The Soldier and Our Trumpian State
The historian Will Durant undertook several years ago the modest project of tracking the incidence of warfare during human history. His key finding was surprising to many of his readers who had come of age during the 20th century, a time when two world wars had caused Americans to say terms like “preserving the peace” and “peace building” in the hushed tones one uses when handling something fragile: there had been only 29 years in all of human history that were free of war.
Americans, of course, had always known that the past was barbaric—no one, for example, thought to remember The Hundred Years’ War with commemorative plates. Many, however, still believed when Durant published his findings that the cadence of life for their ancestors matched that of the figures in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s 16th century painting The Harvesters, which depicted apparently content peasants either working at a languid pace in the fields, or picnicking under a tree on a cloudless, serene day. That war could fracture this idyll was, of course, not inconceivable. It seemed, however, that if war came, the inhabitants of this landscape could shift effortlessly from the rhythms of agricultural life to those of battle. Thomas Hardy suggested as much in his 1874 novel Far from the Madding Crowd: “Peace and war kiss each other at the hours of preparation [for the harvest]—sickles, scythes, shears, and pruning-hooks ranking with swords, bayonets, and lances in their common necessity for point and edge.”
It is thus not surprising that Durant’s finding confused many of his readers. If military conflict was not the new normal but simply normal, then what was America’s future in the so-called Hydrogen Age, when, as a New York Times editor wrote in 1950, the challenge was no longer “to control nature” but “to control man”?
The fear and uncertainty of the Cold War, however, proved to be evanescent. A Wall fell, revolutions became velvet, and poets began to lead nations. American politicians started to talk about a “peace dividend” that the US could draw on to address the constellation of problems that had emerged or festered while Americans had been stocking their bomb shelters with canned peas, Hawaiian Punch, and Swanson turkey dinners. Military readiness no longer seemed to be important. Hollywood had in the late 1970s and early 1980s tried to divert Americans’ attention from the possibility that The Book of Revelation was really a docudrama by treating war either as something we did back in the 1960s and 1970s in Vietnam when we, in the famous image from the 1978 film The Deer Hunter, played Russian Roulette with the lives of young Americans or as a topic for farce (watch the 1980 Goldie Hawn vehicle Private Benjamin and consider how well Sephora product placements would have worked in it). But by the 1990s, with the Eastern bloc unraveling, Hollywood said, “Why bother?” and decided to invest the $172 million it found in Michael Ovitz’s couch cushions in Waterworld.
America’s war hiatus was not uninterrupted. There were those “splendid little wars” in Grenada and Panama, and the first Gulf War seemed to be rather frictionless, at least as measured by initial expectations that Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard would fight to hold every scorpion hole in the Kuwait desert. It was not until the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that America re-entered the Durantian norm of regular military conflict. But while the military re-adopted the martial rhythms of the past, the American public continued to picnic under a shading tree.
One of Donald Trump’s most committed voting blocs is current and past military personnel. His military support has remained high despite his claim that Senator John McCain—who still suffers from wounds he received as a POW during the Vietnam War—is not a war hero and his attacks on former President George W. Bush, who remains popular with current military personnel and veterans. Trump, for example, soundly beat Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz among current and former military personnel 35% to 23% to 21% in the South Carolina primary. Perhaps this result is explained by political scientist Matthew MacWilliams’ finding that Trump is particularly appealing to those who have “authoritarian inclinations.” There may be, however, another explanation for Trump’s success with the military that does not require a detour onto the befogged landscape of personality traits.
Back in January 2015, James Fallows decried in the pages of The Atlantic what he saw as the growing gap between the American military and the American public. Fallows did not use the anodyne language favored by most journalists when discussing Americans’ ostensible respect for the military. Fallows instead bluntly characterized America as “a chickenhawk nation,” one in which the military is “exotic territory to most of the American public,” who have, at best, a “reverent but disengaged attitude toward the military.” Fallows also chastised our political leaders, noting that when public officials mention the military, they slide easily and thoughtlessly into the now familiar pattern of “overblown, limitless praise” followed by a “somber moment of reflection” that shows just enough respect for our soldiers’ sacrifices to allow the political class to return to haggling about the debt limit.
It is, granted, quite an inferential leap to move from Americans’ separation from the military to veterans’ support for Donald Trump. But if there is a thread that connects Trump voters, it is their perception that they have, through no fault of their own, been pushed form the center to the periphery of American life during the last several decades. They feel that their standard of living and social status have been reduced by immigration, globalization, and hiring preferences that favor groups with whom they feel they compete for slivers of a shrinking economic pie. They despise what they call “political correctness” because they believe the linguistic sleight-of-hand it encourages cloaks their own struggles to manage their economic and social dislocation. That military personnel—who feel excluded from debates about what needs to be done, as Hillary Clinton calls it, to “make our country whole again”; whose sacrifice is acknowledged but rarely taken seriously; whose chronic economic social, emotional, and physical challenges are the stuff of the occasional news report on long lines at VA hospitals or clinics, the travails of PTSD, or well-intentioned but feeble efforts to persuade employers to treat veterans’ talents and skills as important job assets—might share these feelings is not implausible.
Even Bernie Sanders, whose candidacy is predicated on his singular ability to raise up those who have been ignored and disadvantaged, seems to be oddly disengaged from the challenges faced by our veterans. For example, when he was asked by a recently demobilized veteran at last month’s Democratic Town Hall in Las Vegas what he planned to do to help veterans reintegrate into the workforce, his only tangible proposal was to give veterans “priority in federal employment,” which would be, of course, helpful, but is not a solution commensurate with the systemic and pernicious problems that veterans confront when they seek to re-enter the civilian workforce.
In the final scene of the 1942 World War II melodrama Mrs. Miniver—a film that Winston Churchill said did more for the Allied war effort than a flotilla of destroyers—a pastor is delivering a funeral mass in a bombed-out church not for a soldier or a RAF pilot, but for a young woman who was killed on the streets of London by German aircraft fire. The pastor begins by asking the question that is tormenting all: Why must the innocent be slain in this clash of armies? His answer is both emphatic and bracing: “Because this is not only a war of soldiers in uniform. It is a war of the people, of all of the people, and it must be fought not only on the battlefield, but in the cities and in the villages, in the factories and on the farms, in the home, and in the heart of every man, woman, and child who loves freedom.”
Our wars are no longer wars “of the people.” It is thus perhaps understandable that in our politics war and warriors are the subjects more often of poetry than of prose: worthy of florid phrases fit to be inscribed on a marble monument or a sarcophagus but hardly worthy of the muscular efforts needed to address “the real problems” that consume daily life and political action. We may be hence at a moment when those who “have borne the battle” are no longer part of our conversations about how “to bind up the nation’s wounds.” If this is true, then we have truly lost the war at home.