They're Warriors, Not Victims
3:00 PM, Feb 27, 2009 • By THOMAS DONNELLY
Here's the last part of today's speech by Obama:
This is a very subtle form of the soldier-as-victim trope that is fast becoming an Iraq legacy. For soldiers throughout history--those who have endured physical and emotional sufferings of an essential similar quality, if less clinically expressed--the trials of war were at least partially ameliorated by the salve of personal honor and, if the battle went well, the celebration of a victory. The troops who have served and serve still in Iraq should be singled out not just for the burdens of the fight but because they emerge from it, as Bing West's book puts it, as the "strongest tribe."
No doubt there is a genuine tenderness in the president's feelings for soldiers. But there is little of the praise of warriors in his words. Gratitude or sympathy for suffering is quite different from honoring a sacrifice. I am sure Obama will honor his pledge to continue to ensure that people in uniform "form the backbone of our middle class." But the pay, the benefits, the programs alone are never enough and never, ultimately, what make the call to service worth answering.
It is never easy for a civilian to fully empathize with a soldier's experience, particularly with that of long-service professionals asked to serve constant watch on distant, dusty frontiers, in wars that ebb and flow but do not end. The only wisdom can come from acknowledging this almost unbridgeable gap and trying to mentally leap across it. Soldiers more easily see that we civilians are not like them; we civilians are mistakenly prone to think that soldiers are like us.
For the president, the civilian who stands at the beginning of the chain of command--who, by his constitutional authority as commander-in-chief really resides on the far side of the gap--making the leap is an obligation, not an option. He, above all, should speak to his troops in the language of duty, honor, and country which is their native tongue but seems to be such a foreign dialect to a detached, cool, post-modern politician. President Obama must not simply bind up the soldier's wounds or care for his widow, but lead him.