The Politicization of Military Service
by PETER FARMER
July 10, 2012
Americans have traditionally respected military service, and have over the years chosen many veterans as political leaders. George Washington had been a general in the Continental Army. Teddy Roosevelt rode up San Juan Hill and into the White House. Harry Truman was an artillery officer in WWI. Dwight Eisenhower was a renowned general and theater commander during WWII. John Kennedy was famed for his service aboard the PT-109. There are many other examples.
Aspiring politicians have long-known and exploited the link between military service and electability. Military experience is usually an asset with voters, provided the candidate in question handles his service tastefully and in a manner that is not overtly manipulative. Then-Senator John Kennedy ran successfully for the White House in 1960 partly on the strength of his wartime service in the U.S. Navy aboard the now-famous PT-109. His opponent, Richard Nixon, had also served in the U.S.N. during WWII and military service - or lack of it - did not become a major issue during the campaign.
Conversely, an obviously-staged photo of Democrat presidential candidate Michael Dukakis (a U.S. Army veteran) posed in an M1 Abrams tank in September, 1988 - may have cost him the election that fall. Rightly or wrongly, "Dukakis in a tank" has since entered the public relations lexicon as shorthand for a mishandled photo op.
Who can forget John Kerry's appearance at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, sporting the very same medals he allegedly had thrown away in disgust thirty years earlier over the Vietnam War? Candidate Kerry accepted the Democrat Party nomination with a salute and the words "Reporting for duty" - but the voters didn't buy it. He lost to George W. Bush.
These and other episodes come to mind in the wake of the tawdry and unseeming dust-up between incumbent Congressman Joe Walsh (R-IL, 8th District) and Democrat Tammy Duckworth, who will oppose him in the fall election.
Duckworth, an army officer and helicopter pilot, lost both of her legs in action in Iraq in 2004, when an RPG hit her UH-60 "Blackhawk" helicopter. Walsh, who is not a veteran, has accused Duckworth of exploiting her military service for political gain. Said Walsh, "Now I'm running against a woman who, I mean-- my God-- that's all she talks about," Walsh told an audience in Elk Grove, Ill. "Our true heroes, the men and women who served us, it's the last thing in the world they talk about." Duckworth campaign manager Kaitlin Fahey fired back in a July 3rd statement, "Congressman Walsh's comments insult those who sacrificed to make this country free." Duckworth herself, appearing on MSNBC's "Hardball" in an interview with Michael Smerconish, said that "that she never claimed to be a hero" and that Walsh's charges were "irresponsible."
What are we, the public, to make of such outbursts?
First, let us deal with the facts: Duckworth lost her legs in battle against an enemy of the United States. She is therefore due the respect traditionally accorded those who have shed blood in defense of the nation. To the extent Walsh denies her this, he is in the wrong.
What of the charge that Duckworth is exploiting her military service for political ends and that it is "all she talks about"?
Has Duckworth exploited her military service politically? Of course she has - but what of it? Duckworth is merely one in a long line of politician-veterans to have used their military service as a springboard into politics. The real question isn't whether she has used her service for political ends, but how. Specifically, has Tammy Duckworth exercised restraint, good judgment and proper decorum in the political uses of her wartime service and her wounds? That is the question implied by Congressman Walsh when he said, "Our true heroes... it's the last thing in the world they talk about" - "it" presumably being the combat service and wounds sustained by veterans. To answer this question properly, we need to digress a bit and think about how Americans have customarily viewed wartime service, wounds sustained therein, and the nature of heroism.
Our forebearers lived in a more emotionally-reserved society, one in which personal aggrandizement and drawing attention to one's self was considered to be in very bad taste. This writer has been privileged to know a number of genuine heroes over the years, men who distinguished themselves in some of the toughest battles in this nation's history in WWII, Korea, and Vietnam and elsewhere. Some won decorations for valor, such as the Navy Cross, Silver Star and Bronze Star; others received no official recognition for their amazing accomplishments, save the respect and gratitude of their fellow soldiers. However, one thing united all of these individuals - they were humble, retiring men who did not draw attention to themselves. Invariably, I learned of their exploits from a friend, relative or military buddy or perhaps from a faded newspaper clipping. Combat veterans are a notoriously closed-mouth lot; my experience as a historian has been that they only open up to those they trust or to a fellow combat veteran.
