Talk by presidential candidates about keeping the nation’s military strong and defeating the self-described Islamic State has been bluster aimed at swaying early primary voters rather than views for a rational path to a safer nation, retired military leaders in South Carolina say.
“When a candidate says things like he is going to carpet bomb Syria or Iraq, those are just sound bites for the primary,” said retired Col. Bryan Hilferty of Sumter, who served as communications director for both U.S. Army Central, formerly known as Third Army, and the United States Military Academy at West Point.
“You say that kind of thing in the primary to get votes,” he said. “If they get in the general election, they will have to come up with some sort of solid policy. I don’t take their comments now at face value.”
The State newspaper talked with several of the state’s retired military officers and others affiliated with the armed services about the presidential candidates’ positions on the nation’s defense. While they are declining to support a specific candidate. They also say it’s too early to assess who has the strongest military credentials.
Steven Creech, a former Sumter mayor and chairman of the Greater Sumter Chamber of Commerce’s military affairs committee, said that some of the more simplistic comments – such as bombing every inch of a country or killing all of a potential enemy – show a lack of understanding of defense policy.
“My grandfather used to say that the less you know about something, the simpler it is,” Creech said.
For instance, New York businessman and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has promised “'a military so big, so strong and so great, so powerful that we’re never going to have to use it.” Regarding the Islamic State, or ISIS, Trump has said that “I would bomb the (expletive) out of them... I’d blow up every single inch, there would be nothing left.”
Those comments, along with Ted Cruz’s declaration that he would “carpet bomb” ISIS, show a lack of understanding about the issues, said Creech.
“If it was as simple as some of these candidates say it would be, why do we need all these brilliant generals over there operating the war?” said Creech, an advocate for Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter. “But they’ve been briefed to say things that get people’s attention. And ‘kill ’em all’ sounds good.”
Brash talk pays off
Brash talk and a lack of specifics seems to work in the early primaries, according to a study by Military Times.
The publication noted Trump and Cruz, the Texas Republican senator and winner of the Iowa caucuses, are the least specific on military issues, yet lead in the polls. They finished one and two in Iowa.
The two Republican candidates who are most specific on military issues – Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush – are third and fifth in national polling, respectively, and finished third and sixth in Iowa.
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina – the only candidate of either party who served in the military and who based almost his entire campaign on defense and foreign policy issues – dropped out of the Republican race altogether after failing to make a ripple in the polls.
That shows being specific is not in the candidates’ interest, the publication said, and pointed out that Hillary Clinton, who served as Secretary of State under Democratic President Barack Obama, hasn’t been specific on such issues as troops levels, because she doesn’t need to.
“So far, candidates in both parties see that the best formula for discussing defense issues with early primary voters is to go heavy on rhetoric and light on specific strategies,” it said.
But in South Carolina, candidates ignore military issues at their own peril. Those issues strike much closer to home in the Palmetto State than in Iowa or New Hampshire.
Despite its small size, South Carolina is home to five major military installations as well as a large number of military retirees and families. And the military pumps $16 billion a year into the state’s economy.
According to a 2011 Department of Defense study, the most recent data available:
▪ South Carolina is home to 65,812 active duty military and defense department personnel and 56,486 retirees.
▪ Iowa had 13,405 active duty and defense department personnel and 12,268 retirees.
▪ New Hampshire has 6,373 active duty military and defense department personnel and 9,512 retirees.
“If they looked at those numbers, they should be talking about the military and the significance of it in South Carolina,” said retired Maj. Gen. George Goldsmith, chairman of the Columbia Chamber’s military affairs committee.
Cruz ad ‘misleads’
And yet, so far, the only candidate to run an ad addressing military issues in the state is Cruz, and that was misleading, Goldsmith said.
The ad stated: “When it comes to defeating radical Islamic terrorism, the Midlands knows Victory Starts Here. More than 50 percent of all U.S. Army soldiers get their start at Fort Jackson. But President Obama is decimating our military, threatening 3,000 jobs at Fort Jackson. That’s wrong. Ted Cruz will protect Fort Jackson jobs as president to help keep America safe.”
The facts are: In March 2014, the Army asked Fort Jackson’s commander to assess a “worst case” scenario of up to 3,100 military and civilian jobs lost as the Army downsized after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those cuts were to be made by the Pentagon, not the White House.
But in September, the fort learned it would only lose 180 military and no civilians jobs.
“I was disappointed that he said that,” Goldsmith said. “That issue has already been addressed. He was saying he could save 3,000 jobs that had already been saved.”
Hilferty added that the rally Trump held in Iowa in lieu of attending the final debate in that state – ostensibly to raise money for veterans – turned off many in the military community.
“He used veterans as a billboard for his patriotism,” Hilferty said. “Why did he use veterans? Because everyone loves veterans now and he wants to tap into that.”
‘You need to engage’
Active duty military personnel are encouraged not to offer political opinions, and high-ranking officers are not supposed to endorse candidates, especially a presidential candidate when his or her opponent might be the next commander-in-chief.
“No one at Fort Jackson is going to comment on politics,” spokesman Pat Jones said when asked about the Cruz ad.
And, generally, military associations and high ranking military retirees also don’t endorse political candidates for fear of blurring the lines between them and their active duty counterparts.
“We’re not political; we’re apolitical,” said Pete Murphy, spokesman for the Association of the United States Army.
But perhaps South Carolina’s most decorated veteran, retired Marine Maj. Gen. James Livington of Mount Pleasant, said military supporters in the state should step up and guide the debate toward more realistic defense issues in these uncertain times.
“I never hesitate,” said Livington, who received the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for valor in combat, for his actions during the Vietnam War. “I’m concerned about the security of the country. You need to engage (the politicians). You’ve taken off your uniform but you haven’t taken off your commitment to the country.”
Livingston said he is backing Bush because the former Florida governor has set out a plan for defense down to troop levels for the Army and Marines and has personally sought the counsel of senior military officers, including himself.
“We want to hear a strategy designed to protect the country that has the support of the American people,” Livingston said. “Secondly, once they decide their strategy, they need to empower military leaders to execute it.”
Presently, Bush is trailing in South Carolina polls. An average of South Carolina polls shows Trump is leading with 36 percent; Cruz second at 19.7 percent; Rubio third at 12.7 percent; and Bush a distant fourth at 10 percent.
That doesn’t surprise Hilferty, the retired communications director for Third Army and West Point.
“When candidates say they are going to kill ISIS they are saying they are going to be aggressive,” Hilferty said. “But right now it’s all rhetoric.”