11/11/2010 08:53 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Contradiction of Our Being

Last night, at the Iraq Afghanistan Veterans Association gala in honor of David Gelbaum and Wes Moore, I was overwhelmed by the seemingly contradictory nature of American culture's relationship with its armed forces. Veterans organizations going all the way back to the American Legion after World War I -- and not just in the U.S. but in most other industrial societies as well -- have typically advocated for conservative politics, militarily assertive foreign policy, and economic policies based on rugged individualism. So the stereotype that the military equals right wing and peacenik equals left wing has some reality. President Clinton famously didn't click with the Pentagon, there's a strong correlation between military-base locations and conservative politics, and liberals were the first to voice opposition to the Vietnam and Iraq wars.

But there's also the reality that, internally, the values of a military unit are strongly communitarian ("I've got your back" is an army phrase after all), and the military is probably our nation's most unequivocally meritocratic institution. The wars that our country has fought during my lifetime have not been fed by overly ambitious generals but, rather, by overly reckless or, in some cases, timid politicians.

Last night at the IAVA dinner, the screen behind the podium showed statistics that the nation should be ashamed of: How much higher the mortgage-foreclosure rate is in military communities, how many veterans are unemployed, and what the suicide rate is among returned Iraq and Afghanistan vets. But these issues are the classic concerns of progressives -- and things that the reactionary right tries to keep out of the national conversation. And New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg told a story last night about a conversation he had with a veteran who understood why it was important that the mayor speak out for the rights of Muslim Americans to pray -- even in lower Manhattan.

As a longtime environmentalist, I still find it startling that the American military is the most important institution -- one with broad credibility and acceptance in all segments of American society -- that clearly understands the urgency of action on climate and clean energy.

I hoped that I would have sorted all this out after a night's sleep. I haven't. But I think that grappling with and gaining a deeper understanding of these apparent contradictions is very important work. Until we get beyond the half-true stereotypes that we rely on most of the time, I suspect we won't be able to reunite America.