Analysis & Comment

Opinion | My Fellow Veterans Reminded Me What This Election Was About

Two weeks ago, at the height of the presidential campaign, I attended a political event for my friend Zach Iscol, who is running in New York City’s mayoral election next year. Zach and I go way back. In our early 20s, we both fought in Falluja as Marines, our two platoons having advanced down opposite sides of a heavily defended street.

Politically, there are certain issues Zach and I agree on, but there are many others on which we don’t. He is, however, a great leader, and so I was proud to attend a small outdoor gathering hosted by his supporters. While my wife and I sipped drinks beneath our masks and did our best version of mingling while maintaining social distance, I met Mike, another Falluja veteran.

Mike had been shot in the shoulder and wounded by a grenade on Thanksgiving Day 2004. After recovering, he left the Marine Corps and went on to a successful business career. As we talked, the inevitable topic of the presidential election came up. My wife asked him who he thought would win.

Most people I’d come across had answered Joe Biden, but then quickly equivocated, fearing a repeat of 2016. Mike expressed no such reservations. Mr. Biden would definitely win, no question, he told me. I asked whether his confidence came from poll numbers. He shook his head, no, and answered, “JJ did tie buckle.”

I laughed. My wife asked what he was talking about.

JJ DID TIE BUCKLE is a mnemonic all Marine recruits learn to help them memorize the corps’s 14 essential leadership traits: justice, judgment, dependability, initiative, decisiveness, tact, integrity, endurance, bearing, unselfishness, courage, knowledge, loyalty, enthusiasm. Between the two of us, Mike and I managed to recall and recite each trait.

When we finished, he said Mr. Trump didn’t possess a single one of them. Maybe Mr. Biden didn’t have them all, but he sure had a few, and that would be enough.

As we stood at a bar wearing surgical masks in the middle of a pandemic, Mike’s reference to these leadership traits we’d learned as teenagers seemed not only sentimental, but also impractical. My hard and positional inner voice said: It’s policies, not sentiment, that matters. Sentiment won’t stop people dying of the virus. It won’t get our children back into school. And it won’t help restart our economy.

Wednesday is Veterans Day, and we are eight months into what is arguably our greatest national crisis since the Second World War. Unlike then, we are a nation divided. Battle lines have been drawn all over this country, on every conceivable issue, from the pandemic to immigration to health care.

We’ve learned that wrongheaded policies cost lives. Mike surely knows that — gunshots and shrapnel to one’s body is a good reminder of the personal effects of bad policies. Yet knowing all this, Mike was predicting Mr. Trump’s defeat based not on policies but on his failure to live up to an abstract set of leadership traits.

But were they really abstract?

As voters cast ballots last week, I wondered how many agreed with certain Trump policy positions but could not forgive him for his fundamental lack of leadership and the qualities traditionally ascribed to that word. I fell into that category on certain issues; I approved of Mr. Trump’s renegotiation of NAFTA, appreciated his reluctance to engage in foreign wars and thought his measures on criminal justice reform made sense.

I also wondered how many voters disagreed with many of Mr. Biden’s policy positions but forgave him those choices because of his strong leadership. Again, I was one; I believe in school choice and am hesitant about Mr. Biden’s track record on foreign wars. But I find it far, far easier to forgive the president-elect on the issues where I disagree with him than I do to forgive Mr. Trump. That’s because Mr. Biden understands leadership, and it is leadership that matters more than anything else right now.

In his address to the nation on Saturday night, Mr. Biden said, “Let this grim era of demonization in America begin to end.”

Forgiveness is the key to that beginning.

The 75 million Americans who voted for Mr. Biden are not going to suddenly erase the 71 million Americans who voted for Mr. Trump. The 146 million people who voted all have some reconciling to do if we hope, as a country, to heal. For our own sake, for the sake of our children and for the sake of our nation, I couldn’t agree with Mr. Biden more strongly on this point. There’s no policy paper that can guide us in the work of forgiveness. Only a leader can do that.

Which brings me back to Zach, with whom I often disagree but who, like our president-elect, is a good man. At his event he gave a speech outlining his vision for New York City. He shared an anecdote about one of his instructors in the Marines, Capt. John W. Maloney, who was later killed in Iraq.

Like Zach, I remembered the grim realities of war our instructors prepared us for, one of which was that the mission always took precedence over not only your own life but also the lives of the Marines you led. This was an understandable if zero-sum view of actual war that any die-hard partisan can recognize in today’s political conflicts. Yet Captain Maloney was different. He rejected this trade-off between the mission and the Marines as a false choice. “Instead,” Zach said, “he taught us that if you take care of your Marines, they will take care of the mission.”

On Saturday night, after President-elect Biden spoke and his family took the stage alongside him, I thought about Captain Maloney and JJ DID TIE BUCKLE. I thought about what Zach had said and how that applied not only to the Marines, but also to our country: If you take care of Americans, they will take care of America, and the way you do that is through leadership.

I was still watching television as I was thinking this and so hardly noticed the Bruce Springsteen song that was playing as the event ended. It was the same song that played throughout Mr. Biden’s campaign: “We Take Care of Our Own.”

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