David French and the Cult of the Soldier

Earlier this week, Weekly Standard editor William Kristol continued his frantic efforts to prevent the nomination of Donald Trump by suggesting that National Review writer, attorney, and Iraq war veteran David French was a good choice for an independent run for president.

The backlash against French was fierce, and immediate. And soon after came the outrage that there would be distaste for a man who writes publicly for a famous conservative magazine, and who therefore invites commentary on his (many bad) opinions. Daily Beast Senior Editor Andrew Kirell (a friend) mocked French, but mostly mocked Kristol for being wrong about everything, and for being a warmongering creep. This was outrageous to people who think French is somehow virtuous because he’s a Christian, and because he joined the military.

I have no idea what French is like in person, or how he treats his friends. The same with Kristol. Perhaps they are kind, charming, and intelligent at parties. And though French and his wife’s bizarre-sounding agreement about her keeping off of social media while he was in Iraq sounds icky – and commentary on your marriage is invited when you publicly write about your marriage – it is not my concern. Friends of French are forgiven for being annoyed by the portrayal of this apparent agreement as some kind of abusive one, even if, again, this was not private information leaked.

The larger point, however, is that it is not only politicians who deserve scorn and backlash. We needn’t wait for a person with dreadful opinions to win power before expressing horror that they are even considering trying to gain it. The empire’s most ardent fans are not clean, simply because they haven’t signed any drone strike orders personally. Kristol’s first dream of an anti-Trump ticket was Dick Cheney and Tom Cotton, which literally could not be more social conservative and hawkish. So if someone comes Kristol-endorsed, run the other way.

Now, French is sometimes capable of sounding more nuanced about war than Kristol, who has imploded into self-parody, as his twitter feed attests. But he is the same breed of creature in the end. War is tough, war is important, and nuking Japan must always be stressed and overstressed as a good thing.

Soldiers are a mixed crew. For every Robert Bales, there is a Hugh Thompson Jr., and a hundred thousand bit players in the production known as American empire. For every soldier who came home sure he or she was right to be there, another becomes a radical antiwar activist. It does no good to say soldiers are the only ones to blame for war, but it would be be dishonest to suggest that they play no part in it.

And it’s not condescending to say that some people have fewer options, some people truly don’t know how bad a war is until they get there. And some people are Harvard-educated lawyers, who should have known better, and who should not be praised as virtuous because they decided to go on a whim.

French’s initial impulse to go to war appears to be vaguely tied into ephemeral, gooey ideas about Christian manhood, righteous conflicts, and adventuring. In a Patheos piece titled “Real Men Take the Lead,” French hand waves away the difference between, say, a nagging wife who won’t let her husband have some alone time, and a wife who might have had a problem with him joining the military. Or rather, Biblical-style relationships are good, and men of the Bible “go to war at God’s command. There, men face death, far from home, for the sake of Truth. There, men confront the powerful and call out injustice. There, men actually lead.”

Does French think that’s what he was doing in Iraq? Hard to say. But his defenders are enthusiastically linking to a 2014 speech he delivered in front of a bunch of homeschoolers, which spent time describing how as a Harvard-educated lawyer with a perfectly commendable job as the head of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, he suddenly decided to join the good fight in Iraq. French read the newspaper, and thought America didn’t have that fighting spirit if it was trying to entice older soldiers to come back. “That’s when my conscience stopped me cold. America wasn’t too soft to fight a long war. I was too soft,” he writes. He had “no excuse” not to do something.

People on the right and/or his real-life friends think French is nuanced and thoughtful, because he actually went to war instead of just cheering for it. And because he admits to being scared while he was there. But having the sense to be scared in a warzone, and the bravery to risk something while you’re there doesn’t turn you into a hero.

In honor of Memorial Day, National Review published French’s soppy bumper sticker of a piece that saluted every soldier, because “Courage is Never Wasted.” A soldier may rescue another soldier from the line of fire. Perhaps he might become injured while doing so. His bravery in that moment is unquestionable. His subsequent injury, or perhaps death is still a waste when the war itself never should have happened. Every soldier maimed by an IED, or killed by an Iraqi insurgent was a waste, regardless of how bravely or even heroically they acted while they were in this dangerous place. Again, French can be accused of some thoughtfulness because he admits that seeing ISIS retake Iraq made it feel like the earlier war had been a waste. But courage, somehow, makes all that OK, and the nuance is washed away in the warm reassurance of righteousness.

The cult of the soldier says it can surgically separate a soldier from the war he or she fights in. Or at least every American soldier. The ones who were drafted, the ones who were one bad day from fragging their superior officer, or committed suicide when they got home, or became raving antiwar activists. Are they all good, all the same? Is Robert Bales just as noble as Hugh Thompson Jr.? If every soldier gets a participation trophy, who is actually worth commending? And if ISIS taking over Iraq doesn’t prove that the 2003 invasion was a waste of life on all sides, what the hell possibly could? What does courage have to do with that at all, in fact?

Objecting to these platitudes is not intended to be hurtful towards the dead, or towards French more than lots of other people who carry this idea. But the pro-soldier platitudes – the slogan-sophistication about war – must end. The idea that it is just some Boys’ Life quest should have gone out of fashion after The Red Badge of Courage was published. And French admitting war is scary is not enough when he still attempts to sell his experience as some kind of test of manhood.

David French may indeed be perfectly lovely in person. He may have been brave to win a Bronze Star. His daughter certainly does not deserve to be the target of racist trolls online, as she has been. None of these caveats make his choice to go to war, his many defenses of American empire, or his seal of approval from William Kristol any more laudable.

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and a columnist for VICE.com. She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at www.thestagblog.com.

Author: Lucy Steigerwald

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and an editor for Young Voices. She has also written for VICE, Playboy.com, the Washington Post.com, The American Conservative, and other outlets. Her blog is www.thestagblog.com. Follow her on twitter @lucystag.