Am I Your Vet Friend?

A friend of mine who recently started a PhD program asked on Facebook to name people “some celebrities who are doling out medical, political, relationship, or other advice beyond their expertise.” With a recent lecture I gave in mind, I mentioned those pacifists “talking about war and advising Christians about the military with no firsthand experience. As a practical knowledge, they lack requisite experience to be credible authorities on the subject. Theirs is a speculative knowledge, which carries a different value then such advice assumes.”

Several pacifists clearly enjoy celebrity status. As a veteran of Iraq with six years of experience on active duty in the Army, my experience has intellectual value; if what they claim about the military doesn’t reflect reality I encountered and which countless other veterans recount, then their expertise should be counted as suspect. But as celebrities, they are usually above reproach because we don’t like to see our pedestals crumble. The exchange in the comments confirmed this unfortunate reality.

The first reply was straightforward;

With respect to what, precisely? The social-dynamic forces that affect one in the military? The practical effects relating to international policy? Or does this extend to exegesis and other matters? And what about chaplains?

To which I replied

I’m not sure to what you’re referring in your first sentence. Chaplains are officers, so they have an experience that is different from enlisted personnel, for one, and a relationship built upon social power. Enlisted personnel always receive and execute commands from officers. The relationship between a chaplain and lower enlisted personnel is not morally neutral, if that’s what you’re asking. A (radical) christian epistemological frame of reference would treat officers with suspicion, being wielders of power over individuals with little to no social power.

If I am inferring your meaning properly, that you have concerns about the implications of calling out civilian pacifists, then maybe an analogy will help. If we have a problem with a panel on reproductive health and rights with only (white) men, then we (should) have the exact same concerns about proclamations about war and military service with only nonmembers of the social group in question, which in this case would be military personnel. Or if we have a problem with white people telling other white people how we should treat black people (however benevolent their intentions), then we have the exact same problem with the lack of veterans in seminary faculties, VA hospital staff, etc.

That individual replied with a question reflected by another commenter, which went like this;

A major difference there is that when war happens, it is on behalf of all of us. Going to war is our decision, not military officers’. Just because we don’t do the fighting doesn’t mean we aren’t involved. So this isn’t just one group telling another how to behave.

Oh how I wish that were true, but the “thank you for your service” multitudes actually reinforce the profound moral and mechanical distance (perceived or not) between soldiers and civilians. Replying to both, I said

You are not involved in the way you are implying that you are involved. That’s like saying I am involved in childbirth (and I was actually physically present [for my daughter’s birth], most non veterans are not similarly present in Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.), but I will never be able to describe childbirth in the way my partner can, and should…

The bottom line is there are way too many false assumptions in play when we (Christians in general, but even just these responders to Justin‘s post) talk about war. Historically and forensically, we have to acknowledge that firsthand accounts are the most credible or they are not, and they are precisely because of the few degrees of intellectual separation. Celebrities, to bring it back to the topic at hand, are misguided, and are misguiding, if they claim to possess anything but speculative and/or derivative knowledge or make claims without confessing their distance therefrom. It’s like saying you’ve studied scripture but you don’t know a lick of Greek or Hebrew; at first pass it may seem okay, but it is by no means intellectually rigorous or meet scholarly standards for expertise.


At this point in the exchange, a pacifist scholar I’ve interacted with at a few SCE conferences jumped in and had this to say;

Logan, do you think that [pacifist scholars] who make such pronouncements about Christians and killing in war have NOT consulted with veterans and military service personnel about their experience and perspective on war? That they live in a hermetically-sealed bubble or something? If they had never taken up and considered those perspectives, I’d agree with you, but what evidence do you have that they have not? Yoder I know taught just war theory to Notre Dame ROTC students.

Your example makes no sense to me- I have never smoked cigarettes, nor have I ever used a prostitute, but I have it on good authority from those who have and have studied those issues that both are very, very bad ideas. Therefore I encourage people not to do them.

