Response to Austin Bay: on courage, the military, and liberals
In our continuing dialogue and speculation about attitudes of liberals towards the military, Austin Bay asks me to comment on the following story (scroll down to the bottom of his post to find it):
[Neo-neocon's] comments about courage remind me of a conversation I had in 1996 at the Texas Book Festival. Actually, it was a conversation I overheard. A man who had just been on a Texas history panel was fuming in a hallway and complaining to a couple of friends standing with him. From what I gathered, a woman (either on the panel or in the audience) had started calling the Alamo’s defenders racists and sexists, etc., and made a comment about the “sexist focus” of history. (And when I say I gathered that, I’m paraphrasing what the man said.)
I do not know why I asked him this, I guess it was because he was suddenly looking at me. I asked him “Why do you think she said that?"
He replied: “Because what those men did took courage, physical courage. And she doesn’t have it, she’s petty and afraid. So she has to diminish them so she doesn’t have to confront her own cowardice."
Then he asked me: “Do you know what kind of courage it takes to face bullets?”
I was taken aback a bit, but I replied: “I know soldiers have to do what they have to do.”
He gave me a curt nod, turned back to his friends, and continued to fume.
Austin later writes:
I think the angry man in the hallway hit on a fundamental factor in a lot of the elitist Left’s condescending treatment of soldiers and disdain for the military. I’d be interested in neo-neocon’s assessment.
So, is this indeed the motivation behind the liberal/leftist attitude towards those who serve in the military (discussed earlier in this post of mine)? Obviously, I can't read the minds of liberals or leftists--so what follows is merely my speculation and personal observation, based on a rather small sample. It is also, by necessity, full of generalizations, so I'll add the caveat that I certainly do not think this represents the view of all liberals, or even all leftists.
However, I disagree. Unlike the angry man at the Texas Book Festival, I do not think that a major factor in the attitude of most liberals/leftists' towards the military is a consciousness of the military's bravery in contrast to their own cowardice. It's not my impression that liberals/leftists necessarily even focus on the courage of the military. It's my impression, from talking to liberals/leftists and reading what they write, that many primarily see the military (as I wrote previously) as either bloodthirsty--or, much more commonly and condescendingly, as unintelligent lower- or working-class pawns of a cowardly and exploitative ruling class (thus, the "chickenhawk" accusation against that ruling class, especially towards those who didn't serve, or whose service is deemed inadequate--see this for a rather lengthy example of the genre).
In my experience, liberals don't necessarily even think very often in terms of concepts such as physical courage--it's an old-fashioned word for an old-fashioned value. They think in terms of the values of kindness and/or tolerance and/or intelligence, which they feel that they themselves demonstrate. Or, if they do think of courage and admire it, it is more often the courage to speak out, or to stand up for a cause (to "speak truth to power," for example).
Remember the old slogan, "Better Red than dead?" The people who said it meant it. And they weren't all Communists, not by any means. They were people who believed that almost nothing--no abstraction, anyway, including freedom--was worth fighting for in the physical sense, and especially not worth dying for. Therefore anyone who does believe in fighting for something so abstract must be deluded in some way, or oppressed in some way, or both.
Don't forget, also, that these concerns about one's own physical courage and how it might measure up to that of others are somewhat of a masculine obsession. Not that women don't think in these terms sometimes--especially in recent years--but the trajectories of the lives of most women tend to lack those moments of truth--the fistfights, the interpersonal physical challenges--that constitute the tests of physical courage against another human being that are more commonplace in the lives of men. Of course, there are many exceptions to that rule--but I think the rule still generally holds. Women's physical courage, which does exist, is more often of the intra-personal rather than the inter-personal variety--such as enduring the pain of childbirth, for example.
And of course, many liberals are women. For them, I just don't think the whole question of their own personal courage in the physical sense of being ready to die for a cause is one they have had to contemplate very much. I say this, of course, as a woman. I have no idea whether I would have had the courage to serve in that way, if called upon--and, personally, I was very happy to have never been forced to face that question, since the Vietnam era draft did not apply to women. If that makes me a chickenhawk--well then, I guess that's what I am (although I'm not so sure women can be chickenhawks, can they?)
I also think that the template for the liberal/leftist view of the military was set during Vietnam, when the draft was one of the main ways to enter the service. To the best of my knowledge and recollection, many (if not most) of those who served in the Army then were reluctant draftees--and some who enlisted in the other branches were somewhat reluctant also, having joined up only to escape the draft and thus gain a bit more autonomy. People whose attitudes towards military service were based on that era are sometimes unable to understand the changes that have been wrought by the all-volunteer military. They continue to see those in the service as victims, although now they are not seen as victims of the draft, but as victims of coercion and class via economic incentives for joining the military, and/or as victims of the self-serving lies of politicians. It stands to reason that the class interpretation would be especially common on the left, since it fits in quite nicely with a socialist or Marxist viewpoint. And, if the enlistee is viewed as a pawn of economic circumstances, and his/her motivation is seen as economic, then it's easier to circumvent the whole topic of personal courage.
This idea of the dead soldier as victim, rather than courageous hero, is often cited by the left for propaganda purposes against the administration and those "ruling classes." Here's a recent and very typical example of this type of thinking (found here in comment #80--supposedly it's taken from Michael Moore's website, but I looked and couldn't find it there, so I can't swear it's a proper attribution):
Bush and the Crime Cabal in power sent 26 more soldiers to their graves this week and 26 more families to lives of living hell. 26 more lives and families devastated and destroyed for absolutely nothing. We will see the hypocritical mobsters of the state at their events today and tomorrow spewing filth from their mouths, such as: "Freedom isn't Free," and "We must stay the course in Iraq to honor the sacrifices of the fallen...Then the morons who killed our children will happily go back to their homes and have a nice Memorial Day dinner secure in the fact that their children will never die in a war and their children will have nice, wealthy, long lives because of the incredible riches this misadventure in Iraq has brought their fathers and mothers.
Then there is the idea of those who serve in the military as the "other." Here's an interesting article from the LA Times that discusses the change of heart a father experienced when his son, a Marine, went to Iraq. The father had never served in the military himself, and seemed to have never even considered what might motivate someone to serve. He writes:
Before my son unexpectedly volunteered for the Marines, I was busy writing my novels and raising my family, and giving little thought to the men and women who guard us...
But later, when his son returns from combat, the father writes:
I found myself praying and crying for all the fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, husbands and wives of those who were not coming home. For the first time in my life, I was weeping for strangers.... Before my son went to war I never would have shed tears for them. My son humbled me. My son connected me to my country. He taught me that our men and women in uniform are not the "other."
Prior to his son going to war, this man was almost dissociative in his ability to tune out the military. They simply did not exist for him as people--or, if they did, they were the "other." What he means by that I'm not sure--were they the "other" in his eyes because of perceived class differences, personality differences, or merely a failure of imagination on his part? One might say he seems to lack the ability to put himself in someone else's shoes--and yet it turns out he is an author, and a novelist! Very perplexing indeed.
I can only conclude that people like the author, Frank Schaeffer, are operating with blinders on. The motivations of people in the military are not understood by them, and they are not curious about those motivations. Schaeffer's change of heart occurred for one simple reason: a military man finally became "real" to him, because that man was his son. He could no longer regard this particular Marine as the "other," because he knew him and loved him, and that ended up humanizing all military personnel in his eyes.