Loose Canons

Punk Conservatism

Why has so much written about the war against terrorism been so far off the mark? And why has so much of this stuff come from conservatives?

By 3.19.02

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Why has so much written about the war against terrorism been so far off the mark? And why has so much of this stuff come from conservatives? What makes the Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol say, only days after the Afghanistan campaign began, that we were doing it wrong, and should be more aggressive? What makes the magazine that was the milk of my conservative youth, National Review, so damnably wrong about so much? Call it punk conservatism.

Most conservatives, like the rest of America, have not been a part of the military or its culture. The vast majority of conservative politicians, with the exceptions of a few people like California Congressman Duke Cunningham, have never worn the uniform. The military itself is partly to blame. The professional military made no effort to maintain the bridges that had existed with the civilian culture. As ROTC was kicked off campuses, and the military life no longer envisioned as an honorable career, fewer and fewer Americans became informed about the military culture, why it's important, and what's necessary to make it work. You didn't have to be Dan Rather to be critical of the military. It was the natural thing to do for reporters who are overwhelmingly Democrats. And then came Nine-Eleven.

Suddenly, everyone had to be involved, which was good. But when writers who hadn't previously thought about how our military works started to opine on everything from special operations to fuel-air weapons, there was a lot of misinformation passed on to a public that was eager to hear anything about how we were fighting in Afghanistan. A lot of them studied up quickly, and turned to military experts for advice. What misinformation there was came mostly from reporters' ignorance. But sometimes it betrayed a condescending attitude toward the military that I thought was the exclusive province of the liberals. Sad to say, it wasn't. Now, we have reached a low point that I hope will mark the low point of punk conservatives' loathing of the military.

It takes a lot to shock people these days. But Rob Long's "Uncle Sam Wants Them" in the March 25 edition of National Review succeeded. It was probably meant as praise to the young men and women who joined the military long before 9-11, and who are now kicking tail in Afghanistan. But what came out is so basically wrong, and so contemptuous of the people in uniform, that it has to be set straight.

Mr. Long says, for starters, that the only difference between the young people "guiding screaming jets onto the deck of the USS John C. Stennis" and the "black-clad, lip-pierced, tongue-studded, sullen-eyed girl" at the supermarket checkout, is the random intake of the armed services and a couple of months of training. The fact is that the nitwit at the checkout counter probably couldn't qualify for enlistment. But Mr. Long's argument sinks much lower.

Mr. Long says that war is only for the young because, "Only they have the unblemished confidence in the tools God gave them -- strength, reflexes, good eyesight -- and the tools provided them by the American taxpayer -- Harrier jets, cruise missiles, satellite telemetry -- to fight without fear, and win without remorse." He says, "There is, in fact, something a little too facile about the argument that these young people all chose -- clear-eyed and sober -- to submit themselves to the dangers of war." Wow.

If Jane Fonda had a conservative epiphany, I expect it would read like that. Yes, the young are gifted with the strength, reflexes and good eyesight we geezers no longer can brag of, and few ever could. But these days, the average military grunt is also intelligent, far more so than in any time in the past. And there are so many people in so many specialties -- from pilot to SEAL operator -- who are not just smarter than the average bear, they're intellectually equal -- or superior to -- any of us. You'd better revise your list, Mr. Long, and add brains to it.

I don't know who among our troops fights without fear. I've never seen combat, but every combat vet I know says he was scared, either before the fight -- thinking about what was going to happen -- or after it, thinking about what he'd been through. They do it despite the fear, Mr. Long, not without it. And that's one of the things of which we should be very proud. Winning without remorse? The only remorse an American soldier should have is for any comrades who were lost in the battle, or for unintended civilian casualties. They feel it deeply, as well they should. But what other remorse should one of our guys have, Mr. Long? None. Not one bit. Guilt is for liberals who think America winning any fight is wrong. In war, as Coach Lombardi said, winning isn't everything, it's the only thing.

I'm sure that many still join the military to escape the ghetto, or for lack of a better way to start a career. But the enlisted people and the officers have chosen, clear-eyed and sober, to serve, and take whatever risks Uncle Sam may need them to take. The kids who are serving now are not the sullen-eyed girl at the grocery checkout, or the high-school dropout who can't qualify for any other job. They're just as good as you or me, Mr. Long. And probably a damned sight better.

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About the Author
Jed Babbin served as a Deputy Undersecretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush. He is the author of several bestselling books including Inside the Asylum and In the Words of Our Enemies. He is coauthor (with Herbert London) of the new book The BDS War Against Israel. You can follow him on Twitter@jedbabbin.