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The Rise of the Moderate Marine

A conversation with Rep. Conor Lamb—and why so many Trumpy Republican Marine politicians are crazy.
by Jim Swift
October 5, 2021
The Rise of the Moderate Marine
(Photos: GettyImages / Shutterstock)

For a host of reasons—including some that are unjust—the public perception of U.S. Marines is that they are hard-core right-wingers.

In part this is due to years of Hollywood depictions, sometimes distorted. Whether it’s R. Lee Ermey’s unforgettable drill sergeant “Gunny” in Full Metal Jacket or Damon Wayans in Major Payne, or the darker portrayals of active-duty and veteran Marines in such post-9/11 productions as Jarhead and Generation Kill, you get the sense that Marines, whatever else they may be, tend to be conservatives.

The reality is much more complicated. There are Marines on both sides of the political aisle, and many who don’t care for politics or who have political views that defy categorization. Certainly some of the Marines now serving in Congress don’t fit the conservative stereotype: Iraq War Marine veterans Seth Moulton and Ruben Gallego, respectively from Massachusetts and Arizona, are among the more liberal members of the House Democratic caucus.

And in some cases, the political conservatism of Marine veterans is only tenuously connected to their military service. In Ohio’s Senate race, we see former Marine reservist Josh Mandel, who served in Iraq as an intelligence specialist, and former Marine enlistee J.D. Vance, who worked in public affairs in Iraq, trying to out-crazy one another in an effort to win over the state’s Republican voters. Their kooky MAGA bidding war has less to do with their Marine service than with the blight of the Trumpian GOP.

Sticking with Ohio for a moment, Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, a high school classmate of mine, announced last month that he won’t be running for re-election. Gonzalez voted for Trump’s impeachment; his retirement is part of a trend in which the last few remaining good Republicans, or at least those marginally compromised by Trumpism, have decided to call it quits. Gonzalez will likely be replaced by Max Miller, who grew up a few blocks away from me. He’s another Marine reservist. He worked for Trump, has a troubling police record, and is batshit crazy.

A very different model of a Marine veteran can be found next door in Pennsylvania, running for the seat being vacated by Sen. Pat Toomey. (Toomey is yet another of the departing Republicans who supported the second Trump impeachment.)

On the Republican side, the leading candidate to replace Toomey is Sean Parnell, a retired Army Ranger who served in Afghanistan and is a darling of Fox News. Parnell hasn’t met a conspiracy theory he didn’t like. He has never held elective office: Parnell tried to unseat a first-term incumbent in the House of Representatives in 2020, but lost.

One of the leading candidates on the Democratic side—polling a solid second behind the state’s lieutenant governor—is the guy who beat Parnell last year: Rep. Conor Lamb, a Marine who served as Pittsburgh’s assistant U.S. attorney. At a time when most of the Marines running for Congress are far-right extremists, Lamb is a moderate. You might even say he’s a ghost of the long-dead “Blue Dog” caucus.

I talked to Lamb about his service and how it shaped his time as a member of Congress—and why he wants to be a senator.

To start, I asked why so many Marines on the right, like Miller, Mandel, and Vance, are campaigning like nutjobs, while people like Lamb show that it’s possible to run normal campaigns.

First, I think that just as a general point, the Marine Corps, because it’s known for being so tough, so rigorous, so hard to join successfully, and they seek out the toughest mission and everything, it attracts a lot of extreme personalities. So, if you’re getting a cross section of America, you’ll end up with people with extreme views politically on both sides…

One thing that was to my great shame and anger was how prominent the Marines were on January 6th. Marines were in that crowd wearing the Marine logo while they were attacking the Capitol.

One former Marine I talked to pointed to the “leadership traits” of the Marines: Bearing, Courage, Decisiveness, Dependability, Endurance, Enthusiasm, Initiative, Integrity, Judgment, Justice, Knowledge, Loyalty, Tact, and Unselfishness.

There are also the Marines’ three core values: honor, courage, and commitment. But when you go through the fourteen traits, you wonder how people like Conor Lamb, J.D. Vance, Max Miller, and Josh Mandel served in the same branch of the military. Integrity? Tact? Knowledge? One only need look at Vance’s, Miller’s, and Mandel’s Twitter accounts to know that they fail on a daily basis to exhibit those traits.

Lamb tells me:

The idea is basically the role that the Marines play in the national defense, they use the word “expeditionary.” It’s a very small force. The whole point of it is supposed to be that in an emergency situation and at the start of a conflict, the Marines have everything you need to get there first, fastest, bring the maximum amount of violence on the enemy with the minimal amount of people, while the Army is still packing up their tanks, and the Air Force is still figuring out their bombing, and all that kind of stuff. But the Marines are fast and hard. That means they’re lean and small.

So, the Marine Corps . . . they’re small, they’re selective, very intense mission set. As a result of being people that have to act fast in unforgiving climates, like the water, or invading into a desert situation, whatever, they operate in smaller units.

Why am I saying all this? The point is that they then have to train you to be able to operate on smaller teams, in very, very uncertain environments. The Army has units that they’ll train to fight mountain warfare, and units that they’ll train to fight big, open warfare with tanks or whatever. The Marine Corps, they train you for all of it, and none of it. They teach you to be super flexible and adaptable.

So when it comes to leadership training, everything is about being open-minded and not doctrinaire. Really, really valuing the work of every single person that you serve with, because there’s not that many of you. If you’re given a mission, there might only be 25 of you. You need every single one of those people, and you need them to come back. So, when you’re teaching someone to be a leader that translates as a maximum sense of responsibility, but also a lot of humility. Because I think when people are operating in small groups, if somebody who’s in charge thinks they’re a king or is super power-hungry or whatever, it just doesn’t work.

Mandel might be a determined campaigner, but he’s shown that when it comes to the battlefield of American politics, he’s willing to leave behind people who don’t play by his rules or share his beliefs.

Some of it could be chalked up to what role you played, and how you were trained.

So, they teach the officers to eat last and they teach you that literally. So you spend your entire time in officer training, if you’re the highest-ranking person there, you either serve the food and eat at the end, or at the very least, you stand at the very end of a long line, and there might not be enough food left for you by the time you go through. But the point is everybody who’s lower than you on the food chain is more important than you and goes first. Leadership is a responsibility and a burden. It’s not a title or a privilege or something that is there to show you how great you are.

. . . When you make observations about Marines in politics, how we are, particularly those of us who were trained as officers, it comes a little bit from the nature of what the Marine Corps is and the types of positions that it has, that produces people like us. They just teach us to be a certain way. I think in this year, maybe it translates to some Democrats because of that sense of responsibility and valuing the worth of every single person that you served with.

To me, that translated really well into politics, as politics was in this downward spiral. I thought Trump was really damaging the nation and he was conveying that to just huge swaths of our population, that he didn’t care about them at all. And it’s just wildly contradictory to this idea of leave no one behind. . . .

And of Vance?

I think that Donald Trump has made someone like J.D. Vance act much less like the Marine that he was trained to be.

. . . I don’t know [Vance] at all, but who he was before he got on board with Trump, was much more like a Marine to me. Whereas the opposite, I would say, is I think the rise of Donald Trump made people like me, and Jared Golden [a second-term Democratic congressman from Maine, who served in both Afghanistan and Iraq as a Marine infantryman], and others really think about our Marine Corps values and try to live up to them maybe even more than we were before, at least in our civilian lives. So, you could say he [Trump] made J.D. Vance less like a Marine, and Conor Lamb more like one, is how I would look at it.

Marines never retire, it is said—even when they become civilians, they’re always Marines. And clearly not all Marines are made of the same stuff.

Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.