The young man took his seat directly in front of me on the airplane and the middle-aged man next to him began the conversation with, “I was hoping you’d be some pretty young thing.”
The young man replied, “I was hoping the same.”
A young thing was seated next to me flipping through a celebrity magazine.
Through the banter I learned that the middle-aged man was a real estate investor on his way to his daughter’s graduation from Spelman College. The young man was a West Point cadet from Kentucky entering his senior year.
Once that information was revealed the middle-aged man asked, “What do you think of this war?”
The young man replied, “My duty is to serve my country.”
He had a book opened on his lap, but it was too late: The middle-aged man seemed to be possessed by Wolf Blitzer, who in turn has been channeling Walter Cronkite.
The voice played as if on tape:
Middle-aged man (MM): Well, if our government is going to send our young men into harm’s way we should make sure that they have what they need. You know, that’s the problem with this war. It wasn’t thought out. We had no strategy!
Young man (YM): (politely) Yes, we have challenges. And whoever wins the White House next is going to have challenges.
MM: There were no weapons of mass destruction. Most Americans want us to get out.
YM: There are many different opinions. Right now it’s a media war.
MM: We went in to get Osama bin Laden but we got Saddam Hussein. When you make a mistake you have to admit it!
YM: There are many shades of gray.
MM: Bush had no business saying we won. This is another Vietnam.
YM: We could have won in Vietnam, but the will of the people wasn’t there (a view supported by historian Mark Moyar in Triumph Forsaken).
MM: Yes, it’s another quagmire like Vietnam.
Satisfied, the middle-aged man turned the topic to real estate investing, then sports. They also discussed parachuting, but only the young man had knowledge of that subject.
On my way to baggage claim, as I arrived at the top of the escalator, I saw that the USO had set up a little red-white-and-blue booth with volunteers who led a cheer every time a soldier entered. I remembered a soldier waiting to board my plane with his teary wife clinging to him.
The middle-aged man was off to his daughter’s graduation and to the next real estate speculation. But he reminded me of what Irving Kristol wrote in 1967 for Foreign Affairs about the intellectuals, the critics of the Vietnam War--not those with expertise in foreign policy who may have made criticisms about errors in estimations of “proper dimensions of the United States’ overseas commitments,” but the non-experts who freely bandied terms like “war criminals” and “mass murderers.” These terms were used by those with strong ideologies, who fancied themselves “intellectuals,” and presumed themselves “moral guides.” The vicissitudes of foreign policy, however, do not allow for decisions based on rigid ideological principles.
Forty years later, while the outrage is more diffused and artificial (there is no draft), the rhetoric has become even more hateful. The lyrics of the protest songs-- slogans of bumper stickers set to caterwauling--lack metaphor and subtlety.
Back in the 1960s, the increasingly violent “peace movement” began on college campuses and was spurred on by professors in various departments. Kristol pointed out that polls showed that while “intellectuals,” united by ideology, were overwhelmingly critical of their government’s foreign policy, the common people were supportive.
While the intellectuals in the 1960s advocated “dropping out,” either by going off to live in a commune or getting tenure, today’s self-defined adversarial intellectual is the common man, like the real estate investor--the capitalist extraordinaire. He speaks with the same authoritative tone in the same script that I’ve heard English professors use when discussing the current war. So while in the 1960s the war critic and the businessman were divided, today’s war critic may be dressed in shirt, tie, and gold cuff links.
The blame for this development lies at the feet of the intellectuals themselves, the educators, who have encouraged sanctimonious criticism and the expression of personal “opinion” over real study. Middle school students even travel to engage in mock UN debates.
The 1960s protest movement produced protest songs. Indeed, the John Lennon antiwar songs like “Imagine” catapulted them into billionaire status.
But songs like “Imagine” presented an alternate utopian world of love and good feelings. Today’s “artist,” however, pointedly criticizes foreign policy, with the subtlety of Rosie O’Donnell. Take Tori Amos’s question, in her song “Yo [sic] George”: “Is this just the madness of King George?” Or Norah Jones’s reference to the “derangement” of President Bush. Former “Okie” Merle Haggard seems to have taken his script from Ms. Magazine: “This country needs to be honest, changes need to be large / Something like a big switch of gender / Let’s put a woman in charge.” This trend began with a trio of banjo-picking “chicks.”
So as these “artists” make their millions from singing slogans, the masses in their McMansions or converted lofts, sing along and imagine themselves righteous, revolutionary, and “intellectual.”
Presidential candidate John Edwards encouraged anti-war protests for Memorial Day. Whatever one’s personal thoughts about the conduct of this war, it would behoove those like the real estate investor to have some humility, acknowledging that watching CNN or listening to Tori Amos does not make one a qualified foreign policy critic. More importantly, he should refrain from encouraging the enemy. He should also have the humility to appreciate the intelligence and sacrifices of those attending military institutions. Chances are that if he is like the real estate investor, he does not read serious books. Nor has he ever parachuted out of an airplane.