Webb: Republicans Should Stop Attacking Vets

Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of the Navy, James Webb, issues some excellent advice to the Republican Party in a somewhat over-the-top op-ed in today’s New York Times: Stop demeaning the military service of your opponents.

It should come as no surprise that an arch-conservative Web site is questioning whether Representative John Murtha, the Pennsylvania Democrat who has been critical of the war in Iraq, deserved the combat awards he received in Vietnam. After all, in recent years extremist Republican operatives have inverted a longstanding principle: that our combat veterans be accorded a place of honor in political circles. This trend began with the ugly insinuations leveled at Senator John McCain during the 2000 Republican primaries and continued with the slurs against Senators Max Cleland and John Kerry, and now Mr. Murtha.

Military people past and present have good reason to wonder if the current administration truly values their service beyond its immediate effect on its battlefield of choice. The casting of suspicion and doubt about the actions of veterans who have run against President Bush or opposed his policies has been a constant theme of his career. This pattern of denigrating the service of those with whom they disagree risks cheapening the public’s appreciation of what it means to serve, and in the long term may hurt the Republicans themselves.

Not unlike the Clinton “triangulation” strategy, the approach has been to attack an opponent’s greatest perceived strength in order to diminish his overall credibility. To no one’s surprise, surrogates carry out the attacks, leaving President Bush and other Republican leaders to benefit from the results while publicly distancing themselves from the actual remarks.

During the 2000 primary season, John McCain’s life-defining experiences as a prisoner of war in Vietnam were diminished through whispers that he was too scarred by those years to handle the emotional burdens of the presidency. The wide admiration that Senator Max Cleland gained from building a career despite losing three limbs in Vietnam brought on the smug non sequitur from critics that he had been injured in an accident and not by enemy fire. John Kerry’s voluntary combat duty was systematically diminished by the well-financed Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in a highly successful effort to insulate a president who avoided having to go to war.

And now comes Jack Murtha. The administration tried a number of times to derail the congressman’s criticism of the Iraq war, including a largely ineffective effort to get senior military officials to publicly rebuke him (Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, was the only one to do the administration’s bidding there).

I agree with Mackubin Thomas Owens and Kathryn Jean Lopez that Webb is a genuine hero who deserves to be taken seriously and that his advice is spot-on. I do, however, have a major problem with the piece: He engages in the very sort of ad hominem that he enveighs against.

What evidence does he have that the Bush administration doesn’t value the service of our veterans? Surely, allowing the service records of his opponents–who are using their service as their trump card–is not enough.

Yes, there was some “whispering” that McCain was a bit off his rocker during the 2000 campaign. There are some awful things “whispered” on both sides of any serious political campaign. I don’t like it one bit but that’s the nature of the game. Who started the whispering? Was it Bush? Where’s the evidence?

As to Max Cleland’s injuries, the only one that I know of who made an issue of the way they came about was Ann Coulter. She was, it turns out, right on the facts and wrong on the analysis. That he lost the use of his legs and an arm owing to a horrible accident getting off a helicopter doesn’t diminish that he did so serving honorably in Vietnam.

The flap over Kerry’s medals was unfortunate, as it detracted from what I always believed was the Swift Boat Veterans’ strongest suit: Kerry’s contemptible conduct toward his fellow veterans upon his return stateside. I always maintained, however, that the awards were legitimate in the context of the Navy’s standards and practices of the time. So far as I know, the Bush camp went out of their way to say that Kerry was a hero time and again.

The president asking his senior officers to rebut criticisms of an ongoing war? Well, one would hope so. If it’s worth sending men into harm’s way, it’s certainly worth sending their commanders out to defend verbally. Did Bush ask them to question Murtha’s honor or service? No.

The most insidious thing about Webb’s piece is the repetitive use of fuzzy slurs like “Republican operatives” and “Republican funded.” None of the initiatives Webb discusses were funded by the GOP. That some of them were funded by people who preferred to see Republicans elected is a far different thing. One can demand that politicians denounce the actions of its allies–as Bush did with some of the attacks made by the Swift Boaters–but surely that’s as far as it goes.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Military Affairs, The Presidency, Uncategorized, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. McGehee says:

    Yes, there was some “whispering” that McCain was a bit off his rocker during the 2000 campaign.

    Originating, perhaps, from his own behavior!? Grrrrr…

    If anyone’s attacking vgeterans for being veterans, yes they should stop doing that. But being a veteran should not be a blank check to be able to push stupid ideas or act like a lunatic and never be called on it.

