Politics & Policy

The War, in the Vernacular

The flap featuring Rush Limbaugh, Media Matters, and MoveOn.org illustrates the importance not only of keeping facts straight but also of lining up symmetrical perspectives. For instance: An individual soldier fighting in Iraq can believe that the war is ill begotten, that American military leaders are doing a bad job, and that the whole world would be better off if the United States were to pull out.

If that soldier was overheard ventilating these preachments and hauled in to the company commander for questioning, what might one expect to hear?

“Soldier, you’ve been criticizing the conduct of the war and the thinking behind that conduct. Are you protesting your role in current operations?”

“No. No, sir. Are you, sir, suggesting that I am not entitled to criticize the war?”

“No. I’m not saying exactly that. But I am saying that criticisms of the conduct of a war can encourage disloyalty, and that cannot be tolerated in the military.”

“I understand that, sir. Sir, you haven’t told anybody around here that I am a ‘phony soldier,’ have you?”

“Certainly not. A phony soldier is a guy who gives the impression that he was fighting on the battlefront when actually he was far removed from action. He is also ‘phony’—not merely as a soldier but as a human being—if he is out there telling people that most of the soldiers engaged in the Iraq war don’t believe in it. There is something that separates an ordinary citizen from a soldier. The soldier has to have a special sense of corporate responsibility. And he has to remind himself, every now and then, that our army nowadays is made up of volunteers.”

“Did Rush Limbaugh make that confusion?”

“No. He was criticizing the phony soldier we’ve mentioned—a specific individual who had falsified his war record—but he was hardly including in that category every soldier who has reservations about the war. “

“Why is this happening?”

“The stakes are pretty big in Washington, and elsewhere. There are—you know this, corporal—outfits determined to discredit the war. They’ll seize on any remark made that contributes to their story: that this is a losing war, badly conceived, incompetently executed. That General Petraeus is a windbag, doing political favors rather than using his own experience to give the American people an honest evaluation of the war. These folk will construe any criticism of the war by a soldier as one more sign of weakness, of doubt, of subjective recognition that the war should not have been fought in the first place.”


“Yes, corporal.”

“Would it be okay to say that I, Corporal John Landers, would agree with that appraisal?”

“No, corporal. It wouldn’t be okay, not so long as you’re in uniform. You have your own thoughts, and inevitably you will share them with the soldiers in your unit. But you have to be governed by having something to do with the prospects of an enterprise that is a commitment of the government of the United States. As long as you are a soldier, you are a functioning part of that enterprise.”

“And when I leave the army?”

“You will be free to explain that if General Petraeus had just been a little wiser he’d have followed your advice.”



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