by Bruce S. Thornton
I get a lot of ragging from my fellow conservatives for reading The New York Times every day. But as I tell them, you have to know how the other side thinks. Progressive ideology reflects a narrative founded on unexamined ideas long exposed as unworkable, incoherent, or just plain false. Countering those ideas requires seeing how they function in their natural habitat as they reinforce the narrative and create received wisdom. I’m not talking about the obvious ideologues like Paul Krugman, whose progressive dogma is as predictable and formulaic as a Hollywood romantic comedy. More insidious are the pieces that have a legitimate and interesting point, but then inevitably fall back onto unexamined nostrums.
Journalist Sebastian Junger, for example, has a recent Times essay that confronts the simple fact that for many men war is not, as the liberals have it, an irredeemable evil, but rather an opportunity for adventure, achievement, and camaraderie. Junger suggests that accepting and understanding this reality could be helpful in reintegrating combat veterans into civilian life. But this potentially useful point immediately gets sidetracked by received wisdom, as when Junger claims that society is unwilling “to acknowledge the very real horrors of war,” and that this silence makes it harder for veterans to deal with their experiences.
I don’t know what “society” Junger has in mind, but it certainly isn’t the United States, where ever since Vietnam the “horrors of war” have been dwelled on, magnified, and frequently embellished by the media and popular culture at the expense of all those other dimensions of combat Junger recognizes are legitimate. The media coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, has relentlessly focused on the dead, the wounded, the impact on their families, and the deaths of civilians with an almost voyeuristic intensity. So too with Junger’s assertion that we must remember the bombings of Dresden and Hamburg, the firebombing of Japanese cities, and of course the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and his implication that “we as a nation avoid coming to terms with events like these.” Again, this is a dubious assertion, given that a whole industry has sprung up demonizing the bombing of Hiroshima, which every student in America learns was a shameful crime even as he knows nothing about the Japanese atrocities perpetrated in Manchuria or the Philippines.
This trite bit of received wisdom — that American society ignores the horrors of war, particularly the deaths of civilians — can be relied on to surface whenever the country debates sending our troops into combat, as it did in 2003 before the Iraq war. It reappears in Junger’s essay to provide his next dubious assumption: that this blindness makes it harder for veterans to assimilate into civilian society because their conflicted emotions about their experiences are unacknowledged, especially their guilt over civilian deaths. Again, this claim that there is some culture-wide silence about the experiences of combat veterans and their conflicted feelings is belied by history. After World War I scores of “trench reminiscences” flooded Western Europe, 75 in England just from 1927-29. The most famous was German Erich Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, which sold a million copies in Germany and another million in translation in France, England, and the US, where the film version won the best picture Oscar in 1930. So too after World War II, when in 1946 The Best Years of Our Lives won the best picture Oscar for 1946, and novels like Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead and James Jones’ From Here to Eternity were bestsellers. And of course, Vietnam produced a whole new genre of film that explored, and frequently distorted into lurid stereotypes, our soldiers’ experiences of that conflict.
The problem isn’t that the impact of conflict has been ignored, but rather that the depiction of the experiences of veterans typical of the mainstream media and Hollywood is usually simplistic and patronizing, treating them as well-meaning dupes of the war-mongers and arms dealers who exploit their simple-minded patriotism or other passé virtues like service and honor. In fact, most of the soldiers in an all-volunteer army know exactly what they sign up for, and why, and they accept the risks. And most resent the implication that they are the pathetic victims of the military-industrial complex. Yet rarely in the media and movies do we hear about their heroism and self-sacrifice, rarely do we get profiles of medal winners, rarely do we read interviews with warriors proud of their service, or hear their fond memories of the exhilaration and camaraderie they experienced. That dimension is as much a part of war as the terror of combat, or the guilt and remorse over civilian deaths. But it doesn’t fit the hoary progressive narrative in which the “merchants of death” send naïve boys to their gruesome doom just to increase corporate profits.
Unfortunately, for all his admirable respect for soldiers, Junger can’t resist this deeply imbedded meme of our therapeutic culture, even projecting it back onto the crews of the B-29’s and B-17s that bombed Japan and Germany, who he alleges “have a much harder time coming to terms with them [the bombings] as individuals.” Maybe, but it probably depends on whom you ask. Military historian Victor Davis Hanson’s father, who flew 39 missions over Japan, regretted not the bombing, which Japanese aggression brought upon itself, but the fact that it wasn’t done earlier and more thoroughly, thus perhaps avoiding the bloodbath on Okinawa that killed his brother. And here we get to the central problem of generalizations like Junger’s: they usually come down to anecdotal evidence that often elevates the exception for the norm and simplifies people’s experiences by assuming all veterans are “struggling with feelings of guilt and loss after the war.” No doubt many do, but no doubt just as many see their experiences as occasions for pride in their achievement and service. And no doubt many experience both sets of feelings. But we shouldn’t do what the culture has done, which is to take one response and assume it is the most representative.
That culture-wide assumption that combat veterans are victims to be pitied rather than heroes to be admired inhibits their reintegration into civilian life as much as the alleged societal myopia about the “horrors of war.” And beyond the impact on veterans, this exclusive focus on the evils of war and its crippling traumas can have a pernicious impact on foreign policy. The obsession with the horrors of World War I led to a “never again” mentality that helped paved the way for the policy of appeasement in the Thirties. A similar brooding over the alleged horrific crimes of Vietnam made our abandonment of South Vietnam more politically palatable, which in turn facilitated American retreat and Soviet expansionism in the 70s. And today the same sort of coverage of Iraq and Afghanistan may camouflage an over-hasty withdrawal from those countries.
From such unexamined progressive dogmas are bad policies made, dogmas so ingrained in the culture that they provide the default wisdom for otherwise intelligent and thoughtful people. Excavating and exposing such ideas requires us to do the digging where they work their mischief. That’s why I read The New York Times.
©2011 Bruce S. Thornton