Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Tony Blankley's "American Grit": a call to expect "duties" as well as "rights" and to "bring back the draft"!

Author: Tony B. Blankley.
Title: "American Grit: What It Will Take to Survive and Win in the 21st Century."
Publication and Description: Washington, Regnery, 2009. ISBN 978-1-59698-519-3. 215 pages, indexed.

The author is an executive with Edelman Global Communications, and created a bit of a stir a couple weeks ago when The Washington Times ran a couple of the more controversial passages in this book as op-eds. On passage dealt with supporting wartime censorship, and another urged a return to military conscription.

In fact, the chapter “Bring Back the Draft” is the second, but in doing this review I’ll save the appetizer as dessert, and approach the main part of the book pragmatically.

Yes, Blankley is urging is own brand of “country first,” and up to a point a lot of his points make sense. Again, I’ll take up the “moral” points later. Sometimes there is some real pragmatism in his arguments, which he set up by talking about Abraham Lincoln’s pragmatic commitment to country and union early in the book.

He’s right in that we need to become more self-sufficient in all forms of energy. Yes, we can drill offshore safely, and yes, oil companies need a stable enough price that they will get at the more difficult domestic sources of oil and gas. Predictions of peak oil may not be as dire is we face economic realities on energy production. But I disagree with him on climate change and global warming. There really is no credible debate any more. We must do something about producing less carbon. Why aren’t we investing in producing more energy locally with solar and wind?

He is right in that the threat of global terrorism is dire, and that we run a substantial risk of a WMD or nuclear attack on a major western city (or plural). He is right in that radical Islam and its brand of asymmetric warfare is novel, and that it targets western consumerism in a somewhat unprecedented way (even compared to communism and fascism in the past). Citizen preparation is important, but the real issue is getting good intelligence and in reigning in on nuclear and biological raw materials available around the world (particularly in the former Soviet Union). So Sam Nunn’s approach, as well as the current president’s, of accounting for all this material seems critical.

He offers interesting perspectives on wartime censorship and on the due process rights of people identified as enemy combatants. It is certainly true that America has had much more vigorous censorship (and surveillance) in the past than anything practiced by the departed Bush administration. At various times (especially during World War I) we have prosecuted people for violating sedition laws (in WWI that meant criticizing the draft), and such laws seem arguably unconstitutional to me. He is critical of some “anti-war” movies like Brian de Palma’s “Redacted”, “Rendition” and Tom Cruise’s “Lions for Lambs”, but I personally didn’t experience these as anti-war. But he is right in that during WWII anti-war films and speech were not tolerated much. And I wasn’t aware that Hawaii was under martial law during WWII.

He is critical of the media’s behavior in compromising security (he goes into the Valerie Plame affair) and would question journalists’ demands for shield laws, probably. He gives an example where media intervention led to the shutting down of a radical Islam website when it could have provided good intelligence. But he overlooks the opportunity to discuss “amateur” media, which may contribute a lot to the tone of the debate (on radical Islam, for example), but which could also inadvertently serve as a nuisance or as a target for exploitation, for example, by steganography.

He gives a sobering discussion of the “threat” of calls for dual legal systems, like urging Sharia law in Britain, and discusses the problem of “libel tourism”, particularly with the case of a book about Khalid bin Mahfouz (relating to a book by Rachel Ehrenfeld), which he says has eased somewhat with a New York State law – but Congress still needs to give this attention.

This brings me back to his treatment of conscription, which he traces back to colonial times when some states, he says, did conscript men into militias (for George Washington, the length of enlistment contracts was a big issue). A number of other people have called for resuming the draft, more often liberals (like Rangel) or academicians (like Charles Moskos) who see it as a moral matter regarding not just sharing sacrifice but as a pragmatic measure of attracting better talent to the military. Indeed, Blankley argues that the Pentagon badly needs more troops on the ground, and doesn’t want to admit that it needs a draft again. Blankley admits that in the current political climate it’s unlikely that arguments to resume the draft will get much traction. He thinks that Obama’s plans for strong carrots for national service have little real effect (he’s not that clear as to why), and goes on to spell out his suggestion. At graduation from high school, we have universal draft registration, and the Pentagon selects the people it needs and wants. The remaining people serve in civilian areas, which might include ideas like civil defense, but could also help with eldercare and nursing homes. That idea is interesting because it suggests that interpersonal care is everyone’s responsibility (whether married with kids or not), but it could also take up some of the slack in the debate on controlling entitlement expenses for seniors. At one point, he says we will have to make painful decisions about how much support (outside the family) to give people who have already lived their lives. I suppose that’s just being candid. I don’t recall that he specifies gender (I think he would draft females, as does Israel). Several times he admits to sounding anti-libertarian, and characterizes his plan as “service” and not “involuntary servitude.” (I guess there won’t be any 20 year olds who become billionaires without paying their dues first, in his world.) Also, in the chapter on the draft, he doesn’t mention how restoring the draft would interact with “don’t ask don’t tell” for gays. I was disappointed in that lack in the chapter.

However, he revisits the military service issue later in Chapter 9: “Back to Basics: Reading, Writing and ROTC”. You can imagine the tone of such a chapter. (Actually, I recall seeing a junior ROTC drill in the Arlington Ballston Common during the time that Presdient Clinton’s plan to lift the military gay ban was triggering such angry debate.) On p 171 he says that “pro-gay” and other (like anti-military) forces oppose Junior ROTC, and on p 172 he expands his thought to admit that opposition to Junior ROTC (and college ROTC in general) comes from opposition to the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy. On p 179 he supports the Solomon Amendment. But he never goes into the issue of lifting the ban itself. I can imagine that his view on gay rights is not very favorable and imagine that he sees family values as part of “paying your dues” but that might be speculation.

It's well to remember that the Republican Platform in 2008 (on which Senator John McCain ran), with all the talk of "Country First", insisted on keeping the all volunteer military (perhaps it was soft on the stop-loss or "backdoor draft"), and denied that there would be compulsory national service; but it also wanted to keep "don't ask don't tell".

He does, in his first chapter, provide a welcome and blunt statement about the importance of duty as well as rights. On p 8 he writes:

“Currently, the best interest of the nation requires us to consider rolling back our attachment to personal rights and entitlements, and attachment that has become self-indulgent.”

I perceive this whole question of “duty” (or “bill of responsibilities”, a term that I coined in my first book) as “out there” in a separate space. It invokes questions about karma and “justice” at the individual level: we don’t like to see people gain on the unseen sacrifices of others. But in a democracy that’s inevitable (indeed, that’s what Communism pretended it could prevent). So that gets closer to notions of “community” or even nationalism and patriotism. One’s expression as an individual is supposed to be predicated on putting community first. In fact, ironically, some of the calls for “sustainable living” and less globalization, in response to climate change (which he rejects), call for the same kind of sense of ethics (look at the “End of Suburbia” films). It raises philosophical questions about how much personal interdependence is good and necessary, and whether personal expression should be predicated on real interactions with others or family obligations. Some of the particularly Christian notions of “fellowship” derive from this mix of ideas. The problem with giving so much attention to “country” or “community” is that it does invite abuse by leadership, and in the past it has covered up a lot of tribalism, racism, and other gross group injustices—problems with libertarians have good answers, if they are willing to let individual “non-performers” within the family or community drop off. But, then, maybe that’s what debate in a democracy is all about.

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