Letters From an American

Heather Cox Richardson: Looking the American Soldier in the Face

Heather Cox Richardson: Looking the American Soldier in the Face

US soldiers on M113 armored vehicles take part during the Warrior Strike VIII exercise at the Rodriguez Range on Sept. 19, 2017 in Pocheon, South Korea. The United States 2ID (2nd Infantry Division) stationed in South Korea operates the exercise to improve defense capability from any invasion. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

September 4, 2020

Most of the oxygen in the world of American news media today has been taken up by last night’s story about Trump’s contempt for the military, which said, among other things, that Trump called soldiers “suckers” and dead service members “losers.” Today, the story was confirmed and expanded by the Associated Press, the Washington Post, and the Fox News Channel, among other outlets.

As more and more voices spoke out against Trump’s sentiments, the White House madly pushed back. “It was a totally fake story, and that was confirmed by many people who were actually there,” Trump told reporters. “I’ve done more for the military than almost anybody else.” Even First Lady Melania Trump got into the fray, tweeting: “[The Atlantic] story is not true. It has become a very dangerous time when anonymous sources are believed above all else, & no one knows their motivation. This is not journalism – It is activism. And it is a disservice to the people of our great nation.”

But one media outlet after another confirmed the story. When even the Fox News Channel vouched for it, Trump tweeted that the FNC reporter who covered the story ought to be fired.

The silence from his former Chief of Staff John Kelly, who declined to contradict the allegations, could not be missed, since one of the most damning stories in the article involved him. In a press conference this evening, Trump seemed rather to confirm the story than prove it wrong when he attacked Kelly, a retired four-star Marine Corps General who was Trump’s longest-serving chief of staff. “He… didn’t do a good job, had no temperament, and ultimately he was petered out,” Trump told reporters. “He got eaten alive. He was unable to handle the pressure of this job.”

The situation permitted Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden to stand forth as the defender of soldiers and the military. Biden’s late son, Beau, served in Iraq. “When my son volunteered and joined the United States military as the attorney general and went to Iraq for a year, won the bronze star and other commendations, he wasn’t a sucker,” Biden said. “The servicemen and women he served with, particularly those who did not come home, were not ‘losers.’ If these statements are true, the president should humbly apologize to every gold star mother and father and every blue star family that he has denigrated and insulted,” he said. “Who the heck does he think he is?”

Since Ronald Reagan ran for office in 1980 on the argument that the Democratic President Jimmy Carter had cut funding for the military (this was not true), the modern Republican Party has wrapped itself in the flag. Republicans have celebrated the image of the US soldier as a lone hero, standing against the faceless and nameless mass of humanity marshaled to defend communism. In this formulation, Americans were individuals, each of value to our country.

But Trump has turned this idea on its head. In a weird echo of the way Republicans used to describe communist leaders, the White House seems to see Americans not as individuals but as faceless statistics. Administration leaders shrug at the deaths of more than 185,000 Americans and urge the country simply to absorb more Covid-19 deaths for the good of the economy. “It is what it is,” Trump said of the pandemic losses earlier this week. That each death is the loss of a daughter, a mother, a father, a son, seems lost in the administration’s tendency to talk about them as percentages.

The story of Trump’s disdain for those who serve the nation and sometimes sacrifice their lives for it suggests that he sees even the soldiers, whom we traditionally celebrate, as “suckers” who are stupid to go into the military. He seems to see them, too, as an expendable mass. Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth (D), a combat veteran, told CNN that Trump “likes to use the military for his own personal ego as if we were some sort of toy soldiers you could pull out and line up on your desk to play with.”

A devastating ad from Bill Owens, whose son, Navy SEAL William Ryan Owens, died in Yemen, echoed Duckworth. Owens explains that Trump sent his son and his comrades to Yemen five days into his presidency, ordering them in not from the Situation Room surrounded by intelligence experts but “sitting across a dinner table from Steve Bannon.” “There was no vital interest at play,” Owens says. “Just Donald Trump playing big-man-going-to-war. And when it went horribly wrong… Donald Trump demeaned my son’s sacrifice to play to the crowd.”

Duckworth said something similar: “He really doesn’t understand the sacrifice…. He truly doesn’t understand what it means to put something above yourself too, serve this nation and be willing to lay down one’s life with this nation. Because he does nothing that does not benefit Donald Trump.”

Since at least 2018, Democrats, especially Democratic women, have advanced a vision of military service that departs from the Republican emphasis on heroic individualism. Instead, they emphasize teamwork, camaraderie, and community, and the recognition that that teamwork means every single soldier, not just a few visible heroes, matters. Today Duckworth, who lost both her legs and some of the use of her right arm in 2004 when her helicopter was shot down, told NBC’s Nicole Wallace: “When somebody goes into combat they need to know that their buddies to their left and to their right will not leave them behind no matter what. We will get you out of there even if it is just bringing your body home…. When I was wounded, my crew thought that I was dead… but they risked their lives to retrieve my body… and they carried my body through that field in Iraq, covered themselves in my blood and my flesh and got me to that rescue aircraft. And only then did they discover that I was still alive. It was because these men and women stand up for the values that they fight for.”

The Democrats are taking over the mantle of patriotism. This shift showed in the poll earlier this week that showed enlisted military personnel prefer Biden to Trump. That shift worried Trump enough that he decided to get rid of the government-funded but independent Stars and Stripes newspaper that has served the troops since 1861. Pushback today was so great that he announced on Twitter he had reversed the decision, a welcome development marred slightly by the fact he called the famous newspaper a magazine.

The Democrats’ vision of military service is much more like that of the older army, the army of World War Two, than the one Republicans have championed since the 1980s. As Trump has revealed that his praise for heroic individuals is cover for the idea that most soldiers are an expendable mass of “suckers,” Democrats are standing up to define service as teamwork and loyalty, the belief that all soldiers matter, and the conviction that the military functions best when each soldier puts the group above self.

It is a revealing shift.

We are pleased to be presenting daily posts from Heather Cox Richardson’s “Letters From an American” email newsletter. You can sign up to receive it in your inbox here

Heather Cox Richardson

Heather Cox Richardson teaches American history at Boston College. She is the author of a number of books, most recently, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America. She writes the popular nightly newsletter Letters from an American. Follow her on Twitter: @HC_Richardson.