Military Service and Progressive Values

Since I began thinking about running for the State Senate, a lot of people I’ve spoken to have asked how I can be a liberal – or even a Democrat – after spending 20 years in the Army. One man at a Tea Party meeting wanted to know how I could be a member of the “party of perversion and invasion” after a career “defending the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic.” 

I understand why some people assume that veterans might skew conservative. Military life is one of hardship, self-discipline, honor, duty, and commitment to service.  It’s a life of personal and professional sacrifice that affects every part of family. Soldiers forego big salaries and comfortable lives to train and fight in the snow and heat and mud and rain because they know they have a role in something that really matters to every American: a vision of liberty seen no-where else on Earth.  My obligation to this vision, my country, the Army, and my soldiers took precedence over my individual needs for twenty years. There is no doubt that many Americans associate this kind of patriotism with conservatism.  

But many conservatives today appear to believe that life well spent isn’t about service and community but individual ambition and greed. It’s less about liberty for all than about organizing society around how we spend money in a market. They show allegiance to flags and a symbolic patriotism but no apparent duty to the higher ideal of American exceptionalism as a nation of people devoted to the right of everyone to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 

My personal experience in the Army shaped an alternate – and progressive – perspective on policy and how we organize economic, social, cultural, and political society. These rights, after all, depend on good health, appropriate education, public safety, and freedom to love whom we choose.

I learned for example that every soldier matters. No tank platoon can survive in combat unless every tank crewman contributes.  They cannot support the mission and survive the battle without physical health, strength, and stamina.  So every soldier gets vaccinations and preventive care and reproductive care and nutrition advice and treatment for disease and injury and mental stress whether or not they make a lot of money or manage their money well.  The team needs their talents and skills so the team takes care of them.

If we want every American to contribute and be productive, we simply have to make sure they have access to the care they need to stay healthy, strong, and resilient.  Without it the right to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” means nothing.  Health care is a human right.

Nor can soldiers contribute to the mission without education and training.  Not everyone goes to the same schools of course but each and every one excels at giving troops the particular skill sets and capabilities they need to maximize their potential as soldiers and leaders.  They also teach a practical and critical way of problem solving: how to evaluate what they see in front of them and respond to it.  And most soldiers also come away with a solid shared code of ethics.

We need to make sure our public schools do the same.  All of us should support a school system that gets every young person ready to fully realize their individual potential as part of society – to “be all they can be.” Our schools should prepare students to get and do the jobs they want, secure admission to the universities they seek to attend, and understand the world around them and how it can rapidly change.  Schools should also help them develop the social skills needed to join a compact with others based on a rule of law compassionately applied. Just like a military code of ethics.

Military service taught me about weapons.  No leader would issue a sidearm, rifle, or tank to anyone who lacked training or trust. We didn’t let just anyone walk around armed.  And I learned to use them when necessary but to secure them at all times.  No shame fell more heavily on a soldier than when they lost, misused, or simply could not control an assigned weapon. So I don’t understand how people can so cavalierly support the idea that more firearms, in the hands of just anyone who wants to have one, could possibly make society safer.  And please forgive me if I don’t buy the “tree of liberty must be watered by the blood of tyrants” logic.  Whether or not this made sense in 1790, today it amounts to nothing more than an argument that whoever has the most guns gets to define “liberty” and “tyrant.”

My time in the Army even informed my thoughts on economic development and job creation. No businesses flocked to the Bosnia I saw during my peacekeeping deployment there.  Broken societies do not attract investment. They lack the necessary physical and institutional infrastructure – stable electric and water and legal systems. No person with talent or skills wants to live in a place where cultural conflict interferes with their right to control their own bodies and love whom they wish. Our best path to economic development and job creation depends not on paying billionaires and corporations to build facilities in our communities or forcing people to live by a code they reject.  It depends on creating the structural, legal, and workforce conditions that protect true pursuit of happiness and make investment pay off.

And, of course, I learned about diversity. The US Department of Defense integrated its ranks long ago and strong military leaders know how to bring together people of different backgrounds, ethnic groups, sexuality, and religious affiliation and build strong teams. The US military today provides every servicemember with real opportunity based on performance, not who they are, where they come from, or whom they know. My military experience taught me that everyone from everywhere has value as a human being, friend, and colleague.  We don’t have to like or even respect everyone we meet.  But discounting people or holding them back because of how they look or where they came from only hurts us. As a soldier I was taught that hate and bigotry whatever its source dishonors the Army and every American. 

None of this means the system should not reward those with more skill or talent or ambition with faster promotion and higher pay.  Every soldier gets “two hots and a cot” but this isn’t socialism – General Officers make more money and live in better housing. Their position gets them to the front of the line at times. Hard work and performance matter. But these same senior officers understand that without the newest recruits and most junior privates no combat success is possible.  Every Army officer and NCO I ever knew lived by the principle that “leaders eat last.” Leaders care for their troops. All of them.

Military service taught me that we’re all in this together and we’re most effective when operating as a healthy, well-trained, accepting, and mindful group.  This is why I believe that access to health care, education, safe public places, and freedom to live and love as one pleases are all human rights. I’m running for the State Senate to protect these rights.

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