On Military Service and Politics

The chattering class is abuzz over erstwhile Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's recent attack of Arizona Senator (and fellow Republican) John McCain's record of military service. In front of an enthusiastic audience, Trump snidely remarked that he "liked people who weren't captured," noting that Senator McCain was a "war hero because he was captured."

Many pundits have declared that Trump's attack on Senator McCain has dealt a fatal blow to his bid for the presidency, but such analysis is disingenuous -- Donald Trump has never been a serious candidate for president. His presence among the ranks of Republican presidential hopefuls is more a reflection of a certain segment of America's infatuation with the baser aspects of reality television than any viability as a contender for office. Donald Trump is the Kim Kardashian/Kaitlyn Jenner of American politics -- all self-promotion, no substance and, among serious company, downright embarrassing.

It is this very reason that, at this early stage in the 2016 presidential race, Trump is able to grab headlines at the expense of his competition. With nothing to lose, Trump can afford to speak with the kind of outrageous candor other, more serious, contenders cannot. He has done so on immigration and now about John McCain. This candor may make news anchors wince, but it appeals to the less informed among the electorate, and allows Trump to assemble the kind of flag-waving, cat-calling crowds that the media can't ignore. (Senator McCain, who unwittingly initiated Trump's recent outburst by referring to the crowd of people who turned out for a recent Trump rally in McCain's home state of Arizona as "crazies," knows full well the allure of such crowds -- the choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate in his failed presidential bid in 2009 attracted a significant number of supporters who could easily have met McCain's 2015 definition of "crazy.")

Donald Trump's disparaging comments have rightfully drawn the scorn and ire of most of his fellow Republicans (Texas Senator Ted Cruz and retired surgeon Ben Carson seem to be the exceptions), and brought attention to his own efforts to avoid military service in Vietnam through questionable medical deferments. But lest Trump be quickly singled out for the seemingly hypocritical position of attacking a former naval aviator who was shot down in combat over Vietnam and subsequently imprisoned and tortured while Trump (an avid college athlete) avoided combat by claiming to suffer from "bone spurs" in his feet, it should be noted that he is not alone among Republican presidential candidates in avoiding military service.

Given the hardline position most of the leading Republicans have taken on national security issues (including an almost wonton desire to involve America in future wars), one would have expected military service to be a unifying feature of their respective backgrounds. Yet among the current host of leading Republican Presidential contenders, only Senator Lindsey Graham and former Texas Governor Rick Perry can claim to have served. (Graham, a military lawyer, retired from the Air National Guard in 2015 after 33 years of service, achieving the rank of Colonel. Perry was commissioned in the Air Force in 1972, qualified as a pilot, served for five years, and left the service in 1977 with the rank of Captain. Neither Graham nor Perry served in combat; Graham did serve some short tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan as a legal officer.) Jeb Bush registered for the draft in 1971, but the war ended without him being called up. Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Scott Walker, Chris Christie, Rick Santorum, Carly Fiorina and Rand Paul simply opted not to serve.

Is military service a valid litmus test for politicians being able to viably comment on the Trump-McCain controversy? Perhaps Ben Carson unwittingly answers this question best. Carson was active in his high school junior ROTC program, and was offered an appointment to West Point, but opted for medical school and avoided the Vietnam-era draft. When asked about whether or not John McCain was a "war hero," Carson responded, "Depends on your definition of a war hero."

