On Wednesday, at the al-Asad Air Base in Iraq, the president of the United States claimed responsibility for passing a 10 percent pay raise for military employees while implying this was the first time in a decade that service members had seen a raise. That both declarations proved wildly false isn’t surprising, given President Trump’s well-documented tendency to lie, even to the troops. This tendency, among other things, might have contributed to active-duty personnel’s vanishing 9-percent margin of support for the president since the fall of 2016 — today’s troops are now evenly split over Trump’s performance.
Trump’s latest bumbling conduct, regardless, marks an opportunity for the left to reassess its own approach to service members and veterans, an approach that ought to signal a distinctive contrast to Trumpian showboating.
Democrats already intuit that the military embodies a crucial battleground in the culture war, at least as it pertains to the rights of gay or transgender people. President Barack Obama understood this when he overturned the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy on gay troops in 2011, and opponents of Trump’s transgender ban understand that today. But it is high time for liberals and progressives to expand on this intuition, come to grips with the countless (and emblematic) difficulties of those in uniform and, in due course, perhaps change the ideological or partisan contours of a reliably Republican constituency.
A report came out this month, for example, that infertility for military women is three times higher than for their civilian counterparts, and that TRICARE, the health-care system for the Department of Defense, continues to refuse coverage for in vitro fertilization and related services. This despite convincing evidence that such widespread infertility has been caused by work-related contact with chemicals, toxins and air pollution resulting from burn pits on bases in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
Numerous stories have compared burn pit effects in particular (which go well beyond causing female infertility — they threaten the lives of men and women alike) to the Vietnam-era legacy of Agent Orange. Yet the government, specifically Veterans Affairs, has failed to meaningfully redress these injuries by guaranteeing commensurate disability benefits. Were Democrats to reckon with these service-connected injuries with force and urgency, they would stand to gain new admirers in the uniformed ranks. They would also avail themselves of novel frameworks in which to discuss broader matters surrounding reproductive justice, health care, occupational safety, labor rights, the environment and the devastating consequences of war.
Potential openings lie elsewhere as well. Polling of military opinion suggests stark gendered fault lines when it comes to Trump and party affiliation, and accounts of sexist behavior, including sexual misconduct, abound. Sixty-nine percent of military women have an unfavorable view of Trump, compared to only 38 percent of military men. In the lead-up to the midterms, 53.5 percent of military women said they planned to vote for Democrats while only 23.6 percent of military men did. A survey published a few years ago by The Washington Post, in partnership with the Kaiser Family Foundation, found that about half of female veterans believed the military is not doing enough to prevent sexual assault. About 40 percent of the men surveyed believed the same. Another review by VA, involving 1,500 female veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, concluded that a quarter had been sexually assaulted during deployment.
These numbers provide quite a few reasons for Democrats to join Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and others in elevating the testimonies of relevant service members and veterans while pushing for legislation to wrest control of investigations and prosecutions from male-dominated chains of command. But similar attention to the racialized aspects of the military experience is also warranted.
For instance, only 29 percent of nonwhite active-duty personnel have a favorable view of Trump, compared to almost 44 percent for the active-duty population as a whole. Despite the military being a disproportionately white institution, a poll last year revealed its members see white nationalism as more of a national security threat than Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan. This finding indicates that many service members are likely to join progressives in their fight against bigotry, provided they are encouraged to do so. It might also signify an awareness of racist elements in the military, something Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), along with ProPublica, Frontline PBS and the historian Kathleen Belew, have attempted to bring to light. It would be wise for Democrats, both as a matter of principle and strategy, to devote more energy to confronting this reality.
Similar consideration should be directed to Islamophobia within the ranks, which has already led to the death of at least one Marine recruit. And this must be accompanied by continued advocacy on behalf of green-card holders in the uniformed services, especially in the face of persistent attacks from the Trump administration.
Plenty of other issues could be mentioned, like the fact that the military spouse unemployment rate floats around 20 percent, or that veterans make up an overrepresented 11 percent of all homeless adults and commit suicide at 1.5 times the rate of their non-veteran adult counterparts. Even when it comes to countering Trump’s “America First” posturing with a genuinely left internationalist (as opposed to imperialist) foreign policy, centering the perspectives of service-members and veterans makes sense, since their inordinate support for presidential candidates such as Ron Paul, Gary Johnson, Bernie Sanders and Trump have been driven in large part by disillusion with American interventionism abroad.
Polling suggests a majority of veterans oppose further military misadventures while prioritizing investments at home, and the Brookings Institution argued in 2015 that strategic failures in the Greater Middle East have led to low morale and a “crisis of confidence” among service members. As the Iraq War veteran and writer Phil Klay has put it, “If you think the mission your country keeps sending you on is pointless or impossible and that you’re only deploying to protect your brothers and sisters in arms from danger, then it’s not the Taliban or al-Qaeda or ISIS that’s trying to kill you, it’s America.”
There is no doubt Trump wins the award for most mendacious pandering when it comes to his interactions with the troops. But Democrats have yet to offer a clear alternative. They have yet to speak in a progressive voice that conceptualizes the military not just as a special interest looking for a pay raise, but as a unique community that has constituted ground zero for many of America’s most pressing injustices and challenges.
Such a shift in mind-set bears a small chance of winning over the bulk of service members or veterans, but the imaginative outreach it might inspire could certainly help in mobilizing the activist energies of (and turning out the vote for) a number of citizens who would otherwise remain aloof from electoral politics. Just as important, such a shift would provide freshly compelling ways to speak to a self-consciously patriotic citizenry about dire problems affecting everyone.