With less than a month of campaigning to go, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are vying to demonstrate their love for all things military. For political candidates, this isn't so unusual: for as long as there have been soldiers, there have been politicians eager to stand beside them and soak up a bit of reflected glory. What's more unusual is how eagerly the rest of us have lined up to imitate the candidates. From human rights activists to nutritionists, everyone now seems to look to the military for some borrowed credibility.
Take human rights. During the Bush administration, human rights organizations struggled to convince Americans to oppose so-called "enhanced interrogation" (that's torture, when it's at home). In the years immediately following the 9/11 attacks, the American public appeared to have little sympathy for abstract arguments about the rights of suspected terrorists. Searching for a more effective way to change public opinion, Human Rights First assembled a group of retired generals and admirals willing to make the military case against torture. In a letter to then-President Bush, the group (which included the former commanding general of CENTCOM) asserted that the U.S. use of torture has "put American military personnel at greater risk [and] undermined U.S. intelligence gathering efforts."
The group of retired officers assembled by Human Rights First remains active today. A few weeks ago, for instance, General Charles Krulak, the former commandant of the Marine Corps, issued a statement under Human Rights First's auspices that called upon Mitt Romney to reject torture: it's "illegal [and] immoral," sure, but it also "undermines both our national security and the order and discipline of our armed forces....[I]t produces unreliable results and often impedes further intelligence collection."
It's not just human rights advocates who have sought to enhance their credibility with the American public by associating themselves with the military. With conservatives taking aim at recent efforts to reduce the caloric content of school lunches and public attention waning, health care advocates have also brought in the big guns: in their case, a group of senior officers who can frame obesity not as a health problem, but as a military recruitment and readiness problem. In a 2010 report called Too Fat to Fight, dozens of retired general and flag officers proclaimed the obesity epidemic a threat to national security. According to the report, more than a quarter of young Americans are now too fat to qualify for military service. This, obviously, is bad news for military recruiters, and for the rest of us, too -- how can a flabby bunch of couch potatoes defend America as we face off against the third world's lean, hungry masses?
Too Fat to Fight goes on to call for the kind of reforms the left generally loves and the right generally hates, such as greater attention to the relationship between poverty, hunger, and obesity; increased federal funding of school lunch programs for the poor; and more government money for "the development, testing and deployment of proven public-health interventions." In September 2012, a follow-up report (Still Too Fat to Fight) funded by foundations such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation called for the elimination of junk food in school vending machines -- again in the name of military readiness.
The last decade has seen similar efforts to frame everything from climate change to low-quality public education as military issues. And why not? Obesity and poor nutrition surely will hurt military recruitment and readiness, and the U.S. use of torture surely does endanger troops and produce unreliable information. Similarly, low-quality public education threatens military readiness -- illiterate and innumerate recruits are as bad as obese ones -- and climate change will certainly cause migration and conflict over resources, creating new challenges for the military.
It's more than that, though. In an era in which all military personnel have officially been labeled "heroes," former military personnel make fantastic spokespeople for causes that might otherwise languish. After all, Americans have lost faith in virtually every other profession and public institution: in Gallup's annual study of confidence in institutions, well under half of Americans surveyed in 2012 said they had "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in the presidency, newspapers, public schools, television news, banks, business, unions, the criminal justice system, the medical system or organized religion. (Congress, as usual, garnered the confidence of just 13 percent of Americans.) Only the military seems to have been exempted from this epidemic of public cynicism: 75 percent of Americans say they have "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in the military.
But though I take my hat off to the many organizations that have made creative use of the magic of military endorsements, the trend troubles me. What does it say about us, as a nation, that fewer and fewer issues can gain traction if they're not wrapped in the mantle of military effectiveness?