Veterans Running for Office Need to Watch Their Language

While it is inevitable that combat metaphors will be used in politics, we should expect veterans to lead the way in employing them responsibly, not divisively.
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A few weeks ago, one of the many campaign fundraising emails in my inbox caught my eye. This one was from Martha McSally, a retired Air Force colonel from Arizona whose work in Congress, especially on the issue of military sexual assault, I respect. In the middle of the email is a large button that says, “DEFEND MARTHA,” just below the words “Democrats have labeled me one of the most vulnerable Senators… Will you help me remind them who they’re dealing with?”

The text about fighting, strategy, the difficulty of her upcoming 2020 special election campaign and the possibility of defeat was pretty standard fundraising jargon. Upon closer reading, however, I found myself alarmed by the many dangers of over-militarized rhetoric in politics.

In a sense, the email’s text struck me as another reiteration the famous adage that politics is war. The analogy is in many cases apt — politics and war have many similarities. Campaigns are won and lost in both. What Twitter or Facebook user does not want to see a favorite congressperson “demolish,” “destroy” or “obliterate” a particularly villainous witness in a viral clip from a hearing? Even if most Americans won’t admit to such base instincts, every citizen wants elected officials to wage war on crime, special interests or foreign adversaries on one’s behalf.

Fight the Fight

Militaristic rhetoric used by many veterans campaigning for political office often fits perfectly into a pattern that American society already accepts and uses. Veterans are not the only candidates inclined to use combat metaphors in politics, but their military experience obviously lends itself to the trope. “I put my life on the line in 89 combat missions,” wrote Amy McGrath, a retired Marine Corps pilot and congressional candidate in Kentucky’s 6th district last year. “And while this campaign may be my first in politics, it’s my 90th mission for the people of Kentucky and our country.” McGrath made “My 90th Mission a central motif of her campaign, which she eventually lost to the Republican candidate, Andy Barr.

There is nothing inherently problematic about McGrath’s clever bit of messaging. In her essay, she makes clear that she wants to “fight for all 19 counties in the district” and “do everything [she] can to turn our country around.” While no specific enemies are named, one can surmise based on the context that she hopes to fight corruption, hyper-partisanship and other patterns of governmental dysfunction.

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Senator McSally’s fundraising email, on the other hand, demonstrates the dangers of over-extending the combat metaphor and depending too heavily on one’s military service when crafting a partisan political narrative.

American voters need to be able to recognize the difference between non-partisan military service and partisan political service. While there is value in both, it is deceptive to intentionally conflate the two, as McSally’s email does by stating: “I’ve spent my career fighting.” This turn of phrase subtly asks the reader to ascribe the respect he or she may have for Senator McSally’s military career to her new, different career as a politician. The email also asks the reader to view her time in the Senate as a “deployment,” a manipulative appropriation of the term that can only be explained by a thoughtless over-reliance on the battlefield metaphor. Serving in the military is a noble calling, and serving in the Senate can be as well. But they are not the same, and veteran status does not entitle a candidate to treat them that way.

Know Your Enemy

Furthermore, American voters should be able to trust that military veterans, of all people, will be able to correctly identify their adversaries. The email asks the reader to join Senator McSally in viewing members of the opposing party as a group of nefarious scoundrels who have launched an “onslaught of multimillion-dollar attacks,” against which she now needs to “secure reinforcements.” Rather than drawing on her military experience to combat the issues plaguing American society, Senator McSally enlists the metaphors of war to bring the fight to the people she really views as the enemy: her Democratic colleagues.

This email and rhetoric like it are dangerous because in them the veteran-turned-candidate’s military service is no longer one of the many personal traits she brings to the table. It is not merely an experience that helps inform her worldview; the tropes of her past military career define her entire outlook as a partisan politician. Moreover, the email makes clear that McSally perceives — or wants the reader to perceive — the Democrats as adversaries, not as partners, in this political war.

I do not believe Senator McSally typed this email herself hoping to inspire truly belligerent sentiments toward her colleagues on the other side of the aisle. I do believe she, and other military veterans, should be more careful with their words. There is a need for military veterans and public servants of all kinds to run for office and to draw on their experiences when doing so. But the language they use matters. While it is perhaps inevitable that combat metaphors will be used in politics, we should expect military veterans to lead the way in employing them responsibly, not divisively.

*[Young Professionals in Foreign Policy is a partner institution of Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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