I’ve written elsewhere about the unhealthy overvalorzation of the military in the United States. It’s a phenomenon that began in earnest with the 1991 Gulf War as a kind of belated, guilt-ridden collective penance for the unforgivable treatment of the Vietnam-era GI, and has since become a permanent part of American culture. In fact, it’s only gotten worse over the past 28 years, as the chasm has widened ever further between the tiny sliver of brave Americans who fight our (now endless) wars and the vast majority of the citizenry who benefit from that sacrifice while being asked to make little to none of their own.
The rough contours of what is unhealthy about this dynamic — both for the military and for the public — are easy to understand, even if its implications are far-reaching and complex. Way back in October 2017 — four hundred years ago — no less an eminence than John Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general and the Secretary of Homeland Security at the time, put on a disgraceful master class in it when the White House trotted him out to defend the misbegotten combat patrol in Niger that killed Army Sergeant La David Johnson. (Kelly went full Nathan Jessup, sneering at the softness of the assembled civilians, and then restricted questions to those reporters who had a first person connection to a Gold Star family, with the press meekly going along. Kelly’s huffing outrage was highly ironic, given his boss’s appalling and repeated attacks on one such family, that of fallen US Army Captain Humayun Khan, who was killed in Iraq in 2004.)
But as the old maxim goes, only those within a family are allowed to criticize it. So as someone with the profession of arms in my marrow, I’m here to tell you that just being a veteran does not make one honorable. In my time in and around the US military I’ve seen the very finest people I’ve ever had the privilege to know, and also some of the worst. No rank, no badge, no diploma, no unit affiliation, no type of service is in and of itself an automatic guarantor of quality or integrity. Shitbirds and cowards come in all ranks and from all branches, just as heroes do. And the past couple weeks have provided the starkest possible example in the form of two points on that spectrum: one represented by the shameful Mike Pompeo, and the other by the courageous Ambassador William Taylor and Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman.