Campaign soldiers

By Scott T. Hiestand
web posted February 28, 2000

There is something rather unsettling when political candidates invoke their past military records, directly or implicitly, as a plug for their electoral aspirations or as a defense to any type of criticism of their positions. Even conservatives, in general staunch supporters of military duty and service, can be lead to recoil when a seeker of public office continually or disingenuously invokes military experience as a substitute for political knowledge and expertise.

After all, leadership can take many forms. True, one skilled as a "natural" leader of men undoubtedly has an advantage whether guiding soldiers through a muddy swamp under fire or attempting to control a city council meeting. But there is where the similarities probably end. A military leader does not need to build consensus in the same way an elected official does. Give an order, and subordinates better follow it or else. Military culture is ground in this foundation, and for good reason. Representatives in a republican form of government simply cannot operate within this authoritarian venue, and again for good reason - our founding fathers wished it so.

Still, this has not prevented the grandstanding by those who do have a military past to get in a good audible flag wave while the cameras are rolling and the mikes are hot. Sound bytes have become the new technological medium by which political ideas are symbolically packaged and conveyed – none have more impact on our collective psyches than those draped in military nationalism and heroism.

Senator John McCain is quickly learning the political value of this lesson. While there has been literally no one, and rightly so, who has not given accolades to McCain for his extreme sacrifice during Vietnam, even he has begun the questionable tactic of throwing his military service into the faces of opponents where it's relevance to the issue at hand is questionable at best.

Take for example the February 15th debate on CNN between the three Republican presidential contenders. McCain used his military record as both sword and shield. He attacked governor Bush for standing next to a veteran who criticized McCain's allegiance to veteran's issues, and attempted to deflect an Alan Keyes question concerning McCain's pro-life stance by invoking his own first hand experience with killing.

What was particularly troubling, especially with the Keyes incident, was the "how dare you criticize me" attitude that McCain demonstrated. This "holier than though" demeanor creates (intentionally) a climate inhospitable to rebuttal, and lends an aura of infallibility to those who use it, regardless of it's relevance. McCain reminded Keyes "for a second time" that he didn't need a lecture from him on "killing", thank you very much. Even the always eloquent Keyes saw the futility of responding to this dart. All he could manage to do was grimace at McCain's opportunism.

McCain has also invoked the name of Colin Powell, another unassailable military icon. Any questions about Powell's moderate to left-leaning politics seem to fall by the wayside – he's a Republican and a soldier (and black to boot) and that's what counts. He should be wanted in any administration, and McCain has made it clear he could serve anywhere in his. Now go ahead, challenge that!

Even Jesse Venture has gotten into the act. When Pat Buchanan suggested that Ventura should have stayed and fought for the future of the Reform Party rather than quit, the former Navy SEAL responded thusly: "To my best knowledge, he never served his country. If he wants to talk about fighting ... has he ever stood a post, put his life in another man's hands? How dare he talk to me about fighting in any way, shape, or form."

Maybe these ex-military guys do have tempers. Is it to be discounted that while Ventura was still riding a two-wheeler, Buchanan was already heavily involved in politics with the Nixon administration? Does his opinion count for nothing because he never "wore the uniform"?

In 1996, Bob Dole tried unsuccessfully to gain political traction from his military service in World War II. It could be argued that he didn't try hard enough – many claimed his humble approach did not contrast enough with the absolute self-centeredness of Bill Clinton. And while the "me first" baby-boom generation will have a huge influence on the outcome of the coming election, there is a stark difference in their minds between a Bob Dole and a John McCain.

To boomers and those even younger, World War II is not much more than a chapter in a history book. It is simply too far removed from any historical frame of reference they may have. Vietnam, on the other hand, is the Dysfunctional War of the Dysfunctional Generation. Whether one participated in the war directly, indirectly, or not at all, there has been enough controversy, literature, and movies made about the conflict over the past 30 years to instill a vision, accurate or not, of the "Vietnam Vet" and what he has been through. And in an era where people regularly visit psychiatrists for anything from work stress to hair loss, it amazes most people that someone who spent 7 years as a P.O.W. in Vietnam has a brain at all, never mind the capacity to run for president of the United States.

This is John McCain's traction.

However, none of this changes the fact that military experience used as political expediency is a double-edged sword. Voters may not understand all the intricate machinery of government, but they are intuitive. This explains, in a nutshell, how Bill Clinton can have a 65 per cent job approval rating and at the same time be trusted by less than one-third the population.

Military service can be an asset for a political resume, but should not be a requirement. And certainly, from a politically conservative perspective, it can be used effectively as a weapon to bludgeon liberal, Clintonesque, draft-dodging opponents in an exercise of "compare and contrast".

But let the candidate beware. There is a line which, once crossed, can become a tightrope upon trying to return. John McCain may have crossed that line with his suggestion that his tour of duty has given him divine wisdom over the problematic killing of the unwanted unborn.

Scott T. Hiestand is editor-in-chief of ConEye (, an online journal of conservative analysis and opinion. You can e-mail him at

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