Rep. Ryan Zinke marked the end of his first month in the U.S. House last week by correcting the president. In his request for congressional authorization to use force against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Obama ruled out large-scale ground operations. Zinke told the Billings Gazette that's a mistake.
"The hard facts are that air operations alone won't degrade or defeat ISIS. It will take U.S. ground troops in the form of embedded special operations forces to ensure that our air power is effective," Zinke said. "In my experience, this is not only an East and West battle. It's also a battle within Islam. We have to ensure Islamic terrorist organizations do not become the mainstream Islam."
Obviously, these remarks from Montana's freshman congressman came as a surprise. I think I speak for all of us when I say I am shocked to learn that Ryan Zinke served in the U.S. military. The results of my research will probably blindside you, but it turns out Zinke spent 23 years with the Navy SEALs—the same outfit that brought us Jesse "The Body" Ventura and, unless someone has been fooling around with Wikipedia, Henry Kissinger.
Zinke won a Bronze Star and retired with the rank of commander. In addition to conferring the right to refer to himself as "Commander Zinke" at any time, this experience more than qualifies him to advise the president on how best to conduct a multi-branch combat campaign against a non-state actor—and, of course, to shape the development of mainstream Islam.
Frankly, it's a little irresponsible of Zinke not to have mentioned this before. If only Obama had some way of knowing about Zinke's service, I'm sure he would have consulted Montana's representative-at-large before he addressed the House. Planning a whole pacification campaign against a crypto-criminal theocracy and then finding out you know a guy from SEAL Team Six is like executing an eminent-domain takeover of a municipal water supply and then learning your neighbor is a plumber.
If only we had known! But it's understandable that Zinke never revealed his military background, what with America's pervasive bias against those who served.
Across the U.S., support for our troops has fallen so low that people need bumper stickers to remind them. Films like American Sniper and Zero Dark Thirty depict military service as the kind of thing any very handsome person can do. And for the last decade, a series of quick and decisive victories in the Middle East has reinforced Hollywood's message that war is a pastime for ineffectual dorks.
Given this toxic attitude toward military service, it's no wonder Zinke hid his record. Our representative is no fool, and he learned from the disastrous example of former Sen. John Walsh, forced to withdraw from the 2014 race after it was revealed he served in the National Guard. Montana voters are fickle, and we simply have no patience for a man in uniform.
But let us not judge Rep. Zinke too harshly. He has finally done the honorable thing and mentioned that he used to be in the Navy. We cannot know his motivations, but I suspect Zinke didn't do it for himself. He did it for his fellow servicepeople.
Zinke's call to commit ground troops to the fight against ISIS came not a moment too soon. With the last decade's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over almost before they began, America is in danger of forgetting its armed forces entirely.
The U.S. military is like a fondue pot: we never use it, and we're tired of waiting for people to come over. The only way to ensure that America continues to give our troops even a modicum of respect is to get them into combat immediately.
It won't be easy. Telling other people to stand up for freedom never is. Men like President Obama—who never served in the military and therefore rose to power with no political liabilities—will hesitate to take a hawkish stance against terrorism, because they fear public backlash. But Zinke has been in combat, so he knows better.
He knows what it's like to stand with his friends in a hail of bullets and never tell anyone about it. He knows what it's like to live with the secret shame of military service. Most of all, he knows something many Americans never will: how it feels to risk his life for his country.
Now that he's a congressman, Rep. Zinke is ready to give a new generation of young people that opportunity. I applaud his decision to finally break his long silence. Without the representative from Montana, thousands of men and women in our armed services might never know what it's like to fight a land war in Asia. I don't think anyone could feel good about something like that.
Dan Brooks writes about politics, culture and fondue at combatblog.net.