Wednesday, July 22, 2015

America Has a Hero Worship Problem

Donald Trump
By now, we’ve all seen the footage. Republican presidential aspirant Donald Trump, at the Family Leadership Summit in Iowa on Saturday, describes losing faith in Senator John McCain (R-AZ) for squandering the 2008 presidential campaign. The moderator pipes up, in a voice half joking, half whining: “But he’s a war hero!” The Donald snipes back: “He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”

Okay, Trump’s comment was completely classless and lacking common human empathy. But c’mon, in some polls, nearly a quarter of likely Republican primary voters support Trump’s bid, which surely reflects attraction to his blunt, unreconstructed style. It surely isn’t Trump’s policy positions—he’s enunciated none—or his personal charm. Trump leads in many major polls, and will probably dominate next month’s debate stage, because he openly belittles career politicians and Washington insiders, especially fellow Republicans.

Rank-and-file party leadership has aggressively defended McCain, partly because Trump’s inexcusable language risks tainting the debate pool, but mostly because it gives them opportunity to squelch an uncontainable maverick. The irony of supporting McCain on these terms deserves mention, but let’s continue: the moderator whom Trump out-shouted possibly deserved a decent tongue-lashing. That obsequious party toady didn’t defend McCain’s national service or war record. He threw “war hero” out to deflect a completely unrelated argument.

America loves creating war heroes. From Congress Critters who themselves got Vietnam-era student deferments, but slap “Support Our Troops” magnets on their bumpers, to ordinary citizens stopping BDU-clad grunts in grocery lines to say “Thank you for your service,” we love honoring our veterans. Media harridans from Fox to MSNBC gleefully chased Eric Shinseki from President Obama’s Cabinet when VA backlogs became too embarrassing to deny. Honoring troops rivals football for America’s real national passtime.

John McCain
Unless it involves actually doing anything. America’s all-volunteer military, which knew a recruitment surge following the 9/11 attacks, has recently pitted, requiring loosening of Defense Department standards so convicts and dropouts can enlist. We cry foul when VA backlogs apparently hasten veteran suicides, but repeatedly re-elect legislators who consider VA spending “waste” and stonewall medical treatment, medical health, and veterans’ housing reform. We love to name-check our soldiers’ sacrifices without addressing our veterans’ living conditions.

Few veterans have enjoyed John McCain’s post-military star trajectory. Veterans have higher rates of unemployment, homelessness, and substance abuse problems than the general population. They’re more likely to wind up imprisoned, their voting rights stripped and the freedom they fought for legally curtailed. My own sister, who did two hitches overseas during Operation Iraqi Freedom, had a job application unlawfully wadded up in her face because employers couldn’t be bothered with her continuing Reserve commitment.

This goes double for non-white, non-male veterans. As a percentage, Native American men are more likely to join the Army than any other racial group. They’re also the most likely to face unemployment upon discharge. Despite recent outrages over college sexual assault, women are more likely to face rape in the military than any other career field. The Army’s own numbers concede that one in three military women get raped, often by a direct superior.

“Support our troops” generally has little basis in actual troop actions. In 2005, I joined several local citizens in petitioning our Congressman, a Republican, to support peaceful withdrawal from Iraq. Then-Representative Tom Osborne refused, saying that to withdraw would “dishonor” the service of those who’d previously fought. By 2005, a slim majority of Americans already recognized that Iraq had slipped beyond military solutions. But our Congressman used troops to justify throwing good money after bad.

This weekend’s attempt to use Senator McCain’s war record as shield against criticism is entirely consistent with this trajectory. Rather than attempting to challenge Trump on his vacuous policies, his reliance on personal insults, or his basically incoherent demeanor, the moderator defended McCain by name-checking his “war hero” status. Okay, so The Donald handled the deflection disgracefully. But he shouldn’t have needed to handle it anyway. The moderator used a distracting, ridiculous non sequitur argument.

If we really considered soldiers heroes, we could express our admiration in useful ways. We could provide returning veterans with meaningful, uplifting work. We could pursue systems of internal military justice so women and soldiers of color know America has their back, at home and abroad. Or, here’s a wild thought, we could stop committing American lives to useless wars that only glorify politicians who never risk themselves. That would really be “supporting our troops.”

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