Why Does William Arkin Still Have His Job?
How Has William Arkin Kept His Job?
Do you think the volunteer soldiers of the U.S. military are "mercenaries?" Is it your opinion that we ship "obscene amenities" into the war zone for them? And, like spoiled children, that these coddled mercenaries then expect the average citizen to "roll over and play dead," thus permitting the generals to fight the war exactly as they see fit?
I don't either, but a former colleague of mine does: NBC military analyst and Washington Post blogger Bill Arkin. Slipping the surly bonds of sensibility, he let fly with a remarkably silly blog last week that soon had outraged readers calling for his head.
It all began with a recent "NBC Nightly News" report that U.S. troops are becoming increasingly frustrated by American criticism of the war. One soldier even told reporter Richard Engel that the critics "should come over and see what it's like firsthand before criticizing."
A reasonable response might have been: "Fat chance, trooper. The critics are just performing their sacred civic duty of second-guessing while their kids are busy attending Ivy League colleges. That's why you're over here in the first place."
But Arkin instead opined that politically astute commanders should have taken the offending soldiers aside and explained how it wasn't their place "to disapprove of the American people" — especially since those same citizens are paying them a "decent salary" and providing soldiers with a vast social service network denied ordinary Americans, in addition to those obscene war zone amenities.
As soon as they read the blog — or at least gauged popular reaction to it — I figured NBC News would lose no time firing Arkin, a colleague during our occasional television stints together as military analysts. There has long been an unwritten but well-understood policy governing outside experts appearing on TV: Hold any opinion you choose, but don't do anything to embarrass the network.
Arkin, or any of us, was free to disagree with Clinton domestic policy, Bush foreign policy or Dick Cheney's marksmanship. But ever since Vietnam's wounds healed over, it has been off-limits to criticize the American soldier. Instead, modern dissenters retreat instinctively to the Great American Cop-out: "I oppose the war but support the troops".
But it is becoming increasingly apparent that Arkin won't be fired despite having gone well beyond those bounds — and not for the first time. In 2003, for example, he tried to blacklist a decorated Green Beret general as a "Christian jihadist." In 2005, he published an astonishing primer on deciphering American military code names and covert operations.
Naturally, controversy helps boost ratings. But NBC executives now appear determined to avoid any appearance that the public is somehow being stampeded into supporting the war — by troop surges, Iranian aggression or anything else.
When the war had broad popular support, the network relied on commentary by distinguished generals such as Barry McCaffrey, Wayne Downing and Bernard Trainor: Now that it is going badly, they simply find Arkin a convenient receptacle.
The sad irony is that cable news standards are being steadily compromised — by the quest for ratings, by permitting video to trump every lesser concern and, above all, by allowing the sensational to overwhelm the important.
And this at precisely the moment when Americans have never been more in need of in-depth, informed commentary on the great issues of our public life. That includes war, who fights for us and our responsibilities as warrior-citizens.