Peter Robinson’s excellent work with the Uncommon Knowledge series recently included an interview with Victor Davis Hanson — the whole thing was fascinating, but I was particularly struck by this portion, which seems such an accurate description of my grandfather and my brother. Here’s an excerpt:
Peter Robinson: Now here’s the question. Whereas the leading figures of Greece all understood the military from firsthand experience, American elites, Northeast, Coastal California, can lead their entire lives without brushing up against military culture, let alone military experience. Is this something new in American military history and is this healthy? Is it sustainable?
Victor Davis Hanson: We’ve had people who have not had a lot of military – Abraham Lincoln was in the Black Hawk War for a few weeks. FDR was secretary of the Navy. So we’ve had people but what the difference is that this is the first time that we’ve had commanders in chiefs either have not had military experience or they haven’t had anything comparable. What I mean anything comparable, anything from the underbelly of American life, anybody who’s had to take apart an engine, anybody who’s had to build a house.
So there are approximate experiences, not the same but there’s a tragic sort of notion that you’re in a dead end job, you have to work with muscular strength, there’s no good and bad choices, bad and worse choices. All of that tragic view is necessary to understand what war is but yeah, I’m afraid that in a very sophisticated technological society we are certifying excellence and this is a larger topic, expertise based on basically an Ivy League credential which is not commiserate with real experience in the real world. It doesn’t tell us really what somebody in Fallujah is really thinking about.
What saves the United States when it goes to war is that we have a subset of the population for a variety of reasons enlisted in officer corps that are 19th century in mentality. They live according to the protocols of the 19th century. What do I mean? They’re more likely to believe in a transcendent religion. They’re more likely to believe in nationalism. They’re more likely to believe in a tragic view that you can be good without having to be perfect. So they don’t become depressed or inordinately give us because of an error. They are more likely to have had experience with muscular matters and so military really hasn’t changed since the 19th century. The people who are ordering it and organizing it and auditing it have changed greatly. But so far it’s sort of like it’s stuck in amber and they’ve been a great salvation to the United States.
A fascinating point, and one worth considering.