Buttigieg’s Hollow Military Bragging

South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg during the Democratic primary debate at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, Calif., December 19, 2019. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

Imagine you heard that someone got a “direct diploma” from Harvard but didn’t actually have to do four years of papers and tests.

The term “veteran” wields a strange talismanic power in American politics today; the military is almost the only institution in American life that has maintained very high favorability ratings over the past 30 years. Invocation of the sacred words “military service” invariably grants a presumed license to make ad hominem arguments: “Oh yeah? What do you know about it? Did you serve?” A military past, regardless of how extensive it was, tends to be seen as a shining jewel on the résumé of a politician.

Democrats especially seem to think this way: A party that suspects, with excellent cause, that people have noticed its doubtfulness about the merits of the American experiment is if anything even more eager to find veterans to convey its message. The party hopes that having served in the military will immunize a candidate against doubts about a given candidate’s patriotism. This theory reached a loony apotheosis when the 2004 Democratic party nominated for the presidency a veteran who had become famous for characterizing the U.S. military as a gang of war criminals and thrown away his medals in disgust. “We saw Vietnam ravaged equally by American bombs and search and destroy missions, as well as by Viet Cong terrorism,” Kerry said, characterizing the military as racist and calling a vicious Communist regime that would later cause millions to flee South Vietnam “the threat we were supposedly saving them from.” No way anyone could have any misgivings about this guy’s patriotism! Or so Democrats think. Democrats are odd.

People join the military for all sorts of different reasons. Many join because it’s the best available job. Our former colleague David French joined, under no obligation whatsoever, at the Methuselan age of 37 (for which a special waiver is required) because he felt a deep moral urgency to aid fellow Americans in Iraq, where he served in 2007 and 2008. I joined to pay for college. Pete Buttigieg apparently joined because he thought it would add a great line to his résumé when he ran for president, which he planned to do from the time he was a zygote.

Military service is so alien to most Democrats that they don’t notice the details. Say someone told you he was from Nepal. You wouldn’t have a lot of follow-up questions. You don’t know that much about Nepal. That’s how the military is to most liberals. To them, whether your record is that of Nathan Phillips or Norman Schwarzkopf, it’s all the same. Liberal reporters didn’t notice the weasel words when Phillips (the Indian who provoked the Covington kids by marching straight up to them and banging a drum in their face) kept saying he was a “Vietnam-times” or “Vietnam-era” veteran, which was his way of saying he was repairing refrigerators in Nebraska in the early Seventies. Reporters kept saying he was a Vietnam veteran. He wasn’t.

Republicans are far more likely to be familiar with the basics of the military, which is why we are unimpressed with Pete Buttigieg’s military career. Three things stand out about his brief sojourn in the Navy: One, he joined via direct commission. This, to most veterans, is a jaw-dropper. To say the least, this isn’t the way it’s usually done. Many of us recall the intensive pre-commission training (in my case, four years of ROTC in Connecticut and Advanced Camp with the 82nd Airborne in Fort Bragg) as the most trying intervals of our careers. Others spent four years at Annapolis or West Point. Buttigieg just skipped all of that. He passed a physical. He signed some papers. Voilà. To put this in terms a liberal might understand: Imagine you heard that someone got a “direct diploma” from Harvard but didn’t actually have to do four years of papers and tests. You’d never forget it. You’d probably think of that person primarily as a short-cut specialist for the rest of your life.

The second thing that stands out is that Buttigieg specifically cited Kerry as a role model. John Kerry! Kerry is a guy who immediately and shamefully turned on his brothers in arms when the political winds turned that way, and became very famous at a very young age because of it. Kerry’s fans insist he’s a war hero, but aspects of his career are cloudy, and Kerry’s stubborn refusal to release his military files ensured that doubts would persist. There is no doubt that Kerry was anti-military when he got out, or that when he joined the Navy he felt something other than a call to duty. He was just a politically ambitious fellow in search of the least-bad option after his educational deferment was denied. “When I signed up for the Swift boats, they had very little to do with the war,” he wrote in 1986, adding, “I didn’t really want to get involved in the war.” No shame in that, but not much to brag about either.

Buttigieg is such a well-programmed Political Message Bot that he almost never commits a gaffe, but his Kerry remark is the most notable exception I’ve come across. The title of his memoir is also a self-own: Shortest Way Home. It’s as if Elizabeth Holmes had launched Theranos while publishing a book called Shortcuts to Your First Billion.

In the book Mayor Pete writes, as if completely oblivious to how this sounds to anyone who believes the U.S. Army morally superior to the Viet Cong, “I thought back to 2004 and John Kerry’s presidential run, and then remembered that it was during the campaign that I saw the iconic footage of his testimony as the spokesman for Vietnam Veterans against the War.”

What the hey? This is amazing. Buttigieg flat-out admits that he sees the military as a necessary stepping-stone to political fame, and at the same time he implicitly backs Kerry’s thundering denunciation of the military, in the process of bragging about his own military service. It’s like the scene in A Clockwork Orange in which Alex fondly recalls the life of Christ for guidance — but then reveals he identifies with the Roman soldiers whipping Christ on the Via Dolorosa.

Ambitious and calculating Democrats of the future: When you’re trying to portray yourself as Captain America, don’t praise a guy whose first notable public act was dumping all over the military. And certainly don’t remove all doubt by specifically citing the moment the guy was excoriating our boys in uniform and saying they were no better than Viet Cong thugs.

The third thing that stands out about Buttigieg’s military service is his bizarre brag that he used to travel around Afghanistan in various motor vehicles. Has anyone who has ever served the U.S. military on overseas land not driven around? When he launched his campaign last April he bragged about “119 trips I took outside the wire, driving or guarding a vehicle.” That’s . . . not a thing. There are no such stats. Sorties in aircraft are an official military statistic. Motor-vehicle trips are so routine no one would bother to keep track, any more than someone would log how many times Pete Buttigieg took a shower. No one cares. So Buttigieg himself created this phony statistic. Picture it: He made himself a little Hero’s Log but all he had to put in it was “routine trips.” It’s pathetic. It’s hilarious. It’s apple-polishing, résumé-buffing, box-checking, attention-seeking vaporware. Just like his whole career.

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