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How To Make Sense Of Military Service In A Culture That No Longer Understands It


A couple years ago, I took a red-eye flight from Washington Dulles International Airport to London. Standing in line to board, I suddenly spied one of our nation’s most notorious military leaders, David Petraeus. “King David,” as he was known during his tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, curiously walked up to an empty kiosk not far from the gate where we were boarding for London.

Within less than a minute, an attendant appeared and started checking him in, ostensibly for our flight. Special service for the former commander, I thought. “Look,” I exclaimed to those nearest to me in line. “It’s David Petraeus!” Within minutes, everyone was pointing at him, commenting on his presence, and taking pictures of him on their iPhones. “How did you recognize him so quickly?” asked the woman behind me. “Because I’ve briefed him,” I replied, with a smile.

Indeed, during my first and second tours in Afghanistan, I had helped assemble briefings personally directed to him. That might lead readers to wonder why I would be so willing to embarrass a man under whom I had once served. The answer is simple.

While we were working our rear ends off enabling him and his staff to make decisions to further our nation’s strategic objectives and save American lives on the battlefield, he was sleeping with his biographer, U.S. Army reservist Paula Broadwell. Apparently during or after that fling, Broadwell got access to classified documents from Petraeus, or, as we began calling him, “General Betray-us.”

For those of us who worked for him, it felt like a betrayal, not just of U.S. military regulations regarding sexual relations, but of everyone serving in Afghanistan. That the affair didn’t come to light until Broadwell started harassing another woman was all the more damning. I suppose “King David” was an apt nom-de-guerre, and not just because of Petraeus’ military brilliance.

I thought of that anecdote while reading the chapter on honor in Scott Beauchamp’s recent book Did You Kill Anyone?: Reunderstanding My Military Experience as a Critique of Modern Culture. The series of essays are inspired by Beauchamp’s service in the U.S. Army.

Honor, says Beauchamp, has to do with “the deepest sort of fidelity, or attunement, to a higher and anti-utilitarian moral purpose.” This sense of honor is certainly inculcated in the military, but one finds it plenty of other places: family, faith, and nation. Honor fosters devotion for goods that transcend our individual desires and bind societies together. Yet, as Beauchamp also rightly diagnoses our culture, it’s “most alien to contemporary Western (particularly cosmopolitan) sensitivities.”

Beauchamp’s reflections on the intersection of the military and contemporary culture are most welcome. His thoughts on boredom, ritual, community, hierarchy, smoking, tradition, and honor are both interesting, and to varying degrees, counter-cultural or with a conservative bent.

Yet the subjects are addressed in novel and intelligent ways that should be accessible to a broad audience. I imagine many liberal elites would find themselves persuaded by Beauchamp’s indictment of technocracy, materialism, consumerism, social atomism, and utilitarianism. This is a testament to the author’s ability to swim in common American waters, as well as those that are highly academic.

Unfortunately, some aspects of Did you Kill Anyone? proved annoying. Beauchamp’s seven essays are overstuffed with quotations. Many are interesting and relevant, but they tend to drown his voice. Indeed, I often found it hard to locate Beauchamp’s thoughts amid the seemingly hundreds of people he cites in the course of a 130-page book. That was frustrating, especially because every time I succeeded in identifying the author’s voice, I was increasingly interested to hear what he had to say.

This gets to my larger frustration with Did you Kill Anyone? Each essay was engaging and thoughtful, but I wasn’t sure what held them together. His postscript is short and amorphous. Nothing at the end of his last, seventh chapter connects with the previous six.

Certainly Beauchamp has offered a credible critique of many aspects of modern American culture. Yet there is no unifying coherence and no clear alternative. He writes in his postscript that he has a skepticism towards unfettered capitalism and materialism, a skepticism that I share, although Beauchamp offers little as an alternative.

Beauchamp writes of “a longing for values which gesture toward transcendence.” Such milquetoast phrasing is inadequate given the threats facing Americans fed up with a global economy that has left them behind and a meritocratic elite who condescendingly sneer at their traditionalist beliefs and cultural practices. We don’t need gesturing toward transcendence, whatever that means. We need transcendence itself, which our forefathers found in abundance within the worship, liturgy, and sacred truths of biblical religion.

Beauchamp’s language, whatever his noble intentions, is reminiscent of Philip Larkin’s “Church Going.” In it, the poet recounts stopping at a country church “not worth stopping for,” but that retains value, if nothing else, because “so many dead lie round.” America will need a much heartier view of transcendent truth to weather the storms that confront us today and inevitably tomorrow.

I’d embarrass Petraeus again, if given the opportunity. His arrogant indifference to his role as a senior officer in the U.S. military — coupled with an incomplete apology and his continued enjoyment of lucrative senior positions gained from his military and intelligence experience — is a violation of so much that Beauchamp rightly commends in his book.

A lack of ritual, community, and respect for traditional forms of hierarchy, tradition, and honor are all contributing to the unraveling of American society. I’m grateful for Beauchamp’s penetrating analysis of all these subjects. I just wish he had given the reader a more coherent, complete narrative to unite these disparate themes and orient us towards an alternative future focused on human flourishing.