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Nov 8, 2005 6:51 pm

Knowledge is Powerless

(Cross-posted at Historiblography)

David Hackworth fought in three wars before he turned to writing about military affairs:
At 14, as World War II was sputtering out, he lied about his age to join the Merchant Marine, and at 15 he enlisted in the U.S. Army. Over the next 26 years he spent fully seven in combat. He was put in for the Medal of Honor three times; the last application is currently under review at the Pentagon. He was twice awarded the Army's second highest honor for valor, the Distinguished Service Cross, along with 10 Silver Stars and eight Bronze Stars. When asked about his many awards, he always said he was proudest of his eight Purple Hearts and his Combat Infantryman's Badge.

So here, of course, is how Regnery hack Michelle Malkin greeted his death:"Didn't agree with much of his work, especially over the last few years, but he lived a fascinating life of service to this country."

Get that? Malkin, with her zero years of military service and her zero years of training in military history and military affairs, examines the career of a man who spent many decades fighting in wars and writingcritically about war and the military, and casually offers that she didn't agree with much of his work. She has standing to judge, and sufficient knowledge to dismiss. He was a critic, so he was wrong. Only cheerleaders are right. Nothing else matters.

Second example, with a slightly different flavor. Andrew Bacevich is a conservative Vietnam veteran, a West Point grad, a career U.S. Army officer who retired as a colonel, and a Princeton PhD who now works as a professor of international relations at Boston University. Take a look at the reader reviews for Bacevich's recent book on what he calls The New American Militarism, and you'll see that this retired colonel is an America-hating left-winger who is spitting on the graves of our soldiers:

We walk among the hundreds of thousands of graves of brave American men at dozens of cemeteries around the globe and remember how people like Bacevich promised"peace in our time", just before the bloodletting began that resulted in the deaths of scores of millions of humans. This book is interesting for those whose understanding of history is warped by the leftists who rule academia today, but if you have the slightest understanding of the relationship of might vs. right, this book is a total waste of money. It is no different than spitting on the graves of those who served their country and stabbing them in the back when they returned...

And never mind that Bacevich actually fought alongside those soldiers. Just never mind at all.

If Patton, Bradley, Eisenhower, MacArthur, Grant, and Sherman all collectively rose from the grave one morning and carefully acknowledged that they were somewhat concerned about the current administration, the war in Iraq, or the state of contemporary U.S. military-civil affairs in general, they would all be smeared as America-hating, terrorist-loving, ultra-leftist ivory-tower radicals before the sun went down.

Lifelong civilians like Michelle Malkin, Victor Davis Hanson, Hugh Hewitt, David Horowitz, and Daniel Pipes are trustworthy experts in military affairs, because they love war without question (as long as they don't have to fight in it). Andrew Bacevich and David Hackworth, with all their combat experience and all their books between them, mean less than nothing. They questioned the project, and can't be allowed to remain at the table.

One day, I sincerely hope, people like Malkin will come to their senses and feel real shame about this period in their lives.

ADDED LATER: This is also worth a look.

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More Comments:

George Carty - 11/8/2005

The "Stay the course!" argument only ever makes sense if there is a good reason why prolonging your presence may cause the situation to change in your favor.

The Vietnam war, as the United States chose to fight it, was unwinnable as it was trying to prop up a hated puppet regime against a legitimate nationalist state. Instead the US should have either fought for total victory (ie the conquest of North Vietnam, as bombing alone would not have broken North Vietnames resolve), or not involved itself in the war at all.

Nic Palar - 5/27/2005

This doesn't really have much to do with the thread, but in the spirit of the blog in general I think this post is noteworthy.

Chris Bray - 5/26/2005

Fair enough. I come to Malkin's notice having followed her pretty closely, and may be reading more into it than the message will really support.

Martin Baskin White - 5/26/2005

I don't think much of Michelle Malkin's writing generally, but I think the death notice for David Hackworth that you quote is not particularly objectionable.

As background, it is an accepted social practice in the US for pundits without military experience (or other expertise, for that matter) to comment on military affairs, often in ways that differ from one or more experts who do have extensive military experience. This may be good or may be bad, but it is accepted practice.

Within this background, I think that Malkin basically was alerting her readers to Hackworth's death because she thought he was an interesting and important figure. This is a perfectly legitimate thing for a columnist to do. Having given the death notice, and commented on his service (whether out of genuine admiration or mere social convention), it was reasonable for her to make clear to readers that she wasn't endorsing his views. And since it was just a brief death notice, it was reasonable for her to do this without going into details about the substance of any disagreements or about relative credentials. (The latter would be evident to readers anyway.)

