Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

It is time that we stopped treating the military and veterans as abstractions

Aside from the tragic killing of a zoo animal, the major news story last week concerned how much money presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump raised for veterans groups. Unfortunately, the discussion did not focus on the needs of veterans.



By John Q. Bolton

Best Defense guest columnist


By John Q. Bolton
Best Defense guest columnist

Myths have a way of becoming reality in Washington, particularly when they serve to further the agendas of politicians and bureaucrats. — Chuck Spinney

Aside from the tragic killing of a zoo animal, the major news story last week concerned how much money presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump raised for veterans groups. Unfortunately, the discussion did not focus on the needs of veterans, nor the challenges of military life, nor the rationale, strategy, or means of employing our forces. Instead, veterans are reduced to stereotypes and tropes best suited to politicians’ agendas.

With historic negatives, it is unsurprising that presidential candidates would latch on to the seemingly perpetual popularity of America’s veterans. That said, veterans would be wise to avoid the perils of attaching a supposed agenda to any one candidate, especially considering their own diversity and the fickle nature of politics, in which promises and agendas are fleeting. As a result of the public’s poor relationship with the military and vapid reduction of military issues to talking points and buzz words, we end up viewing vets as an abstraction.

What do I mean by an abstraction? An abstraction is the mental simplification of considering something as a general quality, apart from concrete realities. Abstraction is dangerous because it takes complicated issues and turns them into easy, superficial tropes. The civil-military gap means that the public at large, and pundits specifically, do not understand military life or post-military challenges. So support for the military means we cheer at football games, and inevitably support a larger military budget, but don’t necessarily care about what the money buys. It means our leaders say we will “kick ass” or “carpet bomb” without consideration for the actual limits of military power, or, more importantly, its lasting effectiveness. Nor do we actually consider what the military does, or how it is organized and employed.

Our rationale for militarism and stationing troops worldwide never comes into question when the public is told to simply “support the troops.” I’m not saying our policies are necessarily wrong; the problem is they are accepted without question by a public who lacks basic knowledge.

The abstraction of the military combines with a lack of oversight from the public to at least partially explain why a public that largely views the outside world as irrelevant, distrusts the government, and despises Congress, still wholeheartedly supports a larger military budget. Abstraction detracts from reasonable discourse and, like so much of American political life, polarizes viewpoints.

Failures at the Department of Veterans Affairs and the civilian-military divide have created the impression than veterans are an impoverished, suffering, and debilitated group. While this may be true, and certainly is in individual cases, this viewpoint is a disservice to veterans as a whole. It is also misleading; America spends a phenomenal amount on its military, more than the next seven nations combined. Competence at the VA aside, when you factor in healthcare and retirement, as well as private organizations, the benefits are in place to assist both military retirees and veterans in general.

What constant stump talk by politicians and the ever-present slogan “take care of our vets” actually does is perpetuate stereotyping of veterans. Hoover Institution fellow and Foreign Policy columnist Kori Schake writes, “we tend to stereotype them either as comic book heroes or as victims.” This assumption that many veterans are damaged goods contributes to high unemployment and public misunderstanding. It doesn’t help that so many public figures, even ones in government and the military, talk about military and veterans issues with reverence for, but not understanding of “the troops.” This “respect” given to vets, however, comes without rational consideration of how our military is actually employed. Since so few Americans actually serve, or even know someone who serves, this respect is based more on an abstract ideal rather than understanding. In this light, respect is little more than lip service, and the military is something for someone else to do, rather than a civic duty. Public guilt underlies much of this respect, which often comes in the form of talking points rather than true support and/or understanding.

Ironically, the same respect often masks contempt for the military experience. Don’t believe me? Ask LTG (ret.) Karl Eikenberry, whose appointment to a prestigious academic posting was recently derailed based solely on his supposedly corrupting military experience.

Veterans are an incredibly diverse population, composed of all walks of society and hailing from every part of the country. However, it is foolish to assume any population drawn from a group as diverse as the U.S. military — which, of course, has very distinct service cultures and sub-cultures — has coherent policy needs. You can say someone is “for vets” just like someone is “for Midwesterners” — that is, on further consideration, it makes no sense. If anything, treating veterans as an interest group further contributes to the Balkanization of the America people. I’m not saying veterans and military service members don’t deserve respect — they certainly do. But with over one million members of the total force (active, reserve, and guard) as well as 100,000 people passing through the military each year, assuming homogeneity is ridiculous. Simplifying vets and servicemembers to an interest group ignores the dynamics of the civil-military relationship and reduces “support” to talking points and lip service.

Likewise, the comic book hero stereotype doesn’t help. That fact that the vast majority of veteran experiences more closely resemble an episode of “The Office” or “Dirty Jobs” than “Zero Dark Thirty” has done little to dispel the enormous respect veterans enjoy. This respect is understandable, and largely earned, but it also represents a lack of public understanding regarding the military and, partially, guilt from a society that overwhelmingly chooses not to serve. So society infantilizes veterans and assumes all are actual “combat” veterans and not simply deployment veterans. The World War II tooth-to-tail ratio of still applies, with nearly 10 to 15 people serving each infantryman — though without a draft, we rely on contractors. Consequently, the burden of actual combat has been borne by one percent of the one percent, meaning around 100,000 troops have fought, often repeatedly, for 15 years on behalf of a nation of 300 million.

Support for military spending is at a 15-year high, despite polls that show a strong majority of Americans wish us to disengage from the world, or at least stop fighting. Of course, this support is based on the aforementioned reverence, rather than consideration of what we get for our money in terms of military spending. Rather than engendering a serious discussion of our military and foreign policy — how we actually employ our forces or spend our money — demoting veterans to an interest group promotes political agendas while robbing the public of a discussion that is sorely needed. Combined with American’s contempt for world affairs, our national conversation about our military strategy — to say nothing of grand strategy — suffers. That hasn’t been a national debate or demand for America to link ends to available means; at best, we debate tactics and peripheral issues. Accordingly, America has been at war for a generation with little to nothing to show for it, regardless of the administration in the White House or the heroic sacrifices of so many servicemembers. That is the real talk about vets and servicemembers we desperately need; it is the talk that anyone who truly “cares” would wisely consider.

Lastly, the debate about “caring for vets” from political candidates is superficial and vapid. Without a doubt, each of the leading presidential candidates could resolve the debate about “who gives more” by simply writing a check from their multi-million dollar estates.

John Q. Bolton is an Army major studying Chinese at the Defense Language Institute. An Army aviator (AH-64D/E), he is a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan. He is a 2005 graduate of West Point and was the 2015 recipient of the George Marshall Award from the Army Command and General Staff College. The views presented here are his alone and not representative of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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