Wednesday, July 22, 2009
...in and of itself. I have done more than my fair share of time in Iraq as a soldier, but that does not make me an expert on all of Iraq or Afghanistan or national defense strategy or even counterinsurgency for that matter. Service, at any level or location, is a lens - like education or other life experiences - through which one gains a unique perspective. But let us not confuse that with "expertise."
There are a large number of bloggers and commentators who are veterans who look down upon those that have not served as not being qualified to speak on matters of the conflicts in which we are fighting. Those non-veteran commentors could, however, be just as or more qualified to speak on these issues than most uniformed personnel who ever served due to whatever their life experiences may be. Those life experiences provide a lens as well and may end up being of more value to the general populace than a soldier who spent 15 months on a FOB guarding the local national workers sweeping the latrines.
Before you all start writing letters (comments, on the other hand, are welcome), I am not saying that that soldier's service wasn't important. I am saying that his performing that function does not make him an expert on theater- or strategic-level issues in Iraq even if he does get to wear a patch on his right shoulder. I would conjecture that below the Corps level, being a veteran of Iraq provides a lens and not expertise (with the caveat that only certain positions at the Corps level provide true "expertise"). My Army career culminated as a brigade planner in Iraq which caused my expertise to culminate at operations conducted within my brigade's battlespace and no further. My expertise is limited by my experiences.
I'll use a historical example: Tammy Duckworth. Ms. Duckworth is a fine American who served, and continues to serve, her nation well - both in and out of uniform. She has certainly sacrificied much because of her tour in Iraq. But during her run for the House in 2006 she made a lot of statements about the strategic history and direction of Iraq that was given validity in the media because she was a wounded Iraq veteran. The reality is that as UH-60 pilot, she had gleaned no more expertise on Iraq because of her service than the LN guard mentioned above. That expertise was given to her because of her service and it was unwarranted. She knew as much about Iraq outside of a FOB as anyone else who read the NY Times or Fiasco. I'll also say that I don't believe that she tried to say that she was an expert because of her experiences, but that mantle was certainly given to her by others because of it.
This is not to say that her opinion didn't matter, even through the lens of her experiences. She should be listened to as a vet, but not given the credence of an expert commensurate with an academic who has spent years studying either U.S. defense policy or Iraq specifically. Her experiences as a wounded vet give her much more validity to warrant her positions in the Illinois and U.S. Veterans Affairs departments, but not that alone. That would suggest that any of the millions of citizens that are dependant upon VA hospitals are qualified to run VA directorates, and I'm pretty sure no one here believes that.
No one's opinion should be dismissed out of hand because they did not (or did for that matter) serve in the military. That fact alone does not make anyone an expert on anything and merely provides a lens through which to view the world. This lens can be significant (it has certainly defined much of my world outlook), but it does not equate to expertise. Expertise is limited to an individual's experiences. Arguments, on the other hand, are based on elements derived from facts or views seen through the author's lens. And they should be weighed on those elements, not on some ordained or self-described expertise that extends beyond that person's experiences.