Gansler steps into military-civilian divide

Remark about Brown was offensive, but of what political consequence?

April 24, 2014|Dan Rodricks

Now that veterans groups have condemned Doug Gansler for disparaging Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown's military service, followed by Brown calling the attorney general's remarks "reckless and irresponsible," we can start to measure the consequence of Gansler's latest misstep in his quest to be Maryland's next governor.

Knocking a veteran? On its surface, it sounds like a low blow — Gansler, the attorney general, suggesting that Brown's stint in Iraq as a military lawyer wasn't "a real job." Here's what Gansler said Monday about his chief rival in the Democratic primary at a candidates forum in Bethesda:

"I'm running against somebody who has never managed anything, never run anything. There are ads about how he was a lawyer in Iraq — and that's all fine and good — but this is a real job. And we need to have somebody who actually has leadership experience, who has done projects."

The statement is offensive on a couple of levels: the patronizing "all fine and good" about military service (coming from a prep school and Ivy League lacrosse player with no military record) and the suggestion that Brown's overseas assignment lacked substance.

For the record: While an undergraduate at Harvard, Brown went through officer training at the nearby Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (Harvard, like many other elite universities, banned ROTC for decades after the Vietnam War.)

Starting in the 1980s, Brown served five years as an Army helicopter pilot in Germany. After that, he was a Judge Advocate General officer in the Army Reserve.

He eventually became a colonel in the reserve. He went to Iraq as a member of the JAG Corps. He ended up serving as a senior consultant to the Iraqi Transitional Government's Ministry of Displacement and Migration; he received a Bronze Star.

In an interview with The Baltimore Sun in 2005, Brown said he had been eager to go to Iraq after unsuccessfully trying to get an overseas assignment during the first Gulf War in 1991, when he was on active duty.

When the call came for duty in Iraq in May 2004, Brown told The Sun, he signed on. "My mindset was, if I ever got the call, that's what I've got to do. If I don't go, someone else will," he said.

Brown was overseas for 10 months. His official biography states: "Anthony is one of the nation's highest-ranking elected officials to have served a tour of duty in Iraq."

So, sorry, Doug Gansler; Anthony Brown gets to say that, you don't.

And you don't get to sneer at your political opponent's tour of duty — not in the age of the all-volunteer military, when so few Americans make the commitment to serve the nation. Iraq was a long, dreary war that required multiple tours by many troops and the deployment of reserves. Veterans are still suffering from its aftershocks. You don't get to scoff at what Colonel Brown did in Baghdad.

I'm not saying Brown's military service is above scrutiny.

Nor am I saying that being a veteran makes him a golden candidate for governor.

As a matter of fact, military service, while impressive and honorable, might not matter as much to voters as it did years ago.

As the Pew Research Center pointed out last year, it once "was practically a requirement for serving in Congress." Being a veteran meant you had served your country; it suggested to many voters patriotism and leadership.

"The high point in recent decades was the 95th Congress (1977-1978) when, following an influx of Vietnam-era veterans, a combined 77 percent of the House and Senate had served in the armed forces," Pew reported in September.

By the time of the Pew report, however, only about a fifth of the members of Congress had any military experience and, of course, that trend holds for the nation at large. The draft ended in 1973; most Americans don't even know a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So, getting back to Gansler and whether his crack about Brown's military service, like his crack about Brown's race last summer, will have a political consequence.

I think the answer is yes, but not as much as it once might have — a result of 40 years without a draft, a gaping divide between civilian and military life, and no shared national service of any kind.

In March, a poll conducted by Mileah Kromer and her students at the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College asked Marylanders what they considered important traits and characteristics of gubernatorial candidates.

The Goucher poll found that business experience was more than twice as important as having served in the military: "Having business experience (67 percent) topped the list of traits that would make residents more likely to support that candidate, followed by military service (31 percent) and holding elected office (30 percent)."

Having served in uniform was held in the same regard as having won an election. Given what a majority of Americans think about politicians, you have to wonder what we really think about veterans.

Assuming we think about them at all.

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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