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The Costs of Tough Talk
January 29, 2004
By punpirate

Something's 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 do so.

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.

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