Ryan Zinke’s aggressively pro-military Veterans day message contrasts pretty strongly with John Walsh’s much more subdued tone. Some of the comments responding to it, however, illustrated the ambivalence many liberals have towards voting for a candidate who has made a career out of the military. The balance between respect for veterans and their experience and a solid distrust for the military industrial complex occupied much of my mind during veterans day.
Samuel Johnson once said that ‘Every man thinks meanly of himself for not being a soldier’, and I must say that that’s been true in my case from time to time. Joining the military in my generation would have meant accepting George W. Bush as my Commander in Chief. I don’t mean to sound arrogant, but even as a teenager I understood the world and international politics better than Bush, Cheney, or Rumsfeld appeared to have at the time they invaded Iraq. But at the same time, those of us who never served have to wonder – if we had believed in the fight and in our commander, would we have exhibited the same bravery, commitment and sacrifice as those who did serve and still are serving? The only people who can answer this question with certainty are those who actually served, and that is why they continue to earn the respect and admiration even of the vast majority of those who opposed the wars they fought in. For this reason I have to respect Ryan Zinke’s service of his country – so I hope he had a happy veterans day and allowed himself a break from patriotic rage long enough to enjoy himself a bit.
But I don’t think that Zinke, or any military commander, has any exceptional skills or qualities that make them inherently better politicians or leaders. Commanding a unit in the military can hardly be compared to being a political leader – indeed, unlike the military or a corporation, in politics (especially the legislative branch) one rarely gets to give unquestioned orders (indeed, the chain of command in politics is neither clear nor simple), and clearly undergoing military operations around the world is not the same as studying and understanding foreign policy in those places.
The opposite question has also been raised – can a man who has devoted his career to the military be a reliable progressive? This question is obviously relevant in the case of Gen. John Walsh, but comes up periodically whenever officers in the military consider political careers (Gen. Wesley Clark comes to mind). I understand the concerns voiced by some about military politicians, but I think that neither history nor present-day politics bear them out. The previous administration showed amply that jingoistic civilians are no less bellicose than military leaders, and indeed seem on occasion to use aggressive military language and policy to compensate for their own lack of military service and the ‘meanness’ it causes in their self image. On the contrary, I think a progressive or moderate military candidate ought to be embraced – first, because the biggest impact Congress has on the military is on funding, and we’ve reached the absurd point where the civilians are trying to spend money on things the military doesn’t even want.. Having a distinguished military officer on the side of reason in military budget debates, no less than on foreign policy debates, may well blunt the ever-effective criticism that Democrats, progressives, or disguised communists are trying to, in the words of Ryan Zinke, “undermine America’s heroesª.