As we finished the most divisive presidential election of my lifetime, I was reminded of what war correspondent Sebastian Junger wrote about returning from a combat zone. Once home, there sets in, “the dismal realization that we live in a society that is basically at war with itself. People speak with incredible contempt about, depending on their views: the rich, the poor, the educated, the foreign born, the President, or the entire US government. It is a level of contempt that is usually reserved for enemies in wartime, except that it is now applied to our fellow citizens.”
During my military career, I deployed closer than comfort to our country’s actual enemies. Junger was right. Back home, it hurt to see Americans, full of hate, faces twisted, calling each other “enemies of the country.” We’ve entirely lost the post-9/11 unity. That we’ve forgotten is a tragedy, and exactly what the terrorists wanted.
Negative partisanship is now the totality of our political relationships. We are sorting ourselves into two teams and then energetically seeking to cut ourselves off from friendships with, or even meaningful interactions with, those on the other team. The primary purpose of our team is the negative “stop them” rather than the positive pursuit of a competing vision. This outrage harvesting is great for the bottom lines of the political parties and not great for our country. Social media is all too happy to customize our feeds to maximize our negativity. Infuriating posts get more clicks than any other.
Look to Iraq and Afghanistan, with their histories of violent sectarianism, which is political as well as religious, to see where this path leads. We are starting to see inklings of this in our streets.
For the other team, even things like U.S. citizenship, or military service, no longer matter. It becomes ok to tell U.S. citizens to “go back where you came from.” It becomes acceptable to disregard or devalue military service. We’ll sacrifice any principle, as long as it is against members of that other team.
For example, take the case of Tucker Carlson and Tammy Duckworth. On November 12, 2004, Duckworth was piloting a helicopter over Iraq when it was struck by enemy fire and she lost both of her legs in the crash. While Duckworth was putting her body on the line in battle, conservative commentator Carlson was on TV covering 2004’s election night.
Fast forward to 2020. Carlson was still a conservative talking head on TV, and Duckworth was now a Democratic Senator. The two got in a media kerfuffle over removing statues. When she refused to come on his show, Carlson said of her, “What a coward.”
Not all injured veterans are heroes. I am against putting veterans up as an untouchable class. Senator Duckworth was fair game for criticism of her words and actions.
However, Duckworth earned something in Iraq, where she risked her life on America’s battlefield and then paid a terrible price for that willingness. She earned the right to never be called a coward. Ever. Least of all by a TV commentator who has never taken such risks.
Was Carlson condemned by my conservative friends? Nope.
Likewise, Saturday Night Live’s Pete Davidson once mocked eyepatch-wearing Dan Crenshaw, a Republican Congressman and veteran who lost his eye in combat. Davidson quipped, “You may be surprised to hear he’s a congressional candidate from Texas, and not a hit man in a porno movie…I’m sorry, I know he lost his eye in war, or whatever.” Crenshaw was right on target when he replied, “Vets don’t deserve to see their wounds used as punchlines for bad jokes.”
Did my liberal friends roundly condemn Davidson? Nope.
Honoring military service ought to be a nonpartisan value. No longer, it seems.
Maybe I need new friends, but I don’t think so. They are good people, and I am proud that I keep friends from across the political spectrum. Sadly, it seems that even good people lose their minds, and their standards, when it comes to our politics. I know that I have sometimes fallen short.
This Veterans Day, I might be thanked for my service to our country. I remember that our Vietnam vets deserved, but did not always receive, similar respect. That was wrong. Society’s current approach is vastly superior. I always appreciate it.
To really thank me, make changes about how you treat fellow Americans from that other party. Don’t equate party membership with character. Don’t unfriend. It is a worthwhile struggle to try to reconcile the fact that good people you know can hold political positions that you feel strongly are bad. You might discover that what you attribute to them in reasoning or motivation is not entirely accurate.
This is not a call to cease criticism of government policy, which is a healthy and necessary American tradition. Nor is it a call to overlook racism or wrongdoing. Rather, I beg us to stop applying labels, and to stop ascribing motivations, to everyday people who we do not know personally, who support policies or politicians for reasons we don’t yet understand. Other reasons exist than “they’re a racist” or “they want to destroy America” that a person might support a policy. If you make the effort to find out, you’ll be surprised how often that is the case. Skipping that step and going straight to demonization is lazy and harmful.
Most of all, stop calling other Americans, “enemies.” Veterans have seen the real enemies. The military is made up of all political stripes and each is willing to die to protect the other. Follow their example. If you can’t bring yourself to be willing to risk your life for members of that other party, then at least accept them as legitimate Americans. Americans who should be debated fiercely, perhaps, but who have the same claim and ability to love our country as you. We shouldn’t destroy ourselves from within to the cheers of our actual enemies overseas.
James Seddon is a father, husband, author, Navy veteran, speaker, military veteran activist, IT manager, and regularly unsuccessful fisherman living in Southern California. Find him at https://james-seddon-author.com/ and https://www.facebook.com/jamesseddonauthor