Other writings of Malkin may show inappropriate disrespect for people who have served their country based on their opinions (I don't read enough Malkin to know), but I don't think this death notice is over the line.

Charles V. Mutschler - 5/26/2005

Several thoughts.

As historians, I think most of us study and write about events which occurred long before we were alive, let alone able to experience them. I agree that a participant can bring experiences to his writing that I cannot, but that can also skew the focus of the writing. I really don't think that makes Hackworth a better military historian than Hanson. There is certainly room for both perspectives. There is also room for both political perspectives.

Hanson may have avoided the war in Viet Nam. Our current President and past President avoided going into combat, as did a lot of men in that age group. I don't think either Clinton or Pres. Bush get the kind of high marks for honorable service that Senator McCain or VP Gore earned. In the spirit of disclosure, I was just young enough to miss the draft, which ended just as I graduated from high school. I wasn't going to volunteer to go to Viet Nam, but had I been drafted, I probably would have entered the Army, and not fled to Canada.

IIRC, Hackworth was questioned about the validity of some of his decorations. This got some press after Hackworth was implicated as informing on Admiral Boorda wearing honors he hadn't earned. Boorda committed suicide, and there was some hint of inter-service rivalry regarding Hackworth's comments regarding the Admiral. So none of us is perfect.


Chris Bray - 5/26/2005

Participation in war has a long-established historical significance in American culture. The militia -- all able-bodied men of a eligible age -- collectively defended the country. It was a shared endeavor, and in the shared commitment to service it prevented the danger of relying on a (necessarily dangerous) standing army. The collapse of that shared commitment, and its complete replacement by a professional army that we can merely cheerlead from safety, suggests a significant shift in the nature of the republic. We are not all in it together; some send, some go.

It's certainly possible to argue for a particular course of military action without having served in the military. The point is that many of the people who do so (see the Andrew Bacevich example above) arrogate to themselves a right to negate the citizenship, the Americanness, of others who have served. Andrew Bacevich served in combat, but is just like Neville Chamberlain and is spitting on the graves of American soldiers because he offers a critique of the American military.

It's not simply that people who haven't served have an opinion -- that's not the point at all. The point is that people who haven't served (or studied) nevertheless casually dismiss the views of those who have served in the military, or spent their lives studying it, because they don't agree with a political position. There's a test of patriotism in place that negates actual service if the people who did that service fail to adopt the political views of people who haven't served or studied, who have neither knowledge or experience.

To go back to your original statement about baseball writers and Jose Canseco: Andrew Bacevich is both Jose Canseco and an experienced baseball writer. He has participated, and he has studied the topic. But his views are intolerable -- not simply wrong, but intolerable -- because he has made critical comments about the current war. A drunk in the parking lot who never even played little league is insisting that a former major league baseball player turned baseball writer has not business talking about baseball, because he doesn't agree with the drunk in the parking lot. All those who disagree with the prevailing politics are rendered illegitimate, without reference to any other question about who they are or what they have done.

The irony is that people are attacking critics of the war for "not supporting the troops," but some of the people they are attacking are themselves the troops.

Greg James Robinson - 5/26/2005

I am reminded by these comments of the baeball lore that great players do not make great managers, since things come easy for them and they do not know how to understand (and teach) a struggling player. Let's keep perspective.Although Howard Cosell made mauch of his understanding sports better than jocks in his (provocatively titled) book I NEVER PLAYED THE GAME, there is perhaps more that a baseball player is in a position to know about the game he is in than a nonpalyer, but not necessarily a game played in theother league. Likewise, a soldier may be able to give you eyewitness testimony and inner understanding of a particular battle, but may lack understanding of the grand strategy (if there is any).

Don Willis - 5/26/2005

You have suggested that those without firsthand experience (of combat, in this case), should adopt an appropriate "tone and posture" in their criticisms. In this case, it seems that approving of a certain course of action which involves combat is not the right "tone and posture". How might one be in favor of a particular military campaign without giving offense? Is this a privilege only reserved for those who served when their age allowed for it?

It seems that such distinctions may be applied to even frivolous activities, like baseball. The relationships between combat veterans and commentators without military experience and major leaguers and sportswriters without on-field playing experience seem logically similar, even if the stakes are higher in one endeavor. It's actually a serious question, even if not originally presented as such.

