March 29, 2006,
I got some pretty ill-tempered e-mails the other day when I pooh-poohed Ralph Peters’s reporting from Iraq. Peters is a retired military man who has written a shelf-full of books about military strategy and geopolitics. I took issue with him over a column in which he sneered at U.S. reporters in Baghdad for lurking in their hotels pasting together copy brought in by Iraqi stringers. I thought this was unfair, since the very nature of the situation in Baghdad means that reporters have only two ways to get their news: (A) the one Peters criticized, and (B) the one Peters practiced, viz. going out under the protection of a U.S. military unit. U.S. reporters do take the humvee ride, as Peters did, and to imply that they are afraid to do so is unfair. And as a way to understand what’s going on, the humvee ride has its own limitations, a thing Peters did not acknowledge.
Be all that as it may, what my readers really wanted to take issue with was my yellow, pusillanimous hide. Peters, several readers intimated, is a saint, a soldier’s soldier, who knows what’s what, and what to do about it. How dare I, an ink-stained wretch, scribbling away in the safety and comfort of some bosky suburb, how dare I criticize Peters while he’s out there in the heat and dust with our troops? Some readers took it as equivalent to criticizing the military itself and in wartime, too! “We expect unqualified support from the American public,” barked one dot-mil e-mailer. (Though the dot-mils were a small minority among the angry readers an interesting thing in itself.) A surprising number wanted to know why I hadn’t been to Iraq myself, and several of these answered their own question by suggesting that I was too much of a stinking yellow sniveling knock-kneed coward unlike fearless Saint Ralph. The truth of this last matter is simply that a two-week trip to Iraq, with facilities, bodyguards, and transportation, will set you back about $15,000. I don’t have that kind of money, and no generous editor has offered to expense me.
Ralph Peters can take care of himself pretty well. If he thinks it worth his time to respond to my comments, I’m sure we shall hear from him. All I want to do here is give the chickenhawk argument one more thrashing and more generally, to offer some thoughts about how the citizens of a commercial republic with a volunteer army should regard their military.
In the first place, I very strongly resist the idea that any national policy that puts the military in harm’s way should be above criticism on those grounds alone. If my government sends troops to trouble spot X in furtherance of policy Y, and I disagree with Y, not only am I at liberty to say so, it is my citizenly duty to say so. You may of course argue that by speaking out in public, I am encouraging the enemy, and so indirectly causing more U.S. casualties. The obvious riposte is that by speaking out, I may hasten the end of a mistaken (according to me) policy, saving casualties that would otherwise have occurred. As debating points, these are a wash.
In the second place, military men, even very gifted ones, are as susceptible to folly and error as the rest of us which is why we should be glad we never had a President Macarthur or a Vice President Stockdale. I don’t care how dazzling a military career you have had: If you say something silly, you should expect to be called on it. Contrariwise, while a person with no military experience at all is not the person you should go to for advice on tactics or logistics, his opinions on larger geostrategic issues are as good as any military man’s. If he is well traveled and has read deeply in history and politics, they are likely better. Respect for the military is a commendable thing, and in my opinion an essential component of good citizenship; but outside the zone of strictly military expertise, it should not be elevated to reverence.
There is a generational issue here. People like myself, the oldest of the Boomers (I think I may technically be among the youngest of the pre-Boomers) grew up in a very militarized society. WWII was a close memory: “before the war,” “during the war,” “since the war” were basic time markers for the adults I grew up among. Britain had conscription until I was 15: My sister’s boyfriends, three or four years my senior, missed the “call-up” by the skin of their teeth, to their great joy. Practically all the males I knew who were any older than that had served, often in combat. My Dad had been an infantryman on the Western Front in WWI; my mother’s father was an engineer in the same theater; Uncle Jerry was evacuated from Dunkirk; Cousin Stanley was torpedoed in the North Atlantic; Cousin Terry survived his truck driving over a mine in Malaya. My brother was a serving professional soldier for 22 years. The Cadet Force, with a regular weekly parade in uniform and weekend training, was a normal part of secondary education, an alternative to the Boy Scouts (whom we cadets thought a bunch of sissies). I even helped with Cadet training myself after I graduated college, and was given Her Majesty’s commission for the purpose. Military stuff was all normal and natural, part of the mechanism of society, part of the scenery.
All that acted on different people in different ways. For some, familiarity bred contempt, and the anti-militarism of lefty Boomers like Bill Clinton had its roots in just the environment I have described. You can hear one too many war stories. (In the British army it is considered mildly impolite to inflict war stories on people innocent of combat. The correct protocol is to ask permission. Many times I’ve been on training courses with an instructor who, to illustrate some point, would say: “Mind if I tell a war-y? You sure? Well…”)
Most of us, though, came out of it liking, or at worst not minding, the military, coupled often with a slight regret, tinged with guilt, that we had never been tested as so many of the older men we knew had. Personally I always enjoyed military training, and have often thought I would likely have “gone for a soldier” if I hadn’t been so bookish. It isn’t just the fighting angle, either. Later in life I had a good deal to do with corporate accounting systems. I never saw one that was half as rigorous and comprehensive as the British army’s. “I can locate every knife, fork, and spoon in this battalion,” a quartermaster boasted to me once, and I am sure it was true. There is a briskness, a no-nonsense straightforwardness, about military affairs that makes a refreshing contrast with the cluttered complexity of civilian life. This is even true of legal matters. “Military justice is to justice, as military music is to music,” goes the old joke. Possibly so, but the average court-martial is a crisper affair than the average criminal trial, and probably a fairer one. O.J. Simpson would never have got off in a military court.
My respect for the military is, however, limited by all that ingrained familiarity. It has never risen to the level of unqualified deference urged on me by some of my complaining readers. I have a libertarian friend who, if you raise the issue of respect for the military, says: “For goodness’ sake, it’s just a government job.” Well, I resist that “just”; but, yes, it undoubtedly is a government job. There are of course the abnormally large probabilities of being maimed, blinded, or killed; but then again, there is great job security and excellent benefits. And this is, in fact, how a lot of military people look at it, often somewhat defensively. I am not saying that civil service values pervade the armed forces. They certainly don’t. They are not altogether absent, though, as any honest military person will admit.
The Chinese philosopher Shang Yang taught that only two professions are necessary for the maintenance of the state: farming, and soldiering. We have come a long way since the fourth century B.C. Farming and soldiering are now carried on at the margins of society, out of sight and out of mind of most of us. The hardships of both, and the emotional rewards of both, are things that most citizens can only approach with an effort of the imagination. Both are still indispensable, though, and entitled to respect on that account. In time of war, we owe additional gratitude to soldiers for facing the horrors of combat on our behalf, and to their families for the anxiety and suffering they bear, also on our behalf. However, there is a right measure for everything, and uncritical deference to the opinions of military and ex-military men is, in my opinion, more than good citizenship demands.