In 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at Harlem’s Riverside Church to a crowd of thousands that flowed out the door as far as 120th Street. King publicly condemned the Vietnam War because it had “broken and eviscerated” the civil-rights and anti-poverty movements at home. The American government was “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”
In 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky invoked another MLK speech while asking Congress to help his country repel the Russian invasion. “‘I have a dream.’ These words are known to each of you today. I can say, ‘I have a need: I need to protect our sky.’” Two months later, Democrats voted unanimously in favor of a $40 billion package of arms and other assistance to Kyiv.
These two moments capture an important shift in how the American left thinks about the U.S. military and war more generally. Progressives typically see war as inherently murderous and dehumanizing—sapping progress, curtailing free expression, and channeling resources into the “military-industrial complex.” The left led the opposition to the Vietnam War and the Iraq War and condemned American war crimes from the My Lai massacre to Abu Ghraib. Historically, progressive critics have charged the military with a litany of sins, including discrimination against LGBTQ soldiers and a reliance on recruiting in poor communities.
Meanwhile, for decades, the right embraced America’s warriors. Defense hawks were one of the three legs of the “Reagan stool,” along with social and fiscal conservatives. The military itself leaned right. One study found that from 1976 to 1996, the number of Army officers who identified as Republican increased from one-third to two-thirds. In 2016, according to a poll in the Military Times, active service members favored Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by a margin of nearly two to one.
In the past few years, however, these views have started to change. From 2021 to 2022, the share of Republicans who had “a great deal” or “quite a lot of confidence” in the military fell from 81 to 71 percent, whereas for Democrats, the number increased from 63 to 67 percent—cutting the gap from 18 points to four. And the military’s views shifted in tandem. In 2020, dozens of former Republican national-security officials endorsed President Joe Biden because Trump had “gravely damaged America’s role as a world leader.” In one poll before the 2020 election, more active service members backed Biden than Trump (41 to 37 percent).
Why has this happened? Two big reasons are Trump and Ukraine. [Continue reading…]