At the beginning of this midterm election year, we received an urgent fundraising appeal from US representative Jake Auchincloss, a centrist Democrat from Massachusetts. The email message informed us that, as a former Marine officer in Afghanistan, Auchincloss “saw firsthand the futility of the Forever Wars.”
All good so far. But then, on behalf of a Democratic Party–funded group called VoteVets, Auchincloss bemoaned the fact that veterans serving in Congress “are at an all-time low since World War II,” which deprives that body of “people who have seen these conflicts firsthand.” According to Auchincloss, “this trend hurts all of us, not just our troops — because veterans offer a unique perspective in Congress.” They “are able to work together to get things done,” including “defending our democracy” against “Trump sycophants.”
As the 2022 election cycle reaches its final stage, it’s time for a reality check on this fanciful account of how former soldiers, with first-hand experience of war, tend to function in national politics. Wearing a uniform and swearing allegiance to the Constitution in the past is no guarantee of a politician’s current commitment to democracy. In fact, some of the best-known “Trump sycophants” running for office this fall are former military officers now marching under the MAGA flag, with heavy Republican spending on their behalf.
In January 2021, even after the storming of the Capitol by a Trump-incited mob, thirty-five veterans elected to Congress as Republicans voted against certifying Joe Biden as his successor. This fall, former military personnel are disproportionately represented among the GOP candidates who have expressed doubts about or denied the legitimacy of the 2020 election results.
Often, the supposedly “unique perspective” of most GOP veterans is no different from that of other right-wing cranks in Washington, with or without military laurels. For example, Ronny Jackson, Donald Trump’s White House doctor who retired from the Navy as an admiral to run for Congress two years ago, believes that his previous presidential patient, Barack Obama, is a “Deep State traitor” who “weaponized the highest levels of our government to spy on President Trump” and deserved to be prosecuted for it. One of Jackson’s House colleagues from Texas is Dan Crenshaw, a much-decorated former Navy SEAL. Crenshaw has teamed up with Republican senator Ted Cruz, a non-veteran, to expose the Pentagon’s alleged “woke ideology.”
Venture Capitalists and Conspiracy Theorists
On the ballot this fall, and eager to join this Capitol Hill veterans caucus are former Army brigadier general Don Bolduc and well-known ex-Marine J. D. Vance. They hope to win U.S. Senate seats from New Hampshire and Ohio, respectively. Along with 120 other retired generals and admirals, Bolduc signed a letter declaring that Trump won the 2020 election (a stance he is now retreating from after having “done a lot of research on this.”) Among Bolduc’s bold ideas is abolishing direct election of US Senators (after he becomes one, of course). His campaign has been enthusiastically embraced by Tulsi Gabbard, an Iraq war veteran and Army Reserve officer, former House member and 2020 presidential candidate, when she was still a Democrat. (She’s left that party, she explains, because it’s now controlled by “an elitist cabal of warmongers driven by cowardly wokeness, who divide us by racializing every issue.”)
Author of Hillbilly Elegy and a venture capitalist, J.D. Vance plans to help veterans and their families by privatizing Social Security, a cause favored by his former boss and biggest single financial booster, the right-wing billionaire Peter Thiel. Among the Trump-backed Republicans seeking to remain or become a governor is former Navy lawyer Ron DeSantis from Florida, who has campaigned out of state for both Vance and retired Army Colonel Doug Mastriano, the Republican candidate for governor of Pennsylvania. A career officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, Mastriano then became a state senator. He’s now best known as an advocate for Christian nationalism, a foe of the “barbaric holocaust” of legal abortion, and an organizer of “Stop the Steal” protests for his preferred commander-in-chief.
Opposition to reproductive rights, retrograde attitudes toward women, and/or paramilitary cosplay have been a feature of the 2022 candidacies of Eric Greitens in Missouri, J. R. Majewski in Ohio, and Alek Skarlatos in Oregon. A disgraced former governor, forced to resign four years ago after a sexual assault scandal, Greitens made a failed comeback in his state’s Republican senatorial primary summer in August. The ex-Navy SEAL lost after airing a controversial campaign video in which he appeared as a gun-toting member of a camo-clad squad breaking down the door of a private home in search of “RINOs” (Republicans in Name Only).
A challenger to House Democrat Marcy Kaptur, Majewski is a conspiracy theorist who attended the January 6, 2021 election protest at the Capitol in the company of a QAnon blogger. He was so disgusted with Joe Biden’s handling of the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan six months later that he declared himself ready to “suit up and go back to Afghanistan tonight and give my best to save those Americans who were abandoned.” If Majewski actually had any post-9/11 combat experience, as he has claimed on other occasions, he would have been playing the veteran card in politics with a stronger hand. Instead, he is now being denounced (and mocked) for “stolen valor” — a mortal sin among veterans — because the closest he got to a combat zone was loading and unloading planes at an Air Force base in Qatar.
