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What the Tucker Carlson controversy says about American rhetorical warfare

Why is our military leadership using fallacies and political rhetoric to personally attack an individual, private citizen?

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Tucker Carlson, host of “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” poses for photos in a Fox News studio on March 2, 2017, in New York. The Department of Defense declared a cold war last week Carlson in response to his comments against the military’s decision to further expand uniform and body armor development that would appropriately fit women and to modification of military grooming standards. 

Richard Drew, Associated Press

Last week, the U.S. military did something it has never done in 200-year history: It used official communications to personally attack a private citizen who criticized it. In the current political discourse of “breaking norms,” this single act supersedes any purported administrative disruption that we might have imagined in previous years. 

I refer to the U.S. Marine Corps’ official communication directed at talk show host Tucker Carlson, who criticized the Biden administration’s prioritization of cultural issues, such as “hairstyles” and apparel updates, over preparedness. I have not been a regular viewer of Carlson’s show — its major weakness is that it lacks presentation for organized solutions to the corruption it so regularly exposes — but he is willing to cover subjects others will not, including reports on a possible expanded U.S. military presence and aggression in Syria.

Carlson has been a vocal critic of aggressive military strikes against Syria, which both the Trump and Biden administrations have perpetrated. Perhaps not coincidentally, it was last week that Carlson interviewed a journalist who reported how the OPCW (the organization that investigates the use of chemical weapons) had buried the field reports of its staff in Syria. These reports showed that Syria had not used chemical weapons on its own people and that the accusation was used as a false pretense to launch missiles against it in 2018. The investigation showed that top leaders at OPCW deliberately buried the field reports in order to publish a report that supported U.S. military intervention. 

Our country has a long history of American citizens criticizing their military, as it should: Jane Fonda on Vietnam, Noam Chomsky on Israel and Cindy Sheehan on Iraq. These are just a few. All of them had a right to do so. Not one of them was ever singled out by official military leaders and personally attacked. Not one of them probably would have even imagined that any U.S. military leader would position the wrath of the most powerfully lethal force in the world squarely upon a single, private U.S. citizen. 

That act was not only chilling and profoundly disturbing to Americans who care about civil liberties, but it also betrays the very founding of our national military. In Federalist No. 29, Alexander Hamilton sought to overcome complaints from those who opposed a national militia. He specifically attempted to disabuse these skeptics of the idea that military leaders would leverage their power against private citizens. He argued that the protocols and customs of federal government would keep this from happening. In his mind, the idea of a military leader taking aim against a private citizen was “absurd.” 

But that is exactly what happened last week. And we are left wondering if Hamilton might have been wrong, because the current administration seems bent and determined on that very absurdity. Perhaps even more troubling, the current leaders show complete willingness to engage in rhetorical warfare against private citizens.

They not only personally attacked Carlson but atypically distorted his comments into a straw man as an attack against “pregnant women.” However, Carlson regularly champions both pregnant women and mothers on his show as heroes. And it is clear that Carlson was mocking the priority of wardrobe over tactical preparedness, if perhaps also suggesting the possibility that prospective mothers might not need to be conscripted into actual combat assignments during gestation, as a consideration for mother and baby.

Why is our military leadership using fallacies and political rhetoric to personally attack individual, private citizens? Does it have something to do with Carlson’s criticizing a strategy for another endless war in the Middle East? Does it have anything to do with the Biden administration deciding to surround the U.S. Capital with barbed-wire and deploy twice as many troops there as in all of Afghanistan? Does it have anything to do with an apparent purge of Trump supporters from the military, as some have suggested? Or is it genuinely just that the U.S. military can endure any criticism of immoral or unnecessary wars by anyone, but it just cannot, will not, above all else, take criticism of its hair and wardrobe choices, regardless of centuries-old constitutional frameworks? 

Whatever the case may be, I find it truly astounding that not one has been fired or reprimanded for this decision. That, in itself, suggests that this pattern is likely to continue. Soon, you might see all criticism against our military disappear. In the meantime, I’ll be watching Tucker Carlson as a regular viewer.

J. Lyman Wight has been a consultant for technology companies for more than 20 years. He has also taught writing at various universities in the state of Utah. He can be reached at jjwtechnical@gmail.com.