One of the worst trends in modern America is the civilian-military divide. Last week, I attended the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte and saw the party trying to bridge that divide, or at least to recognize it. Amid the lofty politicking and speechmaking typical of any political convention was the Democratic Party’s wholehearted embrace of the military and the values it embodies.
Democrats have come a long way since Michael Dukakis’ cringe-worthy tank ride. This time, Democrats showed a real connection to our military servicemen and women: Michelle Obama was introduced by a woman with four sons serving in the armed forces, and a group of veterans — including Vice President Joe Biden’s son — was greeted by a crowd holding “Thank You” signs.
There was none of the booing one might expect from a party often derided as full of peaceniks and hippies; instead, the whole arena seemed entirely comfortable with and grateful for these veterans’ sacrifices. This was a choreographed political event and was clearly meant to evoke certain emotions, but Democrats’ overt respect for military service highlighted a larger truth about a new Republican Party when it comes to military issues: The Republican Party has begun to flounder.
One striking example of Republican politicians’ hypocrisy is their attitude toward the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy. In 2006, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) said, “The day that the leadership of the military comes to me and says, ‘Senator, we ought to change the policy,’ then I think we ought to consider seriously changing it.” And then in 2010, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen went before McCain’s committee to tell him just that — he ought to change the policy.
And yet, two years later, the platform of the party that nominated McCain four years ago still hasn’t budged. “We reject the use of the military as a platform for social experimentation and will not accept attempts to undermine military priorities and mission readiness,” it reads.
Contrast that disrespect of the military leadership with Michelle Obama and Jill Biden’s Joining Forces initiative, mentioned frequently at the Democratic convention. This initiative — just a few years old — spurred companies to hire 125,000 veterans in just one year. Meanwhile, at the Republican convention a week earlier, Mitt Romney did not bother to mention the troops once in his speech — because, he said, he wanted to use the speech to talk about the “important” issues.
Right now, just one percent of America serves in uniform, compared to the nine percent who served during World War II. Obviously, the main reason for this disparity is that our military is now an all-volunteer force, a fact that makes most politicians and military commanders very proud. But it also means an increasingly smaller share of the country feels any direct consequences of the wars.
The War in Afghanistan is now the longest war in American history, yet life in America continues mostly unchanged. We don’t need to ration at home. We don’t buy war bonds. Most of us don’t need to look at the wounds inflicted by IEDs. The worst the majority of the country feels is war fatigue. Combating this civilian-military divide has been one of President and Michelle Obama’s biggest causes. I am not blind to the fact that it’s a politically beneficial cause, but just because trying to prevent military suicides and strengthening military families is good politics doesn’t mean it is not also the right thing to do.
What is offensive is not just the fact that Romney did not mention the troops; it is that he did not even think they are one of his “important” issues — that at a political convention, he thought he would be able to get away without mentioning the one percent because he was speaking to the other 99 percent. The Democratic Party, at least, made the ideas of sacrifice and determination — military and otherwise — centerpieces of its convention. That party understands that you do not speak only to the one percent in the military or the 99 percent who are not; presidential candidates have a responsibility to speak to 100 percent of Americans.
Sam Cohen is a sophomore in Calhoun College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.