The Legion of Honour Member
In Oregon, two-time Republican House candidate Alek Skarlatos has no such need to embellish his record in the Oregon National Guard or afterward. On his way home from Afghanistan in 2015, he helped thwart a terrorist attack on a train in France, as depicted later in Clint Eastwood’s action film, The 15:17 to Paris. President Barack Obama awarded Skarlatos the US Army’s Soldiers Medal; in France, he was inducted into the National Order of the Legion of Honour. Capitalizing on his celebrity persona (which included playing himself in Eastwood’s film), Skarlatos mounted a serious 2020 challenge to Democrat Peter DeFazio, the longest-serving veteran in Congress.
This year, DeFazio retired rather than stood for reelection, so Skarlatos is running again. Recently, he has taken flak for comments made while promoting Eastwood’s film. On a podcast called Drinkin’ Bros, he criticized the appearance of female residents of Roseburg, Oregon, where he lives, and joked with the host about women being choked during sexual encounters with men. His campaign had to issue an apology in which Skarlatos acknowledged being “disappointed” with himself for “comments made as a twenty-four-year-old who just left the Army.”
Elsewhere in Oregon, former Green Beret Joe Kent has managed to avoid such slip-ups so far. As the New York Times notes, he is “one of the most polished of the MAGA candidates” and a Trump-style anti-interventionist who believes he lost his late wife “because our ruling class — Republicans and Democrats — consistently lied to the American people to keep us engaged in wars abroad.” A veteran of eleven combat deployments, Kent became a single father of two children when his wife, a Navy intelligence officer, was killed in Syria by an ISIS suicide bomber. He got into the general election ballot by polishing off Republican House member Jamie Herrera Beutler, one of only seven House Republicans who voted for Trump’s impeachment for inciting the January 6, 2021 Capitol riot.
Kent’s personal “skepticism about the federal government” extends to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who he believes should face criminal charges for the “scam that is COVID.” (Unvaccinated himself, Kent argues that the COVID-19 vaccine is a form of “experimental gene therapy.”) If he wins and Republicans regain control of the House in January, Kent wants to impeach Vice President Kamala Harris because she was “one of the lead fundraisers” for Antifa and Black Lives Matter during protest activity two years ago.
A Progressive Alternative?
In the summer of 2020, when Trump was close to invoking the Insurrection Act and ordering federal troops to suppress BLM supporters, Republican vets already in Washington were, of course, cheering him on. On Twitter, Harvard-educated Tom Cotton, a former Army captain from Arkansas, called for “no quarter for insurrectionists, anarchists, rioters, and looters” — orders which on a real battlefield would be considered a war crime if applied to enemy combatants attempting to surrender.
U.S. Representative Ruben Gallego (D-Arizona) was among those veterans in the House who strongly opposed any use of the US military against civilians. Gallego, a former Marine, told the NY Times earlier this month that some fellow veterans running as Republicans this fall are still “leaning into out-right fascism.” Gallego has been a Pentagon spending critic and one of the only combat veterans in Congress who signed a pledge to “End The Forever War,” promoted by the progressive veterans group Common Defense. (Its supporters are now working to secure his reelection, by a large margin, so he can mount a strong challenge to Senator Kyrsten Sinema in the 2024 Arizona Democratic senatorial primary.)
Other than Gallego, however, there “really isn’t any veteran in Congress yet who is close to being part of the progressive wing of the Democratic caucus,” according to one former Common Defense staffer. With few exceptions, veterans running as Democrats in swing districts and even in blue state safe seats have been reliably hawkish and “pro–military-industrial complex,” he says.
To find a veteran willing to challenge the military-industrial complex, one has to look outside the two major parties in this election cycle. In North Carolina, his name is Matt Hoh, a former Marine and ex-State Department official with a very impressive resume and record of anti-war activism. Hoh is campaigning for an open US Senate seat against Democrat Cheri Beasley, a former state supreme court justice, and a Trump-backed Republican, Congressman Ted Budd.
The national Democratic Party invested heavily in a failed legal effort to keep him off the ballot. He’s been excluded from debates and ignored in national press coverage of the race. And if Hoh, as a Green Party candidate, contributes in any claimed way to a narrow defeat of Beasley by Budd on November 8, he will be forced to endure the same lasting opprobrium heaped on Ralph Nader and Jill Stein, past GP presidential candidates.
But, like both of them, Hoh is defending democracy by adding to the range of electoral choices in his own race, while demanding major election reform that would protect the right to vote and reduce the role of big money in politics. Sadly, that’s a “unique perspective” not shared by most military veterans seeking votes this fall, whether as Democrats or Republicans.
(Steve Early and Suzanne Gordon are co-authors, along with Jasper Craven, of a new book from Duke University Press called Our Veterans: Winners, Losers, Friends, and Enemies on the New Terrain of Veterans Affairs. They can be reached at [email protected])
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