Fighting Words

Don’t “Son” Me

End this silly talk about sacrificing children.

Scroll down for a response to this piece from The New Yorker’s George Packer.

Oh, Jesus, another barrage of emotional tripe about sons. From every quarter, one hears that the willingness to donate a male child is the only test of integrity. It’s as if some primitive Spartan or Roman ritual had been reconstituted, though this time without the patriotism or the physical bravery. Worse, it has a gruesome echo of the human sacrifice that underpins Christian fundamentalism.

The most recent cycle—not that this isn’t a consistent undertone—began for me with a Washington Post column by Richard Cohen. In a reminiscence that he doubtless thought was affecting, he recalled a spat between himself and the late John Gregory Dunne. Declining to attend a Cohen dinner party in the year 1991 (and here we sense the real echoes of a life-and-death struggle), Dunne had said that he wouldn’t break bread with a man who favored war but was not willing to sacrifice his own son. Cohen went back and forth in agony about the justice of all this, while never betraying any sense of disproportion or absurdity. Should Saddam Hussein have been allowed to add the wealth of Kuwait to his slave state at a time when he most certainly did possess a WMD program? Quite a good question for debate. But the debate comes to an end when one participant says that the other is disqualified because of a refusal of son-donation. (I pause to note what Cohen may have been too delicate to point out: John Gregory Dunne did not have a son.)

But what if he had had one? The fathering of a grown male child does not entitle you to exclude from the argument anybody who is not thus favored. A childless person is not prevented from speaking in time of war. Nor is a person whose children are too young to serve. Nor are those of enlistment age, who are unlikely to have sons of their own. Nor is a person who has disabled children. One could easily extend the list of citizens who have exactly the same right to opine on their country’s right to fight—or not to fight.

Recent events in Fallujah mean that we shall have to add “or daughter” to the above hypotheses. And why not? Women have argued for many decades that they should have the right to a more equal participation in the U.S. armed forces, and the preceding struggle to desegregate the armed services was a precursor to the wider desegregation of society. Come to think of it, what happened to the loud and widespread demand that gays be allowed to serve in uniform? Surely that was not just a Clinton-era campaign to be dropped in favor of gay marriage at just the time when the country needed troops in Afghanistan (generally agreed) and in Iraq (much disputed)?

I don’t intend a taunt in the above sentence (it’s more of a tease, really, as well as a serious question to which I have heard no answer), but I resent the taunt that is latent in the anti-war stress on supposedly uneven sacrifice. Did I send my children to rescue the victims of the collapsing towers of the World Trade Center? No, I expected the police and fire departments to accept the risk of gruesome death on my behalf. All of them were volunteers (many of them needlessly thrown away, as we now know, because of poor communications), and one knew that their depleted ranks would soon be filled by equally tough and heroic citizens who would volunteer in their turn. We would certainly face a grave societal crisis if that expectation turned out to be false.

But when it comes to the confrontation in Iraq, the whole notion of grown-ups volunteering is dismissed or lampooned. Instead, it’s people’s children getting “sent.” Recall Michael Moore asking congressmen whether they would “send” one of their offspring, as if they had the power to do so, or the right? (John Ashcroft’s son was in the Gulf, but I doubt that his father dispatched him there, and in any case it would take a lot more than this to reconcile me to Ashcroft, as Moore implies that it should.) Nobody has to join the armed forces, and those who do are old enough to vote, get married, and do almost everything legal except buy themselves a drink. Why infantilize young people who are entitled to every presumption of adulthood?

A new offender in this overwrought style is George Packer of The New Yorker, whose work on Iraq has hitherto generally been enviable. In an essay too-glibly titled “The Home Front,” he tries to register the pain of the Frosheiser family, whose son was killed in Iraq in late 2003. Or rather, he attempts to register the anguish of Kurt Frosheiser’s father. This is because the father was cooperative, voluble, and also very “conflicted” about the war and able to argue it from all points of view. Kurt’s mother was more monochrome. “He loved this land and its principles,” she said of her fallen son. “He loved Iowa. It’s an honor to give my son to preserve our way of life.” And that’s mostly that, from this embarrassing woman who not only sounds like a Gold Star Mother from World War II but has also become (oh, dear) “an evangelical Christian.” Yet isn’t the point of such essays supposed to be that they illustrate the grief and emotion of the parents? Packer says that the bereft woman’s son “had not spoken of the war this way.” Well, what’s that got to do with it? He was a free man, and he joined up. By definition, he doesn’t have to agree with his mother. (A hint to George Packer: A journalist does not acquire the grave and majestic qualities of a brave and tormented family merely by writing about them.)

Further on in the same portentous article, we encounter one Andrew Bacevich, a “professor of international relations at Boston University and a retired Army officer.” What could be more impressive? This expert delivers himself of the opinion that, “If this is such a great cause, let us see one of the Bush daughters in uniform.” Let me do a brief thought experiment here. Do I know a single anti-war person who would be more persuaded if one of the Bush girls joined up? Do you? Can you imagine what would be said about such a cheap emotional stunt? Stalin’s son was taken prisoner by the Nazi invaders (and never exchanged), and Mao’s son was killed in the war that established the present state of North Korea. I am not sure how encouraging such precedents are supposed to be, but they have nothing at all to do with the definition of a just war.

Much more important than this, however, is the implied assault on civilian control of the military. In this republic, elected civilians give crisp orders to soldiers and expect these orders to be obeyed. No back chat can even be imagined, let alone allowed. Do liberals really want the Joint Chiefs to say: “Mr. President, I’ll respect that order when you have a son or daughter in uniform”? It was a great day when President Lincoln fired Gen. George B. McClellan. * It was a great day when President Truman fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur. No presidential brat needed to be on the front line for this point to be understood.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are either worthwhile or they are not (and I see that nobody as yet requires an “exit strategy” from Afghanistan). The worst exploitation of a hero by our military has certainly been the crass lying  by the Pentagon about the “friendly fire” death of Pat Tillman, who was looking to risk his life against the Taliban. However, the majority of American dead have still been civilians living in America, and those who prattle on about the sacrifice of children seem not to have read about Beslan, or thought about it, or broken with the lazy old American habit that supposes that war is always “over there.”

Correction, June 28, 2005: This piece originally misspelled Gen. George B. McClellan’s name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)