Boots on the Ground

The major institutions of our country do not seem to be doing well. None of them seems to be performing its primary functions adequately, not the churches, the schools, the governments, or even families-except one. The United States military can still kill people and break things with a high level of competence, and for that we should all thank God.

No matter what you may think about the war against Iraq or its aftermath, Boots on the Ground: A Month with the 82nd Airborne in the Battle for Iraq (St. Martin’s Press, 2003, $24.95) will give you a simple, straightforward account of a journalist’s time with the Army’s elite 82nd Airborne Division. Karl Zinsmeister, editor in chief of the American Enterprise, wrote the book almost as a long magazine piece. The book gives a glimpse of what it is like to be an Army paratrooper and to fight in a Third World desert during a whirlwind war.

Zinsmeister also spends time describing his family’s idyllic life in small-town New York State while extolling the virtues not only of America and her military but also of the war against Iraq. Though good Americans can disagree on the last, all faithful Americans will cotton to Zinsmeister’s aggressively unapologetic patriotism and respect for our Armed Services.

The book begins with a well-known quotation from John Stuart Mill: “War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.” Can Michael Moore and his ilk be so blind as not to see that their prosperity, their liberty, and even their very lives depend not on Hollywood stars, Manhattan socialites, or Washington do-gooders, but on the men that Zinsmeister met in the sand of the Middle East?

Zinsmeister knows that America’s greatness and goodness lies in the thoroughness with which great principles and practices have permeated her people and their institutions, however degraded they may have become in recent decades. “Back in middle America, I am able to leave my wife and three children alone for a month or two, confident that they will be protected, and not extorted, by the local police. Unlike in many other parts of the world I needn’t worry that some competing tribe or religious sect will rampage through my home community in my absence. I can be comfortable that the town government will pipe my family pure water. . . . Literally most of the families on this planet cannot go to bed confident that these kinds of services and securities will be there when they awake” (all emphases in original, p. 7).

Zinsmeister began living with military men in Kuwait before the war began. He notices that the military, seemingly much more hierarchal than the typical professional workplace, is actually much more egalitarian in the proper way-because social fraternity and social equality are at odds, and real, fraternal egalitarianism of persons respected as such can only develop when rigid, hierarchal social roles keep a society in order, and people know their place (the family is the paradigmatic example of this). He notes that the men of the military, obviously gruffer and more macho than most, develop a bond of friendship far greater than that developed by more feminine men in less demanding circumstances.

I doubt that our boys would fight so well if the court-invented dogma of the separation of church and state kept religion out of the trenches. For example, just before going into battle, an officer gathers his men together for a talk. “The commander ends by reading Psalm 144, with its tribute to those who battle against unrighteousness” (p. 126).

The cynical, anti-military, immature liberalism of most of Zinsmeister’s fellow reporters grates on him, and he rails against their manifest ignorance, bias, and malice. And their hypocrisy in advocating “openness.” He describes the incredible access that he received while embedded with the military. “I was on no leash. I went wherever I wanted without handlers (the Army public affairs officers rarely even knew where I was). . . . I can assure you that the New York Times, CNN, ABC, and Newsweek are not about to let any similarly snoopy observers into their boardrooms or staff offices during some equivalent period of crisis operation” (p. 179).

What a pleasure to read about an American institution that still performs and the men who make it work.