Tuesday, April 29, 2014

What veterans can learn from Michael Corleone

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My recent essay on Tom Ricks' "The Best Defense" providing ten reasons not to vote for a veteran-turned-politician was meant to be equal parts modest proposal and friendly warning to fellow vets. Based on reader comments, it's obvious that the majority of people aren't familiar with Thomas Paine or the idea of a friendly warning. Maybe using a movie analogy will get the point across.

There are movies that every red-blooded American male ought to see. "The Outlaw Josey Wales," "True Grit," "Tombstone," "The Goonies." The one-liners alone are essential to the American man's survival in society. "The Godfather" is a cornerstone of that heritage. It's a heartwarming coming-of-age story in the best traditions of "The Lion King," except the horses don't make out so well. But there is one particular scene that explains the thrust of my essay and the crisis American veterans are bringing upon themselves.

The setup is this: Al Pacino plays Michael Corleone, the son of the Godfather. Specifically, the youngest son. As the youngest male child, he carries special status in the mafia families. The unspoken rule is that Michael will never take part in the family's criminal business activities. In exchange, he gets immunity. He can never be held for ransom or harmed as an act of revenge against the Godfather. It's every mob boss's assurance that at least one of his children will live long enough to join AARP. Early in the movie, the Godfather is shot and taken to the hospital on the brink of death. The mob wants to get revenge against the mobster who planned the hit and the corrupt police chief who helped him. Michael volunteers to do it. He is able to use his special status to schedule the meeting and get close enough to the men to kill them.

The specific scene involves one of the Corleone mobsters helping Michael prepare for the hit. They go over the plot and take a few practice shots with the gun. As a combat vet himself (he picked up a Navy Cross as a Marine during WWII), Michael cracks wise and looks very comfortable with what he's preparing to do. But he does ask one question: How bad do you think it's going to be?

He's referring to the consequences of his actions. It's a foregone conclusion that there will be a mob war after this. He will have to go into exile in order to avoid being assassinated in retaliation. He'll become a murderer in the eyes of the law. His immunity in the mob world will disappear. In other words, he is crossing a line and there is no going back. For the rest of his life, every time he tries to get out, they'll always pull him back in. Spoiler alert: he kills them anyway.

Michael has no confusion about that. He walks into that restaurant with the mobster and the police chief with eyes wide open. And when he walks out, he leaves behind all hope of a conflict-free life (he also forgets to take the cannolis).

Therein lies the point of my original essay for American veterans when it comes to politics, and in most other aspects of our post-uniformed life. Being a veteran is just like being the Godfather's youngest kid: there's an exchange at work, and lines you don't cross. If you go into a restaurant and someone happens to finds out you served in Afghanistan, they might buy you a beer because they feel the urge to personally show you a little gratitude for your service. You go, they buy. It's an exchange. But you don't start your meal by climbing on the table, holding up your DD-214 and asking people to pick up your tab. That's crossing the line.

Veterans in politics, both democrat and republican, fail to obey those rules all the time. When you run for political office, it's not just the public's right to scrutinize you, it's their duty. There are certain things that deserve special immunity in politics. A candidate's children ought to be hands-off. If Tammy Duckworth had not wanted to discuss the trauma she experienced as a result of her injuries, or if John McCain doesn't want to relive his experiences in Hanoi on Meet the Press, they have that right to compassionate sensitivity. But if they put a photo of themselves in uniform in a campaign commercial, or say that they would make a better governmental leader because of their military experience, then it all becomes fair game. They cross the line, and there's no going back.

Politics is only one dimension of society. At present, American military members and veterans enjoy an unprecedented level of public support. It's a reputation that's been earned through thirteen long years of war. It's in the military and veteran communities' vital interest to maintain an acute awareness that reputations are hard to earn and easy to diminish. Whether it's in politics, business, or your local bowling league (as so eloquently demonstrated in another American "dude" flick), veteran status is not a get out of criticism free card. No one will ever respect you more than you respect yourself, so the saying goes. There's a huge difference between using your veteran reputation as a personal shield and making yourself one of its public ambassadors. That difference is defined by which side of it you want to stand on, and whether you're prepared to cross that line.

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