Ceding Geopolitical Judgment to Soldiers

Recently we came across an ad on the Internet. You can watch it on YouTube if you wish. It features a young soldier saying he’s fresh from serving in Iraq, defending the mission of his unit, and concluding from his experience that we all need to elect the more bellicose John McCain over Barack Obama, his democratic opponent. After the young man finishes speaking, he turns and walks away from the camera, revealing that he has lost a leg (presumably in combat). As he walks away, the latest hyper-patriotic country song blares in the background. The obvious message is that we should trust the judgment of this young man about the war in Iraq and about the Presidential election (and parenthetically, our hearts should swell with pride in our country) because this young man is a wounded veteran and believes we need to keep fighting a war.

We were sad to see the ad, because it forced us to face the sorry state to which political dialogue has descended in the United States.

First, this is not about that young man. As citizens of a country that sometimes must make war to defend itself, we are grateful for his service, and we grieve over his injuries. He is disturbingly typical, one of more than 30 thousand (and that’s just the official total, probably dramatically understated) military personnel who have returned from Iraq with their bodies and lives shattered by injury. He and others like him deserve to be honored for their sacrifice, and they deserve the support on their return that, heretofore, the Rove/Bush/McCain/Palin complex has denied them.

No, this is not about that young man. It is about disturbing and pervasive intellectual laziness that assumes that, because a soldier has suffered injury or been made prisoner or just seen action, we should trust him or her to tell us what our foreign policy should be.

OF COURSE that young man believes his mission and his sacrifice were justified. Principles of cognitive dissonance require this; the alternative is that he believe his suffering was a waste, and no one wants that. OF COURSE his family is proud of his service; OF COURSE they cling to the assumption that his injuries were sustained in pursuit of a noble principle. None of us would have it any other way, and we suspect that if one of our beloved family members were injured in combat, we would join them in that desire.

Producing an effective fighting force requires that the young men and women in it be devoted to their portion of the mission. That young man cannot and should not be troubled that the war in which he fought has already cost more than $120,000 for every man, woman, and child in Iraq, with no end in sight. He cannot and should not be troubled that the adventure in the Middle East in which he participated so enthusiastically has created and nurtured a distrust of America throughout the Muslim world and hatred of it among millions of young Muslim men. He cannot and should not be troubled that every justification for taking up arms against Iraq has been discredited. He cannot and should not be troubled that the war in which he fought diverted his nation’s time, dollars, and attention from the military mission that did make sense, the capture and prosecution of those who actually perpetrated the September 11 attacks on America.

No, we want our soldiers to have a simple, perhaps even naive grasp of their mission. Wise citizens understand this and are grateful for the naïveté of soldiers. Foolish ones mistake that naïveté for wisdom.