The Liberal Veteran's Lonely Island
I remember well my emotions post 9/11. I didn’t have family or actually know anyone in New York when the attacks happened, but like the rest of the nation, including the people in my hometown, I was hit with fear and anger. I was 15, a B-C student at best, with little to no knowledge about the military, our relationship with the Middle East, or where Afghanistan and Iraq were on a map. I think that was most people, and yet we all became experts overnight. I remember kids calling for blood in the hallways and in class with little retort from our teachers, proudly proclaiming that our military would kill them all, maybe even nuke them. My rhetoric was the same, yet unlike most of those empty promises of revenge, I followed through.
I joined the Army as a Cavalry Scout and deployed to Iraq for the first time in 2006. When I first told my mother I was serious about joining, she was not on board. When she realized this was going to happen, we took a ride around the country. We lived in Pleasanton, Texas where at the center of town is a statue of a cowboy with the motto, “birthplace of the cowboy” below. As we drove around a county deeply rooted in conservative values, my mother said to me in a solemn voice, “You won’t come out the same after this. It’s going to change you.” After my 15 month long deployment to Mosul, Iraq where I engaged in hundreds of missions combating insurgents my moms words became manifest. I returned home different, and it would take years for me to realize, acknowledge, and cope with it, because the truth be told, that sort of metamorphosis is not an easy one, and war is a brutal means of changing a person’s outlook.
Prior to my parents’ divorce I had been raised a Jehovah’s Witness, forbidden to take part in any form of nationalism including military service. Not only did I abstain from celebrating holidays, but I refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. Years later I’d find it odd when Americans would be furious over Colin Kaepernick’s protest when he took knee during the National Anthem. I did essentially the same thing as a child without the vitriol, but this was before Iraq, before 9/11. Despite what I learned from my environment, I made my own choice and served my country for 8 years. I did this, not because I wanted bloodshed, but because by maybe combating this “evil” I could prove to others my worth, especially to those who saw nothing more than a brown kid from rural Texas with poor grades and on his way to nothing special. And I believed in the values of the military (sans the corruption) and the wisdom it would teach a man like me who had shaky male role models. My next deployment to Iraq would be my last, as it was for all major combat teams there at the time. I had front row seats to the end of an era. Afghanistan would continue on. The person I was in the aftermath of these experiences bore little resemblance to the boy I had been that day in the car with my mom.
The Army and the experiences I had within made me a liberal. In Iraq I saw a strange but familiar culture that mirrored the one I knew back home. People were unflinchingly religious, suspicious of outsiders, and staunch supporters of traditions. I saw conservative Iraqi veterans living in mansions of fine marble, paid for by the toppled Saddam regime, set alongside shacks made of old cooking oil cans and mud. Old soldiers spoke fondly and nostalgically of the days when they reaped the benefits of Saddam’s rule, a sentiment which would be eerily reflected later in Trump’s Presidential Campaign motto, “Make America Great Again.” Yet these halcyon years that Saddam’s old officers spoke of were remembered by Kurds as a time of suffering and death, in the same way Black Americans and other minorities have an altogether different memory of these so-called, “good ol’ days,” the right seems so desperate to return to.
In Iraq, I saw neighbors murder each other for working with US troops. Family members killed one another over ideology. An elderly woman died when her bicycle, filled with C4, exploded. The neighbors had been hoping to assassinate her son, a policeman. In Iraq, the ones that worked with us were the liberals, breaking traditions in hope for a better future and defying those who saw this act as traitorous. It was the same dynamic between the progressives and conservatives in the States. When I saw the hate a place like that could bring out in both Iraqis and Americans, it became overwhelming and distasteful. My own hatred was replaced by sorrow and a feeling of despair. How could anyone stop so much hate? How could you reason with it? I saw myself in them, saw the shadow of my hometown in all that violence and blood, and was ashamed I had ever held such feelings.
It is 2020, a New Year, a new decade, and with the death of Qasem Soleimani I saw again irrational paranoia and enmity rear its cancerous head the same way it did when those students called for blood, and the educators kept their lips sealed. Most of these spiteful proclamations would be nothing more than impotent platitudes. They’d call for blood but ask others like me to do it for them. Would they also remember to forget this new generation of soldiers? Would they call them killer or murderer when they came back home? Everyone seemed to forget 22 a day as they applauded the prospect of 44 a day. There would be more debt, death, suicide, ptsd, and divorces. Again people cheered for it, including those who suffered through the last two decades of conflict in the Middle East to satiate American bloodlust and their taste for vengeance, as if any of it could end this vicious and ancient cycle. As it was with Bush’s fraudulent war in Iraq, those who criticized Donald Trump for the strike against Soleimani are labeled as traitorous. After all, peace is not as exciting as killing or watching a generation of young Americans die. It doesn’t sell tickets to a Toby Keith show.
