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“Veterans, Patriots And Pawns”: A Particularly Blatant And Distasteful Ploy For Credibility

When Donald J. Trump removed himself from the Republican debate last week and threw a huge public relations party for himself, he did what many politicians before him have done: He cynically used United States military veterans to elevate his own political standing. His alt-rally, called a “Special Event to Benefit Veterans Organizations,” held in Des Moines, was the type of circus we’ve come to expect from the former reality TV star turned politician.

Thankfully, the candidate stopped short of ringleading a few acts under his big top — no Marines on the overhead trapeze, Navy SEALs balancing balls on their noses or Special Forces walking the tightrope.

The circus had nothing to do with those who serve this country; we know that he was sticking it to Fox News and the “mean” moderator Megyn Kelly. But like many before him, Mr. Trump saw an opportunity and seized it.

Mr. Trump didn’t invent this particular brand of hypocrisy; he just employed it a bit more flagrantly. Politicians from both parties have used warriors as photo ops and speech fodder ever since Abraham Lincoln posed with his generals for Mathew Brady at Antietam.

In Des Moines, Mr. Trump, who took a swipe last year at Senator John McCain of Arizona for being “captured” in Vietnam, and long before that complained that “homeless veterans” were ruining his property values, made the night air sparkle with his praise. And soon, like a true ringmaster, he gave the people what they wanted — three real, live veterans who came onstage to speak to the crowd.

As someone who spent 20 years in the active-duty Army, I should be used to strangers bending and twisting my service to suit their needs. But I’m not. I’ve been out of uniform for nearly a decade, and I still break out in a rash when I see service members used, misused and abused for commercial or political gain.

For candidates, veterans are the most useful props imaginable. They are real-life stand-ins for any number of campaign trail virtues: patriotism, national defense, antielitism, take your pick. And they are a great way to inoculate oneself from criticism for not having served — which is the case for every major candidate in the 2016 race, not just Mr. Trump. (The former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore, a long shot, is the exception.) Still, for Mr. Trump, who avoided military service in Vietnam, this was a particularly blatant and distasteful ploy for credibility.

But the public gets something out of the bargain, too. For many, to be in a room with a veteran is to touch the battlefield. In his novel, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” Ben Fountain describes the quasi-religious ecstasy that can come about when civilians meet so-called war heroes: “They tremble. They breathe in fitful, stinky huffs. Their eyes skitz and quiver with the force of the moment, because here, finally, up close and personal, is the war made flesh.” Mr. Trump hoped his supporters would skitz and quiver their way right into his campaign coffers.

At least there was a payoff. The $6 million Mr. Trump promised to donate to veterans organizations is, as Forbes recently pointed out, $5.94 million more than his charitable foundation has given veterans in recent years. Though some veterans organizations have said they’ll take the money raised at the event, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a group that represents about 150,000 veterans, has said no thanks. The I.A.V.A.’s founder, Paul Rieckhoff, tweeted: “We need strong policies from candidates, not to be used for political stunts.” Mr. Rieckhoff was right to refuse the candidate’s cash, and put some distance between veterans and Mr. Trump.

Other veterans saw last week’s rally as just more of the same. Nathan Webster, a Desert Storm veteran and contributor to the anthology “Incoming: Veteran Writers on Coming Home,” told me that “veterans are the go-to for any politician who wants an easy, effort-free splash for an event or promotion.”

Mr. Trump’s Iowa event appeared to be heavily seeded with fist-pumping veterans chanting “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” “Veterans are like anybody else in this current culture,” Mr. Webster said. “They’re happy to play along with whatever cynical fame-grab somebody offers them.”

Most veterans I know don’t want to be lionized for any purpose. We were simply dedicated to doing our jobs to the best of our abilities, carrying out the orders of our superiors and coming home safe every night, not unlike responsible employees at Microsoft, City Hall or Mo’s Coffee Shop. But politicians don’t rally in honor of programmers, office clerks or short-order cooks because they just aren’t as sexy and camera-ready as soldiers — particularly the ones who’ve been battered and broken by combat. Military service is charged with a special aura of bravery and honor that politicians can’t resist glomming on to.

As a result, those who serve in the military all too often find themselves also serving as the flavor of the month (November), and the poster children or circus performers at political rallies like Mr. Trump’s. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. In his novel, Mr. Fountain writes: “What is a soldier’s job but to be the pawn of higher? Wear this, say that, go there, shoot them, then of course there’s the final and ultimate, be killed.”

What a shame, then, that those who make it home alive sometimes find themselves fighting a new battle: to be seen as more than a prop on the American political stage.

February 5, 2016 - Posted by | Donald Trump, Republicans, Veterans | , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. Jingosim should never be confused with supporting our military. It should be noted that a Republican-led Congress would not pass a VA Funding bill for $64 Billion last winter, before the Phoenix VA debacle. Vets were furious. After Phoenix, they magnanimously passed one for 1/4 that amount in the summer. We should also crack down hard on pay-day lenders, for-profit colleges and supplemental drug companies who prey on the military and their families. That would be supporting our military.

    Like

    Comment by Keith | February 5, 2016 | Reply


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