The cover of the Atlantic that just came in the mail pimps the lead story inside with a headline that shouts . . .
. . . and is superimposed over a picture of a GI falling backwards in battle. If it looks a lot like the iconic Robert Capa shot from the Spanish Civil War—well, I’m sure it’s supposed to.
An overwrought headline is par for the course in a daily newspaper, but hysteria is a risky note to be struck by a monthly magazine professing gravitas (or bimonthly—this was the January/February issue). That tragic is particularly lazy. Thanks to the cover, the Atlantic got off on the wrong foot with me, and before long I found myself writing querulous notes in the margins of James Fallows’s article. These were the sort of notes an editor would scribble before instructing the author to take the manuscript back and do more work.
Fallows, a draft dodger during the Vietnam war who’s been thinking about that performance ever since, is a serious student of the American military, and, aside from the fact it’s not wildly original, I’ve got no problem with his actual thesis as framed by himself, not his headline writer. If he were writing a history of our times, he says:
I would call it Chickenhawk Nation, based on the derisive term for those eager to go to war, as long as someone else is going. It would be the story of a country willing to do anything for its military except take it seriously. As a result, what happens to all institutions that escape serious external scrutiny and engagement has happened to our military. Outsiders treat it both too reverently and too cavalierly, as if regarding its members as heroes makes up for committing them to unending, unwinnable missions and denying them anything like the political mindshare we give to other major public undertakings, from medical care to public education to environmental rules. . . . A chickenhawk nation is more likely to keep going to war, and to keep losing, than one that wrestles with long-term questions of effectiveness.
But when Fallows complains that “too much complacency regarding our military, and too weak a tragic imagination about the consequences if the next engagement goes wrong, have been part of Americans’ willingness to wade into conflict after conflict, blithely assuming we would win,” I want him to argue his case; I don’t believe the public blithely assumes anything. After all, the public wants the police to patrol our streets, but there’s no assumption that when they do they’ll kick crime’s ass once and for all. If, the brief Gulf war aside (and we mustn’t forget the invasion of Grenada), the U.S. hasn’t won a war since World War II, that doesn’t mean we “keep losing” wars the public “blithely” assumes are winnable. It could mean the public knows some wars are unwinnable but believes fighting them is better than sitting them out.
What was the great lesson of Vietnam? I suggest it was the epiphany that America doesn’t win all its wars and moreover, doesn’t need to. That’s because nothing terrible seems to happen when we don’t. The price America paid for losing Vietnam was roughly the one Britain paid for losing the American colonies. Britain collected a bunch of new colonies and was just fine. And so was America. The dominoes stayed put in Southeast Asia, the cold war ended, and we’re even on cordial terms with the Vietnamese. All civilians ask is that if we’re going to fight more of these endless, inconclusive wars thousands of miles from our borders, a professional army should do the fighting. Fallows regrets the disconnect between society and the military, and he can even imagine insurrection stirring in the souls of some officers who believe themselves (with reason) smarter and less trivial than the civilians who condescend to them. But he makes some odd observations about what this disconnect has led to.
Back in the day, he says, “American popular and high culture treated our last mass-mobilization war [he’s thinking of WWII, not Vietnam] as an effort deserving deep respect and pride, but not above criticism and lampooning.” He has in mind Bill Mauldin’s Willie and Joe, and the play Mister Roberts, the novel Catch-22. What have Iraq and Afghanistan given us? The Hurt Locker, Homeland, Restrepo, Zero Dark Thirty—stories that focus on the “suffering and stoicism” of the warriors fighting the wars but that, doggonit, “lack the comfortable closeness with the military that would allow them to question its competence as they would any other institution’s.”
This is one of the most awkward arguments I’ll come across in 2015. Zero Dark Thirty—remember the debate it triggered over torture?—doesn’t measure up because the Seals don’t come in for a good-natured lampooning? In Homeland, Brody comes home so broken by war and the way we conducted it that he murders the vice president—but he’s no Willy or Joe. A bomb disposal expert is blown up before our eyes in The Hurt Locker, but there’s none of the comfortable closeness that makes Mr. Roberts’s death so hard to take when it’s mentioned in a letter. The war America knew well enough to question gave us Mauldin’s cartoons. The Iraq war gave us the photos of Abu Ghraib. When Iraq was above criticism, I must have blinked.
In a sentimental sidebar to Fallows’s article, the essayist Joseph Epstein puts in a good word for the draft. “In a democracy,” he observes, “it somehow feels wrong for a small segment of the population to be charged with the responsibility of defending the country in foreign wars.” It might feel wrong to me too, but how do we engage everyone in the defense of the country when it’s being “defended” on the opposite side of the earth? A new draft, says Epstein, would give us a “truly American military” and guarantee a “majority of the country” stands behind the next war America fights. Does Epstein remember nothing of Vietnam?
“During the early years of the Vietnam War,” he says, “when the draft was still intact, a great many middle-class Americans avoided serving by going to graduate and professional schools and obtaining deferments. Vietnam was the first of our wars to be fought almost exclusively by an American underclass and, in part because of this, at no time did it have anything like the full support of the American people.”
He’s got it backwards. Vietnam was fought mostly by the underclass by default—because it didn’t have anything like the full support of the American people. Kids like Fallows at Harvard didn’t bail out to protest a war fought by the underclass; their big objection was to a war fought by themselves. The class consciousness came later—though, as Fallows wrote in 1975, it led to a ‘sense of shame which remains with me to this day.”
Face it! War—especially war fought on distant foreign soil—is a sport without much of a fan base. But Epstein wants the entire student body to show up. He wants cheerleaders.