Jeffrey Goldberg’s allegation that President Trump derided American troops has injected much-needed adrenaline into Joe Biden’s supporters. The unwillingness of Goldberg’s sources to identify themselves and the holes poked in the story by named witnesses have done little to stem the flood of articles and Tweets characterizing the episode as the latest proof of Trump’s depravity. The badmouthing of the military is said to be a “new low.”
But even if the allegations are true, which at this point seems far from certain, they would not be lower than what history has recorded during past campaigns. During the 2004 campaign, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth lambasted Democratic nominee John Kerry for his disparaging comments about Vietnam veterans. Kerry had claimed in a 1971 Congressional hearing that veterans had routinely “raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in the fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam.” Vietnam veterans, Kerry said, had been forced “to die for the biggest nothing in history.”
Kerry enjoyed the support of the mainstream media during the campaign, so they did not give the subject anywhere near the air time that Goldberg’s charges has already received. The existence of video footage, however, made it impossible to dispute the veracity of Kerry’s remarks, in contrast to Trump’s alleged comments. Private organizations took the footage directly to the public through television advertising, making them a critical, perhaps decisive, factor in Kerry’s electoral defeat.
The media similarly overlooked negative comments about the troops made by next Democratic Presidential candidate. When Barack Obama declared in a public speech that the United States had “seen over 3,000 lives of the bravest young Americans wasted” in Iraq, mainstream media outlets largely ignored it. Republicans did not hammer Obama on the issue as they had hammered Kerry, but Obama did face enough criticism that he was forced to issue a retraction. “Their sacrifices are never wasted; that was sort of a slip of the tongue as I was speaking,” Obama announced. “What I meant to say was those sacrifices have not been honored by the same attention to strategy, diplomacy and honesty on the part of civilian leadership.”
In July 2008, Obama was travelling through Europe when he cancelled a visit to injured troops at the U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany. After Republican candidate John McCain cried foul, Obama campaign strategist Robert Gibbs asserted that U.S. military officials had persuaded Obama to cancel the visit by arguing that it would violate campaign rules. But when the military officials were questioned by the press, they denied having said anything of the sort, and told the press that Obama’s staff had cancelled the visit after being told that Obama “could only bring two or three of his Senate staff members, no campaign officials or workers” and “could not bring any media” with him except military photographers.
When that excuse failed to quell the expressions of doubt, Obama chose to insert himself into the controversy. He claimed that the cancellation of the visit resulted from “a concern that maybe our visit was going to be perceived as political, and the last thing that I want to do is have injured soldiers and the staff at these wonderful institutions having to sort through whether this is political or not or get caught in the crossfire between campaigns.” Republicans questioned how a visitation of wounded American troops without campaign workers or media could have been construed as partisan politics.
How one adjudges these controversies is inevitably influenced by broader perceptions of an individual’s attitudes toward the military. Trump has been highly critical of the military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, but has generally been positive toward the military as an institution. Families of troops who were killed on Trump’s watch have said that Trump showed compassion toward them in their time of grieving.
Kerry and Obama supported the war in Afghanistan, and backed the Iraq War until it became unpopular, but were never admiring of the military, nor very attentive to the families of the fallen. Soon after Sergeant First Class Kristoffer Domeij was killed in October 2011, his mother received a handwritten condolence letter from former president George W. Bush. Only much later did she receive a typed letter from President Obama, which, according to the mother, had been signed with an automatic pen.