Can We Question Someone’s Service?

We’ve already had a few dust-ups over the claims of service that some veterans running for congress have made. Over 400 have run or are running in this year’s midterms, a significant surge over previous years. It’s bound to come up again.

Most of the issues raised so far have been around the specifics of slogans like “combat proven” or claiming to have “fought in Iraq.” It’s mostly semantics. It does raise a reasonable question though.

Is a candidate’s service record fair game for political fodder?

My answer? Yes…but it’s complicated.

If a vet is going to pursue office, a noble but voluntary endeavor that comes with prestige, privilege and platform, that vet’s time in service is open to scrutiny. I also believe that the degree to which one’s service is central to their campaign platform matters too.

If one is touting oneself to be a war hero, one ought to be a war hero in broadly accepted terms and be willing to field challenges to that distinction.

If one’s opponent is touting themselves as a war hero, one should feel free to challenge that distinction. All the common risks of political strategy apply. Service distinction shouldn’t inherently hold sacred ground.

What gets complicated, though, is what we find when we actually try to apply scrutiny to early 21st century American military service. We’ve been at war with global, non-state actors for nearly twenty years. The result is that the details around one’s service can get a little murky. Fighting ambiguous wars against ambiguous enemies in ambiguous locations leads to ambiguity that opens up holes large enough for political operatives to drive a straight talk express bus through. Those running on their service records should be wary of both political opponents and the campaign advisors pitching them. It’s extremely easy to slide into exaggerations.

Last year, I wrote an article for the Washington Post. It was my first for that platform. The draft byline referred to me as a combat veteran. I asked them to strike the term combat veteran because I wasn’t comfortable with the distinction. I wasn’t comfortable with it because I don’t really know what it means.

The most obvious definition of a combat veteran would be someone who received a combat action ribbon. Even that gets murky though. The criteria for that award is relatively narrow and has limitations on communities and rank. A combat nurse working on combat wounded in a combat zone on a location regularly attacked would not qualify unless their precise location were targeted.

How precise? Somewhat. I think.

It’s possible that the award alone is too narrow a definition of combat veteran for modern warfare.

Like I said, murky.

The result of me erring on the side of understatement was hundreds of comments on the article about my opinion not mattering because I never saw any “action”.

Now, I’m reasonably confident stating that I’m a combat veteran is some level of exaggeration, though I led combat elements on combat missions in combat zones. Part of the point, and what we’re likely to get a heavy dose of in the coming months, is that I don’t know how to accurately describe my service in a way that either is inaccurately over or understated.

For Example:

I conducted the initial air strikes into Afghanistan in October of 2001. My team fired the first shot in the war. This is a true statement.

I was a surface warfare officer on a ship that happened to be in the Arabian Gulf on 9/11. We were first on station off the coast of Pakistan and fired the first Tomahawk into Taliban territory. I was on the bridge of the ship when we launched. My roommate was in the combat information center planning and actually firing the missile. We literally conducted the first air strikes in the war. True.

We then ate bowls of ice cream and watched Joe Dirt on the MWR channel in our state rooms and were asleep before the missiles reached their targets. That last detail probably isn’t making it into a campaign speech but it’s an important descriptor of my experience.

On my second deployment, after transitioning to a special operations community, I didn’t deploy to a combat zone or even one that entitled me to hazardous duty pay. I was nowhere near Iraq or Afghanistan. I received no awards or formal recognition.

That is a true statement.

The following is also true.

My team was the first one on the ground in the area and DOD had not yet classified it a combat area because there was no one there before us. Months after we left it would be.

While there, I was on-scene tactical commander for hundreds of hours of operations “outside the wire”. Though we took no confirmed fire from enemies, we were under regular IED threat. I was in constant danger and risked my life and the lives of my men more times than I can count. I was even emergency med-evac’d out of a remote location after suffering kidney damage do to lack of water.

I separated from the navy two months after returning. No time to process awards.

Still, not combat proven.

On my last deployment to Iraq, after being recalled to active duty, I was awarded the Bronze Star for leading a team that executed over a hundred successful direct action raids against enemy insurgents. I served in Ramadi on a base that was attacked while I was there.

That is a true statement.

The following is also true.

As a Lieutenant Commander, I almost never left the tactical operations center, my duty station, during a single operation. I watched a lot of football on the Armed Forces television network and ate ten thousand Thin Mints.

All true. Still not combat proven.

This level of ambiguity is not unique to my service. My record doesn’t look that different than many others. Now, imagine trying to explain to an excited campaign manager or speech writer, that you ought not say you “fought in Iraq”.

Additionally, try to explain to a woman who, at the time, was not technically allowed to serve in a combat status but was in dozens of convoys through the bomb laden streets of Fallujah, that she didn’t serve in combat because none of the bombs hit her exact vehicle.

