What’s Progressive About the U.S. Military

By / 10.7.2010

This post is the first in a series about the Progressive Military

It has now been nine years since the 9/11 attacks, and since that day the average American has heard an awful lot about the military.  We are fighting extremism worldwide and still have troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Yet many progressives remain uncomfortable with the military, often assuming that it is a conservative organization because political conservatives are so eager to identify themselves with our troops.

This is a series about how the military is a more progressive organization than many people give it credit for. It will help progressives better appreciate the many ways that the U.S. Military operates and accomplishes progressive goals. It is also aimed at conservatives who implicitly trust the military and might see issues like climate change, healthcare, economic opportunity and energy policy as vital issues.

The military is a more progressive organization than many give it credit for and it is my hope in this series of articles to do just that.

Despite the daily attention to military issues, it is striking to me how little those who never served in the military know about it.  After I was already in the Army a few years, my father, who retired after 23 years of military service, met a friend of mine.  He told him that I was at Fort Lewis and went up to Seattle on weekends.  He was surprised and asked, ‘you mean they let them out?’

Since 1975 only around one percent of the population has worn the uniform.  Many have family members or friends who served, but this only gives them a bit more than the basic knowledge the majority of Americans have.  For most, opinions and attitudes toward the military are developed by the news media, TV shows, and movies.  Many of our elected leaders, despite their claims to the contrary, have little more knowledge than the general population and surprisingly few of them have served themselves though they make very important decisions involving the military every day.  Though others have claimed it falsely, there are only four Iraq war veterans in Congress.

This, however, doesn’t seem to keep them from claiming to speak for the military.  The debate about the Iraq ‘surge’ and the debate about the future of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan during the 2008 election prompted many on the right to claim ‘you can’t support the troops without supporting the war.’ I served in Iraq and Kuwait during these debates.  I didn’t support the war in Iraq, but I fought as hard as I could in it every day, receiving a Purple Heart in a suicide bombing.  I served with others who did support it and did the same.  Servicemembers do their duty no matter their personal opinion.  Anyone claiming to presume that they know what servicemembers believe doesn’t understand the concept of duty.

And yet, the recent debate on ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ centered on conservatives claiming troops don’t want to worry about sharing their ‘foxhole’ with a homosexual.  Our troops haven’t dug ‘foxholes’ in quite a while.  This comment exhibits an opinion based on the stereotypical swaggering, macho draftee of Hollywood films.  The truth is our all-volunteer military today is made of service members that see themselves as military professionals.  They have an opinion about the matter, but once the decision has been made they accept it and won’t be distracted, especially in combat, by such trivial matters as the sexual orientation of their squadmate.  This professionalism was previously exhibited when the military desegregated, despite opposition.  Sixty years later, troops of all colors and genders serve well beside one another.

A closer look at the policies and culture of the U.S. military today shows that it is more progressive than many traditionally think.  There are many lessons progressives can draw on from today’s military, and conservatives’ trust of the military on national security issues should translate to trust on other issues.

The military healthcare system shows that government can do big healthcare well and efficiently; it leads the way on addressing energy independence, efficiency, and the repercussions of climate change; despite its size and controversies, it has shown real commitment to providing economic opportunity; and it has an culture of innovation and learning, among other examples.  It is my hope in this series of articles to point out where the military is exhibiting progressive thinking and what lessons we can draw from the military.

Photo credit: US Army Africa