Six Things Veterans Can Do to Strengthen Our Democracy
Work to inoculate our communities against disinformation, increase civil participation, and collaborate to build our nation’s vital institutions.
As a group, veterans and military families exhibit many characteristics that tend to ward off political extremism: a strong sense of patriotism, higher involvement in civic engagement and volunteering, ties to a broad and diverse community of their fellow veterans, and a venerated status among other citizens. But, as we saw with the disproportionate number of veterans who participated in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, those same characteristics can be exploited by extremist groups and manipulated by mis- and disinformation.
Many of us who proudly served our nation in uniform have responded to the attack with efforts to keep domestic extremists and hostile foreign actors from recruiting our fellow veterans to extremism and violence. We are trying to inoculate our communities against disinformation, increase civil literacy and participation, and foster creativity and collaboration in strengthening our nation’s vital democratic institutions.
Here are six things veterans can do today to help in this important work:
Take pride in our service and remind our fellow citizens our democracy is worth preserving. As military members, we all took an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States and that obligation doesn’t end when we take off the uniform for the last time. As veterans, it is our duty to stand with our fellow citizens and serve our communities once again. We must share the word that America is strongest when we are united in our commitment to compromise, civic debate and boisterous self-government, and call out those who are sowing division and tearing at the fabric of our society. They are doing our nation’s enemies’ work for them.
Remind our fellow veterans that our loyalty is to the United States of America and that this loyalty should remain above any person or political party. In the military, we learned an ethos of team before self and as veterans we should continue to place our communities first. Veterans are more likely to be leaders within their community, state, and nation, and we must lead by example, doing what’s best for all Americans. We can help heal divisions within our communities and bring people together to help solve our nation’s problems.
Stand up for the equality and dignity of all Americans. In today’s hyper partisan political environment, it’s easy to demonize those who hold different values than we do. When we do, we give power to those who benefit from keeping Americans divided. In the military, we were taught to treat every soldier, sailor, airman, and Marine with dignity and respect, and we should demand the same for all our fellow citizens as veterans. We should remind our friends and families that the person on the other side of the issue isn’t “the enemy,” but rather a fellow American with important perspectives, experiences, merits and flaws, just like us, with whom we have more in common than not.
Hold ourselves and all public servants to the highest of moral, ethical, and professional standards. With great power and authority comes great responsibility, and we should demand that those who represent us in our legislatures and capitals comport themselves with the dignity expected of those who hold offices. By holding public servants to high standards, we bolster confidence in the institutions that serve as pillars of American democracy. This principle extends beyond elected officials to our free press and the rule of law.
Use our voices, votes, and the respect we have earned from our fellow citizens to support peaceful transfers of power. Our great experiment in democracy has long held a tradition of peaceful transitions of power from one administration to the next and we must ensure that continues. Political violence must always be denounced and we must urge restraint and work to lower the temperature in politics. It is our duty as veterans to continue to protect representative government and our fellow citizens, and one of the best ways we can do that is by helping to educate our fellow Americans in civics and volunteering to work the polls to increase public faith in our elections.
Help protect the truth. We’ve all heard the saying that a lie travels halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its boots. In the age of the internet, those lies can travel at the speed of light and reach billions of people. In an age of information overload, truth still matters. By taking personal responsibility for the truthfulness of the information we consume, produce and share, we can shore up the middle ground—the place where people come to think critically, debate civically, and solve our nation’s problems. Due to the esteem veterans carry in American society and their active engagement in community-building initiatives nationally, veterans are well placed to promote civic culture. Where civic culture is strong and truth is respected, Americans will reject the bankrupt narratives of disinformation campaigns and violent extremist movements.
Our nation faces many challenges, from ending the COVID-19 pandemic to inflation to navigating foreign relations with China, Russia, and Iran. While the future is always uncertain, we remain steadfast in our love of this country and in our support for our 246-year-old experiment in democracy. We have fought to defend this country around the world, and we are calling on veterans to commit to these six actions and sign the Veterans Code of Conduct at www.veterancode.org, and to learn more at www.wetheveterans.us.
William Braniff is the Director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) and a board member of We the Veterans, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization created by veterans and military family members, united for democracy and committed to building a more perfect union.
Joe Plenzler is a Marine Corps veteran and board member of We the Veterans.
Anil Nathan is an Air Force veteran and co-director of We the Veterans.
This op-ed was co-signed by Ellen Gustafson, Navy spouse and co-director of We the Veterans; Christa Sperling, Air Force veteran and board member of We the Veterans; and Ben Keiser, Marine Corps veteran and board member of We the Veterans.