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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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