Costs of Tough Talk
been bothering me about the electoral process of late. I keep
wondering why there is so much emphasis on the war experiences
of candidates, and the general weirdness of the logic in weighing
one candidate over another in this regard.
I'm not picking on any particular candidate here - rather,
I suppose I'm picking on the press for seeing military experience
as some defining quality, good or bad, especially when there's
an underlying agenda in attacking a candidate.
What's at work, I think, is a sort of myth-making that has
nothing to do with military service, but a great deal to do
with the perception of candidates' attitudes about their willingness
to use the military and supporting the military-industrial
complex. There are good soldiers and bad soldiers, just as
there are good dentists and bad, good plumbers and bad, good
politicians and bad. Not everyone with a title or a professional
degree was a 4.0 student.
Americans are all for peace, except when their politicians
are in favor of war. The history of the United States in the
last hundred years or so is not one of uninterrupted peace,
but, rather, has been one of brief periods of uncertain calm
punctuated by war and a steady determination to expend significant
public funds on weapons and to encourage American businesses
to sell war materiel to as many countries as possible. And
yet, we have rarely embraced any candidate who actually ran
on a platform of avoiding war, and this has been particularly
true since WWII. Before that time, rarely did military experience
or attitude figure prominently in candidacy.
Abraham Lincoln had no military experience, and yet he was
called upon to manage one of the most horrific wars in this
nation's history, and fired Gen. George B. McClennan who became
the Democrats' candidate for president in 1864. Franklin Roosevelt,
suffering the effects of polio, would never have been expected
to defend his war record. Warren Harding's record? Phfft.
Yes, there was "Rough Rider" Teddy Roosevelt charging up San
Juan Hill. Good press from the Hearst newspapers.
Kennedy's war record was touted, but hardly in the way that
Dwight Eisenhower's had been in 1952. Kennedy's campaign emphasized
not the strategic savvy of a general, but, rather, pluck in
the midst of adversity. Truman came to the presidency unexpectedly,
and still, without a military record of his own to comparable
to the military brass, had no choice but to fire a popular
general, MacArthur. Nixon, after spending a few months leaning
on the fantail rail of a ship far from the fighting, was pronounced
by the public in 1968 to be the person best qualified to prosecute
the war in Viet Nam, because he talked tough.
Reagan's supporters were likely the group which most created
the current mythology about military prowess and the presidency,
however. Reagan, barely a soldier (he had a nominal commission
in the Army, but only as part of the war effort, an actor
in B-movies promoting the war and in propaganda pieces), was
still promoted as a great military leader, even though he
occasionally mistook his roles in movies for personal experience
in real war.
These days, the myth is a bit confusing. Wesley Clark, after
spending a lifetime in the military, is compared in the press
unfavorably to a faux military man, George Bush, as
is John Kerry. Paradoxically, Howard Dean is attacked for
both not being in Viet Nam and for having a brother who died
in Southeast Asia.
It might be that the American public is being confused by
the issue of military service and its value in the presidency,
and intentionally so. Certainly, any person having served
on active duty would have a notion of what the prospect of
sending troops into battle might mean, but so would anyone
with a modicum of respect for one's fellow human beings.
There are code words and phrases involved in this matter
of military service which have become so commonplace as to
have lost all meaning. "Strong on defense" can mean that one
candidate is a hawk, or that another supports what is now
a highly political and corrupt military procurement process,
or that another is not afraid of committing troops to war,
or that another is simply "tough" in foreign policy. "Military
service" can mean the simple fulfillment of one's obligations
or a panoply of vague suggestions that the candidate is fond
of war, depending upon who's making the comment.
What is lost in all the punditry on military experience
or attitudes is a simple truism: the people we elect to office
reflect our own fears and ambitions. As long as we make military
experience an essential requisite for office or think militarism
a valuable asset in a president, or believe that our corporations
deserve military intervention for their benefit, we'll continue
to have a government which is fundamentally militaristic,
either in its foreign policy or its apportionment of our national
resources, or both. Some in this country revel in military
exploits (especially those not investing their lives in such),
and right now, it seems they dominate the political process.
Few in this country have wondered why it is that our nearest
neighbors, Canada and Mexico, our trade partners, which have
as much interest in global trade as do we, have escaped the
pernicious spiral of defense spending, have avoided war, and
have been free of terrorist attacks. It might be that they
have avoided those difficulties because they have chosen to
We, as a people, continue to mistake offense for defense,
and continue to threaten the rest of the world by the money
we spend on defense, and by the political choices we make
in voting for hawks, or chickenhawks. We continue to believe
that we are well served by a military budget far in excess
of that spent by dozens of countries, and are protected by
tough talk and by wars of opportunity. George W. Bush's presidency
is abominable, but it is an inevitable consequence of an attitude
on the part of the public about militarism which is long-standing
and destined to cause us continued great pain and suffering
in the future.
It's ironic that the first of our soldiers ever killed within
our shores by a foreign enemy since 1812 were killed in an
attack on September 11, 2001 at the Pentagon, in an attack
which was in retaliation for actions the U.S. had taken far
from our shores. For more than one hundred years, the U.S.
has often used its military to protect not its shores and
its people, but, rather, its global acquistiveness. As long
as we elect candidates on the basis of our perceptions of
how willing they are to use our forces for offensive, rather
than defensive, purposes, we will continue to spend too much
on weapons, send our soldiers far from our shores, and suffer
for it, domestically and internationally.
punpirate is a New Mexico writer who thinks talking tough
has bigger costs than we realize.