Why I Read the New York Times

Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, a Research Fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, and a Professor of Classics and Humanities at the California State University. He is the author of nine books and numerous essays on classical culture and its influence on Western Civilization. His most recent book, Democracy's Dangers and Discontents (Hoover Institution Press), is now available for purchase.


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I get a lot of ragging from my fellow conservatives for reading The New York Times every day. But as I tell them, you have to know how the other side thinks. Progressive ideology reflects a narrative founded on unexamined ideas long exposed as unworkable, incoherent, or just plain false. Countering those ideas requires seeing how they function in their natural habitat as they reinforce the narrative and create received wisdom. I’m not talking about the obvious ideologues like Paul Krugman, whose progressive dogma is as predictable and formulaic as a Hollywood romantic comedy. More insidious are the pieces that have a legitimate and interesting point, but then inevitably fall back onto unexamined nostrums.

Journalist Sebastian Junger, for example, has a recent Times essay that confronts the simple fact that for many men war is not, as the liberals have it, an irredeemable evil, but rather an opportunity for adventure, achievement, and camaraderie. Junger suggests that accepting and understanding this reality could be helpful in reintegrating combat veterans into civilian life. But this potentially useful point immediately gets sidetracked by received wisdom, as when Junger claims that society is unwilling “to acknowledge the very real horrors of war,” and that this silence makes it harder for veterans to deal with their experiences.

I don’t know what “society” Junger has in mind, but it certainly isn’t the United States, where ever since Vietnam the “horrors of war” have been dwelled on, magnified, and frequently embellished by the media and popular culture at the expense of all those other dimensions of combat Junger recognizes are legitimate. The media coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, has relentlessly focused on the dead, the wounded, the impact on their families, and the deaths of civilians with an almost voyeuristic intensity. So too with Junger’s assertion that we must remember the bombings of Dresden and Hamburg, the firebombing of Japanese cities, and of course the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and his implication that “we as a nation avoid coming to terms with events like these.” Again, this is a dubious assertion, given that a whole industry has sprung up demonizing the bombing of Hiroshima, which every student in America learns was a shameful crime even as he knows nothing about the Japanese atrocities perpetrated in Manchuria or the Philippines.

This trite bit of received wisdom––that American society ignores the horrors of war, particularly the deaths of civilians–– can be relied on to surface whenever the country debates sending our troops into combat, as it did in 2003 before the Iraq war. It reappears in Junger’s essay to provide his next dubious assumption: that this blindness makes it harder for veterans to assimilate into civilian society because their conflicted emotions about their experiences are unacknowledged, especially their guilt over civilian deaths. Again, this claim that there is some culture-wide silence about the experiences of combat veterans and their conflicted feelings is belied by history. After World War I scores of “trench reminiscences” flooded Western Europe, 75 in England just from 1927-29. The most famous was German Erich Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, which sold a million copies in Germany and another million in translation in France, England, and the U.S., where the film version won the best picture Oscar in 1930. So too after World War II, when in 1946 The Best Years of Our Lives won the best picture Oscar for 1946, and novels like Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead and James Jones’ From Here to Eternity were bestsellers. And of course, Vietnam produced a whole new genre of film that explored, and frequently distorted into lurid stereotypes, our soldiers’ experiences of that conflict.

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  • Jhon

    Here in Indonesia, if you ask a native, he/she will tell you that Japan's 3.5 years of conquest of Indonesia is more destructive than the 350 years of the Dutch'.

    • Ghostwriter

      I sometimes believe that there are many in Asia who probably think that the Americans were "too nice" to the Japanese after the end of World War II. We rebuilt their country while trying those who had commited atrocities. What do you think?

  • jacob

    Which is why I despise all those pseudointellectuals, full of you-know-what as they
    ALL are and which the bunch in NYT and most magazines of their ilk, are full of…

    But as to the still lamented nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, why none of these
    morons bothers mentioning the lives, suffering and destruction spared for both the
    US and Japan if Japan would have been invaded as the US did in the Pacific, due to
    the Japanes fanaticism, proven not only by the Kamikaze but what happened in
    OKINAWA ???

    But this doesn't penetrate their thick skulls, as they will never allow any praise for
    their country, for which they will not do anything but want it to do everything for them

    WHICH IS WHY I WOULDN'T USE THE NEW YOURK TIMES EVEN FOR TOILET PAPER…!!!!

    • johnnywoods

      Very good point jacob. It was estimated that one million allied lives would have been lost if we had invaded Japan but no one even mentions how many Japanese would have been killed in such an invasion.

  • Soylent Green

    Reminds me of a conversation I had a long time ago about a similar situation. I used to have gun store and a law enforcement customer of mine had been involved in the fatal shooting of suspect who had shot at him and a fellow officer while they were attempting to arrest him. I told him that, although I knew we were supposed to feel 'guilty' about killing a fellow human being, I would have been damn glad it was 'him' instead of 'me'. He was really glad to hear me say that because that was EXACTLY the way HE felt. He said he was afraid something was wrong with him because he DIDN'T feel sorry that HE was still alive and the shooter wasn't.

