Thursday, February 01, 2007

Washington Post Columnist Tells Spoiled Soldiers to Shut Up!

The New York Times may not hate the military (see below), but William Arkin, the Washington Post's online columnist on defense issues sure seems to.

NBC News ran a segment about the troops' views about the recent anti-war protests last weekend. Richard Engel relayed how "troops [at Ft. Lewis, WA] say they are increasingly frustrated by American criticism of the war. Many take it personally, believing it is also criticism of what they've been fighting for." Responding to these soldiers, Arkin writes:

So, we pay the soldiers a decent wage, take care of their families, provide them with housing and medical care and vast social support systems and ship obscene amenities into the war zone for them, we support them in every possible way, and their attitude is that we should in addition roll over and play dead, defer to the military and the generals and let them fight their war, and give up our rights and responsibilities to speak up because they are above society?

I can imagine some post-9/11 moment, when the American people say enough already with the wars against terrorism and those in the national security establishment feel these same frustrations. In my little parable, those in leadership positions shake their heads that the people don't get it, that they don't understand that the threat from terrorism, while difficult to defeat, demands commitment and sacrifice and is very real because it is so shadowy, that the very survival of the United States is at stake. Those Hoover's and Nixon's will use these kids in uniform as their soldiers. If I weren't the United States, I'd say the story end with a military coup where those in the know, and those with fire in their bellies, save the nation from the people.

But it is the United States and instead this NBC report is just an ugly reminder of the price we pay for a mercenary - oops sorry, volunteer - force that thinks it is doing the dirty work.

Mercenaries?!? So many ways to deconstruct this idiocy, so little time.

First of all, as a supposed "National and Homeland Security" expert, Arkin should know that the average salary of an active duty U.S. serviceman is far below the average for people of similiar edcuational backgrounds. I may have only had a government job, but I still endured a significant pay cut to come back on active duty. (It is only because of the tax breaks I get for being deployed to a combat zone that let my wife stay at home with our son during his infancy). The average job in the civilian world that pays what soldiers make also tends not to come with mortar fire in the job description.

So I assume Arkin is being intentionally imprecise in his definition of "decent wage."

Second, as for "taking care of their families" with medical care, my wife gave up on the Army health care system months ago when it came to taking care of David. We are now paying out of pocket so that she can get an answer on the phone to her questions, or not have to wade through ten layers of bureaucracy just to make an appointment.

Other families may have been having better experiences than we are, but this experience has turned my wife off of socialized medicine for good.

As for the amenities, I concede that my half of an 8'x20' trailer, while not as nice as a college dormroom, is better than my father-in-law had during Vietnam. And I'm the first to admit that I eat well thanks to the overstuffed contract that KBR gets for feeding us in the dining facility. (I would note, however, that my amenities include sharing a 2'x 6' bathroom with three other officers, only sometimes have hot water to shower/shave with, have a single bed with exposed wires sticking out of the mattress, step out into 120 degree heat once I'm outside my trailer, get awoken at least three times a week by explosions, have had my trailer shot twice . . . and oh, by the way, can't drink. But other than that the amenities are spectacular.)

But I also have been to enough places in Iraq (far more than Arkin, I'd wager) to know that I am one of the fortunate ones. The vast majority of the soldiers in Iraq do not have it nearly as good as I do, much less in comparison to their civilian peers.

And yes, there is that little thing these guys face in getting mortared and shot at everyday. For Arkin to act as if these soldiers and Marines are privileged and should be grateful for their conditions is ridiculous.

More importantly, and contemptibly, Arkin seems to embody the "Free speech for me but not for thee" school of political commentary. It is perfectly fine in Arkin's book (and mine, to be honest) for the protestors to assemble and oppose the war. Freedom of speech, and freedom to dissent, is part of what makes America great. (I'm not okay with spray painting the Capitol Building, as some protestors did in DC last weekend).

I disagree with their argument, of course, and can see with my own eyes that it does have real consequences in terms of enemy propaganda here in Iraq. But that is part of the price we pay living in a free society, and not one that I would abrogate lightly.

However, Arkin seems to believe that Jane Fonda, Tim Robbins, Susan Surandon, and other celebrities have more of a right to express their opinions than do the "mercenaries" who are risking their lives daily to preserve our freedoms. And this despite the fact that the soldiers weren't even saying that nobody could criticize the war, but were expressing their opinion on the protests.

Opinions, Mr. Arkin. You know, part of that whole free speech thing?!?

On a visceral level, I agree with the readers who've exercised their freedom of speech in the comments section of his post.

But in order to keep the discourse reasonably elevated, it suffices to say that Arkin has produced one of the more despicable commentaries on the war, and that is already a pretty low bar.

(Hat tip to Captain's Quarters).