Phil Klay, a writer and U.S. Marine Corps’ veteran, has written two pieces over the past week that get at the heart of one of America’s civil-military dilemmas. The first, over at The Atlantic, is well worth a read. However, I’d like to focus on the second one, published over the weekend by the New York Times. In it, Klay discusses the role of veterans like himself in a country at war for more than a decade and a half.
Klay highlights the resentment that some military personnel—including himself as a young lieutenant serving warzone—feel about a society that pays little attention to its ongoing conflicts. He captures it in the sentiment: “While we’re at war America is at the mall,” noting the irony of how the phrase popped into his head while at the mall buying baby supplies.
The piece is not about any resentment on Klay’s part though, as he’s acknowledges that he’s been out of uniform far longer than he was in it and is comfortable in his civilian life. Rather, he focuses on the way the gap between those who serve has distorted our political discourse about the military as an institution and its use as an instrument of policy. In explaining at length how it has come to be that military opinion is seen in some circles as superior to civilian on matters related to the use of military force—or for some civilians, a political crutch they can lean on—Klay discusses at length the bizarre press conference given last year by White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, and retired Marine general, in the wake of the death of four American special operators in Niger. He writes,
He began powerfully enough, describing what happens to the bodies of soldiers killed overseas, and bringing up his own still painful memories of the loss of his son, who died in Afghanistan in 2010. He spoke with pride of the men and women in uniform.
But then, in an all too common move, he transitioned to expressing contempt for the civilian world. He complained that nothing seemed to be sacred in America anymore, not women, not religion, not even “the dignity of life.” He told the audience that service members volunteer even though “there’s nothing in our country anymore that seems to suggest that selfless service to the nation is not only appropriate, but required.” He said veterans feel “a little bit sorry” for civilians who don’t know the joys of service.
To cap things off, he took questions only from reporters who knew families who had lost loved ones overseas. The rest of the journalists, and by extension the rest of the American public who don’t know any Gold Star families, were effectively told they had no place in the debate.
Such disdain for those who haven’t served and yet dare to have opinions about military matters is nothing new for Mr. Kelly. In a 2010 speech after the death of his son, Mr. Kelly improbably claimed that we were winning in Afghanistan, but that “you wouldn’t know it because successes go unreported” by members of the “‘know it all’ chattering class” who “always seem to know better, but have never themselves been in the arena.” And he argued that to oppose the war, which our current secretary of defense last year testified to Congress we were not winning, meant “slighting our warriors and mocking their commitment to the nation.”
This is a common attitude among a significant faction of veterans. As one former member of the Special Forces put it in a social media post responding to the liberal outcry over the deaths in Niger, “We did what we did so that you can be free to naïvely judge us, complain about the manner in which we kept you safe” and “just all around live your worthless sponge lives.” His commentary, which was liked and shared thousands of times, is just a more embittered form of the sentiment I indulged in as a young lieutenant in Iraq.
The key line in Klay’s argument comes more than halfway through: “Yet, if I have authority to speak about our military policy it’s because I’m a citizen responsible for participating in self-governance, not because I belonged to a warrior caste.”
Read the entire thing here.