Hard Hitters

Among the racy and obnoxious Super Bowl ads selling everything from beer to insurance, at least one commercial interruption had a more serious intention. VoteVets.org, a political action group affiliated with a coalition of left-leaning organizations including MoveOn.org, ran an ad (only in certain markets) where Iraq war veterans, including an amputee, spoke out against President Bush's "surge." NEWSWEEK's Daren Briscoe recently spoke to VoteVets cofounder Jon Soltz, who served as a captain during Operation Iraqi Freedom, and also served in Afghanistan and Kosovo. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What is VoteVets.org?

Jon Soltz: We're a pro-military group that's concerned about things that affect the military at the lowest levels. We're for destroying Al Qaeda and the people that attacked this country on September 11. We're not an antiwar group at all—it makes me go ballistic when I hear people say that. But you can't be for the troops and for the president when he talks about continuing a failed strategy with another surge. That's not supporting the troops.

What is your group trying to accomplish?

During the last election cycle, we worked to provide infrastructure and support for candidates who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan, like Patrick Murphy and Tammy Duckworth, and we feel like we played a big role in sending a message to the president that he was on the wrong track with the war. Now we're part of a massive lobbying effort targeting key Republican senators who want to tell you that they don't support the escalation, but who don't want to allow a debate on it to happen. If Congress wants to support the troops, the first step is to get a nonbinding resolution from a bipartisan majority that sends a clear message to the president that his strategy is not working. Continuing a failed strategy with another surge, that's not supporting the troops.

Does your position about the war describe the way you felt when you went to Iraq, or is it something that developed during your time there?

When I went to Iraq I drank all the Kool-Aid. I still remember thinking about what we were going to do when we found all these weapons of mass destruction. We thought we were going over there to fight the people that attacked this country. Then, when you start seeing things for yourself, when you start hearing things like the president saying, "Bring it on," it dawns on you that you haven't been told the truth.

Why did you accuse Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of " aiding the enemy "?

He's filibustering a debate on the surge. He's denying Congress the opportunity to send a clear message to the president that his strategy isn't working. As far as I'm concerned, we're not winning, and that's not good. Osama bin Laden is still at large, we're playing reindeer games in Iraq, and this man is denying American soldiers the democratic debate they deserve. He's supporting a policy that's bad for the military, bad for the troops and makes the country less secure. Supporting a policy that's not effective surely benefits the enemy more than finding one that is.

Do you worry that both sides throwing these kinds of accusations around makes it difficult for people to have honest disagreements about the war?

I don't know. At this point, people have been playing nice guy about this war for four years, and look where it's gotten us. The fact of the matter is the people on the other side of the argument are dead wrong. What does Mitch McConnell know about war? What does Dick Cheney know about war? People don't want me to call him a draft dodger, but he had five deferments. What do you want me to call him?

What kind of response have you gotten from the Super Bowl commercial?

A great response. It's very clear to people that putting 20,000 more troops in Baghdad isn't going to accomplish anything. I lived in a Serbian village when I was in Kosovo, and we had 40,000 peacekeepers for about 200,000 Serbs. The idea that 20,000 overextended, depleted, tired troops are going to be able to provide security in a country of 26 million is absurd. All this fancy talk in the Senate is just games. People don't understand that language, but they understood the message of our commercial.

The American public has moved from being largely in support of the war to mostly opposed to it. What's your sense of the feeling within the military ranks?

The most conservative people in the military have the harshest questions about how the war is being conducted. Military people understand that there's no military solution possible in Iraq. There might not even be a political solution at this point. The Iraq Study Group offered a bipartisan consensus that offered some sort of hope of getting us back to fighting the people who attacked us on 9/11, and the president decided to throw that out. The troops want a plan that's going to work, they want someone in charge who they know cares about them, and they want this debate to happen. What hurts the morale of troops is the filibuster on debating the war. What hurts morale is the Pentagon resetting the clocks of the National Guard and Army Reserves so they have to deploy again. What hurts morale is not asking the hard questions about the war. If our politicians aren't doing their jobs, if they don't have the courage to do the job they were elected to do, I'd prefer they just resign.