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Sunday, September 23, 2007

Flies in Amber

by Lewis H Lapham

Harper's Magazine Notebook (September 2007)

I do not know what is true. I do not know the meaning of the universe. But in the midst of doubt, in the collapse of creeds, there is one thing I do not doubt ... that the faith is true and adorable which leads a soldier to throw away his life in obedience to a blindly accepted duty, in a cause which he little understands; in a plan of campaign of which he has little notion, under tactics of which he does not see the use. -- Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

Addressing Harvard University's graduating class of 1895, Holmes spoke as a veteran of the Civil War who had ridden his horse "toward the blue line of fire at the dead angle of Spotsylvania", heard "the splat of the bullets upon the trees", felt his foot "slip upon a dead man's body" lying in the Virginia mud. The "incommunicable experience of war" he remembered as feeling "the passion of life to its top", and of the young men seated in the stands of the football stadium he asked, "Who of us could endure a world ... without the divine folly of honor, without the senseless passion for knowledge outreaching the flaming bounds of the possible, without ideals the essence of which is that they can never be achieved?"

In 1895 the question was in tune with the operas of Richard Wagner and the stories of Robert Louis Stevenson. Britain's handsome cavalry officers were carrying the flags of their imperial benevolence across the plains of India and Africa; in America as in Europe the leading voices in the orchestra of high-minded opinion (poets and churchmen together with the schoolmasters, the generals, and the politicians) regarded trials by combat as glorious undertakings certain to provide proofs of selfless virtue and noble character. How could it be otherwise? What else was the history of Western civilization (Achilles before the walls of Troy, Roland in the pass at Roncesvalles, Wellington on the field of Waterloo) if not the romance of war? Man's destiny was battle, war "the father of all things", to Georg Wilhelm Hegel the "terrible" but "necessary" purgative that "saves the state from social petrifaction and stagnation", to William Ernest Henley the "giver of kingship, the fame-smith, the song-master".

The Harvard oration so impressed Teddy Roosevelt that seven years later he appointed the orator to the Supreme Court, and if I quote Holmes at some length it's because he allows me to understand George W Bush's war on terror not as an act of criminal stupidity but as the work of a man imprisoned in a past tense. I see the president making speeches against a backdrop of flags at the Naval Academy or among high-ranking uniforms at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and I think of a ten-year-old boy reciting the poetry of Rudyard Kipling, or of the youngest deck officer aboard the US Navy flagship in a 1940s Hollywood movie made with the technical assistance of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. When I listen to the debates in Congress about what to do with our army in Iraq, I'm left with a similar impression - of flies preserved in amber, or of Pleistocene vertebrates trapped for 30,000 years in the La Brea Tar Pits on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. Whether for or against the war (urging immediate withdrawal or proposing unconditional reinforcement), the tribunes of the people don't seem to have grasped the fact that war as the heavyweight instrument of foreign policy didn't survive, either as a technology or as an idea, its tour of duty in the graves of the twentieth century.

The disappearance of Holmes's "song of the sword" has been a matter of public record ever since the atom bombs dropped on Japan in the summer of 1945, but if the news hasn't yet arrived on Capitol Hill or come to the attention of the Wall Street Journal's editorial page, neither has it reached the makers of America's statecraft - a tape delay embarrassingly evident early this summer at a ritual unveiling of the geopolitical mysteries staged for a crowd of New York bankers by Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies. CSIS touts itself as the world's most "significant think tank", where "government comes to hear what it needs to hear, not what it wants to hear", and in a showing of its credentials as the modern-day equivalent of the ancient Greek oracle at Delphi, three of its significant trustees (Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Brent Scowcroft) turned up at a fund-raising dinner on the evening of June 14 in the Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Center, the visitation attended by 200 invited guests and filmed for subsequent broadcast on The Charlie Rose Show.

After the waiters had cleared away the cold lobster and the rack of lamb, Rose seated the three once-upon-a-time national security advisers (to Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, and George Bush the Elder) in a semicircle of small chairs facing the altar of a television camera. The arrangement suggested the placing of marble statues in a Greek shipowner's sculpture garden, and when Rose was satisfied with the effect, he informed his audiences that they were in the presence of men "who had spoken to Mao, signed the Panama Canal Treaty, brought an end to the Cold War, negotiated with Israel". Wonders of the age, Rose said, wise beyond the wisdom of owls, their collective knowledge encompassing "1,000 years of experience". His first question he directed to Kissinger, framing it as a request for guidance from the Lincoln Memorial.

"American foreign policy! Are we at a special moment ...? Are we creating a new world order?"

Kissinger responded in the slow and ponderous voice consistent with the sound of human speech drawn from a stone.

"The international system is in a period of change", he said. The situation is very complex.

