February 07, 2006

Walking into the Iran Trap, V: Flashback: Endless War, and the Destructive Search for "Meaning"

In the concluding parts of this series (which I expect to complete later today and/or tomorrow), I will specifically address the "Iran problem": what precisely the problem is and may be in the future, as opposed to the unfounded and largely hysterical monster fantasies that many have constructed out of their own nightmares, and what solutions might be infinitely preferable to an almost-certainly calamitous military attack -- solutions that could avoid a broader war and be fully effective in containing whatever threat Iran might represent.

Before I address what I view as the narrower geopolitical problem, I want to emphasize and expand on certain aspects of the broader, underlying dynamics involved. I fully appreciate that the great majority of people are primarily (and often exclusively) focused on the political issues alone. And it is not that I think those political issues are unimportant. To the contrary, they are of great importance and often absolutely vital, which I why I have spent so much time on them over the last few years.

But I will continue in my attempts to convince more people that it is crucial to appreciate the larger forces at work. When we consider that conflict and war constitute the overriding, unending theme of human history -- and when we realize that those wars were frequently viewed in retrospect, even by those who were largely responsible for them, as entirely futile and as having resulted in immense destruction and loss of life for no worthwhile purpose -- we must wonder why we are so eager to repeat this tragic history over and over again. Political considerations alone cannot explain this willingness of so many people to act in ways that are, in the end, profoundly self-destructive.

I have suggested some of the roots of this enthusiasm for war in Part III of this series, when I discussed Chris Hedges' observations about the "mythic reality" of war. Hedges notes that: "In mythic war we fight absolutes. We must vanquish darkness. It is imperative and inevitable for civilization, for the free world, that good triumph..." What is crucial is that this is always how conflicts are viewed and justified -- even when it is patently obvious that such absolute terms of good and evil are utterly inapplicable.

If we are concerned with tracing the broad outline of modern history and determining exactly how we have arrived at the international conflicts that confront us today, we always end up examining once again the first conflict where so much of it began: with World War I. I traced some of the broader world consequences of The Great War in Part II, The Folly of Intervention. I'm still going through the archives of old essays that I've saved, and reposting those that are most relevant to the issues I'm discussing. I recently came across a post I had entirely forgotten, from October 31, 2004.

Here is how that entry began (with a few bracketed comments added for clarity):
In a post the other day, I spoke of World War I as the seminal event leading to the endless reign of horror in the twentieth century:

"Of course, the West more generally has been central to developments in the Middle East since World War I, as I noted [in a still-earlier post], referring to David Fromkin's invaluable book, A Peace to End All Peace. When one considers the long arc of history, it cannot be disputed that all the major conflicts of the twentieth century grew out of the events set in motion by The Great War, and particularly as the result of United States involvement in that conflict -- an involvement which was entirely one of choice, and not of necessity. The role of the U.S. in World War I led to the rise of Soviet Russia, as well as to a peace which led to the rise of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. And the kind of "peace" that the United States allowed to take hold after World War II -- when both Churchill and Roosevelt gave Stalin everything he wanted and more, thus ensuring that Soviet Russia was the only genuine victor of that terrible conflict -- led directly to the Cold War, including the conflict by proxy with the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, which in large part led us to where we are today.

"The lesson of this history is unavoidable, and unforgiving: foreign intervention always leads to unforeseen and undesirable consequences (undesirable from the perspective of the commonly stated goals of the interventionists themselves, that is), and always leads to dangers greater than those that existed prior to the intervention. And thus the ground is prepared to "justify" still further intervention -- which leads to the same results, ensuring that the cycle continues indefinitely, even as it exacts a greater and greater toll."
Fromkin has written another excellent book, Europe's Last Summer, about the many factors that led to the outbreak of World War I. He relies in large part on recent research that has examined many documents that were unavailable before.

At the end of one of his concluding chapters, "What Was It About?," Fromkin summarizes what historians have now been able to determine about the actual motives that led to the outbreak and continuation of that disastrous conflict. Remember that once World War I was underway, the conflict was depicted -- as it always eventually is -- as one between Good and Evil.

But, in fact, the players were initially focused on much narrower matters -- matters which, when balanced against the terrible loss of life and immense destruction resulting from The Great War, appear unforgivably mundane:
At one time it was common for historians to say ... that the Anglo-German duel in the First World War was about Germany's challenge to Britain's supremacy in the existing European system. England was depicted as fighting a defensive war to preserve the status quo; Germany, as a dynamic aggressor seeking to change the world.

