On a gray Saturday morning, Mitt Romney took the podium on the deck of the U.S.S. Wisconsin, saying to the assembled supporters “[Norfolk’s] beauty is matched only by its proud heritage as a defender of freedom. Thank you, Virginia.” He then proceeded to announce his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI). While journalists, political prognosticators, and simple fans of the horse-race all had varied reactions to this news, one interesting fact caught my eye. This is the first election in my lifetime where neither candidate nor his running mate has ever served in the military. Neither Romney nor Ryan mentioned the war during their speeches, despite standing on the deck of a battleship and the aforementioned platitude by the GOP candidate.
Members of the armed forces have to be of two minds, politically speaking. Like every other American citizen, they have a duty to be part of an informed electorate that votes for candidates who have positions in conjunction with their own beliefs. However, they also have a duty – when the voting is done – to faithfully execute the orders of the winner, whether it’s their guy or not.
Most veterans I spoke to fall along party lines, when it comes to this issue. However, Petty Officer Vinny Felgen had never thought about the lack of military experience between the two candidates until I asked him about it. “Interesting, because Clinton didn’t serve either and he was one of our worst military presidents, but one of best presidents in terms of everything else,” he says, “I guess it largely depends on the military leadership at the time.”
Ben Keen, formerly a sergeant in the US Army and President and Founder of Steel City Vets (a non-partisan group) in Pittsburgh echoes Felgen’s sentiments, “Regardless of prior experience, the candidate that listens to the advisers around him will be more successful and would be the one I, personally, would like to see at the head of the world’s strongest and best military.”
Still, like most things in this campaign, it boils down to money. Romney/Ryan wants to grow the Defense Department’s budget, taking the opposite position of the Obama Administration, who has proposed massive cuts. Last spring, Ryan, as the chairman of the House Budget Committee, said that he believed the Generals were misrepresenting the truth when they claimed that the Obama Administration cuts would not affect military readiness. He later apologized for the comments, saying he “misspoke.
The Obama campaign, at least, has the past four years to draw from when it comes to addressing this issue. Given the administration’s aggressiveness and success in killing terrorists and the many veterans’ initiatives signed into law, they seem to think this shows that, despite their candidates’ lack of military service, they better understand the military point-of-view than their opposition.
However, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta seems disappointed in both candidates. During his press briefing on Tuesday, August 14, 2012, Panetta said, “I realize that there are a lot of other things going on around this country that can draw our attention… [it’s] important to remind the American people that there is a war going on.” The 2012 campaign echoes the 2010 mid-term campaigns in that the candidates seem so focused on domestic issues, that they barely mention the war in Afghanistan, if they mention it at all. What’s clear, though, is that Obama and Romney have very different approaches to how they would run the military and represent at least one clear choice the voters must consider come November.
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