It is a lonely place being a progressive veteran. While we aren’t rare, we certainly aren’t common. I was an ardent Bush supporter until being exposed to his policies and suffering through their aftermath. There isn’t a day I don’t feel them, and I know this is the same for my brothers and sisters-in-arms. So why are our politics divided? Veterans cite detachment and loneliness as central instigators for the difficulties of transitioning out of military life. For liberal veterans we aren’t fully accepted into either camp. The division between liberals and the military is well-known and documented, not just here in America but in others countries, like what I witnessed in Iraq. Liberal veterans are untrusted by civilian liberals for participating in the corrupt military industrial complex and I’ve found myself often ‘othered’ for my choice to serve by those whose values I share. Comments, like those made by John Kerry, “You know, education, if you make the most of it and you study hard and you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don't, you get stuck in Iraq,” leave a sour taste for Democrats in veterans’ mouths, that regardless of Kerry’s own military experience, drew criticism, and the swiftboating of his service did enough damage to last. Ask a veteran their feelings towards Kerry and they’ll certainly mention his “questionable” service record, a political smear campaign spread by Swift Vets and POWs For Truth. Financial struggles coupled with an overworked VA throughout the Obama administration, helped continue the narrative from Vietnam, that Democrats are not interested in taking care of those defending the nation. A poll conducted by the Military Times showed that 2/3 believed spending caps negatively affected troop morale while only 2% supported them.
The exact same can be said about the right, but as Saddam knew to hold onto the favor of his military to maintain power, Republicans know that hyper-patriotism is a quick way to pander to a demographic that feels, at best, grudingly tolerated by liberals. Of course this veneer of gratefulness on the right quickly dissolves when you tell them you are a proud “libtard”- despite not being fully welcomed in that camp. I have received threats, racist comments made about my children, and been spit on by more people for my political leanings than my actions in the military. Most of these have come from those I served alongside. All of the conservative Trump supporters.
The most common response I get among fellow veterans when I mention that I am a liberal is, “I don’t agree with your politics but we’re still friends.” I’m thankful for that level of maturity but curious because I wonder, do they know my politics or are they simply taking the liberal name as a catchall for the long list of progressive values. I interviewed a dozen veterans (the majority being Army combat veterans) at random to gauge their feelings to help better understand this schism. The veterans I spoke to felt ignored by the left in favor of political correctness and a focus on demonizing service men and women, a relationship that has been this way since Vietnam. To a group that is losing its numbers at a staggering rate of around 15.9 a day to suicide (70% caused by firearms with the Army suffering 52% of the total of all branches) these social issues are secondary. Veteran issues are not just excluded by the left’s politics, in which the choice to serve and the repercussion that service is less valuable than being born into a group subject to the prejudices of a white patriarchy, they are ridiculed and shunned. To liberals the military is an extension of the patriarchal system and being a male dominated profession in which aggression is lauded, it is hard for liberals to imagine welcoming in a population of citizens that seem so antithetical to their ideologies. For those on the far extremes of the left, even military allies with shared ideals is an unacceptable option. Doing so would condone the very thing liberalism stands against. This, along with the traditional divide between the left and the military leaning right, reconciliation doesn’t seem possible and veterans often see my alignment on the left as a sort of betrayal of values by siding with those who seem to view us as evil. Yet, I argue the relationship between those in power and the military is wholly subsistent on cajoling troops into a form of compliance. A fat cat is a happy cat, even if that means you’re going to give the damn thing a heart attack.
Trump’s participation in this has only stoked the flame of hate veterans like myself receive by both sides as the divide starts to widen, especially from conservative veterans who are deeply entrenched in supporting a President who has stolen from charities and got out of serving in Vietnam on bogus medical claims. Veterans do not view Trump as a conservative but instead a dark horse, the leader of a revolution that promises to bring back that silly Leave it to Beaver-age, in a similar way Saddam’s officers, with their marble homes and fine carpets, attacked those who worked with Americans for taking away an Iraq-that-was. Veterans support Trump because he is seen as an outsider. As one veteran expressed, “I sympathize with him because over the past few years I’ve also had tons of nonsense and false accusations cast onto me.” Although some of these “nonsense” accusations have yielded real evidence, crimes, and convictions, veterans are willing to turn their heads to support a man who appears to be showing them how the sausage is made, even as Trump spits into it himself. The more the President plays into this narrative the more he is able to captivate an audience that feels ignored, and to that sentiment I say, “welcome to the American story of all minorities.” Now you see why minorities lean to the left. Except the left seems unmotivated to welcome in this demographic because of the way veterans are perceived versus their reality of their values and the similarities in their outsider experiences. In the same way my fellow veterans cannot see the nuanced choice to side with liberals values, the left struggles to understand the thought processes of veterans who hold values like loyalty, duty, selfless service, honor, and integrity.