Now that theory requires qualification. Both Germany and Britain were seeking in at least some respects to preserve the existing balance of power, as they perceived it to be. Germany could not afford to lose Austria either as an ally or as a Great Power; Britain could not afford to lose France either as an ally or as a Great Power. Germany fought to save Austria; Britain fought to save France. In the first instance, both sides went to war to retain what they had: their closest ally. In that sense it was--at the outset, though only at the outset--a defensive conflict on both sides.


What caused a country to enter the war was not always the same as what caused it to continue the war. They went to war for one set of reasons, but developed other reasons for battling their enemies as the conflict went on. Their differences with the other side widened, intensified, and shifted to new grounds. British entry into the conflict transformed a European war into a global war. America's entry in the war and into world affairs in 1917 changed balance-of-power equations. America's participation, together with the two Russian revolution that year, brought ideological dimensions into the conflict that had not been there before, but that were to shape the rest of the twentieth century.

In the beginning, however, it was simply Great Powers fighting to stay where they were and to hold on to what they had.
Note that, in the beginning, World War I was only about power in the worst and most superficial sense: about the extent to which the countries involved believed they could control vast parts of the world and influence future events. There was no battle between Good and Evil: that came later, when political leaders needed a cause and a rationalization they could use to justify the senseless slaughter to their respective populations.

This is important -- but it is incomplete. It still does not explain the willingness of leaders to begin such a conflict, especially when it was perfectly clear that they were setting events into motion that could quickly and calamitously veer out of control -- as they almost immediately did. This is where the more general cultural and intellectual factors come into play. In Part III, I excerpted a very perceptive Matt Taibbi article. Remember one key sentence from Taibbi's piece: "Permanent war isn't a policy imposed from above; it's an emotional imperative that rises from the bottom."

Taibbi was describing certain of Bush's most devoted supporters but, as I have indicated, this dynamic has a tragically wider application. My post from October 31, 2004, mentioned an excellent Boston Globe op-ed piece by H.D.S. Greenway, which I am happy to see is still on-line. Consider these observations from Greenway's article:
MORE THAN 90 years have passed since that August of 1914 when a peaceful and progressive Europe came to an end. Historians can attribute most of the woes of the century -- the rise of Hitler and World War II, the Bolshevik revolution, Stalin, and the Cold War -- to that fatal breakdown of the old order that came with the First World war. Curiously, before the slaughter in the trenches taught them otherwise, many Europeans in 1914 welcomed the coming apocalypse as a cleansing force for the moral good of nations, a sweeping away of what they thought had become corrupt and decadent.

There was also a strong belief in empire, of the civilizing effects of what Europeans could teach "those lesser breeds without the law," as Rudyard Kipling put it.

The last decades of the 19th century were called the Belle Epoque, a materialistic, hedonistic age of peace and plenty that no distant cloud could ever threaten. Or so it seemed.

Yet as pleasant as those last days of peace might have been, there were discontented intellectuals. Adam Gopnik, writing in The New Yorker, quotes Thomas Mann on war as a moral necessity, "both purging and a liberation." In England, "any vestiges of (Oscar) Wilde would be swept away at last, and the reign of Kipling secured," Gopnik writes.


Did the German plans for war in 1914 and the German dream of spreading Kultur to other nations by force have their echo a century later in America with the pre- 9/11 plans to invade Iraq in order to spread democracy and American Kultur to lesser breeds without the law? If so, then the assassination of the Austrian archduke in Sarajevo in 1914 and Sept. 11, 2001, provided both sets of narcissistic idealists with the crisis they needed to put their plans into action.

George Bush's foreign policy is described as "Wilsonian," but perhaps it has more in common with an Imperial Germany that thought that a whiff of gunpowder and the use of raw power in the service of empire might restore moral fiber as well as make the world over in its image.

Like the German dreamers of 1914, the Bush administration's warriors had little doubt that their Kultur was superior and that all upon whom it was imposed would eventually be grateful. Neither the kaiser's general staff nor Donald Rumsfeld seemed to have any idea that the wars they planned would not be over by Christmas. Imperial Germany had its von Schlieffen plan for the conquest of France drawn up long before hostilities began, and the United States had its Wolfowitz plan for Iraq long before 9/11 presented an opportunity.

The German dreamers lost the war and their kaiser. George Bush's war planners have probably lost the war in Iraq and have most certainly made the more important struggle -- against extremist Islamic terror -- harder.
Greenway is wrong on one critical point: the notion that a Great War "might restore moral fiber" was also part of the Wilsonian campaign for America's entrance into the conflict. In this respect, the forces that drove Wilson and his supporters and Imperial Germany were largely the same, and this is the tradition out of which Bush's foreign policy arises. In the leadup to World War I, the idea that war represented a force for "moral good" was strongly advocated by certain American intellectuals -- and most especially by one subset of those intellectuals.