The reality is that service in these wars breaks down in a few ways. There were rare, no shit action hero war experiences that have mostly been made into movies or self help , corporate leadership books by now. There were larger groups that served in the earliest three to four years of the wars where there were regular combat operations experienced by the broad population of those that deployed. And then there’s been about a decade of low intensity conflict where troops went away to war zones, were less exposed to conventional combat, but were regularly exposed to things like roadside bombs or sniper attacks for long periods of time and have no idea exactly how to express the experience they had to others.

This ambiguity leads to more than bad campaign slogans. It contributes to the struggle of transitioning out of the military as past service members can’t pinpoint the cause of the emotional trauma the service and ultimate separation caused, since they did not, in fact, “see combat”.

One of the secrets we vets know about being a hero is that the most significant variable that leads to heroism is circumstance; something that has little to do with the hero in question. There is no choice in it. The choice, the one that matters, the one that makes one worthy of representing other Americans in government,  was in the decision to serve. The decision to “go”.

If running for office, applying for a job or simply sitting in a bar stool at your local pub, it’s sufficient to simply say that you went. And that you did what was asked of you for your fellow American.

That message holds up. I hope to see many candidates say it. And then lead in congress with the lessons they truly learned.


The Tragedy of Politics

There’s an inherent human need to look to the past and connect it with what we’re seeing around us. We seek to anchor the new that we see to something more comfortable. It helps us feel like we understand it. Like something beyond our feet has been lit on our path forward helping us to see the newly started all the way through to an understood and predictable end.

Donald Trump is like Andrew Jackson. Continue reading

In Search of Elliot and Archibald

On May 18, 1973, the United States Senate began nationally televised hearings on Watergate.

Incoming Attorney General-designate Elliot Richardson, recently appointed by Republican President Richard Nixon, assigned former solicitor general Archibald Cox to serve as the Justice Department’s special prosecutor for the investigation. The rest, as they say, is history. 478 days later, amidst mounting evidence that he himself broke the law by authorizing illegal activities against the Democratic National Committee, Richard Milhous Nixon became the only man to resign the office of President of the United States of America.

At the time that the Senate Committee launched their hearings and Cox began his investigation, there was no public evidence that implicated President Nixon in those illegal activities. The election, held the previous November, was won by Nixon in one of the great landslides in presidential election history. He took just under two-thirds of the popular vote, a tally impossible to explain by any illegal activities. But he broke the law. And then he tried to cover it up. So he had to go.

By all other respects, Nixon was, at a minimum, a serviceable executive.

The most powerful man in the world broke a law that had no measurable impact on his claim to office or the effectiveness of his administration.

Still he lost power.

Not through force of violence or activity outside the rule of law. But because the institutions that firmly stood in place to limit his power insisted that he lose it. There was a legislative branch that acted independently of political goal. There was a judiciary and law enforcement entities that insisted on seeing it through. There was a free press that spoke truth to power. And there were Americans of character and principle in positions of authority.

Watergate was the application of the rule of law. Might did not make right. There were limits to power. And we saw them in action.

On October 20th, 1973, it came to a head on what’s since been called, the “Saturday Night Massacre”.  With mounting pressure and evidence piling up against him, Nixon ordered Attorney General Richardson to fire the special prosecutor Cox. Richardson refused.

He was fired.

His immediate replacement William Ruckleshaus also refused and resigned. Eventually, a third, Robert Bork, carried out Nixon’s order.

The damage had been done though. Within a year, Congress passed the articles of impeachment. And Nixon was gone.

There have been and always will be inappropriate people who inappropriately seek power. There will always be outside powers looking to interfere in our wellbeing as a nation. But what has made us uniquely great, what has delivered 55 peaceful transfers of power and 2 percent per capita economic growth for 240 years, is the institutions and functions of government that respond to them.

The great risk of our times, is that perhaps now, they can’t. Or they won’t.

We’re about to inaugurate someone who has held no position of government in his life and can scarcely point to a single aspect of service in seventy years; with suspect business dealings and personal behavior.

But he’s not the real risk.

The real risk is the Americans standing next to him and the institutions charged to check him that scare me the most.

We’re no doubt in for a very different experience. And perhaps the only person who could drive the needed change is someone like Donald J. Trump. But I’ll ask the question to his supporters.

When am I allowed to be concerned?

What does he say and what does he do that alarms you?

Because we’ve shrugged off quite a bit already. And when the people who supported a candidate’s rise to power can’t be counted on to eventually tell him he’s gone too far, we’re left with the institutions to do it. When I think of those institutions today, it gives me grave concern.

Who in Trump’s inner circle blows the whistle?

Who on his cabinet resigns over principle?

What Republican stands for no more in Congress.

Who in the press will we believe? 

Who are today’s Elliot Richardson and Archibald Cox?

Our most serious problem probably isn’t Donald J. Trump. It’s that the answers to those questions feel like the same ones that failed to check the truly dangerous leaders in history that hurt so many. And that’s new in America.