As a kid on family vacations, I walked through the U.S. Capitol in awe.
Years later, after a military career, I found myself as a staffer working for Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, and on occasional trips to D.C. I again walked those remarkable hallways. I recall one early evening when I crossed the Rotunda and looked up — as I always did — at the stunning art and architecture above and around me, and I noticed I was alone in that sacred space. I felt a chill go through me as I heard the echo of my own footsteps, where uncounted thousands had walked, and our nation’s honored dead had lain in state.
I also got to enter the Senate chamber, where I sat on the benches around the outside of the chamber, reserved for staffers, and could not take my eyes off the senators engaged in our democratic process. Again, chills.
And so, I first thought that I would write my column today about the reckless and seditious behavior of the thousands who chose to enter the Capitol by running past overwhelmed and all-too-few Capitol Police officers. Many are now saying they thought it was OK to run into the building because, well, free speech and because they think the president wanted them to. I am guessing that had a crowd of BLM protestors attempted to breach the same building they might have different opinions, but I digress.
But I decided I would not, in fact, write about last Wednesday’s lawlessness. There are plenty of smarter and more eloquent folks already offering thoughts on the shameful attack on our nation. Still, I especially wanted to write about the former (and perhaps some current) military members who took part in the attempted insurrection. You likely have heard of the retired lieutenant colonel who asserts he thought it was OK to enter the Senate chamber. With body armor. With a tactical helmet. With zip ties. And with white supremacist patches adorning his combat gear. That individual graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy two years after I first arrived there as a teacher of political science. I didn’t have him in class, but I know that I had plenty of students who are certainly in agreement with that graduate’s ideas, if not his methods.
And so, instead of writing about all that, I want to write about something I think is important regarding our current military. The one half of 1% of Americans who serve in uniform are overwhelmingly intellectually aligned with, if not members of, the Republican Party. As a moderate-to-a-bit-conservative Democrat, during my 25-plus years of active duty, I often found myself to be the “liberal” of the organization.
During my 17 years teaching American government and the Constitution at the U.S. Air Force Academy here in Colorado (15 in uniform, two as a civilian professor), I regularly surveyed my students on their beliefs. My goal was to help them understand that their political outlooks should be based on logic, evidence, and reason, and not just what mommy and daddy told them. Any political view was fine, I asserted, as long as they had thought about it and could defend it intellectually. I also told them that for the entire term, whatever position they took, I would take the opposite and would force them to defend their views. It is vital, I told them, for the future officer corps of the Air Force (and the entire U.S. military) to be thoughtful and informed on the Constitution, their obligations, and ultimately, how they would carry out their duty.
A major problem with this teaching style was that, in nearly every case, I found myself arguing the “liberal” position in response to their views. Over the years I often polled my students on their political identification, and roughly 95% identified as Republicans. Now, that is fine. But when any organization (military academies included) has one overwhelming point of view, it is easy for people in that vast majority to believe that there are, in fact, no other opinions to consider. Group think becomes common and, from the point of view of such a majority, quite reasonable.
And this, my friends, is not the fault of the Republicans. No, it is the Democrats' fault.
Since the end of World War II our military has gone from an organization that drew from a wide swath of American culture (cough…because there was a draft…cough) to a volunteer force that has become spectacularly skewed politically. Why? Because for some reason that I truly do not understand, for far too many, military service is seen as a “conservative” idea. Moderates and liberals often don’t even consider a military tour or two, let alone a career.
That, my friends, is not only wrong, it is also dangerous. National service (which I believe should be compulsory, but that’s for another column) can be a force for good, beyond the national defense implications. Such service could help mix our society, so that people from across the various spectrums (political, economic, social, etc.) could meet and serve with people not like themselves. Such service would make for a better military as well as a better society.
Years ago, when I was teaching at the AF Academy, we were asked for help by a recently freed country in Europe. After decades under the Soviet yoke, the military leaders there wanted our help in creating a military academy that would tamp down notions of insurrection in their officer corps. We ultimately concluded that we could not be much help. Instead, we stated, the idea that military officers would, for example, refuse to stage a coup, comes from growing up in a free society wherein such ideas are rejected as unpatriotic and loathsome. I have always agreed with that assertion.
Until last Wednesday.
Now, I worry that some in the military, as well as many who have served, may think such revolts are OK, if a demagogic president says they are OK. I hope I am wrong.
In the meantime, I call on moderates and liberals to please, please, consider military service.