Turning Heroes into Victims and Vice-Versa
The discussion about press corps patriotism — or, more precisely, the lack of it — sparked by Jonah Goldberg was somewhat fuzzy, focusing on the meaning of nationalism and the value of symbols. Robert Kaplan takes a sharper cut at it in today’s WSJ, focusing not so much on patriotism but heroism.
The media struggles in good faith to respect our troops, but too often it merely pities them. I am generalizing, of course. Indeed, there are regular, stellar exceptions, quite often in the most prominent liberal publications, from our best military correspondents. But exceptions don’t quite cut it amidst the barrage of “news,” which too often descends into therapy for those who are not fighting, rather than matter-of-fact stories related by those who are.
As one battalion commander complained to me, in words repeated by other soldiers and marines: “Has anyone noticed that we now have a volunteer Army? I’m a warrior. It’s my job to fight.” Every journalist has a different network of military contacts. Mine come at me with the following theme: We want to be admired for our technical proficiency–for what we do, not for what we suffer. We are not victims. We are privileged.
Media frenzies are ignited when American troops are either the perpetrators of acts resulting in victimhood, or are victims themselves. Meanwhile, individual soldiers daily performing complicated and heroic deeds barely fit within the strictures of news stories as they are presently defined. This is why the sporadic network and cable news features on heroic soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan comes across as so hokey. After all, the last time such reports were considered “news” was during World War II and the Korean War.
In particular, there is Fox News’s occasional series on war heroes, whose apparent strangeness is a manifestation of the distance the media has traveled away from the nation-state in the intervening decades. Fox’s war coverage is less right-wing than it is simply old-fashioned, antediluvian almost. Fox’s commercial success may be less a factor of its ideological base than of something more primal: a yearning among a large segment of the public for a real national media once again–as opposed to an international one. Nationalism means patriotism, and patriotism requires heroes, not victims.
This comes much closer to the capturing the conflict than the Goldberg piece and gets at something more important: The disconnect between a professional military and the society it serves. Goldberg noted, for example, that Walter Cronkite and his fellows wore military uniforms as part of a war correspondents corps; that idea seems at best quaint and probably simply mindboggling today.
But while the attention is on the press corps, the same is true of society as a whole. We don’t know how to relate to the military because warfighting is now the unique province of a professional warrior caste. Both the press and the public naturally feel sorry for soldiers sent into unfriendly places far from home.
Further, our national psyche, shaped by Vietnam and Watergate and a cynical popular culture has long since rejected the idea of “good guys” and “bad guys.” While we still have the occasional “heroes,” we view the concept through jaundiced eyes.
Worse, we quite often conflate heroism and victimhood. Take, for example, those killed by terrorists in the September 11 attacks. They’re treated almost universally as heroes, with the Twin Towers dubbed as “hallowed ground.” Yet the vast majority of those who died that day were mere tragic victims; ordinary folks who just went to work that day to collect a paycheck and were murdered in a particularly public way. The heroes that day were the police officers and firefighters who risked their lives going into burning buildings to save others.
Kaplan also takes the macro view:
That medium is refractive because while the U.S. still has a national military, it no longer has a national media to quite the same extent. The media is increasingly representative of an international society, whose loyalty to a particular territory is more and more diluted. That international society has ideas to defend–ideas of universal justice–but little actual ground. And without ground to defend, it has little need of heroes. Thus, future news cycles will also be dominated by victims.
The media is but one example of the slow crumbling of the nation-state at the upper layers of the social crust–a process that because it is so gradual, is also deniable by those in the midst of it. It will take another event on the order of 9/11 or greater to change the direction we are headed. Contrary to popular belief, the events of 9/11–which are perceived as an isolated incident–did not fundamentally change our nation. They merely interrupted an ongoing trend toward the decay of nationalism and the devaluation of heroism.
It’s not clear to me that heroism has to die along with nationalism. My instinct is that Kaplan is wrong in his judgment that the trend toward cosmopolitanism and post-nationalism is reversible. While the trend is moving in the other direction in much of the developing world, with artificial nation-states devolving back into tribal entities, the prosperous democracies are becoming more intermingled. Europe is slowly but surely on its way to becoming a “United States of Europe” and the globalization of economics and security is inexorable.
Postscript: NPR ran a feature on today’s “Morning Edition” that was a classic case of the “soldiers as victims” schema described above. In “Guard Families Seek to Close Gap Left by Iraq,” John McChesney looked at the plight of the Minnesota National Guard’s 1st Brigade Combat Team, which recently returned from Iraq after a 22 month deployment. No mention was made of what they did while over there and no soldier proud of his service was heard from. Instead, the focus was “Families left behind struggle to put their lives back together.”
Laura Rosen links the piece approvingly and it is a well done piece of reporting. But it misses the larger point: These people chose their calling.
Nobody questions that soldiers going off to war face extreme hardship or that their families suffer in their absence. This doesn’t make them victims, however. It’s simply the nature of service. Treating these people as hapless victims who had no idea that their citizen-soldiers might one day actually have to use the skills they’d spent years training to acquire cheapens their sacrifice.
In a different context, Heather Hurlburt observes, “in my most recent bloggingheads.tv appearance: Eli Lake complained that ‘no one ever thanks the US’ — which is a great example of the above syndrome. I compared efforts in the international sphere to changing diapers — thankless, but part of the deal and not worth whining over.”
That’s the attitude of the vast majority of our soldiers serving in Iraq. They’re tired, they miss their families, and some substantial number of them doubtless think they’re fighting a losing cause. But they’re warriors, not victims, and they don’t want our pity.