Carson brings up a valid point. Simply serving in the military does not bequeath one the status of "hero," even if that service was in time of war, in a theater of war or even in combat. Americans have allowed the label of "hero" to be used so freely that the term has virtually lost all meaning. We call firefighters and police officers "heroes" for simply doing their jobs. The same holds true for all men and women who serve in the military. Such service in the interest of the public is certainly noble, but in and of itself is not heroic. Military personnel, firefighters and police officer all receive extensive training in the conduct of their respective responsibilities. This training is repetitive in nature, so much so that the task at issue becomes second nature, and can be accomplished under conditions of duress. A service member who receives hostile fire is trained to take cover and return fire. A firefighter is trained to make entry into a burning building, extinguish fires and search for victims. A police officer is trained to effect arrests, and use deadly force when necessary. None of these actions are in and of themselves heroic, but rather the byproduct of circumstance, training and necessity. That which would normally produce fear among the lay-person -- hostile fire, burning buildings, and confronting dangerous criminals -- has been reduced to normalcy on the part of those whose job descriptions include such thorough training and conditioning. The men and women who willingly subject themselves to this kind of training, and carry out these sorts of tasks, are worthy of admiration, but they are not heroes for doing so.

Perhaps the problem is one of semantics -- what is considered the norm for service members, firefighters and police officers can be viewed as extraordinary for civilians. As such, one could easily be swayed by the notion that a hero is in the eyes of the beholder, and to a civilian everyone who participates in such extraordinary work is, by definition, heroic. But, as a former Marine who served in the Gulf War and a former volunteer firefighter who has fought numerous structure fires, I differ from the ranks of those who have actually served when seeking out a specific criterion for the application of the term "hero."

For the military, the three words that are used to signify a special category of behavior in combat are "heroic," "valor" and "gallantry." What all three of these words have in common is the unifying concept of "courageous" conduct. The definition of "courage" is "the ability to do something that frightens one." This is why medals for valor or heroism are not issued simply for serving in combat, fighting fires or arresting criminals. One can -- and should -- have a healthy respect for bullets, fire and criminals, but actual "fear" of these things should have been drilled out of those whose job it is to confront them on a regular basis. It is when the situation devolves above and beyond that which one would normally be expected to face, and uncertainty takes over, that "fear" creeps in and genuine "heroes" are born. The standard response to uncertainty is to fall back and regroup, or freeze in place (flight or fright). But those who press on in the face of life-threatening uncertainty are, by definition, exhibiting courage.

Designating the specific degree of courage displayed by someone in such a situation is a tricky issue -- medals are awarded based upon post-incident analysis, often conducted by personnel not directly involved in the incident, where the visceral fear felt by the person being evaluated cannot truly be captured, or even known. Thus some people get a commendation medal, others a bronze star, a silver star, or more, for similar acts. But regardless of the award issued (and many times courageous acts go unrewarded), the common denominator is "fear," and the courage required to confront and overcome that "fear."

Senator John McCain is, by any definition of the word, a hero. This status exists not because of the fact that he served in combat or was taken captive by the enemy, but rather how he served in combat, and how he behaved while a prisoner of war. His actions as a combat aviator and prisoner of war have been reviewed by his peers and superiors and found to be courageous in nature. He was awarded the Navy Commendation Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star Medal and the Silver Star Medal for his acts of heroism, which were multiple and conducted over an extended period of time. He confronted fears most of his fellow combatants (and none of the current crop of leading Republican presidential candidates) could never imagine, and was not found wanting.

Donald Trump should be ashamed for denigrating John McCain's service, which was "heroic" in every sense of the word (and not simply because he was "captured"). And Ben Carson should be put on notice that, by the definition accepted by those who are in a position to decide such things (and Ben Carson is not), John McCain is a war hero.

But what qualifies a Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, or even Lindsey Graham or Rick Perry, to jump on the "John McCain as war hero" band wagon? They are not military peers of McCain's (neither Graham nor Perry were ever tested by combat). But they are political peers of the Arizona Senator, and therein lies the rub. In his own maniacal way, Donald Trump touched on an issue that is taboo in Republican politics -- the ability to criticize a military veteran's war record when that record is being used for overt political purposes.

