Monthly Archives: November 2017

Veterans Comments in The Atlantic

The Atlantic Masthead sent out an email with comments by some veterans on patriotism.  As a Vietnam veteran, I think they ring true.

After returning from Vietnam, Bernard Seiler realized Americans have very different definitions of patriotism.

After I finished my tour in Vietnam, I flew to San Francisco. As I got off the plane, a protestor of the Vietnam War approached me, hurling insults. As he got closer, he hocked a loogie at me. This is a stark example of how divergent our views of patriotism can be. Later, when looking for my first job after leaving the military, I was told by multiple recruiters that it was a shame that I had wasted three years in the service because it made me a less desirable candidate for jobs. The fact that I had managed over 50 people in combat situations had no relevance to them. Nothing prepared me for that level of hostility.

Today, communities are still very divided on definitions of patriotism. At least now people are less inclined to blame the warrior for a conflict. However, this has presented some issues as well. For example, I now hear on a regular basis, “Thank you for your service.” I know it’s meant well, but I find it to be a hollow comment. You can see in the eyes of the person saying it. They feel uncomfortable. They’re more mystified by what you’ve done than grateful for it. The saying serves to reconcile their definition of patriotism with yours. Even more rankling to me is when I hear someone in the media using a cliché like, “the fallen soldier who died for our freedoms.” It may be true on one level, but my experience tells me that it’s much more complicated than that. The soldier likely died for his comrades—his brothers and sisters in arms—rather than the more collective, “our freedoms.”

—Bernard Seiler

Over the 20 years he spent in the Marine Corps, John Daily never felt like American values were under threat from enemies abroad.

I never once woke up in the morning and thought, “I’m going to protect the rights of my fellow American citizens today—the right of the free press, or the right of free speech.” I don’t think those rights have been threatened from without for a considerable amount of time. I see bumper stickers every day that say, “If you can read this, thank a teacher. If you can read this in English, thank a veteran.” You don’t need to thank me for that. I don’t think I had a whole lot to do with that. The problem, I think, is not that our rights are being threatened from without. It’s that the right of free speech is being threatened from within—from both sides of the political spectrum. If I was to fight for a right, I’d fight to make sure we had our opinions heard, especially opinions that are different from our own.

—John Daily

Michael McNeill worries that too many Americans have an excessively macho conception of patriotism.

I’d love to say that I joined the military because of 9/11, but it was mostly to have a steady job and learn a foreign language. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan dragged on, there began to emerge an image of the 21st century American soldier: Sun-beaten man, mismatched camo, armed with every tactical weapon he needed to burst down the door and take down the terrorists. This image was being imitated by civilians across the country—with a special emphasis on the weapons. I dismissed this because most of the soldiers I knew were just footsore 19-year-olds who just wanted to go home and alternately watch porn and South Park until four in the morning. But I shouldn’t have dismissed them because the image just further solidified. And soon this image became the quintessential image of patriotism. But it was all image, no substance. My own version of patriotism, which is more about civic duty and shared American values of civil liberty is often discounted as un-American.

—Michael McNeill

Roy Moore

I think there is probably something to the accusations against Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore. It’s not clear to me how much of a criminal act it was.  One of the Sunday talk shows made a big point of the fact that the victim was 14, which would make this a lesser offense than if she were younger.  It was probably not a felony, and the statute of limitations has probably run out, although I’m not sure.  In any case, it’s messy unless it’s an outright lie.  

Assuming it’s not a complete lie, one thing concerns me.  Did the Washington Post delay publishing this story until after the primary election?  If it had come out before the election, it would have improved the chances of Moore’s Republican opponent, Luther Strange.  If Strange had been elected, he almost certainly would have beaten his Democratic opponent, Doug Jones.  Now, the story greatly benefits Jones.  It remains to be seen whether it will swing the election in Jones’ favor.  

If Moore is elected despite the story, I suspect that he will be seated in the Senate.  It does not look like he is a criminal, whatever his morals.  Other Senators may treat him as an outcast, but he will be there and will be able to vote.  Under those circumstances he may be even more obstreperous than he would have been before the story.  

Another effect of this story may be to keep many basically good people out of politics.  Almost everyone has some blot on their record, something they did in a weak moment and wish they had not done.  In the old days, some indiscretions were overlooked or hushed up, but that is almost impossible today.  The fact that so many basically good people eliminate themselves from politics is at least partly responsible for the horrible political scene we have now.  We get people who run who don’t care about moral failings, people consumed by a lust for power or publicity, or on the other hand, people who are completely colorless, who have never done anything interesting in their lives.  Neither type produces the best politicians or leaders.  


Depletion of Foreign Service

As a retired Foreign Service Officer, I want to call to your attention the rapid depletion of the ranks of the State Department Foreign Service under the Trump administration.  Ambassador Barbara Stephenson, the president of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), recently wrote an open letter in the Foreign Service Journal calling attention to the problem.  By Washington standards, the Foreign Service is a small organization.  It is often said that there are fewer Foreign Service officers (about 6,000) than there are members of military bands.  It will be difficult for the Foreign Service to recover from a mass exodus of senior Foreign Service officers.

I was pleased when President Trump named Rex Tillerson to be Secretary of State, and to a certain extent I sympathize with his desire to reduce the size of government, but I do not think the small Foreign Service is the place to start drastic cuts. Good senior officers are important to the nation, as well as to the Foreign Service because of the skill and experience they bring from their years of dealing with foreign countries.  When I was a junior officer I was fortunate to work with Ambassador Tom Pickering, who was one reason I decided to stay in the Foreign Service and make it a career.  In Denver we have a senior FSO who has brought us his talent and experience, Ambassador Christopher Hill, the head of the Korbel School at Denver University.

I admit that I retired from the Foreign Service under similar circumstances in the 1990s.  Under President Clinton, the US had promised multi-year funding for two projects I was working on, one in Poland and one involving North Korea.  When Newt Gingrich brought in the House Republican majority, they cut off funding for both projects, despite America’s earlier promises.  I was disappointed and ashamed of being called dishonest by foreign governments.  Thus, I sympathize with the current retirees, but I think the US government should do something to keep a cadre of experienced Foreign Service officers.  Otherwise, the US will suffer genuine losses in its future diplomatic dealings around the world.

I hope that you will do whatever you can to prevent further gutting of the Foreign Service.

Links to Ambassador Stephenson’s letter and to her appearance on the PBS NewsHour are below.