David Zurawik

The real divide on Benghazi is determined by your military service - or lack of it

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 01:  U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Robert Lovell (Retired), former deputy director for the Intelligence and Knowledge Development Directorate (J-2) of U.S. Africa Command and former deputy commanding general of the Joint Task Force Odyssey Guard, is sworn in during a hearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee May 1, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The committee held a hearing on "Benghazi, Instability, and a New Government: Successes and Failures of U.S. Intervention in Libya."

Despite the sneers of MSNBC hosts and the disdainful manner of White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, Benghazi matters. And it matters in ways we don't yet even understand – deep, fractious ways that reveal a major front in the culture war almost no one seems to understand or want to even talk about.

The "blue news/red news" dichotomy that some have focused on is pretty obvious stuff. Fox thinks it's a big story, while MSNBC mocks Fox for thinking it's a big story. CNN isn't sure what it thinks about anything except the missing plane.


But there's a deeper context that needs to be understood to appreciate the passion around Benghazi.

Here's the fissure in American political and media life that Benghazi lays bare: Your view of this story is not so much determined by whether you are liberal or conservative, blue or red, Democrat or Republican, as it is by whether or not you served in the military.


That's beyond culture. Those who served in the military are members of one tribe, and those who didn't are members of another.

And what we had at the time of Benghazi was an executive branch where the top two people in this instance, President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, epitomize the tribe of those who instead of doing military service went to elite schools that gave them a great advantage in private and public life over those who served in the military.

We are not supposed to talk about this for fear of being accused of sowing the seeds of "class warfare." But like so many things in our civic life, when we don't talk about it we collectively get angrier and more confused about why we are so angry.

We started to have this debate when Bill Clinton first ran for president, and some asked how can a candidate who never served in the military and was, in fact, seen by some as a draft dodger be commander in chief?

The debate should have been an important and wide-ranging one, but it got lost, as most of our potentially important public conversations do in these tabloid times, when the media went chasing "bimbo eruptions" and whether or not young Mr. Clinton inhaled or not when he did or didn't smoke pot.

As much Bill Clinton's extramarital affairs do matter in terms of gender and his abuse of positions of power, they are nowhere as important as what it meant to have a president who did not serve in the military as commander in chief.

No one who has been in the military would ever say, "What difference… does it make?" as Hillary Clinton did of the details of Benghazi.

No one who has been in the military – especially in battle – would ever think for one second it was OK not to try something, no matter how desperate, to get aid to the Americans in the Benghazi compound.


But for those who did not serve, such responses seem perfectly OK.

I believe one of the main reasons that we are seeing and hearing such horror stories about the way veterans are treated today is because we have an administration run by members of the tribe that avoided military service to get a jumpstart on their careers.

By the way, if you do care about veterans and want to appreciate their sacrifice, check out the three-part series, "Coming Back with Wes Moore," starting Tuesday on PBS. The best-selling author and former U.S. Army combat soldier interviews some of the 2.5 million veterans trying to find their way back into American life after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of the stories will break your heart.

But let me not give ideologues any ammunition for dismissing my argument because I focus on Clinton and Obama.

They aren't the only ones who avoided serving their countries while they pursued advanced degrees. Dick Cheney did it as well at the University of Wisconsin. To hear all his phony bellicose talk, you'd never think as close as he ever got to battle was stumbling out of a late afternoon seminar into an anti-war protest in Madison. It was hard to avoid them – harder than avoiding military service apparently.

And since we are talking about the man who lied us into the war in Iraq, let's not forget his silly sidekick, George W. Bush, who did serve in the military, though some would say that's stretching the word "served" almost as far as when Democratic members of Congress thank overpaid, self-important bureaucrats for their "service" in helping launch the Obamacare website.


One of the reasons Fox News is so dominant in cable news ratings is that it understands this vast cultural divide and goes out of its way to speak in an authentic way to the very large audience of those who have legitimately served this country.

I am glad Fox is pursuing Benghazi so tenaciously. I believe an administration led by someone who had served in the military would have responded differently than Obama's did to calls for full reviews of what happened that night to leave four Americans dead.

It would have worried and cared first about getting the truth out about the Americans who died in Benghazi instead of how to spin the story of what happened to them on the Sunday morning TV shows.