Why “We” Fight
Mark Steyn defends Kathryn Jean Lopez’ honor from a letter writer who took issue with her use of the sentence “It’s about why we fight” despite the fact that she is not, never has been, and likely never will be a member of the United States armed forces. Steyn argues that,
[T]he notion that “fighting” a war is the monopoly of those “in uniform” gets to the heart of why America and its allies are having such a difficult time in the present struggle. Nations go to war, not armies. Or, to be more precise, nations, not armies, win wars.
That’s certainly true, so far as it goes. It’s established wisdom, for example, that America’s industrial might was decisive in helping the Allies win WWII. Without the Americans on the homefront working in the factories, making various sacrifices of personal comfort, those men who put on the uniform and slogged through North Africa, Europe, and the Pacific would not have been victorious. That’s not even to mention the crucial role played by scientists and inventors who developed technological advances, not least of which were those who worked on the Manhattan Project.
Steyn is also right, I believe, that those who shape the debate over national strategy and influence the morale on the homefront play an important role. George C. Cohan was awarded a Congressional Gold Medal for the enormous contributions he made in that regard in WWI, even though they were limited to “mere” songs and plays.
Because of the role the citizenry plays in a war effort, and because of the fact that wars are (usually) nationally unifying events, the use of the pronoun “we” is one that strikes me as perfectly reasonable for Americans not wearing a uniform to use when referencing a war in which we’re fighting. Indeed, as an American, I feel no compunction in using the personal pronoun in reference to wars that were fought before I was born, let alone took part in. “We” won “our” independence from the Brits and “we” defeated the forces of facism in the 1940s. (More trivially, I routinely refer to sports teams I root for in the same way.)
In the original draft of this post, I took small exception to Lopez’ using the word “fight” in a possessive sense, arguing that “it is somewhat unseemly to those not in harm’s way on the battlefield to use that particular term.” Upon proofreading, though, I realized I had done the exact same thing in the previous paragraph. It’s simply a natural thing to do, for the same reason that I justify the use of the word “we.”
Regardless, however, I join Glenn Greenwald in rejecting the notion at least implied by Steyn that those who write about the war are thereby “fighting” the war. There’s a subtle but I believe real distinction between writing a column about why “we’re fighting the war,” meaning why the nation is at war, and arguing that one’s sitting behind a keyboard is tantamount to going into harms’s way.
I’m not making the “chickenhawk” slur here. Even though I’m a combat veteran of the first Gulf War and my dad’s a Vietnam vet, neither of us would claim that we’re personally “fighting” this war; that’s an honorific reserved to another generation of American fighting men. Nor would I argue that our service gives us any more right to voice our views on this or any other war than any other American.
I’m a believer in the power of ideas. It is almost certainly the case, for example, that the likes of Bill Kristol have had more influence on the Iraq war effort than almost any individual service member. That’s a different thing, though, than saying that punditry is tantamount to serving in combat.