Ralph E. Luker - 5/26/2005

John, You don't seem to be bothered by the decisions for expanding warfare in the middle east by chicken hawk/draft evading policy makers. Since Chris has just been called back into the infantry from graduate school in history and expects to be sent to Iraq, I imagine that you'll have to grant him the right of having his perspective influenced by his experience.

John H. Lederer - 5/26/2005

Yes. People having opinions about things they have not personally experienced is outrageous.

Hanson is a twofer. Not only does he have an opinion on Vietnam, but if you examine his writings, he suffers from the same conceit of so many historians -- he has opinions about time periods such as the Pelopennesian War when he was not even alive.....

Chris Bray - 5/26/2005

Yeah, the stakes are just as high in baseball as they are in war. Brilliant comparison.

Don Willis - 5/25/2005

I'm really ticked off about all these baseball writers ripping into Jose Canseco. They never played the game, so how can their commentary on his book or congressional testimony measure up to his experience? And those hacks David Halberstam and Roger Angel? Fuhgeddaboudit!!

Chris Bray - 5/25/2005

For example, Victor Davis Hanson writes -- often -- that the U.S. was wrong to walk away from the war in Vietnam after just ten years of serious combat, and should have hung in there to the point of victory. (Casualties be damned!)

Victor Davis Hanson appears to be in his late-fifties. Go ahead and guess how much military service he did during the war that he hated to see the end of.

Chris Bray - 5/25/2005

Not at all. I don't think the issue is competence or incompetence to speak about military affairs -- I think the issue is one of tone and posture. I love the belligerent running joke on blogs about the U.S. exit strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan that shows arrows on a map pointing into Iran. Click on the "about me" link on any of those blogs, and I'll give you strong odds that the blogger isn't in the military.

The point is not that some people haven't earned the right to talk about the military; the point is that some people haven't earned the right to posture as gunslingers.

Richard L McGaha - 5/25/2005

I would agree with you about McCain, he may have started out as a fortunate son, but 5 yrs in a N. Vietnamese prison camp surely took care of that. I have my quibbles with Hack, I think there was a lot of anger directed at the Army, mainly because of Vietnam. However, he did care, that came through and when you have been there and done that, that gives you some cachet with me.

Jim Williams - 5/25/2005

Incidentally, judging by his comments in the blog Soldiers for the Truth, Hackworth was not part of the "John McCain fan club"; he saw McCain as a "fortunate son". My opinion of McCain is rather more positive, while I have nothing but admiration for Hack.

Julie A Hofmann - 5/25/2005

Without making this a partisan thing (although my heart of hearts says it is), I think in all such cases we can only call these people on their BS and say, "no, you're actually not telling the truth here." Repeatedly and loudly.

Greg James Robinson - 5/25/2005

I agree that a culture of militarism prevails among conservatives, and that it is also shared by much of the military--who, by all accounts, went massively for noncombattant (to say the least) George W. Bush over veterans Al Gore and John Kerry. In fact, if a Democrat had done what Bush did, and joined the nationmal Guard to get out of Vietnam, the right-wingers would have had his hide for it, as they did to Clinton for opposing the war openly.
On the other hand, speaking as a civilian--and one ineligible for military service to boot--I hope that I would not be judged incompetent to speak on military affairs, from either direction, simply because of my status.

Richard Lee McGaha - 5/25/2005


That is usually the case. Hollywood for the most part glamourizes war (with the exception of Saving Private Ryan)to such an extent that people buy into the myth. The 'chickenhawks' like Malkin and others make me sick, you are right, they will never put on a uniform or have to go fight. It is easy for them to be 'cheerleaders.' It seems anymore that patriotism is an adjective and not a verb, which I find to be sad. It used to be about what you did and not what you said. I think that situation is now reversed. Anymore it does not matter what you did now it is: What have you done for me lately? Just look at the smearings of Max Cleland, John McCain and John Kerry. Whatever one wants to say about Kerry, the Swift Boat campaign was a set of vicious lies. Not only that, the Silver Star is the third highest award for bravery, you don't get that for showing up. Most of the public does not know this, so they buy into the superficial arguments of the Swift Boat veterans and other smear campaigns. I think what galls me the most is the hypocrisy, on one hand they claim to glorify military service, but what they don't tell you is that they glorify it as long as you never, ever criticize the Republican's or the [neo] conservative agenda. I pointed out my military service to a colleague awhile ago during a discussion regarding the military and he said [rightfully?] that "That has no bearing on anything." Enough said.

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