Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Democrats and the military

Wes Clark:

...Obama is off to a promising start with the Pentagon, steering clear of a reprise of the fight over "don't ask, don't tell" and picking pragmatic, non-ideological leaders whom top military officers will find highly reassuring -- especially since so many may have discovered from personal experience that a particular partisan label is no guarantee of good leadership. Retaining Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, designating Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (with her six years of experience on the Senate Armed Services Committee) as secretary of state and appointing James L. Jones (a retired four-star Marine general) as national security adviser should go a long way toward assuring members of the armed forces that their concerns will be given a fair hearing at the very highest levels.

But the incoming team and the Democrat-dominated Congress still need to work hard to understand the lower ranks and the culture of today's military. Perhaps as many as 75 million Americans have either served in uniform or have family members who have done so. At any given time, the armed forces total some 2 million Americans on active duty, in the National Guard or in the reserves -- all volunteers. Most read military-focused newspapers, such as the Army Times, and many live on bases, relatively isolated from nearby communities. The majority are married, and almost half have children, creating a subculture of families that endure frequent moves and frightening absences. Most Americans just can't fathom the stress and pain this lifestyle imposes (although Michelle Obama can -- as the future first lady showed by reaching out to military family members during the campaign).

Our military is a values-based institution. Don't think of it as Republican or Democratic. Sure, occasionally someone will pop up, like the radio talk-show host I met while traveling in Arizona, who assured me that he had become a dues-paying Republican while serving as a Marine officer and thought that everyone else should, too. But most of us are uncomfortable with partisanship. True, many in the military, especially those who have served longer, lean toward the conservative end of the political spectrum. (What would you expect? The military must obey the orders of the commander in chief and follow the chain of command, which means giving up one's own liberties and spending time in difficult and often very dangerous circumstances.) But the real military values aren't partisan values; they're service, loyalty, honesty, patriotism, respect, achievement and personal responsibility.

Which brings us to one more core military value, one that Democrats can easily embrace: fairness. Military leaders take care of their troops -- and their unit's families. They don't take advantage of their authority. Captains eat after their troops do, not before. Good officers get to work earlier than their subordinates and leave later. I used to joke on the campaign trail that the Army was a socialist organization: The government owned the housing and all the equipment I worked with, everyone's children went to the same schools and used the same hospitals, and the highest-ranking person (after more than 30 years in uniform) earned only about 10 or 12 times the salary of a raw recruit. In the military, we don't like favoritism, show-boating or elitism.

That's a good base upon which to build. But Democrats must also realize that the military's respect has to be earned. We don't consider ourselves an "interest group." Sure, we will always appreciate more pay, better housing and stronger veterans' benefits. But that isn't how the Democrats will win over the military. They'll win by being straight-up, clear-eyed and professional about national security. And if they are, the military will trust them, even with a painful withdrawal from Iraq and the inevitable defense cutbacks.


We have a president-elect who has set out a pragmatic, nonpartisan, visionary course. It's time to lay to rest the old stereotypes about feckless, pacifist Democrats and authoritarian, war-mongering soldiers. If there were ever a time to get the relationship between Democrats and the military right, this is it.

The whole piece is well worth reading, and I have to wonder (again) how Obama can't find a direct use for Clark; instead, Clark always has to work from outside the system, where he has to put much more effort in to get any results.

Anyway, as I've said before, the Dems don't need the military to switch sides, they just need the perception of mutual animosity to go away. I think Clark points out the road here very well: stress respect and the many areas of mutual areas of agreement, and push on with your agenda, which is, in the end, a military friendly one.

As an aside, Clark said in his piece that 75 million Americans either served themselves or are related to someone who has. Is it that small a number? Except for me, my entire family served, probably a majority of the people I grew up with served. And now that I think about it, I grew up in poor and working class areas -- the military was a way out when you couldn't afford, or otherwise felt unready for, college, and didn't know what else to do. Now that I move in the more rarefied airs of the middle class, it is unusual to find someone who's done time in the military. In fact, I don't personally know of a single person among my acquaintances who's served. But these are also some of the most jingoistic, superficially "pro-military" people on earth. What an odd thing.