The rest of the evening's discussion proceeded at more or less the same elevation of significance, Charlie shuffling his earnest questions around the arc of enlightenment, wondering whether America had lost the power to shape the world in its own image, wanting to know if America is weaker or stronger than it used to be, asking how do we disengage from the blunder in Iraq. The three statesmen replied in phrases befitting their personae as priests of Apollo. No, America hadn't lost the power to shape events, but people elsewhere in the world weren't taking us as seriously as they once did, which was bad news because everywhere on the horizon there were disturbing signs - restlessness, suicide bombers, "political awakenings", jihadists, turbulence in "the global Balkans" now to be understood as almost all of Eastern Europe and much of what was once the Ottoman Empire. Things were likely to go from bad to worse unless America regained its power to instill fear and inspire respect, but in order to do so, to once again become credible as the hope and strength of the world, Brzezinski, echoing Holmes, said that we must reduce the high cholesterol levels of our "hedonistic, materialistic society", demand "idealism" from ourselves, show some talent for "self-denial and sacrifice".

As to the problem in Iraq, all the oracles agreed that America was "bogged down" in what was beginning to look like the La Brea Tar Pits (clearly a bad place for heavily armored Pleistocene vertebrates), and the time had come "to unbog", Kissinger remembered that it was hard to unbog from Vietnam, and that always it was a "question of what does one mean by 'getting bogged down".' Brzezinski observed that if we don't unbog, "most of the world will not be with us" and "our global power will gradually be dissipated". Scowcroft seemed as genuinely baffled as the saber-toothed tiger preserved under glass in the museum on Wilshire Boulevard. "It's amazing", he said, this bogging down in a tiny, little country; America's military and economic power is in all respects far greater than was Imperial Rome's, but we can't do what the Romans could do.

We can't do what the Romans could do because, sad to say, much has changed over the course of the last 2,000 years, and war isn't what it used to be in the good old days when Caesar crossed the Rubicon, or when Polish cavalry regiments rode glamorously onward to their deaths in the blue lines of fire coming at them from the Wehrmacht's entrenched machine-gun positions. Scowcroft might find it helpful to consult one or more volumes of military history, among them John Keegan's A History of Warfare (Knopf, 1993), and John Mueller's Remnants of War (Cornell, 2004). Contrary to the notion that war is a continuation of policy by other means (that is, the notion advanced in 1832 by the Prussian army officer Carl von Clausewitz and still accepted as holy writ in the cubicles at CSIS), both Keegan and Mueller find that war is a cultural product rather than a phenomenon or law of nature and therefore subject, like other modes of human expression (the wearing of togas or powdered wigs, the keeping of slaves, the art of cave painting), to the fallings out of fashion. The two authors suggest that war is better understood as a form of play than as a place of business, that Clausewitzian theory collapses into absurdity in the presence of atomic weapons. No matter how one defines policy - capture of territory, defense of homeland, rape of the Sabine women, extensions of liberty - the objective disappears along with everything else within range of the thermonuclear fire. Nothing continues; victory is defeat.

As between the two books, Keegan's is the more philosophical. For many years a lecturer at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and the author of, among other books, The Face of Battle (Penguin, 1978), Six Armies in Normandy (Penguin, 1994), and The Price of Admiralty (Penguin, 1990), he acknowledges the fact that all societies trace their origins to a warrior culture antecedent to the inventions of politics. Time passes, and the primitive instinct, emotional and irrational, delighting in the acts of pillage and the arts of murder, submits to the forces of cultural transformation. Naked aggression puts on the costumes of ritual; men learn to limit the collateral damage, to find more intelligent and cost-effective ways of winning applause and acquiring real estate.

Keegan considers the idea and practice of war instituted by non-European peoples (the Chinese, the Mongols, the Zulus, and the Maoris) as well as the various formations assembled under the banners of Western civilization - the Greek phalanx, the Roman legion, the medieval knight-at-arms, the American aircraft carrier; equally interested in the Japanese samurai and in the Egyptian Mamluks (both of whom regarded the use of firearms as unsporting), he assumes that sooner or later even foolhardy lieutenants grow up and come to see, as did Major General Charles Gordon six weeks before making his glorious last stand at Khartoum, in 1885, that when and if "one analyses human glory, it is composed of nine-tenths twaddle, perhaps ninety-nine-hundredths twaddle". After having led his reader on the long march from the deserts of ancient Mesopotamia to the jungles of Vietnam, Keegan arrives at the observation that war serves only itself, itself and those of its devotees for whom it remains a passion and a source of income: "War, it seems to me, after a lifetime of reading about the subject, mingling with men of war, visiting the sights of war, and observing its effects, may well be ceasing to commend itself to human beings as a desirable or productive, let alone rational, means of reconciling their discontents".

