Fighting Words

“Armchair General”

The ugly idea that non-soldiers have less right to argue for war.

Continuing with the hidden vernaculars of “regime change” and hoping to build toward a Bierce-like series (last week the Straussian language of revolution from above and next week “terrorism”), one must pause simply to expel one term, to retire it, discredit it, and make its further employment an embarrassment to those who use it. The word is “armchair.”

You’ve heard it all right. The concept embodied in the contemptuous usage is this: someone who wants intervention in, say, Iraq ought to be prepared to go and fight there. An occasional corollary is that those who have actually seen war are not so keen to urge it.

The first thing to notice about this propaganda is how archaic it is. The whole point of the present phase of conflict is that we are faced with tactics that are directed primarily at civilians. Thus, while I was traveling last year in Pakistan, on the Afghan border and in Kashmir, and this year in the gulf, my wife was fighting her way across D.C., with the Pentagon in flames, to try and collect our daughter from a suddenly closed school, was attempting to deal with anthrax in our mailbox, was reading up on the pros and cons of smallpox vaccinations, and was coping with the consequences of a Muslim copycat loony who’d tried his hand as a suburban sniper. Should things ever become any hotter, it would be far safer to be in uniform in Doha, Qatar, or Kandahar, Afghanistan, than to be in an open homeland city. It is amazing that this essential element of the crisis should have taken so long to sink into certain skulls.

My wife is not of military age, and there is little chance of a draft for mothers. Are her views on Iraq therefore disqualified from utterance? And what about older comrades who can no longer shoulder a gun? What about friends of mine who are physically disabled? Should their expertise—often considerable—be set aside because they can’t ram it home with a bayonet?

There are some further unexamined implications of this stupid tactic. It is said, for example, that someone like former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey has more right to pronounce on a war than someone who avoided service in Vietnam. Well, last year Kerrey was compelled to admit that he had led a calamitous expedition into a Vietnamese village and had been responsible for the slaughter of several children and elderly people. (He chose to be somewhat shady about whether this responsibility was direct or indirect.) Do I turn to such a man for advice on how to deal with Saddam Hussein? The connection is not self-evident, more especially since, as far as I am aware, Kerrey knows no more about Iraq than I know about how to construct a chess-playing computer.

One hopes that the next implication is inadvertent, but the clear suggestion is that there ought not to be civilian control of the military. What—have callow noncombatants giving brisk orders to grizzled soldiers? How could Lincoln have fired the slavery-loving Gen. George B. McClellan, or Truman dismissed the glorious Douglas MacArthur? During the defense of Washington, Lincoln became the first and last president to hear shots fired in anger. Donald Rumsfeld was at his desk in the Pentagon when the plane hit, but probably is no better and no worse a defense secretary for that.

A related term is “chicken-hawk.” It is freely used to defame intellectual militants who favor an interventionist strategy. Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska made use of the implication recently, when he invited Richard Perle to be first into Baghdad. Someone ought to point out that the term “chicken-hawk” originated as a particularly nasty term for a pederast or child molester: It has evidently not quite lost its association with sissyhood. It’s a smear, in other words, and it is a silly smear for the reasons given above, to which could be added the following: The United States now has an all-volunteer Army, made up of people who receive fairly good pay and many health and educational benefits. They signed up to a bargain when they joined, and the terms of the bargain are obedience to the decisions of a civilian president and Congress. Who would have this any other way? If the entire military brass and rank-and-file opposed a war with Saddam, they would be as obliged to keep their opinions to themselves as they would if they favored nuking Basra. Colin Powell hugely exceeded his authority as chairman of the Joint Chiefs when he wrote articles against the military rescue of Bosnia; he would have been just as open to criticism if he had called for invading Serbia. This is a wall of separation that must not be breached, for the sake of the Constitution. (Mind you, I have the impression that if the “armchair” arguers got their way and asked only war veterans what to do about Saddam Hussein, there would have been a rather abrupt “regime change” in Iraq long before now.)

When a man thinks that any stick will do, said Chesterton, he is likely to pick up a boomerang. Shall we inquire into the “armchair” or otherwise sedentary lives of those who sympathized with Milosevic, or who published euphemisms about al-Qaida, or who went on fatuous hospitality trips to Baghdad and ended up echoing Baathist propaganda? You can be sure that they would yell about “the politics of personal destruction” or perhaps “McCarthyism” if such an imputation was made. Well, then, let them beware of licensing such a cheap form of ad hominem argument. Just as some of the greatest anti-war writers and poets were courageous soldiers, some of the best minds of World War II were civilian strategists and code-breakers, and some of the finest Resistance fighters were intellectuals who picked up weapons. There is no certain way of enforcing these distinctions morally, until the test actually comes. But now civilians are in the front line as never before, and we shall be needing a more rigorous terminology to reflect that dramatic fact.