Politics & Policy

Unless You Were There…

I will judge, dammit.

Maybe it’s because I’ve spent the better part of a month in the farthest left corner of Washington state–speaking geographically and otherwise–but I find the whole SwiftVets controversy a little maddening.

I haven’t spent a lot of time studying the allegations made in Unfit for Command, (and if that’s what you’re looking for, NRO has plenty to offer elsewhere). And since I haven’t read the book, I guess I’m really not qualified to offer too much of an opinion on the details, at least not an opinion that isn’t crusted over with clichés and conventional wisdom.

But all of this does raise an interesting question. Even if I had read the book, would I have the right to an opinion?

Let me explain. As longtime readers know, one of my bigger gripes is the notion that only some people are qualified to make certain judgments or arguments. For example, it drives me nuts when racialists say “it’s a black thing” or when they talk about “white logic.” One time, I defended myself in a column against the charge of racism by quoting from the dictionary the definition of racism. I received a bunch of e-mails from offended Asian Americans who were furious that I would “dare” invoke a dictionary in my defense when the only reliable measure of my racism was their feelings.

Anyway, while most conservatives agree, at least in principle, that the notions of subjective truth at the core of identity politics are poisonous and dangerous, in my experience conservatives are far more divided over the importance of, well, experience. I don’t necessarily think, however, that this is a liberal-conservative thing so much as evidence of the way some clichés can corrupt the way we think.

For example, a few years ago it was reported that then-Senator Bob Kerrey may have done some bad things in Vietnam. Instantaneously, defenders exclaimed, “Unless you were there, you have no right to judge.” Now, while I thought Kerrey deserved the benefit of the doubt, and the self-righteousness of anti-war liberals bothers me no matter what the circumstances, as a matter of first principles I thought this argument was nonsense.

After all, in many important spheres of life proximity to or participation in events is a disqualification for objectivity. If you are an eyewitness to a crime–never mind a victim of it–there’s no way you could be put on an impartial jury charged with “judging” a defendant. What defense lawyer would welcome having the presiding judge also play the dual role of prosecutor? For instance, none of the jurors in the Abu Ghraib courts martial are prison guards at Abu Ghraib, and rightly so.

Similarly, if we cannot make judgments about the alleged crimes committed in battle unless we were there, how can we make judgments about their heroism? Is the fog of war so selective that it can conceal the bad a man does, but not the good?

And, as a side note, this view neuters the study of history entirely. Since none of us were around during slavery, does that mean we have no right to judge? In a few years time, there won’t be any Holocaust survivors left. I guess we will lose with them our right to have opinions about all that. Or consider John Keegan, indisputably one of the 20th century’s greatest military historians. He never served in battle, so I guess he’s wasting his time offering opinions about anything.

In a sense this is all of a piece with the interminable “chicken-hawk” gripe which is now oddly descending upon Dick Cheney and George W. Bush. For decades, Cheney’s foreign-policy expertise was universally respected–until 2004, when the Democrats suddenly discovered that their candidate not only served in Vietnam, but was determined to base his entire bid for the presidency on his four months there. Now prominent Democrats are claiming that Cheney is a “coward” and that he has no right to criticize John Kerry’s views and votes on foreign-policy issues, because Cheney didn’t serve in Vietnam.

As for the president, the only area in which he beats John Kerry decisively in the polls is, broadly, in his capacity as commander-in-chief. The American people–as well as a majority of veterans and (I presume) those serving in the military–generally think Bush is a better war president than Kerry would be. And yet the Kerry campaign insists that Kerry’s stint in Vietnam makes him more qualified to be a war president because George W. Bush’s four-year term as a war president cannot outweigh the fact that John Kerry spent four months in Vietnam. Meanwhile a bunch of guys who served alongside Kerry under similar circumstances all say that Kerry’s full of it, and the Democrats say they have no right to talk at all. Indeed, they want the book pulled from bookstores. Follow all of that?

