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The "Have You Been There" Argument

After we published “Haters Want to Hate”, we felt that we didn’t go far enough debunking a crucial part of the Haters phenomenon, the “Have you been there?” argument. It’s probably best, and most charismatically, expressed by Jack Nicholson’s character Colonel Jessup in his closing monologue in A Few Good Men:

“Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who's gonna do it? You? You, Lt. Weinburg?...I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said thank you, and went on your way, Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon, and stand post.”

Lest you think this is just a stock movie villain sentiment, ViolentJ expressed the idea at his website, thefreepatriots.com, “By the way, how do you know what most Afghan people think of us, have you been there, have you walked Kabul in your burka taking a survey? Nope... watching too much CNN right? So sit down shut up and LISTEN to those who HAVE been there!” Kyle expressed it in our series on Lone Survivor, “if you have ever stepped one foot on a battlefield, then you have half a right to comment on this subject. if not, shut your mouth...” [sic]

And from a more respectable source, Bouhammer wrote, in response to “traitor” Julian Assange and Wikileaks’ first video release of the helicopter shooting in Iraq, “I mean if they hate the US and its military that much, I would be glad to take all the idiots that work at wikileaks to Afghanistan so they can do the fighting. I know a great place to drop them that will guarantee they will see some action and they can fight to their death right there. In fact, I bet they can video that too. I bet the Taliban would even video some of it for them as they cut off the heads of the wikileaks people. Not sure how they will ‘leak’ it since they would all be dead already.”

The thrust of the “Have you been there?” argument is that citizens are sheep who should thank the sheepdog for his protection, and never questions his methods.

So here’s our rather obvious point: you don’t have to have “been there” to comment on military matters. It may help, it may provide expertise and perspective, but in a democracy, any citizen has the right to comment on what America’s military does in our country’s name.

Half of the On Violence writing team (two thirds if you count Matty P), has never deployed to any country. So in case we receive another commenter asking us to “shut the hell up” unless we have “been there”, we want to present the flaws with that specific argument so we can simply ignore them in the future.

Point 1: This argument silences critics, not the uninformed. Even if we could grant that people who have never deployed “don’t get it”, the haters who use this argument never silence conservative commentators who agree with them. Sarah Palin, for just one example, constantly opines on the situation in Afghanistan. Same with Newt Gingrich. They haven’t “been there”, so why don’t the haters tell them to “shut their mouths and pick up a gun”? Because they are on the same side.

An example: The head of the Center for Military Readiness, Elaine Donelly has never deployed, but conservatives who support DADT never tell her to “shut her mouth”. It doesn’t matter if she’s deployed or served or not, it matters what evidence she uses to support her position. Sometimes the best evidence is personal experience; sometimes it’s academic research. The “have you been there?” argument silences dissent and criticism, instead of promoting an actual debate over the policies.

Point 2: Some of the best thinkers “haven’t been there”. I absolutely love the historian John Keegan, but he has never “been there”. (Keegan had a medical condition that specifically kept him out of the service.) But his books get it. He knows more than most soldiers will ever forget. And, ironically, conservative soldiers quote Keegan frequently, despite his never having been there.

Point 3: Our world would be a different place if you had to have “been there” to comment.
We mentioned this last time, but we’ll say it again: obviously, you can comment on issues without first hand experience, we do it all the time (especially on Monday mornings in the fall). The military shouldn’t get a special pass.

Point 4: Finally, we live in a democracy. Period. One of the more perplexing developments of the last decade has been the cognitive dissonance of/by soldiers who fight to defend freedom, but hate the freedoms they defend. These soldiers hate funeral protesters (freedom of speech), Mosques in America (freedom of religion), liberals (suffrage), the current President (Article II), privacy (unlawful search and seizure), Speaker Pelosi (Article I) and any criticism of the military (freedom of speech again).

In a democracy citizens have the right, nee the responsibility, to comment on the actions of the government. Everyone in our country has the right to comment on the actions taken in their name--whether by soldiers, police or our politicians, whether they have served in uniform or not.

twenty comments

Corollary to Point Two: Sometimes the worst thinkers “have been there”. Witness the bizarre statements from US commanders in Iraq, especially during the early phases of the war. From “There is no insurgency”, the “flypaper theory of counterterrorism”, and the “insurgency is in its death throes (in 2005)”, there’s facepalm aplenty.

