When Mayor Pete Buttigieg talks about his military service, his opponents fall silent, the media fall in love, and his political prospects soar. Veterans roll their eyes.
CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Mr. Buttigieg Sunday if President Trump “deserves some credit” for the strike that killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani. “No,” the candidate replied, “not until we know whether this was a good decision and how this decision was made.” He questioned whether “it was the right strategic move” and said his own judgment “is informed by the experience of having been on one of those planes headed into a war zone.”
But Mr. Buttigieg’s stint in the Navy isn’t as impressive as he makes it out to be. His 2019 memoir is called “Shortest Way Home,” an apt description of his military service. He entered the military through a little-used shortcut: direct commission in the reserves. The usual route to an officer’s commission includes four years at Annapolis or another military academy or months of intense training at Officer Candidate School. ROTC programs send prospective officers to far-flung summer training programs and require military drills during the academic year. Mr. Buttigieg skipped all that—no obstacle courses, no weapons training, no evaluation of his ability or willingness to lead. Paperwork, a health exam and a background check were all it took to make him a naval officer.
He writes that his reserve service “will always be one of the highlights of my life, but the price of admission was an ongoing flow of administrativia.” That’s not how it’s supposed to work. The paperwork isn’t the price of admission but the start of a long, grueling test.
Combat veterans have grumbled for decades about the direct-commission route. The politically connected and other luminaries who receive immediate commissions are disparaged as “pomeranian princes.” Former Trump chief of staff Reince Priebus became a Naval Reserve officer in 2018 at age 46. Hunter Biden, son of the former vice president, accepted a direct commission but was discharged after one month of service for failing a drug test.
Mr. Buttigieg was assigned to a comfortable corner of military life, the Naval Station in Great Lakes, Ill. Paperwork and light exercise were the order of the day. “Working eight-hour days,” he writes, was “a relaxing contrast from my day job, and spending time with sailors from all walks of civilian life, was a healthy antidote to the all absorbing work I had in South Bend.” He calls it “a forced, but welcome, change of pace from the constant activity of being mayor.”
During a November debate, Mr. Buttigieg proclaimed: “I have the experience of being commanded into a war zone by an American president.” The reality isn’t so grandiose. In 2013, he writes, he “made sure my chain of command knew that I would rather go sooner than later, and would rather go to Afghanistan than anywhere else.”
Arriving there, he “felt a sense of purpose, maybe even idealism, that can only be compared to the feeling of starting on a political campaign. 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.”
The comparison is telling. Mr. Buttigieg has just started his time in a war he says he’s idealistic about, but he daydreams about John Kerry protesting Vietnam after he got back. Many veterans detest Mr. Kerry’s “iconic” 1971 testimony, in which he slandered American servicemen. But it did launch a decadeslong political career.
Mr. Buttigieg spent some five months in Afghanistan, where he writes that he remained less busy than he’d been at City Hall, with “more time for reflection and reading than I was used to back home.” He writes that he would take “a laptop and a cigar up to the roof at midnight to pick up a Wi-Fi signal and patch via Skype into a staff meeting at home.” The closest he came to combat was ferrying other staffers around in an SUV: In his campaign kickoff speech last April he referred to “119 trips I took outside the wire, driving or guarding a vehicle.” That’s a strange thing to count. Combat sorties in an F-18 are carefully logged. Driving a car isn’t.
After the welcome-home rally, glowing press, a few more years of light service, the mayor left the reserves. But his bragging rights were assured. Candidate Buttigieg takes every opportunity to lean in on those months in Afghanistan. Questions ranging from student debt to Colin Kaepernick to gun control prompt him to reference his military stint, sometimes indignantly.
“I don’t need lessons from you on courage,” he lectured former Rep. Beto O’Rourke in an October debate, “political or personal.” Two months later he told Sen. Amy Klobuchar, “Let me tell you about my relationship to the First Amendment. It is part of the Constitution that I raised my right hand and swore to defend with my life. That is my experience, and it may not be the same as yours, but it counts, Senator, it counts.”
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