In his seminal work On War, Carl von Clausewitz (1780–1831) provided the definition of war most civilized nations still largely subscribe to: “War is the continuation of politics by other means.” In many respects, and especially in our current political climate, it appears that the converse is also something of a truism: “Politics is the continuation of war by other means.”
In my second year at the Naval Academy, the American public was captivated for a short time by the story of Air Force Lieutenant Scott O’Grady, an F-16 pilot who was shot down over Bosnia-Herzegovina by a surface-to-air missile. For nearly a week, O’Grady evaded capture, eventually made radio contact with NATO forces, and was subsequently rescued by Marines from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit. While he has parlayed his Bosnia experiences into a career as an author and motivational speaker, O’Grady has his share of detractors—namely, those who aren’t ready to praise a pilot simply for getting shot down.
Roughly eight years after O’Grady’s rescue, Army Specialist Jessica Lynch, serving in Iraq, was involved in an ambush that resulted in her being injured, captured, and, like O’Grady, subsequently rescued. Lynch’s actions in the 2003 Battle of Nasiriyah became highly publicized—not so much for what she did but for the news reports that provided a completely erroneous narrative of the events. Lynch herself never claimed that she was anything more than a “survivor,” though reports and stories quickly began circulating that she was a real-life version of Hollywood’s “GI Jane,” having heroically fought off Iraqi forces until being overrun by overwhelming numbers.
The recent case of Chief Eddie Gallagher, the highly-decorated Navy SEAL whose 2017 actions in Iraq resulted in murder charges being levied against him, seems to be another case where for a brief period of time a military member’s actions or inactions are laid out for all to see, with different parties, different factions, and different philosophies all vying for the right to write the official narrative.
One would think that, with all the scrutiny involved, the truth would emerge in these types of incidents. It rarely does. The forthright congressional testimony that Lynch gave came close to setting her war record straight, but what we should all be concerned with today is the manner in which “truth” is becoming so malleable, contentious, and relative that not only is it hard to recognize but it may not even be a concept Western man believes in for much longer.
The military as a whole as well as its individual members are often caught in a tug-of-war they rarely understand fully. Both political parties want to write the narrative of whatever issue is being debated at the time. Army LtCol Vindman showing up to Congress to testify in his dress blues is a great example. Oliver North in his green “Alphas” during Iran Contra should have served as a model for Vindman, but when theater is more sought after than truth such behavior is almost inevitable. This directive—from wherever it came—should have alerted him that he was being used. Perhaps he was being used by the side he favored, and therefore he didn’t mind, as there is oftentimes a fine line between pawn and patriot.
Engineer, surveyor, and soldier, Field Marshall Horatio Kitchener’s career within the English military included everything from his detailed topographical study of the Holy Land as part of the Palestine Exploration Fund to an ill-fated diplomatic mission to Russia aboard HMS Hampshire in 1916. Kitchener’s survey work was highly successful and is still used by archeologists today, while his trip to Russia ended prematurely. The Hampshire struck a mine laid by a German U-boat. Over 700 people were killed, including Kitchener.
In his time, Kitchener was a giant figure in England, though, like the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines of today’s American military, Kitchener’s reputation was forged far from home, in places like the Middle East, India, and Africa. In writing of him, G.K. Chesterton asserted, “It is of the nature of national heroes of Kitchener’s type that their admirers are unjust to them. They would have been better appreciated if they had been less praised. When a soldier is turned into an idol there seems an unfortunate tendency to turn him into a wooden idol.” Wood can be sanded and shaped—it can be manipulated.
Chesterton could have been writing of the modern American tendency to do this very thing, and this is what in many respects engenders such strong opinions in cases like that of Chief Gallagher. I have not spoken or heard from a single SEAL who didn’t first point out that many of Gallagher’s actions were suspect. There’s an almost immediate admission that not all is perfect within the SEAL community, but the prevailing point is that the Navy was handling it. They seem to all deplore that Gallagher is being made out to be the epitome of military virtue by President Trump. This makes sense, because most— though not all—military personnel hate being put on a pedestal. It makes them uncomfortable because they know how precarious that can be.
It is here that the earlier-mentioned corollary comes back into play though, and must be understood. Today’s military officer is struggling to comprehend that from President Trump’s vantage point he is a bureaucrat, while the trigger-pulling, boots-on-the-ground enlisted personnel—the ones who actually fight the wars— represent the hard-working coal miners. While this might seem unfair to many officers, it is the reality. Lieutenant Colonel Vindman is likely to retire in Washington. He will most certainly consult for some sort of policy think tank where his master’s degree from Harvard will give him a lofty perch from which he can carve out a very comfortable life. Jessica Lynch, on the other hand, is a school teacher in West Virginia. While they have both served in the Army, they represent two very different views of the world, and most certainly two very different voting blocks.
Conservatism under both Bush presidencies largely hinged on how one viewed war. To the Bushes and their advisors, each war was seen as a good war because we would fight it nobly. They worked from the premise that strict rules of engagement on the ground, i.e., on the back end, would seemingly remove the need for true, meaningful discernment on the front end. In other words, the presence of WMD’s in Iraq was not of vital concern, because once on the ground we would do great things. This is a nightmare scenario for the likes of Chief Gallagher: having troops navigate and abide by the rules of engagement as dictated by DC bureaucrats. It’s that bureaucrat who is in Trump’s crosshairs when he comes to the defense of Chief Gallagher.
For many, the Trump presidency has demanded that many things be re-thought, from China to chicken nuggets and from Syria to sitcoms. His belief that being pro-military doesn’t demand his being pro-war has caused discomfort for many conservatives who never paused long enough to consider there might be a difference.
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