Responding to Benjamin Summers, who wrote a piece for the Washington Post two days ago, is a tough task that falls to me. As your (nearly) lone My Public Affairs correspondent, I assume the mantle of correcting the misrepresentations of the Post, even if it a Soldier writing.
Summers is a captain in the Army, according to his byline. But his military service doesn’t spare him the scrutiny, especially since he is talking a stand against the grain.
Overall, the piece is much more balanced and nuanced than the slightly sensational headline makes it seem. Summers makes two particularly good points:
1. Politicians and the public often ignore important of the complexities of military policy because of the tendency to simplify down to “for” and “against” the military. His main example is the backlog of VA medical care delivery, which demonstrates how conventional rhetoric hinders policy formation:
Headlines such as “Making America’s Heroes Wait” capture the tone, but they obscure the questions we should be asking, such as: Are there too many claims? How many caught in the backlog suffered a combat-related injury? If we added scrutiny to who qualifies for VA benefits, would the system function better? In the current environment, it’s just not politically palatable to ask these kinds of questions.
2. People eager to appear supportive of service members often talk themselves out of credibility, as many did when proclaiming SGT Bowe Bergdahl a hero prematurely. It’s just too risky to look critical of troops, so people speak out of turn or misspeak.
But Summers served, so he is inoculated from that risk, much as charges of racism against a minority speaker wouldn’t hurt as badly as against a white one.
He misdiagnoses the problem, however. Summers claims that the alacrity with which people cast all issues as either “for” or “against” is confined to military issues because of hero talk. He’s wrong. It is really part of a larger cultural and political problem in the US. The exact same tendency can be found in all policy domains in which the federal government has a stake.
How often do charges of being against teachers or against students replace more thoughtful questions about the costs and benefits of given education policy? Do accusations that one set of policies is “anti-senior” or “anti-poor” ring any bells? It should, because in our current political climate, every policy is representative of deep cultural divisions that elicit such heated rhetoric.
Citing a study by Pew, Summers ignores the larger political atmosphere and instead cites a growing gap between civilians and the military in American life. Such a gap may, in fact, exist, but it is more likely a symptom of the culture than its cause.
On a side note, Summers observes that the number of Congress members who have served in the military is at 20 percent, down from a high of 50 percent. I’m unclear what this has to do with his main argument; it struck me as wholly irrelevant. And given that the same study finds that less than one percent of Americans serve in the military, one could easily conclude that the 20 percent figure vastly over-represents the military in American politics. Yet the decline is usually offered as evidence of corrosion.
Ironically, most service members I know are uncomfortable with being called a hero. So it’s really the civilians who are using us as political pawns.
But, if that’s what it takes to keep the gears of democracy turning, then we are at your service. Maybe that makes us heroes.
(Photo by SSG Whitney Houston)