The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Amy McGrath’s memoir tells us about more than politics

Amy McGrath meets supporters in Richmond, Ky., after conceding the election for Kentucky's 6th Congressional District to Republican incumbent Andy Barr on Nov. 6, 2018. (Philip Scott Andrews/For The Washington Post)
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Amy McGrath ran for Kentucky’s 6th Congressional District in 2018 and the state’s Senate seat in 2020. She did not win either, although her story of military service transfixed millions of Americans thanks to viral ads. She has written a memoir, “Honor Bound,” which offers fascinating detail on the physical and mental toll that military training and combat take, especially for a female pilot breaking the glass ceiling.

Below is a conversation with McGrath that has been edited for length and clarity:

Rubin: The generals for 20 years claimed we were making progress in Afghanistan. Twenty years later, we leave without victory. What happened?

McGrath: I was a relatively low rank as an officer at that time during my first tour, and so I believed what those above me were saying. They all seemed to believe we could “win” the fight there, and so while I didn’t see how, I trusted them. This, of course, is a theme from the Iraq War as well.

There is this sense in the military that leaders must tackle challenges and always find a way to “adapt and overcome.” This trait is something that we are trained to have from the very beginning of officer training, and it’s prevalent in all services. It’s a “can do” kind of attitude. And this is something that you want, right, in leaders? … Go-getters. People who can make things happen. I think we just kept kicking the can to the next unit, the next commander. I think the lack of candor comes into play because it’s very hard to overcome the “can do” spirit of military leadership to do an honest assessment.

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Rubin: What about elected leaders’ role?

McGrath: I think Congress has simply punted its war-making and war oversight responsibilities. It’s not important to their constituents, and they simply do not care. No president (until recently) wants to pull out because of the label of losing the war. The military can be very powerful when it wants, and I think President Obama didn’t have the national security credibility initially to boldly pull out, not when members of the defense team (in his own Cabinet), Republicans on the other side and the military leadership were all saying this can be done with a “surge” like in Iraq. I think President Trump was in a similar predicament.

I remain torn on Afghanistan. It’s not a black-and-white type of war. I feel terrible for the Afghan people, and I think we need to honor our commitments to those who worked with us (like translators). But when my friend, and fellow Marine pilot (“Sugar Bear”) was killed (someone whom I worked with, right next to every single day for four months straight), I couldn’t say definitively what he died for. That’s when I knew for sure that I didn’t want to be there and that I didn’t think it was worth more American men and women putting their lives at risk.

Rubin: How should the military address psychological and even moral challenges that personnel experience reintegrating into peacetime life?

McGrath: We need more focus on mental health. We’ve had more suicides than combat deaths in the past decade. It’s still difficult to talk about “moral injury,” for example. You don’t have to have a diagnosis for a clinical mental-health problem to have real issues. I was lucky. I had my mother, a 30-plus-year physician and psychiatrist on speed dial. The military has a tradition of enlisting chaplains as counselors, but a lot of times, they aren’t trained. We know so much more now about mental health than, say, after World War I or World War II, but there’s still a stigma associated with getting treatment. When the leaders ... start talking about this stuff with the troops, and showing them ways to cope, and where to go for help, that’s mitigating some of the issues. Leadership from the top and resources are what is needed.

Rubin: How do we address radicalization/White supremacist ideology in the military?

McGrath: Tackle it head-on. No equivocation. White supremacy is counter to the ideals and values of our military, our country and our Constitution and will not be tolerated in any shape or form. In my mind, I think the military needs to be harsh on those who are a part of this stuff. Examples need to be made of those who do not conform to an inclusive military and those people forced out. The Marine Corps commandant has done a good thing a year ago by banning the Confederate flag on Marine Corps bases, for example. This seems like a little thing, but it’s important. The Army needs to rename its Southern bases, and we need to stop idolizing Confederate generals. We should have done this 20 years ago.

Rubin: You write about values you developed in the military — dedication to mission, inclusiveness, strict accountability. How do we nurture those values in politics?

McGrath: I believe that we should be recruiting and supporting candidates for office who have proved that they have internalized these values. It’s one of the reasons I just started Honor Bound, a nonprofit organization designed to inspire and support people (namely women) who have served the country in some capacity (not necessarily in the military) to run for political office. Not everyone who has served shares these values, I understand that. However, I feel that, on balance, having more people who, in the past, have been able to put the needs of the country ahead of the needs of themselves or their political party, is a good start toward this end. For example, there are some incredible women already serving in Congress. They aren’t the loudest, and they don’t always crave the spotlight, but they are doing tremendous work. (Elissa Slotkin, Mikie Sherrill, Chrissy Houlahan, Elaine Luria, Abigail Spanberger.) We need more of them.

Rubin: Do you feel despair after Jan. 6?

McGrath: Yes, I do despair. I rewrote the last chapter of my book right after Jan. 6. I watched what happened that day with shock and disbelief. I was hoping that event would be the final straw for people like Sen. [Mitch] McConnell and Republican leaders. Sadly, it was not, and even more discouraging is the fact that now, they are trying to whitewash the event. I’ve always been a believer in our democracy and our democratic system first. With the attack on voting rights, and the systematic efforts of Republicans to stay in power by changing the system instead of appealing to the desires of the majority of the people, our democracy is fraying and in peril.

At the end of the course I taught each semester on the Constitution and government at the U.S. Naval Academy from 2014 to 2017, I would end the last class with a quote from Abraham Lincoln: ... “At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.” [McGrath recently wrote an op-ed on the topic for the Louisville Courier Journal.]

Rubin: What is next for you after catching up with your family?

McGrath: Ultimately, I think my life is about defending this country. In the short term, I’ve started Honor Bound, which will help other patriots run for political office and get into a position to help our country. I also started a super PAC that is working to oust those members who voted against our democracy on Jan. 6, called Democratic Majority Action. And this fall, I’ll go back to teaching national security, this time to graduate students at the University of Kentucky Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce. Long term, I’m still figuring that out.