Armchair Generals unite

My friend Ken Payne over at Kings of War has a great post, responding gently but incisively to Mark Urban’s complaint that too many people mouth off about the Afghan war when they haven’t been there and won’t ever go.

This raises all sorts of questions.

Personally, I have a chance to go to Kabul and give a lecture to flog my book, and hopefully will later in the year.

But even if that wasn’t happening, being one of many taxpayers who fund the military and on behalf of whom the war is being fought, I democratically reserve the right to an opinion, whether its outlandish or not. The public has a strong interest at stake. By all means, folk who assert opinions should ideally try and be informed. But that’s why we have a free press, foreign correspondents and journalists like Urban, so that people can consume and critically think about eyewitness and expert opinion. Who does he think funds the BBC, the employer that sends him there?

Realistically, what about the character who is too busy or too scared to go out there, but who has views on the war?  Must they run the gauntlet and visit the country first? Is Urban actually saying that people aren’t morally entitled to an opinion unless they have entered the warzone? The logical implication of his argument,  in effect, is that only a small clique of  privileged people would be allowed into the debate. That anti-democratic attitude would be ironic, given that the war is supposed to be a struggle to birth democracy abroad.

Can visiting a place or being an eyewitness help understand the conflict? No question. Should onlookers from afar who want to understand a war take the trouble to read what practitioners have to say? You bet.

On the other hand, there are never guarantees. Plenty of  politicians visit a war, in fact are treated to tours, and then make dubious pronouncements about it. Embedded journalists like Urban may see all sorts of the complexities and realities of a war. But people who experience a conflict first-hand can be very wrong about the nature of that conflict. In 2005, before the hard year of renewed Taliban offensives, US Major General Eric Olson who had commanded the COIN campaign declared that the Taliban were ‘a force in decline.’

As Ken says, the raw material of experience does not necessarily translate into political insight, and war is a political act requiring political judgment.

In fact, direct and brutal experience does not ensure strategic acumen. In 2003, who was more wise about invading Iraq, John McCain, a war veteran who was tortured in Vietnam, or Barack Obama, a freshman senator? And there were few more successful strategists and wartime presidents than Franklin Roosevelt, a former secretary of the navy who had never been to war.

Of course, some raise the bar even further, arguing that you can only understand war if you’ve actually been in combat. That would be bad news for some of the liveliest military-strategic minds in our time, such as Sir Lawrence Freedman, Hew Strachan and John Keegan, who haven’t served in the military, and bad news for the rest of us who have benefited from their writing.

Ultimately, the war in Afghanistan is being fought on behalf of us all, and is bound to affect us all. Alas for Urban, the war and the right to think aloud about it are not just the property of a valiant few.

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