  2. SoloD says:

    Let’s be honest here — some Republicans are scared to death of a Democrat who is perceived as anything less than a wimpy peacenik. (Much like Democrats are terrified to have Republicans thought of as anything less than Klansman without the hoods.) But that’s why the attacks against Al Gore, John Kerry, Max Cleland and John Murtha were undertaken: they couldn’t allow the perception to exist. So instead of attacking the policies or even their conduct after the war, they attack their service. And, just in case you forgot, the Democrats tried it against Bush Senior, but it never got any traction. (However you also see it in the way that some GOPers try to undermine John Kennedy’s PT 109 service, even 60 years later.)And indeed explain to me the substantive differences between Bill Clinton’s “draft dodging” and that of Dick Cheney or Newt Gingrich or any other of a dozen high profile Republicans. The GOP cannot afford allow the imagine of a macho Democratic Party.

    But pretending that the Bush campaign did anything to stop such attacks is either revisionist history or willful denial. The GOP convention was full of slurs against Kerry and his service. (Remember the purple band-aids?) Mild statements of disagreement are not full throated denunciations of slurs of not those men who served honorable, but of all veterans.

    (And just in case you are wondering, as disgraceful as I believe the swift boaters were, the Kerry camps unwillingness to respond immediately was a huge error that only made the attacks more effective.)

  3. Sigotter says:

    I think that what you are glossing over is that this is not just a case of some miscellaneous good ol’ boys playing tricks. It has been mapped and funded by a small group to destroy the reputation of anyone who is a threat to the President’s election.

    This has been a well-orchestrated Rovian tactic which has been used on Bush’s behalf since his first Texas gubernatorial campaign – when the rumors were first being spread that Ann Richards was an alcoholic.

    It is slimy and disgusting, but successful – so it has been repeated again and again. The fact that Webb concentrates on the rumors and slurs being used against veterans… I suppose that is a suggestion that Rove et al cease using that tactic against the men and women who have been on the front lines. But it should cease against all the others as well. Otherwise the backlash will be enormous – and that “legacy”? It will be demeaned.

  4. Maryann says:

    The most insidious thing about Webb’s piece is the repetitive use of fuzzy slurs like “Republican operatives” and “Republican funded.”

    Isn’t James Webb contemplating a run for Senator as a Democrat. (Challenging Virginia Senator George Allen.)

    I agree that it is in poor taste to question a veteran’s ribbons and medals awarded on a battlefield but Murtha, like Cindy Sheehan, is not above criticism.

  5. Anderson says:

    JJ, the Bush machine is designed for deniability, and alas, you’re fitting right in.

    Given the pattern that James Webb, of all people, can’t help noticing, and remembering the First Law of Politics (cui bono?), this really shouldn’t be so hard.

    “I am shocked, shocked!, to find there is gambling going on in this establishment!”

  6. Jonk says:

    Nothing makes me angrier than ad hominem attacks on veterans and their service, regardless of party.

    As for the attacks that Ann made on Max a couple years back, just remember one thing…”friendly fire” isn’t.

    I might not agree with the politics of various veterans, but I will go to the MAT for any of my brother and sister vets.

  7. Bithead says:

    Martha’s play for sympathy here is laying it on a little thick don’t you think? I mean my God, I should think that his being able to prove he got the metals legitimately should be relatively easy to do… assuming he did… and thereby he’d be able to tar his accusers very easily, thus the solving the question.

    Forgive me my skepticism; We already know one Democrat who “gamed the system”… So why on earth would shock anyone to find that we had two of ’em, all along?

    …and while we’re all atwitter about Republicans attacking Democrats for their military records to the words “Texas air national guard” the name Mary Mapes, mean anything to you?

  8. td says:

    Have you read Kerry’s testimony before congress during the Vietnam war? I was very surprised when I read it. Kerry is pretty much a worthless politico idiot today, but he was something else when he made that speech, and that something was not anti-veteran. Here is one link to the testimony “http://ice.he.net/~freepnet/kerry/index.php?topic=Testimony” Read the original, and pray that it does not sound too familiar a few years down the road.

  9. td says:

    Have you read Kerry’s testimony before congress during the Vietnam war? I was very surprised when I read it. Kerry is pretty much a worthless politico today, but he was something else when he made that speech, and that something was not anti-veteran. Here is one link to the testimony “http://ice.he.net/~freepnet/kerry/index.php?topic=Testimony” Read the entire original source, and pray that it does not sound too familiar again a few years down the road. It is easy for chickenhawks to attack people who put their lives on the line for their country.

  10. Herb says:

    I do not dispute the fact that Murtha is considered a “War Hero” during the Vietnam war. I do however strongly question his actions of late. His anti War rehtoric if today is also anti military by inuendo and he does not have the right to run our military into the ground. Murthe has lost all sinse of the very thing he was decorated for. His anti war speeches amount to a “running like cowards” mentality, or he is just getting senile in his old age.

    As for Kerry, all he had to do was to produce the records and that would have quashed the entire swift boat controversy.

    The entire article by Webb seems to indicate that Democrats do not engage in “dirty politics” while they think of something rotten to say about the Republicans.

    Double Standard?