I just found, on our post “Rape, Jarhead and the Marines” someone wrote, “If you haven’t been there, you have no idea”

@ Starbuck – Man, great point.

Good topic and I would generally tend to agree. This argument is used on both sides of the political aisle such as criticism by Liberals of Dick Cheney because he had “never been there.” In many ways, not having been there allows for a different perspective and different possible solutions. Rather than being there, a firm grasp of history’s lessons is preferred I’d say.

And having a rational, fact based discussion goes without saying.

Yeah totally agree that this argument goes both ways. It is a silly rhetorical device that obscures the fact that we need to use facts.

And good point Starbuck about how many of those who have been there don’t know what they are talking about. (It usually means they have been there by hiding in a talk for the whole deployment.)

I like this write up for a barrel of reasons.

I would like to emphasize and briefly expand upon the reason that so many that “have been there” are looking at things through one the most distorted and scewed perspectives possible.

Being part of the Military machine and existing within that institution almost garuntees that whoever you are, you are not seeing things the way they are for absolutely EVERYONE that isn’t a member of your military.
That is the way these institutions work. Starting with intelligence that is collected, followed by the way it is dessiminated and to who, to the torque and angle with which information is then fed by commanding officers to people further down the latter. By the time it gets to Joe Shmo Grunt, he has no real idea what the hell is going on, and it ultimately doesn’t matter to him anyway.
Your perspective is unavoidably ultra-unique and ultimately ELITIST. A term that, ironically, most of my military friends apply negatively to so many others.

Well, this came out ironically today: http://www.blackfive.net/main/2010/12/to..

@ barnes – the concept of a total institution comes to mind.

“Yes even the malcontent COWARDS who sit back in their comfy arm chairs leaching off of the system and never contributing anything but radical views and demand super compliance to their wishes and wants which are 180 degrees out of phase from what made our nation the greatest the world has ever seen.” Freepatriots-

Felt compelled here….I honestly thought for about a second that he was referring to the politicians and the War Machine C.E.O.s that have gotten rich destroying American credibility and getting our people killed abroad for the sake of higher bank balances and moronic ideaologies. Because that statement does nothing if not clearly define the entire neoconservative class and agenda.

I feel it important to mention also that not every citizen has the capability to serve in the military. The “Have you been there?” crowd would discount these people, not based on passion, loyalty, or courage, but illness, injury, or predisposition.

Excellent post, by the way.

But minus one cool point for not summing up the “Have you been there” argument with this picture:


All of your points are so well taken. I write about police and still sometimes have to endure for those who don’t know me the view that I shouldn’t be talking about something I have not experienced. Some who say this have less time on patrol than me when I was a researcher. The cops whom I write about love what I write even if sometimes they may disagree with some of what I say and our politics are not the same.

I’ve gotten the “stay in your lane” when I’ve discussed issues related to the military, although my critics more often than not turn out to be great human beings who change their view when they see I am open to dialogue.

Most recently, I’ve been skewered on line in a blog (some skewering possibly deserved) because I dared to write something to which most of the bloggers didn’t agree… they challenged me not only regarding my credentials to write on the subject at hand but also asked where I got my funding? (I have no funding at the moment).

So there’s a tendency for individuals in every area of expertise to claim a monopoly of knowledge and an inherent right to talk about particular subjects because they’ve experienced something others have not.

There goes freedom of speech.

I thought it was funny that Blackfive started with the beginning of the Jessup quote:

“And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives…You don’t want the truth. Because deep down, in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall.”

Which is funny, because, you know, blackfive finds homosexuality grotesque and incomprehensible, and blackfive doesn’t want to talk about homosexuality at parties…but homosexual soldiers save their lives every day in the field.

So, you know, there’s that.


Speaking of which, you guys need to tackle the “wolves, sheep and sheepdog” metaphor. Or its slightly more vulgar variant from “Team America: World Police”.

I propose a guest-post involving the various biases one might exhibit as a result of “being there”. Or the advantages of “being there”.

This is a good idea. Eric/Michael?
Here are some negatives in being there
l. Being there – one starts to taken for granted certain dimensions of activity and, as a result, become blinded to what outsiders can see.
2. One begins to normalize particular activities views and develop, almost unaware, accounts that explain (excuse or justify) behaviors etc as routine (Thus athletes normalize pain/cops normalize certain types of use of force, soldiers normalize actions as “it’s war.” This then minimizes the questions that one asks oneself unless something happens that results in others questioning the relevant activity such as discovery and investigation.
3. those who are there may begin to dehumanize people who are not like them… they must do this to kill them… This also comes as a result of feeling the hostility from those who do not welcome those who are there as occupiers and will fight – doesn’t have to be Americans- any occupiers would be problematic. Those who are there then begin to feel hostile in return and further dehumanize and categorize people who are not like them as enemies. This can result in problems of different sorts.

