The military is one of the last institutions in American life without an overt political bias. We need to keep it that way.
Ribbons mean a lot in military culture. Earlier this month, the Department of Defense announced that members of the National Guard deployed to Washington, D.C., after the Jan. 6 riot would be awarded a newly created pair of ribbons to wear on their uniforms, a type of decoration typically issued for participation in overseas military campaigns. Hearing the news, I recalled a debate among the Marines I served with about another ribbon, the much-coveted Combat Action Ribbon, awarded to those who have “actively participated in ground or surface combat.” That debate occurred in the summer of 2005, during an emergency deployment to Hurricane Katrina. Three days after the storm hit, the Bush administration ordered our infantry battalion, which had only several months before returned from combat in Falluja, down to New Orleans as part of a patched-together federal response.
On our arrival, conditions were chaotic. The situation in New Orleans was dire and, at times, violent. As we walked across the tarmac at the airstrip where we’d landed, a Coast Guard crew chief pointed out one of the search-and-rescue helicopters on the flight line; a scatter of pencil-width holes riddled its tail section. “Gunshots,” he’d explained. Enraged residents, stranded on their rooftops for days, had on occasion taken to shooting at the helicopters that passed them by. The crew chief then asked if we’d brought our rifles; he said we might need them.
We had brought our weapons, even though our commanders had ordered them crated. The Posse Comitatus Act, passed during Reconstruction, limits the powers of the government when deploying federal troops to enforce domestic laws and does not permit “direct participation by a member of the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marine Corps in a search, seizure, arrest, or other similar activity”; however, our mission remained vague at that point. We had simply been told to get down there. With reports of violence in New Orleans, the higher-ups wanted to be prepared for any contingency. This led to some grim speculation among the Marines as to how we might be used. After receiving a first Combat Action Ribbon in Iraq would we now receive a second for battles fought at home? We were, potentially, headed into uncharted territory.
Ultimately, our rifles remained crated, and our monthlong mission proved a humanitarian one. However, being deployed on U.S. soil so soon after being deployed to a war zone was disorienting. Over the past year, I’ve felt a similar sense of disorientation when looking at photographs of service members dealing with domestic unrest.
It’s been striking to see how the uniform assumes a different political resonance given one’s leanings and the context. If we are looking at photographs of soldiers in June on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial or in Lafayette Park, the narrative on the left is that those soldiers enabled President Trump’s crackdown on peaceful protests by bringing “the war on terror” to America; while the narrative on the right is that they were protecting the nation’s monuments from “looting and anarchy.” Today, with the enduring troop presence at the Capitol, the narratives on the right and left have flipped. On the left, the troop presence at the Capitol is a counter to domestic terrorism. While on the right it is characterized as “overreacting” by the likes of the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell.
When I read about the ribbons being awarded to the National Guard members, I thought again about my experience in New Orleans and wondered what might have occurred had we arrived there a day or two before, when the situation was more violent. What if we’d been fired upon and had to fire back? Would the Marine Corps have awarded us that second Combat Action Ribbon? Probably not. Politics was tamer in 2005, and our leaders would have recognized the horrible divisiveness of decorating soldiers for a combat action against American citizens. But what if circumstances proved different and they had? Would I have worn it? What type of statement would that make about my role as a soldier and my relationship to the society I served? And what if some soldiers wore the ribbon while others refused in protest?
Americans on both sides of the political divide died on Jan. 6 at the Capitol. While I’m sure some service members will have no problem wearing this new ribbon, I can also imagine that, for others, wearing it might feel more fraught. Our all-volunteer force, combined with two decades of pervasive war, has created a vast civil-military divide in America. Increasingly, civilians don’t understand the military, and vice versa. Republics with large standing militaries and endemic political dysfunction have not fared well over the course of history.
Our military, one of the last institutions in American life without an overt political bias, has yet to succumb to the partisan dysfunction infecting our politics. If a partisan bias seeps in there, our democracy would be in the type of peril that would make Jan. 6 seem like a warm-up act.
I live in Washington, D.C., and the day before the inauguration I took my children to Malcolm X Park to play. When we arrived, the park was mostly empty except for three busloads of National Guard members staged to be deployed around the city. As my daughter skateboarded and my son tossed a football, I saw the unit’s first sergeant. On his right shoulder, he had what’s called a combat patch, meaning the insignia of a unit he’d served with in war.
When I approached him, he said that he’d fought in Afghanistan but now served in the Minnesota National Guard. I commented that he must have had quite a year. He acknowledged that he had, and that this deployment to D.C. had come on the heels of a turbulent summer deployed in Minneapolis where he’d seen parts of the neighborhood he grew up in burned to the ground. We spoke the names of the places where we’d fought in Afghanistan, he threw the football to my son a few times, and then we said our goodbyes.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that National Guardsman. I keep wondering how he might feel receiving a ribbon for defending the Capitol, having never received a similar commendation for his service at home, in Minneapolis.
With military experience in Congress at its lowest levels in 75 years, divisive gestures that could contribute to the politicization of the military should not become the norm. Awarding a ribbon is easy. But understanding what that decoration means is far more complex, nuanced, and potentially contentious. Certain ribbons simply aren’t worth handing out.
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