    • johnnywoods

      "Better to be tried by twelve than carried by six."

  • mrbean

    The NYT is good for wrapping fish and starting camp fires.

  • Jim

    Remember the LBJ Vietnam war. He fought it as if the NYTs were the director of the war. The kinder gentler war he conducted dragged it out to unreasonable lengths and he senselessly gave military advantages to the enemy. The fifth columnists such as the NYTs reinterpreted the results in an attempt to make it look like the enemy was getting stronger and thus we couldn't win. Johnson's NYTs directed drag out war created defeatism at home.
    The media made the Tet offensive look like a VC victory in stead of the Kamikazi " end of the line" suicide charge it really was; that Gettysburg charge which ended the VC as a force and made the North Vietnam enter the war to save face.
    I think it was General Giap who was fired by the North Vietnam for having bungled the war and gotten so many North Vietnamese soldiers killed.
    Toward the end of the war when it was apparent that the kinder gentler war was self defeating did the US began the savage war it should have started out with. The change of tactics was what brought the North Vietnamese to the conference table.
    The Democratic liberal congress snatched defeat from the jaws of victory and refused to supply the South Vietnamese . With out the supplies the South which had just repelled a NV attack on their own were totally defeated by the second well supplied NV invasion.
    The liberal fifth columnists twisted the kinder gentler war into weakness and consequently argued we could not win.
    Don't drag the war out, quick and lethal on all fronts in including the war on the fifth columnists wins.

    • artcohn

      Onn the other hand,Conservative columnist, Joe Alsop, had been touting that the Viet commies had, according to US miliary intelligence, become extremely weakened in the weeks before Tet that made the Tet Kamikaki offensdive so successful in convincing many obsevers that. contrary to Alsop, we were not at all close to winning the war.

      • coyote3

        Bravo sierra, I was there. We were winning, and in a big way. The Tet offensive was done more out of desperate publicity stunt than anything else. We won that in big way too. What it did accomplish was virtualy wiping out the Viet Cong, and the NVA took up the slack for the most part, after that. More importantly, however, the weeping and whining at home that it was calculated to create, convinced the the north to hang on just while longer. No we did not lose that war by fighting it. We lost the support at home.

  • scum

    By NYT lies, I assume we're talking about NYT playing up the Right's impeccable claims of imminent mushroom clouds and yellow cake in Niger. Geez….

  • zsqpwxxeh

    With the exception of Scum, who is a lefty troll assigned to this blog and should not be fed, the comments so far miss the main point of the article. We already know Junger's understanding of war is flawed and that it is representative of NYT reporting. That is secondary to the writer's appeal: namely, that we should and must read widely in liberal publications. Read the NYT thoroughly. Go to Kos and Firedoglake and Huffpo and Politico. Watch Matthews and Maddow and the Schieffer et al. Understand their arguments and how they are presented. Become thoroughly familiar with the DPD (the Democrat Propaganda Department, otherwise known as the mainstream media). Always ask yourself: how is the story/narrative/clip/comment trying to help Obama?

    Know enemy
    Know self
    Hundred battles
    Hundred victories

  • Yetwave

    It is always helpful to know where the other side stands on issues and there is no more accurate a source that the NYT for liberal skewing on any issue. As Thornton says, the predictable, drooling Keynsian idolator and the delusional Roger Cohen are but the most obvious of the editorial apparatchiks on staff at the NYT.
    There is no infraction of journalistic standards that the NYT can commit and alienate its readers. Jayson Blair-no problemo, just lift the window, air out ths stench and the NYT will be back in the good graces of its forgiving muddleheaded readership in a New York minute.
    There must be festivities aplenty in the executive suites at the Gray Lady resulting from the troubles befalling Murdoch/Newscorp. The NYT draws a distinction between actually fabricating the news, a la Blair, and going to any lengths to get the news, a la phone hacking Murdochians. The former represents only a violation of trust while the latter is a violation of both decency and the law.

  • Jim_C

    The subheading of this article mentions "Exposing Lies."

    What Mr. Thornton has done, however, is merely expose a difference of opinion.

    And it's a good article, in fact I agree with Thornton's pov; I think Junger didn't make his point well enough. But Junger is a great journalist whom we're lucky to have and (as Thornton points out) has a great respect for our soldiers. Here's Junger in a recent NPR interview:

    "I have a lot of very liberal friends….And what I hear among my friends is this idea that the – basically, the military industrial complex has manipulated the lowest levels, economic levels of society and drawn them into the military as a kind of cannon fodder.

    It certainly was not true in the platoon that I was with. I mean, it was mostly middle-class kids. It was white and Hispanic kids. There was one black guy in the platoon. And they were all extremely proud to be out there. They were smart guys, and I think they had a lot of choices in life. They chose to be combat infantry because they wanted that experience. They wanted that sense of purpose and importance and utility."

    • Jim_C

      I think Junger is just another writer dealing (in part) with the spiritual costs of war, and he deserves some credit for his work documenting the experiences of these future leaders of our country.