When asked about their political alignments, the majority of interviewed veterans cited unhappiness with both the Democratic and Republican options, choosing to identify as unaffiliated but admitted to more right leaning opinions than liberal ones. I offered up the question to veterans, “What do you like most about Trump?” The question was purposely vague in its design to give the sense that I was implying they were Trump supporters. Of the dozen interviewed only one embraced the implication of being a Trump supporter. Two others were vehemently against him. The remaining veterans expressed conflicted feelings about him- some stating that he wasn’t particularly intelligent and all agreeing that he was a poor orator. None of these things were enough to withdraw their support of him. Among the soldiers that supported Donald Trump (10 out of 12), each believed him to be an honest patriot. As one Army veteran said, “he isn’t afraid to tell people where to stick it.” The same veteran also noted that Trump was a, “buffoon,” highlighting the strange complexity of this relationship between the military and the President, who now stands as the third president to be impeached.
When I told my veteran colleagues that I would be writing this piece, they asked that I be truthful. After interviewing a few I found it curious that, in hindsight, most of those that support the President did not provide me factual information about Trump in their reasoning. There were almost no comments on his policies and all opinions on him were strictly related to the perception of the President, how he made them feel (and sometimes how it made rival liberals feel). Only one mentioned the White House’s 2020 3.1% pay raise as a motivator for backing him. His was the only fact brought up that could possibly link this perceived image of the All-American Trump outside sentiment and perception. So, while I am asked to provide facts to solidify the liberal argument against him, support for Trump is not borne from facts and data. Half of the interviewed soldiers admitted they didn’t keep up with politics and were not fully informed about their choices or the reasons for them.
I assembled some facts to counter the myth of Trump’s patriot identity, but the problem in swaying veteran minds away from his toxic presidency becomes difficult when veterans choose to stay uninformed, regularly digest biased news, and are untrustworthy of media. Nearly every interviewed veteran was skeptical of the media so presenting any sort of facts in this article could easily be discounted in this age of “alternate facts” or “fake news”. Take for instance one of the most vital facts about Trump: Since the start of his presidency, Donald Trump has averaged 13 verifiably misleading or false claims a day, totaling 12,019 by August 5th 2019 as reported by the Washington Post using analyzed data from the Fact Checker. As of December 10th 2019 that number has risen to 15,413. Among his false statements were claims that the wall is being built despite Congress denying funds, taking credit for economic growth despite the data showing that he inherited that growth from the Obama administration (2.5 million jobs were added within the 12 months before Trump’s presidency), and the executive powers given to him in Article Two while discounting Section 4, the very outlines for the reason of his impeachment (The President, Vice President and all civil officers of the United States, shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.).
In short Trump is an extraordinary liar, and this is valuable knowledge in understanding his corruptive hold on veterans.
One soldier said, in regards to the media, “I get tired of social media and fake news where people are attacking either Trump or anything else, social media is gonna be the fall of this country.” I went around exploring some of these and other veterans’ social media accounts and found that the majority regularly broadcasted some sort of political post, contradicting this idea that media is untrustworthy while simultaneously citing questionable information (mostly memes and shared articles) from unproven sources. Those veterans who are not consistently or actively involved in evaluating political information from reliable sources but consistently report political information through their social media, are just as culpable in spreading misinformation, especially now that we know Russia was involved in using platforms like Facebook in spreading these same posts. Yet, as the same soldier pointed out, “Well shit I don’t follow it [news] too much, I mean you can look at one website and it says bad shit, another website says all good shit.” Sorting through the “shit” isn’t as much a priority as staking a claim on one side or the other and remaining there regardless of the facts.
The veterans in the interviews acknowledge that Trump is not honest nor truthful, but despite quotes from the President, like, “He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured,” when speaking of John McCain’s service in Vietnam and, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters,” that dangerously echoes the views and methods of dictators like North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, veterans seem to be more enamored with the perception of Trump and not the reality.
As long as Trump’s illusory patriotism and pandering to the military continues into the election season while liberals reject veteran issues into their camp, cast them as immoral participants in a corrupt system, and pursuing aggressive stances in political correctness culture, we will never win these veterans over. You could present as much factual information and carefully detailed information as you can muster, and you’d still find it difficult changing their opinions. I was convinced by my experiences and objective facts into my liberal values. Veterans need to see and hear that liberals value them, not for their ability to reap blood in senseless and perpetual conflicts that Republicans value, but in taking care of them when they come home. This is where you win the hearts and minds of veterans who feel isolated and alone in an age of massive social change. Veterans are suffering and the only help they gain is for political gain, like Trump’s purposed 2020 3.1% pay raise and the left’s movement to remove the word “disorder” from PTSD which does nothing to help better their lives. The more we leave my brothers and sister behind, the faster they start to resemble those old Iraqi soldiers who pined for a bygone time so passionately they’d kill for its return, alongside the citizens that share their feelings. And just like in Iraq, families and friends will be at each other’s throats. We already see it manifesting in one another. One can only hope facts can again become facts and people humble themselves enough to change and admit they might be wrong…or poorly informed. Until then, conservative veterans will continue to plant their feet against liberals out of spite.