Opinion: Why Do Conservatives Who ‘Love’ The Military Back Trump?

How was your weekend? Nice and long? Relaxing? Did you go anywhere? Barbecue? Buy something?

I’m not happy with what we’ve turned Memorial Day into, and I think it might provide at least one answer to a puzzling question: How can people who say they support the troops support Donald Trump?

Like so many things we can think of, Memorial Day isn’t what it used to be.

Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day, established in 1868 to honor the soldiers who died in the Civil War. Friends, relatives and patriots decorated the graves of the fallen with flowers. The word used in those days was “strew”; they would strew flowers on the graves.

Of course, many still “strew” flowers on the graves of lost loved ones, and more. Some bring photos of children grown and grandchildren growing who maybe will serve in the armed forces. I knew one woman who read poetry to her husband; another would place earbuds atop her son’s gravestone and play his favorite music.

Each year, soldiers of the Army’s 3rd Regiment walk through Arlington National Cemetery and place American flags at each grave — 280,000 of them this year — in an honorary ritual known as Flags In.

For most Americans now, however, it’s different. It never seemed proper that the federal government moved Memorial Day from its original date to the last Monday in May. It just seemed to make it easier to turn a day of honor and commemoration into a long weekend for getaways (the official start of the summer driving season), backyard barbecues (the official start of the summer grilling season) and gluttonous shopping extravaganzas.

Websites last week barked out tips galore: The “53 best”; the “70 best”; the “118 best.” “The deals are so good,” shouted Wayfair, “it’s almost like having Black Friday in May.” Thanks for that visual.

Memorial Day is the day we long ago set aside to honor those who died fighting for what we cherish most about our country: the freedom to live as we please. I guess you can say we’ve had the freedom to turn the holiday into a convenience for the living rather than a remembrance for the honored dead.

Never mind the dead. How do you like your burger? Medium rare or well-done?

Ironically, the military remains overwhelmingly popular. Ever since the first Iraq war, we have gotten ultra-gushy about our armed forces. We put them on a pedestal and cheer for them in those pretentious pre-game and halftime ceremonies. We say “Thank you for your service” at the sight of a uniform in a way that is far more Pavlovian than sincere.

Veterans can tell the difference. You can tell when you talk with them. That is, if you bother to have a real conversation with a veteran.

You can see it in thoughts shared on websites catering to service members, like RallyPoint, the Military Times or Stripes.

At best, they’re uncomfortable with it. Others simply don’t like it. “You’re thanking me for something you don’t even understand” is a common thought.

I wonder if this faux appreciation is because our country has a different divide you rarely hear about: the one between civilians and the military. It’s more a disconnect, maybe a lack of empathy. We civilians who have never served can never know what it’s like to serve, especially under fire. Especially when your buddy is shot dead before your eyes, his blood splattered on you. Especially when you’ve come home and realized the war has never really left you, nor you it.

Years ago, I interviewed a veteran who jumped out of a Higgins boat onto Utah Beach on June 6, 1944.

“You never heard ‘Thank you for your service’ back then,” he said. “That’s because everybody served.”

And he didn’t mean that everyone got drafted.

Today, less than one-half of 1% of the U.S. population is in the armed services — the lowest rate since World War II. Every branch of the military is struggling to meet its recruiting goals, a problem made worse by “a record low percentage of young Americans eligible to serve and an even tinier fraction willing to consider it.”

The younger the demographic, the less likely they are to have a family member serving or who has served in the armed forces.

Today’s Congress, the 118th, has the second-lowest percentage of members with military service. The lowest rate? The one right before it, the 117th.

We’ve now had three successive presidents who never served on active duty. The closest was Joe Biden, whose late son did. Donald Trump, on the other hand, has the dubious distinction of being seen as a draft dodger.

At first, Trump claimed he was never drafted in the lottery held during the Vietnam War. But had his number come up, he said, “I would have proudly served.”

Except he wouldn’t have, even if his number had come up. He did what members of many wealthy, influential families did to get out of military service. He got medical deferments — five altogether.

He didn’t reveal that at first, but when reporters found out, he pivoted and said it had to do with bone spurs in his heels, an odd thing given he was active in college sports, playing baseball, tennis and squash.