To the extent these men would acknowledge their awards and decorations, they spoke of wearing them on behalf of their buddies who did not make it home; they were the real heroes. In those days, to draw attention to oneself - to boast of wartime service, medals won, feats in battle - was considered a violation of the unwritten code of conduct by which citizen-veterans were expected to live. It is significant that these individuals spoke (if they spoke at all) not of heroism, but of wanting to be remembered for doing their duty.
The late Major (then Captain) Richard Winters, who won the Distinguished Service Cross at Brecor Manor, Normandy, France, in June 1944 as commanding officer of E Co., 506 PIR, 101st Airborne Division, was a genuine war hero if ever there was one, but even after becoming world-famous through the Stephen Ambrose book and miniseries "Band of Brothers," he was still very modest about his exploits. When Winters' grand-son asked him if he was a hero in the war, Winters replied, "No, but I served in a company of heroes." Note the focus - on his men, not himself. This man retired from the military a half century before these comments were made, but he was still looking out for his troopers. That is real leadership by an exemplary human being.
In contrast to the quiet heroes of the past, and the more reserved America of that time, 21st century America is a crass and vulgar place. Celebrity for its own sake is sought after, and narcissism is the order of the day. In other words, if you aren't in the spotlight, you are nobody. This is the context in which we should view Walsh and Duckworth's actions. No one can dispute Duckworth has earned the right to campaign as a wounded war veteran. However, it is equally true that Duckworth has not always used good taste and decorum in her public appearances; she is not above using her prosthetic limbs for a photo opportunity to benefit Democrat causes. In May, 2011, she posed beside Barack Obama on the rostrum at a veteran's event wearing a short skirt that exposed her artificial legs for photographers. A member of the "Greatest Generation" would never have done that; a disfigurement or wound was never to be flaunted. In other words, she knowingly allowed herself to be used as a political prop. Such undignified and cynical behavior displays poor judgment and ultimately a lack of respect for the warrior code of conduct. Having been a soldier - and by all accounts a good one - she should have known better.
Duckworth's statement on "Hardball," that she had "never claimed to be a hero," is a bit disingenuous. On her campaign website, her military exploits are prominently-featured, and she has done nothing to dissuade others from speaking of her in those terms, as it is clearly to her benefit politically.
Duckworth may be a crackerjack chopper pilot, but that isn't in the job description for a Congressmanwoman. As a veteran, she is entitled to our respect, but she is not entitled to be placed on a pedestal immune from criticism simply because she was in the armed forces and in battle. She and her supporters cannot have it both ways, on one hand claiming the political benefits of her military background but on the other hand claiming that any negative comments or questions about it are somehow off-limits. If she chooses to make her service part of her campaign - indeed, its centerpiece - then Duckworth tacitly gives Walsh permission to comment on it. She can hardly complain when he does so.
As for Congressman Walsh, he can't win this argument and ought to retire to lick his wounds - that is, as soon as he gets his foot out of his mouth. He clearly suffers from a case of what might be called "status anxiety," as Duckworth is a decorated war veteran and he is not. Perhaps he should spend less time complaining about her and more time trying to convince us he is the best choice to retain the Congressional seat he now occupies. He also needs to learn some common courtesy; a gentleman does not make the kind of remarks he made.
Walsh and Duckworth both have behaved poorly; ugly and undignified spectacles of this kind exemplify why so-called "public servants" are held in such low regard these days. If they can't manage to behave with some decorum, then frankly, they should each put a sock in it. I have a mind to send each of them a copy of Winters' autobiography with the hope that each would read it and reflect upon his/her respective shortcomings - but our political class these days does not seem to engage in much reflection or self-examination.
Military service used to hold a special - and apolitical - place of honor and dignity in national life. Now it has become just another partisan battleground upon which to wage politics. How very sad, and how very ugly.
Peter Farmer is a historian and commentator on national security, geopolitics and public policy issues. He has done original research on wartime resistance movements in WWII Europe, and has delivered seminars on such subjects as political violence and terrorism, the evolution of conflict, combat medicine, and related subjects. Mr. Farmer is also a scientist and a medic.