Editor's Note - Summer 2017

Breach of Faith

By Robert Wilson | June 5, 2017


Those of us who live our lives without committing serious criminal acts would say we do so for ethical or religious reasons. And who would dispute that this is the firmament on which a law-abiding life rests? But isn’t there a more visceral reason for not harming other people, stealing from them, or destroying their property? What normal person can imagine pulling the trigger, twisting the knife, battering the weak, or striking the match and not turn away in revulsion? Still, crime happens. Punishment is a major national industry, and the psychology of criminality is a fruitful intellectual enterprise.

But whatever clarity these matters might have for us in civilian life grows murkier in the context of the military. Traditions of duty, honor, country, of military discipline, of bands of brothers, and our more recent glib eagerness to call anyone who serves in the military a hero bang up against the primary function of the soldier, which is to kill, and the millennia-long tradition of seizing the spoils of war, including enslavement and rape. In the United States today, we demand more of our soldiers, preparing them for the chaos of war but expecting them to behave civilly in and out of combat, and after they return to civilian life.  It’s a lot to hope for. But one aspect of criminality in our military is impossible to understand or imagine: the sexual assault of one soldier by another. Sexual assault did not begin with the introduction of women into the military. Indeed, as Elizabeth D. Samet reminds us in “Dishonorable Behavior, ” her searching essay on the subject in this issue, many males are also victims of this heinous crime. The numbers  are staggering: thanks to efforts to address the problem, only—only!—14,900 sexual assaults were estimated to have taken place last year on either male or female soldiers, mostly at the hands of their comrades. The numbers are estimated because victims are reluctant to report attacks—since many who do so are retaliated against. How can this be? It is easy enough to blame a military culture that looks the other way, but Samet, a literary critic who teaches English at West Point, explores the nuances of this culture in fresh and, I fervently hope, productive ways.

Editors are a noble breed, unfairly maligned by writers and ignored by an ungrateful public. Ha! But in this issue, we have not one but two memoirs by distinguished writers about editors who really do deserve our admiration. The historian Garry Wills memorializes Robert B. Silvers, a founder and editor for more than half a century of The New York Review of Books until his death in March. And the novelist Susan Minot remembers her friend and mentor Ben Sonnenberg, who founded the literary journal Grand Street. Inspiring figures, both.

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