There was something a little icky about Wednesday’s “Commander in Chief Forum,” though it took me a while to put my finger on it.
Was it Donald Trump’s hair, or his fawning over Vladimir Putin? No, these particular forms of ickiness are nothing new. For the same reason, it can’t have been Hillary Clinton’s insistence on using the passive voice when describing her decision to use a private email server (”It was something that should not have been done.”) That’s also old ickiness.
In the end, it was the event itself.
Politicians have always sought to associate themselves with military glory, with mixed results. (Think Michael Dukakis and the tank, or George W. Bush’s flight suit and “Mission accomplished.”) Barack Obama’s no exception: virtually all his major national security speeches have been made in military settings, from West Point to the National Defense University. The military is, far and away, the most trusted public institution in the United States, so it’s no surprise that politicians like to associate themselves with it. If political candidates could wear live service members as lapel pins, I’m sure they’d do so.
But the “Commander in Chief Forum” brought the ickiness to a new level. Sponsored by NBC and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, the event invited each presidential candidate to make the case that she or he is “better qualified to serve as America’s next commander in chief” before an audience of veterans and military personnel. The tenor of the publicity made it sound like an audition: “Vets size up Clinton, Trump,” proclaimed NBC.
Why even hold an election? Why not just let NBC’s specially selected audience of veterans pick the next president?
Trump clearly saw the event as something between an audition and a popularity contest. “88 generals and admirals endorsed me today,” he informed NBC host Matt Lauer proudly, several times, even going so far as to take the list out of his suit-jacket pocket. Clinton’s campaign quickly counter-attacked, proffering its own list of 95 generals endorsing the Democratic candidate.
As my Foreign Policy colleagues Kori Schake and Peter Feaver have written recently, such partisan endorsements by former military officials are growing more frequent, and risk turning the military into even more of a political football than it already is. “Such political endorsements contribute to toxic civil-military relations,” writes Feaver. They “damage ... the norm of a nonpartisan military that has served our country well.”
But I find it hard to blame veterans and retired military leaders for becoming more partisan. To my mind, the problem isn’t that former military personnel sometimes take very public and very partisan positions (they are still citizens, after all, and entitled to speak and vote their conscience) — the problem is that the media and the general public actively encourage this partisanship by treating military personnel as political sages. They’re not.
The United States has a big military. About 2.5 million men and women serve in the active duty military or in the Reserves and National Guard, and there are more than 20 million living veterans. Some of those service members and vets are smart, thoughtful, and sophisticated about politics, policy, and global affairs. Others are dumb as rocks.
This is par for the course in any group of millions of Americans: Some know what they’re talking about, others just like to talk. Wearing a uniform — or having once worn a uniform — doesn’t make someone uniquely qualified to evaluate political candidates.
No question, service members and veterans have a unique personal stake in politicians’ decisions about whether and when to use military force. But having a unique personal stake in these decisions isn’t the same as having unique wisdom. As a parent, I have a unique personal stake, relative to nonparents, in decisions about school funding and curricula — but this doesn’t make me an expert on education policy. A supply sergeant in the Army has a personal stake in whether U.S. troops are deployed to Iraq, but this doesn’t make him an expert on the Middle East. The same is true of senior officers: Some have valuable strategic insight about geopolitics; others don’t. We should respect the experiences, sacrifices, and risks taken by so many servicemembers and veterans, but not assume that this translates into superior political judgment.
Ultimately, though, we have only ourselves to blame for growing political partisanship in the military. In post-9/11 America, “supporting the troops” has become a form of secular religion. We put members of the military on a pedestal. Is it any wonder if some of them mistake it for a soapbox?