In an election filled with gobsmacking inversions of conventional wisdom, the Democrats' ability to seize the banners of patriotism and military support from their rivals may not even rank in the top five headscratchers. Not too long ago, indeed, on the Monday of the Democratic convention, Republicans were able to shame Democrats on matters as trivial as the presence (or absence) of American flags at their events. That was before the speeches that used Donald Trump's dangerous, ignorant bigotry and impromptu policy pirouettes to persuasively argue Hillary Clinton's comparative fitness to be Commander-in-Chief. The six-minute call to arms from Khizr Khan, father of Muslim U.S. Army Captain Humayun Khan, who was killed in Iraq, was not the chronological culmination of that argument, but it was its heart and soul. Khan's brandishing a Constitution gave both intellectual and emotional weight to the ecstatic bloom of red, white, and blue that filled the Wells Fargo Center that night and the ones that followed.
Trump's sticky-fingered defensiveness regarding the Khans — he accused Khan of having "no right" to "attack" him — has only further magnified the Democrats' relative advantage in claiming they have greater respect for the military than does the GOP; that party's history of rah-rah jingoism and unquestioning advocacy for the dubious expansion of American military adventures pales against the unimpeachable grief of the Khans.
The Democrats seem almost delirious at this turn of events, awed by the mixture of historical accident and political stupidity that has aligned them with the military — the same institution with which they've spent decades in a delicate antagonistic dance. I don't mean to argue that Democrats as a whole have ever been anti-military. But accusations of treachery were the price many liberals paid when they dared question how Republican administrations (and some supportive Democrats) put the country's martial power to use.
The Khans' hard-won dignity shines in such contrast to Trump's gross opportunism that I worry Democrats and progressives will forget their skepticism about the very war that made the Khans' son a hero. The outrage of conservatives and veterans against Trump's prickly slurs on the Khans has made for temporary common cause with progressives, and the righteousness of shared anger soothes the wounds liberals endured for their criticism of Bush's ill-fated invasion. But we can't let it act as a narcotic. We can't get addicted to the approval of generals. The moral high ground in a war, after all, is not mere "support for the military" — it's the side that most effectively limits its use, that gains victories without bloodshed.
There isn't a contradiction between being suspicious of military might and honoring the loss of families like the Khans. There never was. You can believe the invasion of Iraq was predicated on lies and still feel the truth of the Khans' loss, and admire the heroism of Humayun.
It bothers some people to say Humayun died "defending our freedoms" when he perished in a country we invaded under false pretenses. When Trump's former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, said that Humayun would be alive today if we'd had a president reluctant to invade Iraq, he was wrong on many fronts — most notably in suggesting that Trump would have been that president. Trump never opposed the invasion until after it happened. But his greater offense was missing the point of why we honor veterans, no matter how we feel about the greater cause.
Humayun died a hero because his actions saved others, of course, but he also died a soldier in a military that — for good or ill — is intended to act on the will of the people. That deference, to the people over pure strength, is an American value, enshrined in the Constitution Khzir Khan holds next to his heart.
Our country's stability makes it easy to forget that democracy is an ongoing experiment that other countries have seen fail. This is a country that has never seen its military act on its own behalf; the armed forces do only what our democratically elected leaders ask of it. Humayun Khan did not necessarily put his life on the line because he personally believed in the Iraq mission (though he may have). He and every other member of our volunteer military put their lives on the line based on faith that the people of America, through our representatives, are the proper instrument of policy — not our generals, not some tin-pot dictator, not some rouged reality-TV star. That is the freedom Humayun died defending: the idea that democracy works, that it can be trusted to decide the fate of the men and women who offer to serve it without question. And so those of us who can question the aims of the military must do just that. We must prove ourselves worthy of the responsibility that democracy gives us, whether we want it or not.