Now, keep in mind this is all largely a reversal from twelve years ago when Bill Clinton ran for office. Back then the Paul Begalas and John Kerrys claimed that service in Vietnam–or anywhere else–was irrelevant to being an effective president (while some Republicans were largely saying the reverse). Now, suddenly, it is the qualification that trumps all others.

My point isn’t the usual hypocrisy gotcha, though that’s certainly worth pointing out. It’s that experience–while more often than not superior to the lack of it–isn’t as powerful or important as we like to think. If service in Vietnam or in uniform were the prerequisite for correct thinking on military and foreign-policy issues, then you’d think Veterans would all agree with each other. Obviously, they don’t. The media’s favorite veteran, John McCain, disagrees with John Kerry about Iraq and most foreign-policy issues (depending on which day of the week Kerry is talking). John Edwards talks about how Kerry still carries shrapnel in his leg and therefore…therefore…therefore, well, something along the lines of nobody’s ever allowed to criticize John Kerry. Obviously, that’s idiotic on its face. If it’s not, maybe we should count the side with the most shrapnel in its collective body and declare it the most qualified to lead the country. My guess is Karl Rove would be happy with that.

We do not live in the world of Starship Troopers where only veterans are allowed to vote.

In a democracy, arguments and reason must count for something, if not necessarily everything. During the lead-up to the war, opponents of the war (including hundreds of nasty folks in my e-mail box) declared that the White House had no right to send troops into combat because they hadn’t seen it themselves. Or, I remember Chris Matthews trying to bully Rich Lowry into silence during the lead-up to the war. Matthews shrieked at Rich something to the effect of “Have you ever been to the Middle East!?” And when Rich said no, Matthews responded something like “Well, then you have no right to talk.”

This is the path to madness. If reading books and articles, talking to experts–including veterans–and making arguments built on facts and logic is always insufficient compared to the experience of being shot at–or taking a walking tour of a Middle Eastern city–then we must have compulsory military conscription for everybody–men, women, Quakers, Amish, gays, and invalids included (and then find ways to rotate them through combat). That’s the only way to ensure that everyone maintains their rights.

Of course, that’s not what anyone has in mind. One reason, it seems, liberals have bought into this cliché so fiercely when it comes to John Kerry is that they think it will work for him and hurt George W. Bush. A related motive seems to be, simply, payback for past slights at the hands of the party more comfortable expressing patriotism and support for the military. A third motive for this chicken-hawk nonsense is simple bullying. It was and is a thuggish attempt to silence opponents’ arguments without dealing with them on the merits. Don’t like Wolfowitz’s (or Lowry’s ) argument but don’t have any good answers to it? Easy: Say he has no right to make it.

Conservatives have, by and large, bought into this argument for different reasons altogether, chief among them laziness. Vietnam was complicated in every sense. It was obviously confusing and chaotic for many who were there and for even more who weren’t. Explaining the rightness of what often seemed to be–and sometimes were–horrendous acts was just plain hard. Carefully explaining or even discussing the fact that terrible things happen in even the “best” of wars to people who believed that anti-Communism itself was paranoid and even reactionary was almost impossible. The ingratitude of some antiwar liberals made things even harder. Why bother reasoning with the deliberately unreasonable?

In much the same way liberals can scream bloody murder at the slightest perceived racial insensitivity on the part of cops but go deaf to the explanations behind it, knee-jerk opponents of the military found it difficult to understand, easy to condemn, and impossible to sympathize with American troops doing difficult and messy work in America’s interests. Hence the instinctive response from those inclined to support the military: “Unless you were there, you have no right to judge.” This is less an argument and more a sign of exhaustion.

But as a civilian who never served in uniform I reserve my right to judge, to form opinions based upon what I learn. When it is demonstrated definitively that American soldiers do terrible things, I want to feel free to say so, not least because if I don’t condemn those who do wrong I am in effect saying the best are no better than the worst. But more important, I want the right to judge because without that right I cannot take pride in them, except on the cheap, and I cannot express my gratitude and have it be sincere.


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