The year is 2050. The president is making the case for the next Secretary of Defense. A two-term senator from Maryland and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, the nominee also happens to be a decorated combat veteran of the wars fought at the beginning of the century. Twice deployed to Afghanistan as a member of a Cultural Support Team supporting special-operations combat forces, she earned a Combat Action Badge and received a Bronze Star for her actions during an ambush by insurgents in Kandahar Province. Leaving the Army after 5 years, the nominee went on to acquire extensive policy experience in several government agencies before running for elected office.
There’s something a bit Shakespearean about repeated references to a nominee’s day of battle.
Yet in any discussion of the nominee, the president leads with her combat experience rather than dwelling on the credentials earned during the intervening decades: She is celebrated as a pioneer who by her courage under fire demonstrated to leaders the obsolescence of the combat-exclusion policy. This hypothetical nominee’s actions in uniform those many years ago were admirable, her sacrifices were many, but in precisely what sense are they germane to the office to which she aspires?
By the middle of this century, the generation that devoted its twenties to fighting the foreign wars of the last decade will have reached the age of the Vietnam veterans—John Kerry, Chuck Hagel, and John McCain, most salient among them—who currently occupy the national stage. Erstwhile soldiers may indeed make fine political leaders but not as a result of their military service alone. Endorsing some magic correlation between battlefield sacrifice and preparation for political office demonstrates our fundamental inattention to the nuances of the veteran experience: not only the voyage out but also the coming home.
Does anyone, to take an example from the recent past, imagine that Kerry and Hagel were chosen as Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense respectively owing solely, or even primarily, to their decades-old combat experience in Vietnam? Instead, their qualifications more logically derive from policy expertise acquired through subsequent careers in public service. Nevertheless, President Obama’s speeches as well as a raft of opinion columns have repeatedly adduced both men’s identity as decorated veterans as evidence of their suitability.
There has been particular emphasis on the relevance of Hagel’s experience as an enlisted infantryman to the office of Secretary of Defense: “Chuck knows war is not an abstraction,” the President declared at the press conference announcing the nomination. “In Chuck Hagel our troops see a decorated combat veteran of character and strength—they see him as one of their own.” Animating the claim that military personnel regard Hagel “as one of their own” is a belief that veterans, evincing what is perhaps a natural sub-cultural solidarity, are predisposed to trust one another. And while it is true that fellow veterans are capable of an almost automatic exchange of trust—I’ve seen it happen—this ready confidence tends just as speedily to evaporate in the wake of perceived betrayal.
In February, faced with prolonged senatorial resistance to Hagel’s nomination, President Obama took the opportunity presented by his farewell remarks for outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to reiterate his theme: “Keeping us prepared will be the mission of my nominee to become the next Secretary of Defense, a combat veteran with the experience, judgment and vision that our troops deserve, Chuck Hagel.”
There are some largely unexplored assumptions here about the role of combat in shaping a veteran’s character, insight, and perspective. There’s also something a bit Shakespearean about repeated references to a nominee’s day of battle. It calls to mind Coriolanus, the victorious general appointed consul by the Roman senate and then asked to follow custom in courting the people’s vote by ceremonially showing off his wounds: “Let me o’erleap that custom,” Coriolanus pleads, “for I cannot . . . / . . . entreat them / For my wounds’ sake to give their suffrage.”
The appeal to combat experience might prove rhetorically expedient, especially for a president who represents a party reflexively charged since the Vietnam War with being soft on defense issues. But the sentimental currency of this argument seems far more transparent than its intellectual significance. Made during wartime, the allusion to concrete experience tends to carry a talismanic force that wards off explanation or examination. Because this won’t be the last time such a claim is made on behalf of a candidate or nominee for political office, it is worthwhile trying to figure out more precisely what the ritual invocation of military service might mean.
For most Americans today, war actually is, to borrow the president’s word, an abstraction. In a country in which few citizens enter uniformed service, actual experience of war, and military service more broadly, are increasingly rare commodities among public officeholders. And there is a powerful corresponding sense in which the veteran himself or herself has become an abstraction to many Americans: a hero, an object of sympathy, perhaps, yet still something of a mystery—and somehow safer that way.
