Between 1952 and 1992, every president of the United States was a veteran of World War II. Eisenhower commanded Allied forces in Europe. JFK, LBJ, Nixon and Ford served in the Navy in the Pacific. Jimmy Carter entered the Naval Academy in 1943, graduating too late to see combat. Ronald Reagan joined the U.S. Army Reserve in 1937; due his fame as an actor he was kept out of combat, instead heading up War Bond drives and producing more than 400 training films. George H.W. Bush was the youngest U.S. Navy pilot in the war.
Then the worm turned. In 1992, Bush was defeated by alleged Vietnam draft dodger Bill Clinton, who also defeated wounded World War II vet Bob Dole in 1996. In 2000 and 2004, alleged Air National Guard deserter George W. Bush defeated Vietnam veterans Al Gore and John Kerry. In 2008, Barack Obama defeated Vietnam veteran and former prisoner of war John McCain.
In the two election cycles since then, neither major party has seriously considered nominating a military veteran. Rather odd, since exaltation of the US armed forces and veterans began a resurgence from post-Vietnam lows in 1991 with Desert Storm and has been the de facto national religion since 9/11.
America has a complicated relationship with its veterans. Those of us who served in the military sport a suicide rate more than twice that of the civilian population. We’re 10 percet of the population and 16 percent of the homeless. Apparently we’re a pretty screwed up demographic. Yet our opinions, especially on politics, enjoy a measure of nearly automatic respect. I often see news stories in which veterans are specifically identified as such to bolster their credibility when they express positions or register complaints (janitors, truck drivers and cooks rarely enjoy such deference).
This bothers me, in part because it tempts me. Anecdotally, it seems to me that veterans are over-represented in my own political ponds, the libertarian movement and the Libertarian Party. It’s tempting to assume that that’s because, like me, many other veterans see how wasteful and deadly big government can be and perhaps want to do penance for the body counts we’ve contributed to. But then there are lots of veterans who ardently support big government as well. What gives?
The temptation to ascribe special status to the opinions of veterans is something I think we should resist. Opinions may be right or they may be wrong. That the person expressing them once wore a uniform and collected a government paycheck doesn’t, at least in cases not directly related to military matters, seem like a good indicator of which.
If you really want to honor veterans, treat us like you treat everyone else. That means requiring us to prove, rather than merely assert, our political arguments.
Tom Knapp is director of the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism