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Commentary: Military stands tall by standing back

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David Shribman

This week, a discredited Congress (13% confidence rating, according to Gallup) examines the behavior of a discredited former president (61% disapproval rating, according to the Quinnipiac poll) in an impeachment trial that will shape the future of the American presidency (39% confidence rating) and will be reported by the nation’s newspapers (24% confidence rating) and its television news outlets (18% confidence rating).

On the sidelines of this struggle among the unpalatable chronicled by the untrusted — unlike Myanmar, where a military coup toppled the government headed by Aung San Suu Kyi — is the nation’s military.

Its confidence level as measured by Gallup is at a stratospheric 72%, almost as high in this coronavirus era as nurses (checking in at 89%). That rating places the military 32 points higher than the Supreme Court and 30 points higher than organized religion. It’s as if an entire nation were screaming, in the timeworn, slightly rote phrase, Thank you for your service. And for your restraint. Amid the country’s election postpartum drama, the military stood tall for standing back.

Indeed, three weeks before the election, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that “we have established a very long 240-year tradition of an apolitical military that does not get involved in domestic politics.” When Donald J. Trump contested the election results and word swirled that the president was contemplating military involvement, all 10 living former defense secretaries signed an op-ed asserting that “efforts to involve the U.S. armed forces in resolving election disputes would take us into dangerous, unlawful and unconstitutional territory.”

If America loves an underdog — if the country swoons for a comeback story — then look no further than the men and women in military uniform.

A generation ago, at the beginning of the Reagan era and with the memories of Vietnam still fresh, only half of Americans expressed “a great deal” or “quite a bit” of respect for the military. As that rate now approaches three-quarters of Americans, the military is enjoying something of a renaissance in respect.

Indeed, a half-century ago, the military — mired in Vietnam, reviled by many young people, criticized widely in Congress — was facing an identity crisis. The Army War College commissioned a study on military professionalism in 1970 that had chilling findings:

“Officers of all grades perceive a significant difference between the ideal values and the actual or operative values of the Officer Corps. This perception is strong, clear, pervasive, and statistically and qualitatively independent of grade, branch, educational level or source of commission. There is also concern among officers that the Army is not taking action to ensure that high ideals are practiced as well as preached.”

Gen. H.R. McMaster, who served in the Gulf War, the Iraq War and Afghanistan and was Trump’s national security adviser, believes the comeback began with the military expeditions in Grenada (1983) and Panama (1989-1990).

“You had a string of profound disappointments in this country,” he said in an interview. “You had a lost war, you had stagflation, the Iran hostage crisis and the Marine barracks bombings. Then you begin to see a turn. It’s important to continuously strengthen the covenant between the military and our society, and between and among warriors, about how we conduct ourselves consistent with our principles: honor, self-sacrifice, courage. We expect much of ourselves when our society expects much of us.”

Both Gen. McMaster and former Secretary of State John F. Kerry, a military brat who served in Vietnam and later became a prominent leader of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, believe Americans have come to distinguish between the political leaders who begin wars and the military personnel who fight them.

“This new respect for the military is no surprise to me, and it’s well deserved,” Kerry said in a telephone conversation the other day. “Both the military and the country writ large learned the lesson of Vietnam, which is don’t blame the warriors for the war — and don’t forget to be grateful to the warriors. Ever since then, the country has had a change of attitude about people who serve.”

Though activists deplored the disproportionate rate of African Americans in the Vietnam War, Blacks generally have found the military to be one of the few institutions in American life that provided a dependable ladder of social mobility.

“The military paved the way for my family and many others to live a middle-class life,” said former Rep. Donna F. Edwards, a Maryland Democrat whose father was in the Air Force. Embedded in the controversial New York Times 1619 Project is this assertion by Nicole Hannah-Jones: “In every war this nation has waged since that first one, Black Americans have fought — today we are the most likely of all racial groups to serve in the United States military.”

Today’s respect for the military comes even against the backdrop of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib (2003), the killing of unarmed Iraqis at Haditha (2005) and an air strike on Azizabad that killed at least several dozen Afghanis (2008).

“It’s tempting to assume Americans trust the military for the glaringly obvious reason: because it’s the most expensive, best-equipped fighting force on the planet,” Amanda Ripley wrote earlier this year. “But America also has the largest economy in the world, and Americans do not trust big business and banks. Size and power are impressive, but they don’t incubate trust on their own.”

Part of trust is respect. The latest Gallup study of business and industry sectors placed farming and agriculture at the top of the respect list, with the grocery industry close behind. Perhaps in our coronavirus retreat, we have seen fresh virtue in these sectors. The healthcare industry moved from the third-lowest rank to the middle of the pack, the first time in two decades that it has won a positive ranking from Americans. No explanation needed there. And dead last is the federal government. That, too, needs no explanation at a time when the virus has spread throughout the country.

And so in an era when the country is in a spiritual if not an economic depression, we find ourselves — Republicans and Democrats — taking succor from the fifth and sixth lines of “The Marines’ Hymn”:

First to fight for right and freedom

And to keep our honor clean.


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