Combat experience itself is not a monolith: the pilot dropping bombs miles above a target has a profoundly different experience from that of the infantry soldier laying an ambush in a jungle. Even soldiers of the same unit fighting together in a battle have come away with radically different understandings generated by a variety of factors, many of which—emotional and rational intelligence, maturity, sensibility, life experience—are entirely independent of combat and predate their initiations into war.
Those who witness and deal death almost certainly know something the rest of us do not, but it is facile to suggest that all veterans return from all wars knowing the same thing. There are soldiers for whom the crucible of combat is transformative, others for whom it is but one episode in a life filled with vivid and diverse engagements. Among war’s survivors are some who fight only to prevent its reoccurrence and a few who can’t survive without it—who find its rhythms more congenial than those of peace. “I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity,” Dwight David Eisenhower declared, while Theodore Roosevelt, a veteran of the Spanish-American War, felt a “power of joy” in combat and remembered the battle of San Juan Hill as “the great day of my life.” Roosevelt remained a warmonger for the rest of days.
The invocation of veteran status as shorthand for some particular quality or capacity we all think we can identify (but remain reluctant to define) seems, among other things, to be a symptom of the current civilian-military gap. The universalizing of wartime experience ignores differences in rank, branch, and service culture; in the nature of the conflict; in the duration of combat service; in the length of a military career. A comparison of job experiences from World War II might help to illustrate the point: those of George C. Marshall and Audie L. Murphy. Both men solicit our admiration: they made extraordinary sacrifices, they displayed remarkable strength and endurance, and they proved themselves exceptionally resourceful soldiers.
But Marshall and Murphy drew on entirely different skills and attributes to fight the same war. The scale of the endeavors of, on the one hand, managing a vast, complex organization of eight million people and, on the other, displaying audacity under fire as a private soldier and later in command of a company, is wildly disproportionate. How much of what a Secretary of State or Secretary of Defense must know and do is developed by the experience of combat? How analogous is leading a small unit in a tactical environment, as Kerry and Hagel both did, to shaping strategy for large government bureaucracies like the Department of State and the Department of Defense?
One of the most appealing and practically significant assumptions about veterans who hold public office is that they will be more circumspect than their peers who lack military service in decisions involving the use of force. But in a 2001 study of the declining number of veterans in the U.S. Congress, William T. Bianco and Jamie Markham found that “the impact of veteran status on how a representative voted” on “use-of-force questions and other military matters . . . is generally quite small” and “primarily indirect.” “Whatever information or perspective military experience conveys,” they add, “this effect will often be washed out by the impact of other factors on the vote decision.”
Then-Senator Hagel voted in favor of the 2002 resolution for the use of force in Iraq, as did Kerry, but by 2005 Hagel had become an outspoken critic of the Bush administration’s war policy, earning in the process the enduring mistrust and resentment of certain Republican colleagues. “Experience proves,” Ulysses S. Grant once noted, “that the man who obstructs a war in which his nation is engaged, no matter whether right or wrong, occupies no enviable place in life or history.” When he wrote these words, Grant was thinking of the Mexican-American war, in which he fought even though he regarded it “as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.” And neither that conviction nor the gruesome scenes he experienced as a young lieutenant on the battlefield stopped him from rejoining the army to fight in the Civil War, which he judged a war of principle.
The argument in blood has a double edge. In 1971, John Kerry told the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, “The country doesn't know it yet, but it has created a monster, a monster in the form of millions of men who have been taught to deal and to trade in violence, and who are given the chance to die for the biggest nothing in history.” Of course when a veteran is paraded before the nation as a potential cabinet member, we aren’t meant to see a monster or a broker in violence but a person of superior wisdom, restraint, and stability. Ironically, as a recent study by the Center for the New American Security reveals, some employers are quick to see monsters in their veteran job applicants: negative stereotypes about PTSD and anger issues, the study found, may play a role in the significant joblessness rates among veterans.
The hero of a tragedy, Coriolanus offers the extreme case. His attitudes are defiantly out of the mainstream. Arrogant, unyielding, insufferably contemptuous of the civilian population for whom he fights, he is no thoughtful voter’s idea of a successful political leader, and he is unlike the veterans I know. But no one—least of all today’s myriad unemployed and homeless veterans—would likely quarrel with the wisdom of his demurral: “I had rather have my wounds to heal again / Than hear say how I got them.”
Elizabeth D. Samet is a professor of English at the U.S. Military Academy and the author of Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point. The opinions she expresses here are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.