4. It’s hard to reflect and write about something that is experienced so intensely and involves life and death, love and hate, and other extremes of emotion.

On the other hand

l. Now we need Michael and/or Eric to bring in a guest post.

This happens all the time in memoirs, and it has happened to Michael. I’ll read a journal and be like, this detail is amazing, and someone who is too close to the situation doesn’t realize it…

it is probably how every soldier who has ever joined the business world feels when they find out powerpoint isn’t a substitute for word docs.

Col. Jessup’s quote was written into the movie simply to be a straw man, or foil, to Tom Cruise’s character. I always find it rather ironic that his character was supposed to be a caricature for Hollywood which is not surprising considering it was written by Aaron Sorkin. Just as Col. Jessup exhibits other traits like antisemitism, Pfc. Louden Downey typifies what Liberals see as the stupid people suckered into joining the military but don’t really know what they’re doing there and are just dolts following orders and getting taken advantage of.

This is why few movies are made showing the noble, good things soldiers do.

While there are undoubtedly many people holding views similar to Col. Jessup in any military force in the world, these types of characters seem over represented in Hollywood films whereas someone like Sergeant Thomas Highway from Heartbreak Ridge, I would say, would be under represented because they are not as useful for making a point.

Before I hop onto the discussion, I found this in the Stars and Stripes letter sec.., always a great read. What I think is great is that the author says, “As a US Marine and having served in Afghanistan” then continues on to say that homosexuals in the military will endanger lives.

This is a perfect example of his beliefs easily and totally dominating his thinking, not his experience. I am the same way, I think that my experience shows that gay soldiers will not distract units at all.

@Starbuck- I’m sorry we didn’t include that image. I think it perfectly sums up the mentality, which I bet a lot of people post believing it. We might use it on a later post if we have to hit this topic again (especially our last point which could really be a whole post).

As for the “wolves, sheep and sheepdog” mentality, I haven’t actually read Dave Grossman’s description of it. I know he has said it because friends told me about it, but yeah we need to cover it. My worry is that though it might describe a good mindset for combat, it is a horrible mindset for political purposes, and lends itself to a Praetorian Guard mentality when the Sheepdogs believe the sheep are inferior to them, never a good thing.

@AJK- Great spot. We’re waiting for the DADT reactions to come in and we plan to do a link drop on them with a few weeks hindsight. If the sky doesn’t fall because of repeal (which a few commenters think it might).

@ All regarding a new post on been there versus not. Yeah Eric C and I should debate this with our experiences with our blog. Eric C has read way more accounts than I have, I have just my experience and some reading on military theory/history. I think it could be summed up by the blind spots. The veteran knows combat, he has experienced it. The non-veteran doesn’t. But the veteran attaches moral and emotional significance to his experience that blinds him to the rational reality.

Also, the veteran has the universal blind spot. His experience is now universalized. I have personally seen this plenty as many Soldiers assumed Iraq-driven TTPs would work in Afghanistan. They don’t, or at least a bunch don’t. But the experience was universalized.

Great post and some insightful comments beneath.

As someone mentioned above, it’s worth pointing out that at some level we all operate from a “been there” perspective. Our experiences and emotions play a sizable role and in many cases, the primary role, in our formation of opinions, judgements, and interpretations of facts. This is true in everything from relationships with loved ones to politics. The experience of a warzone being such a violent and traumatic one creates deep-seated emotions that appear to be pretty overwhelming when it comes to gaining perspective and making factual judgements. It’s my opinion that many “been there” commentators are reacting emotionally and regard challenges to their perspectives as a dismissal of their emotions rather than their reasoning.

I would add my voice to support the idea of a post on the “wolves/sheep/sheepdog” mentality. It’s a concept I’ve seen mentioned frequently, especially in the SOF context. Seems to emerge from the concept that to be the best you have to believe you’re the best and that sense of superiority can quickly breed a contempt of those regarded as inferior. The sheepdog starts wondering why it should even guard the sheep and begins to see little problem with it sacrificing a few of the sheep for its own sake.

right on. good post.