President Trump on Tuesday addressed the Veterans of Foreign Wars National Convention in Kansas City, Mo. At one point he tried to fire up the crowd by taking a jab at the media, pointing to press row and saying, “Don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news.” Some in the crowd jeered at the reporters. But later the VFW responded — via Twitter, the president’s preferred mode of communication — to express that the organization was “disappointed” by the rudeness and to emphasize the organization’s nonpartisan stance.
In the wake of all this, there’s been some suggestion by service members and veterans that now’s the time for those who’ve served to mobilize against the president’s message, to show an alternative response to those who cheered his speech on. But the VFW was right to emphasize its nonpartisanship.
Regardless of their own personal political leanings, members of the military and veterans organizations should resist calls to let an incident like this divide them into different camps of “our veterans” and “their veterans.” In our already polarized society, with its increasingly isolated echo chambers, this approach can exacerbate growing divisions and diminish Americans’ regard for the military.
This tension isn’t new: In 1775, in a letter to Gen. George Washington, Peter Van Brugh Livingston, president of the New York Provincial Congress — fearing that Washington’s army might not lay down its arms at the end of the Revolutionary War — expressed his hope that Washington would “readily lay down his power when the general weal requires it.”
Washington answered: “When we assumed the Soldier, we did not lay aside the citizen.”
His reply is often cited to argue that one’s duties as a citizen — voting, free speech and other forms of political participation — override one’s duties as a member of the military. But this interpretation twists Washington’s intended meaning.
The general, who, of course, became our first president, wasn’t elevating his role as a citizen over his role as a soldier or asserting a soldier’s claim on individual liberty. He was describing the soldier’s duty to remain a citizen among equals even, and perhaps especially, when wielding superior military power. He was telling Livingston that the army would not abuse its power to pursue parochial or personal interests, and emphasizing that the military exists to serve the citizens of the republic.
Washington’s statement became one of the first representations of the tradition of civilian control by military officers in America. And upon the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, having resigned his commission and control of the army, Washington, like Cincinnatus, returned home.
This week’s outcry over Trump’s remarks is certainly less momentous than the end of the American Revolution, but the principles involved are the same. Some veterans say the right response to Tuesday’s events is to use “experience and status to sound the alarm” or “defeat power by building counterbalancing power to deter it and negate it.” Although I’m sympathetic to these arguments, going down that road isn’t the way to follow Washington’s example.
There are excellent and important reasons to stand up for freedom of speech and to value and defend the work of journalists in this country. Veterans certainly have a right to respond in defense of the news media, and that response would be in keeping with James Madison’s view, stated in the Federalist No. 51, that political “ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”
But there’s danger in any attempt at “counterbalancing” one side’s politicization of veterans as a group, or of the military, because it’s a slippery slope that can cause the body politic’s faith in democratic institutions, including civilian control of the military, to slowly erode.
As Peter Feaver, Kyle Dropp and I argued in a 2012 report for the Center for a New American Security, “In the extreme case, a military institution that is overly involved in the domestic politics of war is an institution that threatens civilian prerogatives to decide such matters and challenges the bedrock principle of civilian control,” and the best course is to draw the brightest possible line between the sphere of partisan politics that picks the commander in chief and the military professionals who must serve unreservedly regardless of what the other sphere produces.
Appeals for one side to counterbalance another ultimately have the effect, not of providing balance, but undermining trust in the military and corrupting the perception of nonpartisan competence that the American armed forces currently enjoy and that leads to the military’s high approval in the first place.
Washington and Madison both understood that the republic would flourish if political disputes were settled through political means without relying on military power, be it force or prestige, to arbitrate disputes. This insight, of course, does not mean that veterans or service members are no longer citizens. It does mean that their citizenship requires greater vigilance and less enjoyment of liberty than is required of the citizen who has never worn the uniform.
Even those who have taken off the uniform for the last time still bear a responsibility not to use the public’s admiration for the military for their own political aims. Veterans may think they are drawing fine distinctions between the formal institution of active-duty military and their own views as private citizens, but the broader American public may not make these distinctions as clearly.
That’s why we shouldn’t simply ask what veterans and service members can do in terms of political activity, but what vets and service members should do.
The esteem with which Americans hold service in our armed forces makes all things related to veterans and the military a seductive political target. In his book, “Our Army: Soldiers, Politics, and American Civil-Military Relations,” Jason Dempsey discusses what he calls the paradox of prestige. By being perceived as above politics, the military wields political power, and political leaders face more temptation to use the military for political ends.
Episodes like the one this week at the VFW, and incautious responses to it, risk eroding that prestige and undermining trust in our military.
In a crisis, political maneuvering, even if it’s intended to provide balance, can backfire and undermine the very foundations of our liberal, democratic society. Political allegiances can shift very quickly, as we’ve recently seen with falling levels of Republican approval of the FBI.
Service members, veterans, political leaders and all voters, then, should think very hard about how we use the traditions and status of military service to advance this or that political agenda, even when we think the ends may justify the means.
Now seems an appropriate moment for us — both in and out of uniform — to reflect on Washington’s example of restraint. Our republic may depend on it: A small-L liberal, democratic society in which the military is aligned with one party against the others, or in which opposing factions confront each other across a polarized chasm, won’t stay that way for long.