The New Republic today has put itself in the service of the Bush propaganda machine, with its endless articles in support of the Iraq war and its relentless advocacy of a Democratic party that is "hard" on national security issues -- "harder" even than the Republicans. But the New Republic's tradition of profoundly wrongheaded support for an aggressively interventionist foreign policy and a militarized America stretches back almost a century. The magazine was a significant force in the drive to drag America into the First World War.

As Arthur Ekirch writes in The Decline of American Liberalism (now regrettably out of print):
Of the New Republic group, no one was more forthright in arguing the case for preparedness and war than its editor. [Herbert] Croly, for example, believed that the preparedness program of 1916, though it violated America's historic traditions, was necessary because of President Wilson's decision in the summer of 1915 that there was a threat of war. Croly pointed out that the United States, following in the stream of European history, could hardly avoid adopting some of the features of European life, including a certain degree of militarization.

"The American nation," he declared, "needs the tonic of a serious moral adventure."
One might be able to forgive Peter Beinart for being completely and grievously wrong, although I cannot. It is much harder to forgive him for being entirely unoriginal. But he might save himself some time, and simply reprint Croly's many articles from the World War I period. (And he might learn a very different moral lesson by contemplating the horror represented by a summary of the killed and wounded from The Great War. Try to grasp the enormity of the tragedy contained in those numbers. I myself find it impossible.)

This still leaves us with the underlying question: what makes so many people so willing and eager to sign on to endless war, and so susceptible to calls for "a serious moral adventure," or the quest for "national greatness" and the search for "meaning" in life in the form of war, death and destruction? In that post from October 2004, I referred to my essay, When Life and Happiness Are Not Enough. I offer a few relevant excerpts once again:
An important distinction should be kept in mind here. I would never deny that the attacks of 9/11 required a response (and I think almost no one has advocated such a position, despite some hawks' contentions to the contrary); in fact, I have indicated on numerous occasions that I believe they did require a decisive response. But if one were genuinely concerned with eliminating future terrorist threats, one would focus on all the causes that led to them. None of those causes excuse such acts of barbarity, but they explain some of the forces that led to such a horrifying result -- and they also point the way to changes in our foreign policy that would minimize the risks to us. Among those changes would be a drawing back from, and finally the ending of, our aggressively interventionist foreign policy, a policy of meddling all over the world which has led to blowback in countless forms.

But what we see in the reaction of the hawks and the neoconservatives to 9/11, a reaction which includes their grand design of remaking the world one continent at a time, is something altogether different: their response is not directed only at eliminating the terrorist threat. Actually, the truth is even more dangerous than that: in the deepest sense, I do not think their response is genuinely dictated by that goal at all. Remember: as the Robin piece [in the Washington Post] points out, the conservatives' dissatisfaction with a minimal government devoted "only" to enforcing laws and contracts, and which "merely" promotes "self-interest," long predated 9/11. They were aching and impatient to put a much larger plan into operation -- and 9/11 tragically became the perfect launching pad for their global design.

Robin provides even more evidence to support this view. ...

But here you have the deep tragedy which underlies the endless search for "meaning," and the inability of many neoconservatives (and many others, to be sure) to find fulfillment in "mere" personal happiness. Because autonomy in the sense discussed by Miller never existed for these people -- that is, because a genuine, authentic self was never allowed to develop -- such people have no self to be satisfied, or to be happy. The achievement of personal happiness, in the deepest sense, first requires the existence of a firsthand, genuine, vital self -- which both knows itself and knows those particular values which will lead to its happiness. But if that self was never allowed to be born in childhood, and if the adult is unable or unwilling to develop an authentic self later in life, genuine personal happiness is a phantasm that will never be actualized.

In such a case, the person will be driven to search for "mystery," "vitality," a great "crusade," or some version of "national greatness" -- and he will view with scorn such things as "markets," and the enforcement of laws and contracts, and peace, and prosperity. In this way, too, death, suffering and destruction become "romanticized" -- because they carry the promise of greater "meaning."

This underlying mechanism also explains two other related issues. ...
My earlier essay explores these issues in more detail.

In this deeper sense, if you wonder why so many millions died in World War I, if you wonder why so many more millions have died in other unnecessary conflicts, and if you wonder why so many are now dying or being terribly injured in Iraq -- a nation that represented no threat to us, and which our leaders knew represented no threat to us -- this is why. They are endlessly driven to search for "meaning," they are always in need of "a serious moral adventure," they seek "vitality" and "national greatness" -- and they know of no way to achieve these ends, except by bloodshed and immense destruction, pain and suffering.

And as is always the case, and with only a few exceptions, they make very certain that others will have to bear the terrible costs of their own futile quest -- and that they themselves will survive, so that they may one day lead still another "crusade."