After almost one full decade of continuous war, the gap between America’s veterans and our cultural elites is wider than ever. With ROTC (until recently) removed from our top-tier campuses, lingering anti-military biases that date from the Vietnam war, and an understandable reticence to risk promising futures on foreign battlefields, our culture-makers have shunned military service – at great cost to our country.
Take a look at the editorial pages of five of America’s largest-circulation and most influential publications, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. How many columnist-veterans do you see? How many veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan? By my count, I don’t see a single veteran of our current wars.
It’s not because these venerable publications shun younger writers (Iraq and Afghan war vets are largely from the younger generations). From the New York Times’ excellent Ross Douthat to wonk extraordinaire, Ezra Klein of the Washington Post, newspapers make room for the best and brightest young writers.
Nor do I think these publications consciously (or even unconsciously) discriminate. In fact, any one of them would be eager to hire a bright, wise, and articulate man or woman who knows what it’s like to walk the streets of Kandahar or battle al Qaeda in the deserts of Diyala.
Instead, they don’t hire veterans because they largely don’t know veterans. Walled off in cultural enclaves that are free from military influence – except as interview subjects or embed opportunities – our opinion-makers are on the outside looking in, largely ignorant of the reality faced by the roughly one million Americans deployed “downrange” since September 11.
Yet this ignorance matters. It matters a great deal. Our leading pundits speak to more Americans more consistently than any politician, including the President. They write for millions in their newspapers and online, and they regularly appear on cable and network news and on talk radio. When Thomas Friedman says the “World is Flat,” not only do people believe him, they also pay thousands of dollars to hear him say it in person and sometimes adjust personal, political, and corporate strategies in response to his ideas.
Our pundits shape conventional wisdom, create or kill ideas, and often set the agenda of public debates. With a public that – even in the Internet era – is all-too-disengaged from politics and policy, pundits can impact policy through the sheer weight of their own outcry.
They also, in many ways, have blazed the career trail for many of our sharpest young minds. Get an elite degree, land a good starter job for leading journal or an influentialthink tank, work your connections, publish a well-received book, work the connections more, then see where it all leads.
I was a lot like them, working the lawyer’s version of the elite career track. Then I went to war, deploying with the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment to fight al Qaeda from a forward operating base literally in sight of Iran.
My ideas – regarding everything from the malleability of complex human systems, to the motivation and nature of our jihadist enemy, to the effect of combat on hearts and minds – changed, often substantially. Previously, I had assigned great weight to irrelevancies and overlooked vital realities. As my wife can testify, I came back from war a different person, in more ways than I can count.
Every pundit has an opinion about our war, yet few are informed. The opinion-making class, insulated from the crucible of combat and counterinsurgency, spouts ideas about culture formed from books, lecture halls, and guided tours. Yet they purport to tell America what it should do – what it must do – with the blood of its soldiers.
As I read debates about Afghanistan or hear pundits spout authoritatively about how jihadist “recruiting” works or the ways in which this or that policy will create certain, measurable cultural outputs, I groan inwardly. And sometimes I get angry.
Then I realize that I’m reading people just like me – the person that existed before I went to war – that well-read, highly-educated person who actually thought “speaking truth to power” was a form of “courage.” The person who naively thought he knew the “truth” and understood “courage.”
But then I saw the enemy close-up. Then I saw real courage. Our culture-making institutions have room for wonks, for artists, for philosophers, for economists, and for celebrities.
Do they have any room for soldiers?