Trump’s relationship with the military has ranged from tenuous to terrible. The denigration of war heroes, prisoners of war, Gold Star families and former military staffers is easy to recall. But a deeper examination reveals a complete cluelessness about civilian-military relations.

  • He used the military to advance his political agenda, such as deploying troops to quell demonstrations he disliked.
  • At times he referred to “my generals,” as if they were there solely for his benefit.
  • He was surprised to learn the military is apolitical

Or maybe he didn’t care.

Despite touting his love for the military during campaign rallies, he steered budget cuts at Veterans Affairs and placed non-veteran business cronies in charge of its operations. Folks within the VA called them “the Mar-a-Lago crowd,” who used their ties to Trump for personal gain while ignoring government rules and processes intended to help veterans.

In November 2018, for the centennial of the end of World War I, Trump rejected a scheduled visit to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery near Paris. This is hallowed ground, where more than 1,800 Marines lost their lives in the Battle of Belleau Wood. It is a powerful part of Marine Corps lore.

“Why should I go to that cemetery?” said Trump, according to four staffers on hand that day. “It’s filled with losers.” In a separate conversation during that trip, Trump referred to those 1,800-plus Marines as “suckers” for getting killed.

Earlier that year, Trump announced plans for a military parade in Washington featuring all five branches of the armed forces and massive displays of military might, like those embraced by authoritarian regimes. But he told his staff not to include wounded veterans.

“Nobody wants to see that,” Trump said.

Donald Trump’s former chief of staff John Kelly told CNN that on Memorial Day 2017, while the two men stood before a tombstone in Section 60 at Arlington National Cemetery, where soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq are buried, Trump turned to Kelly and said, “I don’t get it. What was in it for them?”

The tombstone they stood before? Kelly’s son, a 29-year-old Marine officer killed in Afghanistan.

What’s in it for them? How about protecting your right to be a callous scumbag?

Even if you weren’t a fan of the military, even if you had contempt for the military, I can’t imagine a single human being, let alone a single Trump voter, saying something so heartless at a moment like that or thinking it’s OK for someone else to say it.

How could anyone say that to the father of a fallen Marine on Memorial Day at the gravesite in the cemetery where he’s buried?

“Trump can’t imagine anyone else’s pain,” a friend of Kelly’s and a retired four-star general would later explain. “He can’t fathom the idea of doing something for someone other than himself.”

“As a nation, we’ve learned to separate the warrior from the war,” wrote retired Army Gen. Martin Dempsey in a 2015 commentary for The Washington Post, “but we still have much to learn about how to connect the warrior to the citizen.”

Is it possible that this disconnect, this lack of shared sacrifice, is why Republicans who say they love the military can support Donald Trump?

Do they dismiss his obscenities because they are disconnected, because so few of us serve in any sense, because they’ve gleaned their concept of war off of television, NFL games and tripwires like seeing a uniform and saying thank you reflexively rather than reflectively?

These are the same moralists who in 1992 called Bill Clinton a draft-dodging lothario and said that electing him would irredeemably stain the nation. Yet they refuse to confront Trump’s multiple indecencies toward the military and his own evasion of service in it.

The real Memorial Day, May 30, falls squarely between last Thursday, when many began their long weekends, and June 6, next Thursday, which, this year marks the 80th anniversary of the Allied landing in Normandy.

The direction of the world hinged on what would happen that day. The task was to get back a whole continent that had been taken from its rightful owners, and what the Americans, the British and the Canadians did that day was one of the most monumentally unselfish things any group of people ever did for another.

Not surprisingly, Trump decided that Memorial Day was the perfect time to “unleash a tirade against the judges and other ‘human scum’ handling his legal battles.” (Nor was it his first time making such occasions about himself.)

To hell with the honored dead.

The previous two presidents? A little different.

I can’t imagine Donald Trump ever experiencing a cathartic moment of purgation and genuine remorse for his odious crudity toward the military, but I sure wish his supporters who claim to love, love, love the troops actually loved them as much as they claim they do.

Surely those voters must see how wrongheaded he is and at least acknowledge it, and maybe even question whether they’re supporting the right person. If they truly love, love, love the troops, I can think of a couple of ways they might show it, starting with their vote.

That would be a Memorial Day worth celebrating.


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