Or I might add Irenaeus, Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Lactantius, Hippolytus, Justin Martyr, and a host of other saints from the pre-Constantinian church who never killed anyone, but held that it as a given from the authority of Jesus himself that Christians simply do not kill people. For them, they did not need to personally experience a sin to know it was sinful, only have it established as the will of Christ.
The ‘I have a friend’ (“consulted with”) defense doesn’t usually get trotted out by academics, but I suppose social media exempts discourse from scholarly expectations. My response;

You’ve missed my point. Insofar as we or they assume they give us credibility or are themselves authorities, we have been misled. Their knowledge is derivative, and as knowledge it is not the source, but a tributary. If we want to understand smoking, prostitution, or your other examples, we still require smokers, prostitutes, etc. If a prostitute tells you one thing about pristutition and you go off and tell people something else, then you have lost your credibility, and you never had authority in a scholarly sense. Every white guy like me that I know has their black friend, their gay friend, their female friend, but we don’t mistake our speaking about racism, heteronormativity, or sexism, as being the source of such knowledge.

I am not saying killing is not sinful, insofar as military personnel kill, but not all do. The problem with those named is that they assume the military is monolithic and treat it the same way. This is false: I should know, because I have first hand experience. I am your smoker, your prostitute, your killer.

The thread is about knowledge and credibility. The people I’ve named derive what credibility they have from other sources, making it subject to scrutiny. Precisely BECAUSE the military is not monolithic, we/they cannot say with any real authority that what the named individuals say is reliably simply because they “have consulted with” soldiers and veterans. I don’t know that the problem is a bubble as much as it is that they have created a self-referential echo chamber by selectively promoting voices that don’t challenge what they think (which you illustrate by your parade of short list of patristic authors).

Again, I know because it happened to me. The echo chamber was on full display at that Rome conference last year, which I describe in my recent lenten “Bro” blog. Hell, if you really feel like being informed, you can read the federal investigation the echo chamber triggered on my blog (see especially sections VII.D – VIII.C).

Another commentator chimed in

So by your definition of epistemology, an anthropologist cannot be considered an authority on a subject. Nor can the historian. Plenty of scholarly disciplines rely upon ways of learning and knowing that are not direct. That does not invalidate their knowledge. In fact, it may mean the opposite.

I’ve met historians of post-1945 America, for instance, who know way more about specific events than the people who were involved with them. Their knowledge may have been learned indirectly, but that does not affect their credibility or their authority to speak on a subject.

At this point, I was feeling repetitive, which is probably conveyed in my occasional use of all caps…

Still missing my point. “Know” is like “love”; English language inherited fewer meanings from their root words than they should have. See my comment and link about speculative versus practical knowledges. War and military service are making/doing knowledges, practical knowledges (phronesis & techne). Nonmembers can provide reliable speculative knowledges (episteme), which is a different kind of knowing.

To recycle an earlier analogy – i can tell you about childbirth, and I can do so somewhat credibly. but my partner, who actually gave birth, is MORE CREDIBLE. if she hears me tell you something wrong, she will correct me and I will have to defer to her, because my knowledge of childbirth is speculative, not practical.

war and military service do not exist purely in the realm of ideas and forms, so they are not subject to speculative knowledge, or conclusions from first principles, etc. those named above LOSE CREDIBILITY if those with first hand experience and knowledge of the practice/craft/action correct them and they go on continuing to spout the same inaccurate shit.

an historian is an expert on HISTORY, not the practices or experiences they describe. John Keegan and Stephen Ambrose derive their knowledge, must interpret the experiences of others, and are therefore not the most credible narrators. similarly, do not mistake speculation about war or military service for reality thereof.

In a separate comment chain, my friend chimed in with his own thoughts to say that
I think there is an important distinction to be made between a celebrity’s use of star power to draw attention to a cause, and a celebrity being viewed as a credible expert. Likewise, I do not think that simply because one is a celebrity that they are necessarily disqualified from speaking as an authority. It seems to me that there are indeed celebrities who have proven themselves to be competent authoritative spokesperson for any number of causes. My concern is that celebrity itself has often been viewed as sufficient to make one an authority.
To which I offered my final thoughts;

