Matthew Hoh in the Land of the Free
By Bernie Quigley
- for The Hill on 10/30/09
The generals, the policy makers, the old men in suits, do not know if President Obama possesses the obstinacy that guided Lincoln and Churchill, and which must guide all war presidents to some degree. So writes David Brooks in his column today in the New York Times. He is referring to the attitudes of experts in think tanks and the Pentagon he talked to about Obama’s pending decision on Afghanistan. They are looking for that one good man. Brooks and Co. have been looking for him since long before 9/11 when they sat around the offices of the Weekly Standard trying to decide which countries to invade. The tin man, the cowardly lion, all of Dorothy’s children, seeking the wizard who will save them. But finding only golem, half way now to Jerusalem.
Lincoln. Churchill. Are we not men?
Matthew Hoh, much in the news this week for his decision to resign his Foreign Service post in protest over the Afghan war, talks about a situation that plagued him; a fire in a tumbling helicopter from which he escaped. A few friends could have been saved if it had gone differently. In hindsight it led him to a maelstrom of drinking introspection of the kind which many veterans are familiar. I’d a similar event. Long ago, exactly eight years after the incident in 1967, it returned. Many had the same situation. The details forgotten and ignored in the zen moment of unconscious action return to bring you down later. If in those days I had heard anyone passively, pedantically, philosophsing the ways of fire and death with the distance that Brooks does today, I might have grabbed him by the throat in a fury and demanded: Did you serve? But Hoh seems pretty steady. There is no edge of bitterness because he knows he has done the work expected and can speak for those who did. When the deaths are metabolized the drinking will stop. A steady and special kind of responsibility may set in those who survive this kind of visitation; a coming to terms; an advanced adulthood perhaps – possibly satori. Because everyone dies but not everyone kills.
The problem with this kind of reporting Brooks and his Pentagon pals bring us is that it romanticizes war by creating false analogy. It romanticizes victory and romanticizes strategy and duty and adult responsibility. In has been like this since before the invasion of Iraq. To go back to Lincoln, from what we have in the record, it is Ulysses S. Grant who states policy and strategy clearly. The war began with idealism but the idealists were soon killed off which should come as no surprise. The Confederates were winning and had marched into Pennsylvania. The North was growing tired of war. Grant had to default to using barbarians and strategies of outright slaughter, burning the earth from Atlanta to the sea. In his autobiography he tells you why directly. He had only a few months to win the war. The North was exhausted with the effort.
It is not that different with Churchill. Churchill did not run the war. Eisenhower did. And as victory in Europe approached, Stephen Ambrose reports, mothers and others began to demand the end of the killing of their sons and husbands. It was this that led Truman to the fateful decision to use nuclear weapons to end the war quickly.
Brooks advances the dreary conversation of American generals who have fought but never won a war. It is a romance of good old boy and girls that has led us again to quagmire. Technically, these people strive for a feeling. They are “feeling” types (McCain and Lindsey Graham) longing to be like the “thinking” types (Eisenhower and Grant) who successfully solve crises and who have saved our bacon at every critical turn. “Feeling” type military guys are the curse of the third post-war generation. In true crisis they would be ignored.
Eisenhower used the phrase “military industrial complex” in his last words to us; warning us about NATO, warning us about generals, warning us that young men like war and some never grow up. In the season of The X Files actor David Duchovney, educated at Yale and Princeton, artfully used the phrase the “military, industrial, entertainment complex.” This is the advanced dharma that suits our times. “Military, industrial, entertainment, information complex,” works even better.
Which came to mind last night watching the brilliant and brave Hoh talking to Judy Woodruff on The News Hour with Jim Lehrer. As the country rose to war it was common to see journalists and policy people smokin’ and jokin’ together on this show. A pleasant illusion of responsible power emerged as an entertainment venue. There was no distinction then between military, CIA, The Washington Post, the News Hour – it was all part of the military, industrial, entertainment, information complex with happy face commentary by Brooks and Shields.
But last night it was suddenly different. Judy Woodruff was slightly disarmed by the clarity of Hoh’s argument and the integrity of his service as a marine, as a man, as a Foreign Service official. At one point she said, why should anyone listen to you? And asked him how old he was. Hoh is 36.
We are a nation that has been listening to the old men for a long time now. Some of them were born old like Dick Cheney and David Brooks. Almost no one has had the courage to stand alone in opposition. What is striking about Hoh is his continence. He seems to be the authentic marine and soldier who reveals the artificiality and institutional thinking of the others. That could be problems because it only takes one brave man to bring it all down. One man brave and true can change everything. Like Joe Welch at the McCarthy hearings, like Bob Dylan at Newport, one real man standing alone who knows what he is doing can bring down the whole circus. And Matthew Hoh, man and marine standing alone, is not going anywhere.