Montana Politics Ryan Zinke Troy Downing

No, Mrs. Zinke. In a Democratic Society, We Absolutely Can–and Must– Criticize the Military

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Even as I write this, I realize that giving attention to Lolita Zinke is like giving an entitled toddler another toy, but it’s hard not to be alarmed by latest foray on Twitter, in which she argued that it’s somehow unAmerican and dangerous to criticize members of the military.

Mrs. Zinke, when she’s weaving a fabulous tale of dubious veracity about her own background and experience or promoting her husband’s career, seems to have found her niche online parroting the worst right-wing talking points imaginable.

This week, she approvingly retweeted a vaguely threatening tweet suggesting it was dangerous to question members of the military:

It’s antithetical to the ideals of a democratic society to suggest that the military and members thereof are beyond reproach. Mrs. Zinke and those making the claim that military service immunizing people from public scrutiny undermine the very nature of the civilian-military divide in the United States. No matter how heroic service in the military may have been, members of the military are still employed by the American people and subject to strict oversight and scrutiny from the press and the public.

Undue deference to military service cannot be tolerated–and certainly should not be celebrated–in our country, another lesson the Founding Fathers seemed to know that modern Republicans have forgotten.

In Montana, we’ve seen the danger of that deference during Ryan Zinke’s two campaigns for statewide office. When he ran for Congress in 2014, the statewide press refused to critically investigate the objective fact that Zinke had, to draw attention to himself, named the operatives who led the raid on the bin Laden compound before launching his political career by attacking other politicians for doing the very same thing. In fact, that’s part of the reason that Zinke is considered a persona non grata by the SEAL community today. In the years since I’ve written about this story, the Montana media has given Zinke a free pass for an act, that if we take him at his word, led to the deaths of special operators, and if we don’t, was a profound act of hypocrisy.

The Billings Gazette, during that same campaign, actually condemned Zinke’s opponent and the national media for calling attention to the fact that Zinke joked about waterboarding people while in the military. This, despite the fact that Zinke and his running mate had confirmed having tortured people during their 2012 campaign for the governor’s office and Zinke came out shortly after as an enthusiastic defender of torture.

Silence again, presumably linked to deference to Zinke’s military service.

One also has to wonder why the local press has not more thoroughly investigated Zinke’s 80% disability rating when he separated from service. Even though Zinke told other veterans they risked “economic slavery” and “dependence” on their VA benefits, Zinke himself collected almost $2,000 a month for an 80% disability rating that resulted from “arthritis in his back, undiagnosed pain in all of his limbs, a strained wrist, tinnitus, a deviated septum and athlete’s foot.”

Given that there is a whole cottage industry devoted to gaming the VA disability system and Secretary Zinke’s prominence as a small government, budget-cutting conservative, surely an 80% disability rating for someone who seems quite physically and mentally capable deserves some attention, especially when other veterans with far more serious injuries are not receiving the same level of care. Some even suffer from injuries more serious than athlete’s foot.

I understand why the press would be nervous about looking into these issues, especially the issue of disability payments, but that’s the role of the press. Given that the Missoulian just ran a two-part expose about a mayoral candidate who received public assistance while making some large purchases, surely an intrepid reporter should critically look at the public payments Secretary Zinke has and will continue to receive.

Having served in the military is absolutely deserving of respect. Joining the military entails sacrifice, often dangerous sacrifice, and no one is questioning that service. Fetishizing service in the military, as if it puts someone beyond reproach or criticism is another step on the path towards authoritarianism that the Trump cabal seems to be embracing.

Someone ought to remind Mrs. Zinke that democracy only works when public figures are subject to scrutiny, even if they did serve in the military. Those of us who believe in democratic governance, after all, while not members of a “cult” who write threatening tweets, are pretty serious about preserving it.

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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is an eighteen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.

His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.

In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

1 Comment

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  • zinke is a persona non grata at team six not the entire seal community. lola’s statement about the marines is about what i would expect from her. does she believe that trump’s attack on john mccain is an attack on all sailors? probably not.

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