In a time of stark political and ideological divisions in the United States, one somewhat surprising area of general accord and harmony in 2020 concerns the U.S. military. This is not to say that there aren’t many widely divergent views on the military – as to its purpose, history, funding, organization, traditions and many other aspects – but when it comes to the people who serve in the military, and the basic concept of individuals devoting themselves to protecting the nation and making it a safer place, Americans are an overwhelmingly united lot.
It has not always been this way. As those old enough to have experienced the Vietnam War and its aftermath well remember, there was a time in which the American military and those who served in it were held in low regard by a large portion of the population. U.S. military leaders were widely viewed as having engaged in deceptive and dishonest behavior during the war, and even many ordinary troops were viewed with suspicion in the aftermath of a conflict that featured many horrific and well-reported atrocities.
Forty years ago, American comedians could almost always get a laugh by referring to the term “military intelligence” as an oxymoron.
In the decades since, however, views have changed. Americans may differ sharply over military spending or the usefulness (or morality) of many military interventions, but there is overwhelming public support for the people who serve and for those who served previously.
It’s largely thanks to the selfless and heroic efforts of the U.S. military in combating fascism during World War II that the Americans of 75 years ago are now widely referred to as “the Greatest Generation.”
And today, despite having had its fair share of scandals, the military is widely viewed as a place of service and sacrifice and one of the nation’s more successful melting pots: a place where people from all racial and ethnic backgrounds try to serve the common good and, while they’re doing it, have at least a decent shot at advancing on the merits of their performance.
This general opinion profile is, not surprisingly, even stronger in states with larger-than-average numbers of active and retired military personnel like North Carolina.
All of which brings us to the downright bizarre events of recent days in which the President of the United States was reported by multiple credible sources to have directed a series of stunning put downs toward those who gave their lives in military service.
This is from the remarkable story in The Atlantic that unleashed a national firestorm when it reported that Trump declined to visit a U.S. military cemetery outside of Paris in 2018:
Trump rejected the idea of the visit because he feared his hair would become disheveled in the rain, and because he did not believe it important to honor American war dead, according to four people with firsthand knowledge of the discussion that day. In a conversation with senior staff members on the morning of the scheduled visit, Trump said, ‘Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers.’ In a separate conversation on the same trip, Trump referred to the more than 1,800 marines who lost their lives at Belleau Wood as ‘suckers for getting killed.’”
The attitude reflected in these comments is nothing particularly new for Trump. As the Washington Post reported yesterday, the president has a long history of making similar comments – from criticizing POW’s like the late John McCain to referring to those who served in Vietnam as “losers.”
And, of course, the phenomenon of Americans – almost always men of means – proudly, and even defiantly, evidencing their disdain for military service with an attitude similar to Trump’s goes back to the dawn of American history. Numerous well-off men were readily able to avoid military service during both the Revolution and the Civil War by paying a fine or hiring a substitute.
Over the last several decades, American fiction has been replete with clever – sometimes sympathetic – characters who steer clear of fighting in wars not of their choosing and make self-preservation their top priority,
Who could forget The Godfather mafioso Sonny Corleone presaging Trump’s comments by decrying the decision of men (like his brother Michael) to enlist to fight in WWII as the act of “saps” who “risk their lives for strangers.”
The bottom line: Like all giant human enterprises, the U.S. military is a flawed and frequently controversial institution. President and one-time General of the Army Dwight Eisenhower famously and rightfully warned of the many dangers that accompany the growth of what he called “the military-industrial complex.”
But for all the military’s flaws, almost all Americans agree that the presence of millions of people sacrificing of themselves in an effort to serve the common good is not one them. It’s hard to see how bucking such widespread agreement isn’t a “loser” position for any politician.