Republicans have long used this tactic to attack Democrats -- one need only witness the denigration of Vietnam War hero Max Cleland in 2002 by Saxby Chambliss (who, like Donald Trump, was a college athlete who sought, and received, medical deferments to avoid being drafted), the vicious "Swift Boating" of John Kerry in 2004 and the outrageous comments by Joe Walsh in 2012 concerning Iraq War veteran Tammy Duckworth (a double-amputee) and her status as a "hero." But such conduct, when aimed at a fellow Republican, is apparently prohibited. John McCain, more than any other serving politician, has used his status as a military "war hero" for political gain. Politicians always play to their strengths, and there isn't a more compelling back story of personal grit and courage than McCain's experiences as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

But one's accomplishments during war do not automatically qualify one for high political office. There is much about the "McCain as Senator" narrative that is open for valid query, especially (as Trump points out) when it comes to the issue of how veterans are treated in the United States today. It's not that Trump is a worthy advocate of veteran issues; he is not. But John McCain's entire political mystique is derived from his experience as a prisoner of war. In an exchange that probably won him his first election to Congress, in 1982, McCain lashed out at a voter who questioned his qualifications to run for office since McCain was not originally from Arizona, saying: "Listen, Pal...I wish I could have had the luxury, like you, of growing up and living and spending my entire life in a nice place like the First District of Arizona, but I was doing other things. As a matter of fact, when I think about it now, the place I lived longest in my life was Hanoi."

McCain, however, does not deserve to get a political pass simply because of his service and his status as a former prisoner of war. If truth be told, McCain's overall record of military service leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to evaluating his personal qualifications for a Senate seat -- he was a self-admitted "carouser" (read: heavy drinker) who crashed two airplanes and cut power lines in Spain by flying too low while "hot-dogging." That he was able to stay in the Navy as long as he did was more than likely due to his status as the son of a senior Navy admiral than his stick and rudder skills as a pilot. While his character was tested in Vietnam, the fact is that his time as a prisoner of war was a special circumstance not repeatable in American politics. A truer test of character is found in the narrative of John McCain as hell-raising fighter jock, and it is not a flattering picture. McCain's record as military officer is a narrative of poor judgment that would later be reflected in McCain's role in the Keating Five scandal in the 1980's, and in facilitating the US invasion and occupation of Iraq in the years prior to 2003.

John McCain's military service was heroic, but not always honorable. To chastise McCain for having been a prisoner of war is wrong; to criticize McCain for shielding himself from legitimate criticism by wrapping himself in the shroud of his past service is not. Having rallied the "crazies" to his cause in failed a presidential bid in 2008, McCain's jibe at Trump's popularity among the same demographic smacked of self-righteous hypocrisy. Trump, ill-refined and inarticulate as ever, was simply calling McCain out over his comments. The end result is a debate about nothing -- John McCain is a legitimate war hero, and Donald Trump is not a viable presidential candidate.

But lost in the fray is the hard reality that American politicians are all too ready to bask in the "hero" status afforded by the American public to military service -- whether their own, or by proxy -- while those veterans (genuine heroes or simply those who served honorably) who are not inclined to run for political office, in particular the silent sufferers of post-traumatic stress, Gulf War syndrome and the other maladies derived, directly or indirectly, from the horrors of war, are left on the sidelines, forgotten until the next made-for-television political moment or feel-good parade needs a cast of characters in uniform to serve as background props.

It is almost as if people believe that if one shakes the hand of a veteran on Veterans Day, or places a yellow "support the troops" sticker on their car, the heroism of others rubs off. But it doesn't. I don't know if that was the message Donald Trump was actually trying to convey by attacking John McCain (and if it was, then it was even a greater case of poor judgment and execution on Trump's part than actually occurred), but this is the lesson I have taken from this entire sad episode: Veterans are useful for display purposes only, but are readily forgotten when the cost of their service become inconvenient for the non-serving public.

It is high time the American public demanded a full debate over veterans issues by their political leaders, especially those who aspire to the highest office in the land. But they are not going to get it when the candidates involved spent a lifetime either avoiding military service, or wrapping themselves in the glory of their own military service. Not every American who wore a military uniform is a hero. But they served, and that alone qualifies them for better treatment at the hands of those they served than they are getting today.