Who wore it better? No, not Melania’s Dolce and Gabbana, or the Democratic women’s black garb, or the Republican women’s red, white, and blue garb, or all the men’s dark suit-bright tie combinations. I speak of the one item no Washington politician would be caught dead without at a State of the Union address: a troop.
Don’t have a troop of your own? You simply must get one if you want to be a serious player. Sen. Mark Warner, the Virginia Democrat, had Simone Askew, the first African-American woman to command West Point’s Corps of Cadets. Republican Rep. Randy Hultgren had Alex Vandenberg, a Naval Academy plebe who rocked the Superintendent’s List. Tim Kaine, Virginia’s other Democratic senator, had military spouse Lakesha Cole. Rep. Joe Kennedy III — yes, there’s another Kennedy in Congress — was accompanied by Staff Sgt. Patricia King, a transgender soldier. President Donald Trump had a staff sergeant from the recent Syria campaign, a Coastie who did hurricane relief, a Marine who reenlisted after an IED left him blind and legless, and a 12-year-old who put flowers and flags on the graves of California veterans.
The Constitution requires the president to deliver an occasional report to Congress on the state of the union. It does not specify that the report be given in a speech. Nor does it require that attending politicians bring a military plus-one. But they do, because the most powerful — and dangerous — rules of American governance are the unwritten ones.
What’s dangerous about highlighting the plights and sacrifices of our uniformed service members? On some level, that’s something we all accept that we should do. The military transcends our petty politics. The military does what we ask of it, without much guff. What’s the problem?
Part of it is that military worship isn’t what makes America exceptional. It’s maybe the least exceptional, least democratic thing about our quarter-millennium experiment. North Koreans have their juche. Russians still have their Kremlin parades. You can’t travel across the former Soviet Union without running into a memorial for the troops or the Great Patriotic War. Our marching doesn’t make us special. Our freedom does.
But deifying the military isn’t simply a non-unique brand association. It’s a politician’s lazy way out of telling Americans hard truths.
Let me give you a recent historical example. “Last month, I went to Andrews Air Force Base and welcomed home some of our last troops to serve in Iraq,” President Barack Obama said — right out of the gate — in the opening of his 2012 State of the Union address. “We gather tonight knowing that this generation of heroes has made the United States safer and more respected around the world.”
We who worked passionately on the Iraq War effort know what a clusterfuck it was. We knew we left behind a fragile Baghdad government in the thrall of foreign powers and fighting factions. We knew we’d have to be back, someday, somehow, to fix the mess. But most of us celebrated that last Humvee getting over the line to Kuwait anyway, because the president promised good times.
Nobody gets elected — or reelected — by telling the American public that this shit is difficult, that you can’t really obliterate terrorism from the face of the earth, that the harder you try to bend the universe to your will, the harder it resists you.
And so President Trump’s State of the Union guests were fitting: They typified the laziness of a political class that can’t rally Americans around the hard facts — just the easy, “neutral” cultural touchstones. “In America, we know that faith and family, not government and bureaucracy, are the center of American life,” Trump said, before launching into a star-studded celebration of government servants and their worshipers.
Trump told tales of “Americans like Coast Guard Petty Officer Ashlee Leppert,” who “was aboard one of the first helicopters on the scene in Houston during Hurricane Harvey. Through 18 hours of wind and rain, Ashlee braved live power lines and deep water, to help save more than 40 lives. Thank you, Ashlee.”
Never mind that Puerto Rico, home to 3 million Americans, is still a post-hurricane wreck of epic proportions, in need of more urgent aid and infrastructure. Never mind that 12 seniors died in a South Florida nursing home — a building that I drive past almost daily, in the middle of a bustling city — after Hurricane Irma knocked out their power, and frantic direct voicemails to the Florida governor, a longtime Trump ally, went unanswered… and got deleted when the press started asking questions about them.
It’s just easier to thank a Coastie for the good hurricane-relief work she’s done and pretend that’s the end of the story. Actually fixing the damage? That doesn’t make for a good talking point.
Trump extolled the sacrifice of Staff Sgt. Justin Peck, who “bounded into” a booby-trapped building to rescue his severely wounded comrade. “He applied pressure to the wound and inserted a tube to reopen an airway,” Trump said. “He then performed CPR for 20 straight minutes during the ground transport and maintained artificial respiration through two hours of emergency surgery.”
Trump then used Peck’s exemplary lifesaving instinct to explain that ISIS is evil for booby-trapping hospitals, that Guantanamo Bay needs to remain open as a prison without due process for suspected terrorists, and that “our military is no longer undermined by artificial timelines, and we no longer tell our enemies our plans.”
Never mind that it’s worth debating whether America could do better to minimize civilian casualties, whether Gitmo produces as many radicals as it stops, and whether it’s a step back that even American citizens are now in the dark about how many of their service members are fighting where and for how long. This staff sergeant did something incredible: Who are you to complain?
And that brings us to my favorite fashion accessory of Trump’s — not a vet, but a kid who honors them: Preston Sharp, “a 12-year-old boy from Redding, California, who noticed veterans' graves were not marked with flags on Veterans Day. He decided all by himself to change that and started a movement that has now placed 40,000 flags at the graves of our great heroes,” the president said.
“Young patriots like Preston teach all of us about our civic duty as Americans,” he added. “Preston's reverence for those who have served our nation reminds us of why we salute our flag, why we put our hands on our hearts for the Pledge of Allegiance and why we proudly stand for the national anthem.”
Preston’s is a touching gesture, to be sure. It is an act of love and communal sentiment. It’s also literally the least you can do. Our president says we should all be like that 12-year-old, who may not grasp the causes of wars, their full consequences, or the circumstances that put all those veterans six feet under. The important thing is that the dead have flowers and glowing tributes at football games, and if you disagree, whatever your reason — an eye toward continuing injustices in the United States, your constitutional rights — you must hate our war dead.
When I was a midshipman, we were required to remember a toast by the old naval hero, Stephen Decatur. “Our Country!” he declared. “In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!” It’s often misquoted as “My country, right or wrong!” But that’s not what he said, and the difference is all-important.
What Decatur said was we, as Americans, own our nation’s failures as well as its triumphs. We are responsible for what we do… and what is done in our names. He exhorts us to constantly ask: What is right and wrong with our nation, and how will it reflect on us? What do Americans see when we look in the mirror?
Like the Soviets before us, our wars produce more heroes than clear-cut victories or stable policies. We stand bitterly divided over this country’s fundamental values. And while we bicker, we ask much of our veterans. We lean on them in low-intensity conflicts, hope they’re ready for high-intensity conflicts, turn them out with a host of transition challenges, dick around with their benefits, delegate responsibility for their problems to the business sector — yet fashion demands that whoever you are, whatever you stand for, you’d better have a troop as a prop to make your point. To shut down debate.
Somewhere along the way, it became easy — patriotic — to conceal our blemishes and faults. To ignore them as they fester.
Just stick a troop over it. It’s not going out of fashion. It’ll be just fine. It’s all the rage today.