Using soldiers as props

Jan. 15, 2010

By now most people are probably tired of hearing about Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Jan. 6 State of the State Address. And who could blame them? You can only subject someone to arcane budget discussions and phrases like “pension reform” and “tax systems” for so long before their eyes completely glaze over. As a result, many probably completely missed our beloved governor’s big nod to the military, which came near the end of the speech.

“We have a fundamental obligation to anyone who has shed or risked blood for this country,” Gov. Schwarzenegger said. “And if you look to the gallery, you will see some Californians wearing the uniform of our country who have just returned from Iraq and Afghanistan. To each of you, I say, welcome home.”

These are nice sentiments, but I wonder the degree to which the governor and other politicians use military service members as cheap applause lines and even props to bolster an unrelated agenda. The temptation to parse the governor’s words is too tempting to pass up — especially the use of the words “we” and “anyone” in the first sentence.

Just who is Schwarzenegger referring to when he says “we?” Just the elected representatives and senators? How about everyone watching the speech? Does that include us people watching the speech on TV?

And not to be too much of a nit-picker here, but as far as “anyone” is concerned, just what was our obligation to Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, a U.S. Army vet who earned a Bronze Star during the Gulf War? What is our debt to the memory of John Dillinger, who did hard time in the Schofield Barracks stockade long before making a name for himself as a Great Depression bank robber? What do we owe former Marine Lee Harvey Oswald?

The soldiers Schwarzenegger nodded to in the gallery were there to give a face to the administration’s new Operation Welcome Home, a relatively tiny $20 million outreach program for vets that has so far received little press (a Nexis search reveals just 17 hits). That the whole military part of his speech won Schwarzenegger his longest sustained applause probably means most in the Capitol building didn’t spend a lot of time actually thinking about what he was saying (I know, big surprise there). And besides, the use of actual uniformed servicemen and women as props to push veteran’s programs, outreach efforts and the occasional overseas military endeavor is old news.

Ronald Reagan was pretty much the first president to introduce invited guests during the annual State of the Union address. It instantly became a tradition his successors were only too happy to continue. The guests weren’t always from the military, but you can always count on seeing one or two immaculate uniforms bob up and down like toy soldiers during the course of the speech.

Keep in mind this is all irrespective of party affiliation. In fact, during his response to Schwarzenegger’s speech, Sen. Gil Cedillo, D, Los Angeles, referred to returning vets as one of the state’s “many pressing priorities” (if true, then you’d think both parties would come together and demand a lot more than $20 million for Operation Welcome Home).

“Having the strongest military in the world is the first step, but we also have to have a strong commitment to using our military in smart ways that further peace, stability and security around the world,” then-U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton said in 2005.

Maybe we can expect that from a secretary of state, whose job it is to promote American foreign policy, but it’s hard to understand this approach in a governor’s speech, especially one that fell short in dealing with the hard issues this state really faces.

–Anthony Pignataro

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