Gil Barndollar, Lincoln Fellow 2018
What is your current position?
I’m currently the Military Fellow-in-Residence at the Catholic University of America’s Center for the Study of Statesmanship (CSS), in Washington, DC. CSS, a new program at Catholic University, engages in research and public discussion about how statesmanship can defuse conflict and foster more realism and restraint in foreign and domestic relations. While engaging with the university community to which we belong, CSS also faces out towards the political and policy worlds in Washington.
What inspired you to choose this career path?
After graduate school I joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 2009 and served as an infantry officer for seven years. My time in uniform, especially overseas deployments to Afghanistan, increased my skepticism about both the conception and execution of U.S. foreign policy since 9/11. I found it hard to be a big believer in nation building after having done a little bit of it.
After getting off active duty and moving to Washington, I sought a position where I could think and write about U.S. foreign policy and add my voice to those who are saying we need to return to being more of “a normal country for normal times,” as Jeane Kirkpatrick put it.
What are you currently working on?
My main project right now is an examination of the U.S. all-volunteer force, conscription, and modern war. Having spent a few years in the all-volunteer force, I don’t believe it is nearly as healthy (or as “elite”) as we are often led to believe. I’m also convinced that any major land war would quickly prove too large and too lethal for the force. We barely got through two medium-sized campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan and we had to use a lot of expedients to even do that: contractors, recruiting bonuses, lowered standards, and stop-loss orders.
My project will include a brief history of conscription in the United States, from colonial militias to the end of draft in 1973; an examination the state of the AVF; and case studies of five modern conscript armies: Finland, Sweden, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Colombia. I’ll be doing research and field work in those countries for much of this fall and winter.
How did you hear about the Claremont Institute?
A friend from my alma mater, Bowdoin College, Professor Jean Yarbrough, reached out and recommended Claremont to me. As an isolated (perhaps lone) conservative at a small liberal arts college, Jean has fought the good fight in defense of American ideals and principles. She urged me to apply for a Lincoln Fellowship to renew and deepen my understanding of political philosophy and America’s founding.
What is your fondest memory of the Claremont Institute?
Michael Uhlmann’s sessions, which combined wit, wisdom, and some very practical thinking about the way ahead for America. I’m hoping he’s going to codify “Uhlmann’s Laws” one day and send them out…
There are all sorts of educational programs out there for current and rising conservative professionals. What do you think makes the Claremont Institute’s Fellowships unique?
The opportunity to leave town (DC for most of us) and take an intellectual retreat, especially well into professional life, was welcome. But what sets Claremont apart is the caliber of the people – both Claremont’s scholars and the other fellows – and the program’s commitment to diving into history and philosophy with some rigor. I’m not going to say I read every single page of that doorstop red-bound reader…but the extensive reading and preparation ahead of class was key to the Lincoln Fellowship.
If you could have a fireside chat and drink with an American Founder, or any great thinker, who would it be, why, and what would you order and discuss?
Winston Churchill, no question. The man made his share of big mistakes but he lived as rich, broad, and courageous a life as one could wish for and was a world class raconteur to boot. What more do you want in a drinking companion?
Rye would be the choice, the original American spirit for two half-Americans (my mother is German).
Who was more important for their time, George Washington or Abraham Lincoln? Why?
Washington. Washington’s courage, character, and cunning were critical to the Revolution. We forget perhaps how close run a thing the Revolution was – “Almost A Miracle,” as one recent history is titled. Without Washington’s endurance and example the Continental Army would have collapsed long before victory at Yorktown.
The stamp Washington put on the presidency runs a close second to his wartime leadership. His Farewell Address remains, to me, the quintessential exposition of Americanism, republicanism, and American statesmanship.
In which one of the original 13 colonies, looking back on history, would you have wanted to live and why?
My home state, New Hampshire. My hometown, Portsmouth, predates the Revolution by well over a century. It was a true working port then, with many of the same streets and a few of the same buildings it has today. John Paul Jones hung his hat there from time to time, more than he did anywhere else.
The spirit of liberty and rebellion came early to New Hampshire – the raid on Fort William and Mary, which stands less than two miles from my parents’ home, took place almost six months before Lexington and Concord. And you can’t beat it for physical beauty. New Hampshire is one of the few places in America where you can be on the beach and then high in the mountains on the same day – you could pull that off even on horseback.
What qualities do you believe are needed to achieve great statesmanship in this century and why?
Integrity. I would argue America is currently as corrupt a country as it has ever been and that this corruption manifests itself in far larger and more naked ways than it used to. No leader or statesman will be able to achieve lasting positive change and recovery of America’s founding principles without immunity to bribery, favors, deferred payoffs, and all the other legal corruption that we see around us.
Americans have realized that the game is rigged and that their elites, broadly speaking, are corrupt and out of touch. We won’t renew our country without basic integrity from our leaders. Why would you expect solutions from someone who’s part of the problem?
What do you believe is the greatest challenge facing the United States today regarding its relationship with the Middle East?
Getting out. We have little cause to be spending blood and treasure trying to solve the Middle East’s intractable quarrels, and America has far more pressing problems to deal with both at home and abroad. But threat inflation, American hubris, and foreign influence keep pulling us back to the region.
What books are you currently reading?
I’ve gotten in the bad habit of juggling a few books at a time. I’m about halfway through Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life, Ken Pollack’s Armies of Sand, and S.C. Gwynne’s Rebel Yell. Enjoying the latter title the most. It’s a fascinating biography of Stonewall Jackson: devout Christian, hypochondriac, secessionist, and one of the greatest generals in American history. Gwynne’s a fantastic writer and popular historian, whether he’s writing about Confederates, Comanche, or college football.
What book, film, or speech has left a lasting impression with you and why?
Brave New World. No knock on Orwell, but Huxley’s dystopia has proved a far more accurate prediction of where we are and where we’re probably headed. We’re surrounded by somas today, most of them with screens and almost always within reach. And there are fewer and fewer sanctuaries and un-surveilled spaces for dissidents. If you tried to exile yourself to Iceland today you’d just end up on some tourist’s Instagram.
What is the most distinctive attribute/character of the people in the state where you grew up that you genuinely admire?
New Hampshirites have a reputation for flinty independence. That’s been undermined by a surge of tax refugees moving in from the people’s republic to the south, but it’s still there I think. The state motto, “Live Free or Die,” has always been more aspiration than reality but it does express a willingness to go against the grain.
What is your favorite cultural/recreational pastime (or hobby) and why?
Skiing and shooting. I haven’t combined the two – as yet – but both give me the excuse to get out of DC as much as possible.