I was flipping channels this week when I came across Sean Hannity and Michelle Malkin discussing Barack Obama’s disrespect for the American military. Turns out Obama incorrectly pronounced Navy Corpsman (he pronounced the “s”) at a recent prayer breakfast. (He was in the middle of praising “the extraordinary work our men and women in uniform do all around the world,” but Hannity and Malkin overlooked that part.) “It’s quite galling,” announced Malkin, a decorated veteran herself (I made that up). “What does it tell you about how out of touch this man is with the military?”
A whole generation of post-baby boom, Democratic-leaning former military officers—congregating at places like the Center for a New American Security, the National Security Network and the Truman Democrats—are bridging the post-Vietnam cultural divide.
The whole thing made me think of Democratic Rep. Jack Murtha, who died Monday. Murtha will not go down as one of the great legislators of our age. As a congressman, his overriding passion was squeezing the federal government for cash for his Pennsylvania district, sometimes in dubious ways. Even on the issue that made him a hero to liberals—his stunning 2005 call for a troop withdrawal from Iraq—Murtha was probably wrong. Though the improvements in Iraq don’t stem mostly from President George W. Bush’s decision to pour in more troops, the surge clearly helped. But history will smile on Murtha for another reason: He served as a kind of usher at a very important marriage (or at least, series of dates): between the American military and the American left.
To understand Murtha’s significance, it’s important to realize that many of the “foreign policy” problems that have afflicted Democrats since Vietnam are really cultural problems. In 1972, what hurt George McGovern wasn’t his call for withdrawing troops from Vietnam (Richard Nixon was well on his way to doing just that), but his support for amnesty for draft-dodgers. In 1988, Americans turned against Michael Dukakis not because he opposed Contra Aid, but because he opposed a mandatory Pledge of Allegiance in school and looked goofy in a tank. In 2004, John Kerry’s views on the Iraq War were fairly popular; what hurt him was the perception that during Vietnam he had maligned the troops. In 2008, Barack Obama was hounded by questions about why he didn’t wear an American flag on his lapel.
In purely foreign-policy terms, in fact, Vietnam pushed liberals and the military closer together. In the two decades before Vietnam, America’s military leaders had generally been more hawkish than their civilian counterparts (do a quick search for Douglas MacArthur and Curtis LeMay if you need a refresher). But after Vietnam, while some diehards insisted the U.S. could have won had not the war been lost at home, many in the military grew more cautious about armed intervention, a position famously enunciated by Colin Powell. While liberals and the military were drawing closer in their actual foreign-policy views, however, they were growing apart culturally, as the officer corps grew increasingly concentrated in red states and increasingly alienated from the cultural shifts of the 1960s. Over time, the relationship between liberals and the military began to resemble the relationship between conservatives and African Americans. Even when the two sides agreed on something, oceans of mistrust usually got in the way.
In the Bush era, this began to change. First, Democrats realized that reconnecting to the military was crucial to combating the GOP’s claims that they were less patriotic. Second, the party realized that on Iraq, unlike Vietnam, the guys in uniform were often the doves. (They also tended to be the ones most appalled by the Bush administration’s tolerance for torture.)
This desire for rapprochement played a big role in the Democrats’ decision to nominate John Kerry in 2004. But Kerry couldn’t get the cultural politics right. The real breakthrough came in 2005, when Murtha—a pro-life, pro-gun, former Marine drill instructor—stood in front of a sea of American flags to denounce the war in Iraq. In 1969, the great Allard Lowenstein had urged his fellow activists to begin a large anti-Vietnam march at Arlington Cemetery, led by an honor guard carrying American flags—and was told that no one would come. Murtha’s press conference denouncing Iraq was the culmination of Lowenstein’s dream.
The Hannitys and Malkins of the world will still say liberals hate the military, of course. But there’s evidence that the charge no longer works so well. The flap over Obama’s flag lapel pin has subsided. His handling of the war on terror receives fairly high marks from the public. His move to allow gays to serve openly in the military is provoking far less of a backlash than Clinton’s did in 1993. A whole generation of post-baby boom, Democratic-leaning former military officers—congregating at places like the Center for a New American Security, the National Security Network and the Truman Democrats—are bridging the post-Vietnam cultural divide. And Virginia Senator Jim Webb, another culturally conservative former Marine with a distaste for neocon crusades, is carrying on Murtha’s tradition in Congress.
It’s entirely possible that in the years to come, new divisions between liberals and the military will emerge. Sooner or later, for instance, the Obama administration and Democrats in Congress are going to have to start talking seriously about reducing the defense budget (it’s worth remembering that the last time America retired a massive budget deficit, in the 1990s, defense cuts played an important role). But the vast cultural rift is diminishing, and as a result, calling Democrats unpatriotic is becoming a bit harder. Hannity and Malkin can still rant, but somewhere, Jack Murtha is watching, with a smile.
Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, will be published by HarperCollins in June.