Sunday, September 16, 2007

Candidate for Best Essay of the Year: Owen West on America's Civilian-Military Divide

A Maggie's Farm post last week argued that Kay Hymowitz's recent piece, "Freedom Fetishists," was a candidate for "best essay of the year."

I like Hymowitz. But when I first read Owen West's Wall Street Journal commentary article last week, "
Our New National Divide," I was immediately seized by the vital importance of his essay, and I see it as a top candidate in any best essay competition.

West is a U.S. Marine veteran who served two tours of duty in Iraq. He argues that the U.S. has become deeply divided between American soldiers (and their warrior ethos) and everday civilians who have become not only indifferent to the sacrifices of those under arms, but even hostile.

West relates the story of
Maj. Douglas A. Zembiec, a consumate American warrior, who once said, "One of the most noble things you can do is kill the enemy." Zembiec had built up a phenomenal reputation among fellow Marines, and when he was was killed in combat earlier this year, a deep loss was felt among those who shared the uniform. It's unlikely that such similar sense of grief and loss would be felt among the general population:

Here in the United States, the vast moral chasm that so clearly separates the combatants in Iraq is too rarely discussed. Disillusion with the entire effort has obscured and in some cases mutated the truth that small numbers of evil men tilt entire populations. Many Americans, including prominent senators, cringe when they hear about warriors like Zembiec going door-to-door, notwithstanding the fact that most Iraqis in the neighborhood greet them as deus ex machina.

Nearly six years into the war on terror--which is being fought by less than 30% of the military and less than one-half of 1% of the nation--and the stark irony of America in modern war has emerged. Our professional warriors who take the most risk believe the nation must commit to a long-term fight that includes Iraq in some form. Overall support for the endeavor wanes with distance.

This divergence isn't new. Those who have battled the enemy up close have always been more heavily invested in the cause. What's different is that in past wars, the nation was tied to its soldiers and had a familial barometer. Today most Americans have never met a Gold Star family, let alone shaken the hand of a fallen soldier. The military community is increasingly insulated even as the burden of global war swells. Within it there are those who drift in and out of the fight according to orders. But there is also a group that is distinctive--those who join the military to hunt the enemy for a living, and for the rest of us. Doug Zembiec was such a man.
West goes on to make an especially important point on the significance of the controversy surrounding's attack on General David Petraeus:

Monday's advertisement, which depicted Gen. Petraeus as a traitor, has been dismissed by Sen. Reid as an inconsequential distraction. But according to the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan research group, the ad reflects the growing distrust of a Democratic Party that may be taking cues from its leadership. Last month 76% of Republicans expressed confidence in the military to give an "accurate picture of the war," while only 36% of Democrats did.

This explains the collective skepticism surrounding Gen. Petraeus's comments but does not excuse it. For while the country can thrive as a politically divided nation, its ability to defend itself diminishes alongside faith in the fidelity of the military. The unbalanced portrayal of the conduct of our soldiers has done damage enough. To impugn our warriors' motives as political is thoroughly corrosive and hurts all Americans.
Read the whole thing. While West's piece is just a brief newspaper commentary article, his underlying message is a profound statement on our national duty to understand and revere our military personnel and the proud service they provide to our national health and security.

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