000 collectivist automatons – "USA! USA! USA!" – in order to drown him out.

A self-described libertarian Republican who actively supported Republican outsider Ron Paul for the GOP nomination, Kokesh not only warned against the hawkishness of McCain, but he actively campaigned against Obama’s plans for Afghanistan during the campaign, too. While he hates to say "I told you so," he’ll say it anyway.

"I never had any hope or expectations," he said of Obama. "I knew he was going to fail at being any kind of principled force in our foreign policy. I’m not glad he’s failing, but I am glad he’s doing [so] in such a obvious and spectacular fashion that people are starting to wake up."

Ditto for the Democrat-controlled Congress, filled with incumbents shackled by special interests and rookie freshmen who can’t seem to find their way back to the promises they made on the campaign trail. Kokesh counts Lujan as one of them.

"There was a growing discontent – when Obama took office – on the Right, but it’s really started to show itself on the Left as well," he said. "It’s been very interesting to watch that take off."

Putting Down the Fist, Taking Up the Campaign Trail

Kokesh hopes to harness dynamic changes on both sides: first, the "tea party" or "liberty movement," however faddish or politically expedient it might seem on some fronts, has given rise and respect to the kind of message that Paul and the Campaign for Liberty have been so vigorously – and successfully – promoting since the 2008 election. Rep. Paul raised millions for that race, amassed a huge following, and inspired a crop of political hopefulsincluding his own son, Rand Paul in Kentucky – in a movement that is now being embraced by the media, mainstream conservatives, and even GOP stalwarts, for the first time.

"What’s happened in the last two years is that Ron Paul tapped into a latent constituency – among Republicans, yes, but also among independent conservatives and libertarians – who want strictly limited government and no more foreign-policy misadventures," noted political essayist and my American Conservative colleague, Dan McCarthy, who also works with the Campaign for Liberty. "Paul was striking many of the notes the tea parties have since struck years earlier, but his message was more complete, since he includes a strong opposition to unjust and unconstitutional wars along with his opposition to other unconstitutional big-government programs."

Kokesh, who gave rock-star speeches during at least two major Paul rallies in 2008, "is the real thing," said McCarthy, and stands to advance the agenda among conservatives, whether he wins or not.

Next, Kokesh’s honest and uncompromising effort to draw attention to the dark realities of the battlefield has already made him a hero among the liberal antiwar community. With more Democrats waking up to the fact that Obama is not going to relax the Bush-era war policies and the ever widening Global War on Terror, Kokesh figures he can appeal to Democratic Party loyalists and left-of-center independents, too.

"Voters who supported Obama are like victims of an abusive relationship," Kokesh likes to say. "But it’s like they are finally starting to get to a breaking point, saying, ‘What were we thinking?’"

Truly antiwar Democrats won’t put up with it for long.

"Right now, there’s a paradigm shift, there is a revolution happening," he said. "I can’t imagine myself being part of anything else."

How He Got Here

Kokesh has considered himself a libertarian-conservative since high school, but after joining the Marines and then being confronted with the opportunity to go to war, other impulses took over. As a member of the Marine Corps Reserve, he volunteered to go to Iraq because he truly believed the rap that he was going to make a difference. He tried to explain: "I was against the war, but pro-occupation. What I was lacking at that time was an appreciation of the great American tradition – of being lied to by our government. So a lot of it was about being a young Marine. … I didn’t want to miss the party in 2004."

After a violent, eye-opening tour of duty, for which he spent most of the year in a roving tactical team in the 1st Regiment Detachment in what is now known as the First Battle of Fallujah, Kokesh returned home, entered college life, and suffered from bouts with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Soon, the old libertarian standards began to take on new meaning. "I had to go to Iraq to experience that. I joined Iraq Veterans Against the War. It caused me to examine my values … to take it to the philosophical and spiritual level where you begin to recognize the moral significance of [aggressive use of force]. Once you ‘get it,’ you can’t go back to sleep. You can’t not do something about it."

Like other vets who dissociate themselves from the military to actively challenge the policies they were once duty-bound to execute, Kokesh displays a clarity of conviction and little patience for political fan-dancing and subtlety. Frequent rhetorical targets include tyranny and corruption – in both domestic and foreign policy – in addition to unjust war. His speech is direct and often iconoclastic, which most voters today might find refreshing.

But some say Kokesh may be uncompromising to a fault and too much of a one-note guy to appeal to a broad constituency, which, like in most congressional races, are focused on parochial politics and district issues Kokesh may be less comfortable tackling – like education, health care, crime, federal appropriations, and in the case of the 3rd district in New Mexico, Native American affairs. The district is heavily Democratic, having voted for Obama over McCain 61-38 percent and for Lujan over his Republican opponent by 26 percentage points. The previous incumbent, Democratic Rep. Tom Udall, had served a safe five terms and only left when he decided to run for a vacant U.S. Senate seat last year, which he won.

In addition to the unfavorable odds, Kokesh will have to avoid the controversy he’s often courted throughout his life as an activist. On the day the Washington Independent published a rather friendly profile of Kokesh on its front page, its sister publication, the New Mexico Independent, quoted Kokesh declaring, via Twitter, that he "is proud to be standing with the gun toters," a reference to a recently circulated photo of him with Christopher Broughton, the man who brought an AR-15 rifle to an Arizona Obama rally and who reportedly told CNN that he was "prepared to resort to forceful resistance to Obama’s policies."

Benton said Kokesh is well aware that he must "repackage" the old "in-your-face rhetoric" to fit the campaign trail, which traverses 14 northern New Mexico counties and the capital city of Santa Fe. "Adam is working very hard to stay true to his core beliefs, but he’s also working very hard to repackage those beliefs," said Benton. He may have to work extra hard with mainstream Republicans, who despite their seeming conversions on other fronts, are still the primary movers and backers of the Washington war establishment – even in the age of Obama.

Adam Kokesh arrested during an antiwar protest inside a U.S Senate office building, April 27, 2007

"He’s such an honest person," said Benton. "He’s being careful not to alienate [voters] with too much fire in the belly."

Which brings us back to the opening. If voters are more interested in putting food on the table or holding on to their health insurance than they are about what is going on overseas, why would they toss out a one-term incumbent for an audacious antiwar activist with a slim chance of crashing the party?

Because people are looking for honesty and independence over political polish and party machinery, and most importantly, they are "starting to make the connection" between big-government policies at home and the proclivity to start wars and build empires abroad, said Kokesh.

"It is a challenge," said Benton, "but Adam really brings the pro-American, pro-liberty message full circle."

"No politician has ever ended a war," Kokesh exclaimed during the summer 2008 March for Liberty in Washington, D.C. Maybe so, but now, Kokesh wants the opportunity to try.

Read more by Kelley B. Vlahos