Not as tentative in his conclusion as Keegan, Mueller, the Woody Hayes Chair of National Security Studies at The Ohio State University, unlimbers the premise of The Remnants of War on page four of the introduction: "The central burden of this book is that war is merely an idea. Unlike breathing, eating or sex, war is not something that is somehow required by the human condition or by the forces of history. Accordingly, war can shrivel up and disappear, and it seems to be in the process of doing so."

Mueller takes account of the tactical reasons (nuclear weapons, asymmetric terrain, the high number of civilian casualties, "the massive shattering of historical precedent" reflected in the fact that since 1945 the developed countries have refrained from waging large-scale, industrial-strength warfare), but the bulk of his argument he directs at the idea that war, although often dull and occasionally unpleasant, is, all things considered, a worthwhile undertaking. Prior to World War I the right-thinking majorities in the world's finest universities and most expensive drawing rooms subscribed to the view presented by Holmes, welcomed by the young Winston Churchill (life is "at its best and healthiest" on the field of battle as one "awaits the caprice of the bullet"), endorsed by the nineteenth-century German general Helmuth von Moltke, who believed that "perpetual peace is a dream", that "war is an integral part of God's ordering of the universe", without which "the world would become swamped in materialism".

The romance perished in the trenches of"the war to end all wars"; if in 1895 or 1913 the harboring of antiwar sentiments was to be found only at the margins of Western society, among the kind of people apt to wear sandals and read the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore, over the course of the twentieth century pacifism entered the flow of mainstream thought, not for reasons of ideological principle but as a matter of common sense. Despite the highest rates of military mobilization and mortality ever recorded in the history of man, the idea that war is ennobling and thrilling, sometimes even useful and progressive, has been replaced (in the minds of most of the world's peoples if not in the minds of their ministers of state) with the idea that war, in Mueller's phrase, is "repulsive, uncivilized, immoral, and futile". He likens the change in attitude to the revisionist thinking that discredited the once-upon-a-time "peculiar institution" of slavery. In 1776 slavery was generally accepted, by Thomas Jefferson and by King George III, as a standard operating procedure blessed with the authority of Moses, Pericles, and Mohammed; by 1876 the idea of slavery had become revolting. So too with the idea of war.

Which isn't to say that large numbers of people won't continue to kill one another in "civil wars" comparable to those that have arisen since 1945 in Congo, Algeria, Rwanda, and Kosovo, or in "policing wars" akin to those in Chechnya, Palestine, and Iraq. Both forms of residual warfare Mueller regards as essentially criminal enterprises, occurring in-country, deploying freelance thugs who come armed with rifles and RPGs instead of helicopter gunships, seek to plunder defenseless civilians, take little interest in ideology, follow the flags of barbarous self-interest that in no way embody or represent a clash of civilizations.

Both Mueller and Keegan associate the romance of war with the energies and enthusiasms of male adolescence, their thinking in line with Ralph Waldo Emerson's remark that "it is the ignorant and childish part of mankind that is the fighting part".

Which would explain why Othello's "big wars that make ambition virtue" now are to be found, sensibly and exclusively, in the movies and the video-game arcades. As unfortunately for America's military personnel as for the citizens of Iraq, the shift into the twenty-first-century theater of operations seems to have escaped the notice of the world's most significant think tank.

I was reminded of the oversight soon after the Rainbow Room briefing when I came across the Internet game World of Warcraft, said to be played by as many as 8.5 million combatants located at all points of the geopolitical compass who pay $15 a month to pursue their dreams of godlike power in the online world of Azeroth. My guest pass granted access to the kingdoms Mulgore and Durotar, brought with it directions to the battlefields in the Burning Crusade, explained how to spot the differences between a Troll, a Silithid insect, and an Ore, when to beware the Blood Elves in Azshara, where to gather magic spells with which to ring the Scarab Gong or maybe assemble the Scepter of the Shifting Sands. Lost for an hour in the Elwynn Forest among the Murloc Oracles of Crystal Lake, I began to hope for rescue by Kissinger or Brzezinski, operating as the online avatars Bismarck and Maximus, sending reinforcements (in the personae of dwarves and shadow priests) from their computers in Washington.

Here at last was the world in which they could do what the Romans could do, the one manufactured by Blizzard Entertainment drifting in the same orbit as the one imagined by Carl von Clausewitz, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr, and George W Bush. With the small difference, of course, that on earth some of the game players bleed, and it doesn't do them much good to know that Bismarck and Maximus think they're virtual-reality toys battling the warrior monks of Azeroth.


Lewis H Lapham is the National Correspondent for Harper's Magazine and the editor of the forthcoming Lapham's Quarterly.

Bill Totten


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