Montana Politics

What Does it Mean to Elect a ‘Military Man’?

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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.

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The Polish Wolf

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  • “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)…”

    Effective officers and noncoms lead by inspiring as well as by commanding. Many outstanding officers have formidable political skills, Eisenhower being just one example. When I was active in the Sierra Club some years ago, I found that many of my most effective volunteer leaders were active and retired military careerists.

    • Fair enough point, but I think there’s a big difference here – Eisenhower was an effective president without having served as a legislator. The skills of administration and legislation are different – Generals, presidents, and managers can all lead by inspiration. It is very difficult to legislate by inspiration. Not that military experience isn’t useful – but I don’t think it endows one with unparalleled legislative skills.

  • Around 64 % of all our presidents served in the military. A majority until George Bush served honorably and did the country no harm. I see nothing wrong with an Ex Military guy who has served running for senator.

    • Lets not forget Zinke is a lot like Sarah Palin, he quit because he was gonna get sent packing. Big difference from regarding honorably serving our country without ripping it off!

      • Zinke wasn’t ‘sent packing’, he received an honorable discharge. If you’re referring to the travel voucher fraud that happened around 1996 and he didn’t retire until 2006. That said, I don’t want him elected to any office I’m just getting a little tired of unsubstantiated crap and innuendo people are throwing around.

  • Good post, PW. I didn’t have to serve — my lottery number didn’t come up before the Vietnam War ended, thank God — but I have respect for those who did.

    I share your concern, though, about supporting career military candidates for national office. How are they going to vote on defense issues, particularly funding? Or security issues, like domestic spying? Or whistle-blowing activities?

    That being said, I believe that, to date, Walsh is the best candidate to take on Daines. I’d love to see a truly progressive candidate in the running, but that hasn’t happened. And this is Montana, after all, a purple state at best.

    • Five Start General and Commander-in-Chief Eisenhower warned us about the Military-Industrial (Ike included Congressional in his draft but didn’t put that in his televised farewell) Complex, which our Founders would consider the ‘Standing Army’ they warned about over two hundred years ago. John Walsh started out as an enlisted man, and commanding the National Guard is a very broad task, and includes support of local governments and a variety of tasks. I also note there were extreme REPUBLICANS who fought the implementation of the GI Bill after WWII, and that legislation was a huge positve game-changer for all of America, the veterans and their families.

      Veterans Day is NOT about ‘rattling sabers’ but reflecting and honoring service, not political agendas.

  • Cogent reflection, P W. Military service cannot merely be a political credential any more than attending medical school means you’ll be a natural CEO. Residents of Minnesota all know how to repair snowmobiles. TV-watching makes you a better driver. I’ve found those who have a “military crush,” harbor childish and unrealistic notions about the military. They think being a good military leader means you get to order people about. There are a lot of deplorable wannabes, so hubris doesn’t have to wear a uniform. In my experience, actual veterans are very modest and don’t suppose their military experience automatically qualifies them for political office.

    • “I’ve found those who have a “military crush,” harbor childish and unrealistic notions about the military.”

      Very well-written post, Rez. I was going to post, but you’ve don’t a very nice job. I find the endless glorification of the military to be very un-American. We are MORE than Ramboesque bullshit! So, these a**holes who endlessly spout this patriotic nonsense and equate patriotism with military service make me puke! I think that Mohammed Ali was MUCH more of a patriot than any of the little pissant flag wavers!

      The glorification of the military has resulted in unbelievable carnage and needless death and destruction around the world to advance the corporate fascist agenda, NOT the interests of the people of the United States! It has become a private army, much like the ones used by the banana republic dictators in Latin America! This is NOT how America is supposed to be, nor did the Founders envision such a usage of our military might.

      I would ask what military successes has our military had since WWII. Grenada?

  • Before you move on entirely, PW, it would be good to hear your reflections on the modern military. The loss of the draft meant the representative nature of our military dissipated. Not that I believe for even a nanosecond that gunfire solves problems, the presence of young people rationally opposing a war presents an army that contains the same dissonance present in the civilian society it serves. The war in Vietnam ended because the ranks could see it for the expensive and ineffectual bureaucracy it was.
    Oh, for a military that asks itself if war is worth it. Dissent is social disinfectant. We’d likely have a lot less war if folks like you had to spend a stint in the service.

  • LongtimeRez – it’s possible, although the history of US policy between WWII and the removal of the draft suggests that there was still plenty of tolerance for foolhardy jingoism. And I oppose a draft largely because I’ve seen how the military can radically alter a person’s perceptions and worldview, and I think they’ve only gotten better at it. A whole country of people who’ve gone through the military may be a much more militaristic one, even if the military itself has more dissent.

    But ultimately I agree with you that there is a danger inherent in n overly insular military. The same pattern visible in Europe pre-1914 or Latin America post-independence through the 1990s could certainly take root here – a deference to all things military, a firm belief in the superiority of the military over the civilian side of life. The complete dismissal of civilian politics as corrupt or unresponsive frequently lead a country to place faith in its uniformed commanders. And since our military represents only a small slice of the population , and a highly non-representative one, the opinions and policies it promotes are not necessarily to the benefit of the population at large. And this is where I start to get nervous about people like Ryan Zinke – the idea that only service in the military gives one the ‘real’ right to speak is a dangerous one indeed.

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