Yes, your final line sums up what I have in mind. Especially for Hauerwas. An example – in scotland in 2014 I travelled a few hours from St Andrews to Aberdeen for a conference on protestant ethics (which happened to feature him, not long after being picked up to be there two weeks per semester). Two of the guys I travelled with were international students, one canadian and the other dutch. A third was American, and had a crush on Hauerwas, but he also is no simpleton, he and I were in the same competitive program and he’s now in a PhD program. On the way up, I told him of my concern that the totality of hauerwas’ theology actually wasnt of interest to most christians, just his words. We went, sat through all the various lectures, including Hauerwas’. On the return trip, I asked him what Hauerwas had said that he thought was noteworthy, but he couldn’t articulate a single theological claim, he was just so enamored to have been witness to “the man.” Likewise for my three years at Duke; few students could actually tell me what about his theology was compelling. Even Hauerwas himself mentions the problem with “being ‘Stanley Hauerwas,'” but takes no measures to self-correct or account for notoriety. the internationals who listened to stanley weren’t impressed in the least, and didn’t understand why hauerwas was such a novelty in the first place. he’s a virtue ethicist – that means his character is rightly scrutinized, not just his ideas.

To be more specific re. my earlier comment – see (see the red table) for the very important distinction between practical knowledges (phronesis & techne) and the speculative knowledges (nous, episteme, sophia). Practical knowledges must be passed from master to student, they concern making things or doing things. Bell uses an analogy of baseball – to pitch well you have to learn from a pitcher, watching a shitton of youtube videos aint gonna cut it. Learning about war or military service from someone who’s experienced neither is to masquerade speculative knowledge as practical knowledge. This is useless, like how aristotle accused some of being useless for studying goodness rather than trying to be good. Anything that the aforementioned people tell anyone about war or military service is speculative at best – abstract, theoretical, thoughtful even, but not actual knowledge.

you are right that celebrity status doesnt disqualify one from authority, but we also need to keep from making the mistake of assuming authority on a subject based on proliferation of writings or notoriety. just because he curses like a sailor doesnt mean he knows the first thing about navies or armies, at least not in any intellectually rigorous sense.

*Update 4/5/17: After this post was published, the same pacifist scholar added the following;

I guess it’s a question of epistemological authority. It sounds to me as if you are arguing that one cannot coherently and credibly speak on any topic with which one does not have first-hand experience, and that all voices who portend to speak as such without first-hand experience are therefore not worth listening to. I would disagree- I would concur that first-hand experience should be privileged, but is not the only means of knowing in the world. From the theological standpoint I was articulating above, revelation is significant. If it can be credibly established that a prophet or Christ speaks for God’s revealed will, I would take that revelation over those whose experience tells me otherwise. Empiricism can only take you so far.

To which I replied

Before you disagree, please read my posts. It is not a zero sum. IF non members of a social group fail to account for their bias (say, by surrounding themselves with token members who merely confirm extreme views like pacifism), or, worse, IF they directly contradict or consciously exclude contrasting voices of members of that same social group, THEN their credibility is suspect.

The revelation stuff is a straw man – it implies war or military service exceed human reason and can just turn to supernatural revelation if the actual human agents make it hard to spin bullshit. By that logic, I could say racism is a revelation from God (and people did! And those people are fucking clowns!)

You tell me: what do you or other pacifists stand to lose by allowing the wide array of vets speak for themselves? Are you afraid that what passes as pacifism will be discredited?

This question of credibility is important, but it has also been settled. Having a vet friend doesn’t grant one authority to speak about war or the military any more than does having a black friend to talk about racism, women friends to talk about sexism, or nonconforming friends to talk about genderism. Speculation is the best nonmembers of a social group can accomplish. They either reliably derive practical knowledge from that groups members by adhering to reasonable conclusions based thereon, or they violate trust by refusing to adjust their talking point when members of that social group call foul. When they do, their credibility and/or authority fails in direct correlation to how far they stray from the descriptive consensus of the whole.
The problem with the vast majority of Christian pacifists is that they surround themselves with anti-war veterans who reinforce their own pre-determined confirmation bias. To be really clear – I am anti-war. But I refuse to surround myself with people who agree with me. That would fail to be intellectually rigorous and it would give strength the the evils of theological partisanship. So to those Christian pacifists whose friendship or interaction with me is entirely dependent upon me patting you on the back and confirming your anti-military bias,
Sorry, I ain’t your vet friend. 

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