You might not think that peace and prosperity would need defending against the pervasive sacrifice and death that characterize war and conflict. To assume that most people, especially public intellectuals, would prefer peace to widespread devastation, however, would be to make a mistake. There are certain sectors of American intellectual life – spread sometimes surprisingly across what passes for an ideological spectrum – that not only find war acceptable but welcome it with something approaching relish.
Peacetime, apparently, is boring and filled with trivialities. Frank Rich of the New York Times, on September 15, almost exulted at the change wrought by terrorism: "That fat, daydreaming America is gone now, way gone, as spent as the tax-rebate checks, as forgotten as the 2000 campaign’s debate over prescription-drug plans, as bankrupt as our dot-com fantasies of instant millions." Maureen Dowd wrote of the "pampered, narcissistic culture" we have now left behind (perhaps along with the post-ironic politics-as-soap-opera columns at which she excelled, poor thing).
War is much more exciting and consequential than mere trying to get ahead in life. The news media love it – almost to death and certainly to excess in the anthrax scare. I haven’t had the opportunity to monitor other parts of the country, but the local TV news in Los Angeles doesn’t lead with the murder du jour, car chase or celebrity scandal these days, it leads with war. Some of the stations have even sent reporters to Afghanistan, and most of those remaining in Los Angeles clearly relish an opportunity to put their reporting skills (which are sometimes considerable despite some contrary on-camera evidence) to use on what they can view as a real story rather than local fluff.
Perhaps the most interesting bit of recent ’90s-bashing came from Weekly Standard senior editor David Brooks, in an article titled "The Age of Conflict," that overall was actually rather interesting and perhaps almost evenhanded. In the wretched 1990s, Brooks avers, "an easy cynicism settled across the land, as more people came to believe that national politics didn’t really matter. What mattered instead, it seemed, were local affairs, community, intimate relations, and the construction of private paradises."
Now that we have a war to contend with, presumably we can turn our attention to more serious and consequential stuff. Brooks, along with Standard editor Bill Kristol, has been plumping for some project – any project – to restore a conservatism of "national greatness," rather than a petty conservatism of small government, freedom and close attention to private lives, for about a decade now. Osama bin Laden and his henchmen (presumably) have handed the Standard boys a great gift.
One might hope that Mr. Brooks’s analysis is incorrect, but it might not be. "The next few years will be defined by conflict," he writes.
"And it’s possible to speculate about what that means. The institutions that fight for us and defend us against disorder – the military, the FBI, the CIA – will seem more important now and more admirable. The fundamental arguments won’t be over economic or social issues, they will be over how to wield power – whether to use American power aggressively or circumspectly. We will care a lot more about ends – winning the war – than we will about means. We will debate whether it is necessary to torture prisoners who have information about future biological attacks. We will destroy innocent villages by accident, shrug our shoulders, and continue fighting. In an age of conflict, bourgeois virtues like compassion, tolerance, and industriousness are valued less than the classical virtues of courage, steadfastness, and a ruthless desire for victory."
COLOR ME BOURGEOIS
Of course, Mr. Brooks’s delineation of the difference between "bourgeois" and "classical" virtues is a bit arbitrary. I have nothing against courage, of course. But I do wonder if it is most classically expressed in he willingness to kill or be killed at the behest of a political leader who may or may not have your best interests at heart – or even know who you are. Often it takes as much or more real courage to resist violence or to resist those who call others to violence than to participate in violence.
On balance, however, if you accept the Brooks bifurcation, I guess I’m a bourgeois. I’ll opt for compassion, tolerance and industriousness as building blocks of a decent society over ruthless desire and perhaps even steadfastness (depending on how you define that sometimes elusive concept) any day. These virtues are the path to a society in which innovation, production, and the leisure for contemplation essential to allowing a great culture to take root and grow have a chance to flourish. These are the virtues that make it possible to provide things people really need and want (as expressed by their voluntary choices in the marketplace) in something resembling abundance.
These virtues, in short, are the virtues of a civilized society – the virtues of Athens rather than Sparta. To say so doesn’t imply that it might not be necessary to defend that society from predators and invaders from time to time. But picking fights and going out in the world to find alleged wrongs to right (whether the alleged victims want to be rescued or not) is not the same as defending society from attack.
WHY DID VIOLENCE COME CALLING?
Brooks seems pleased that the acts of terrorism have shocked Americans out of their selfish torpor. In the Bad Old Nineties Americans expressed a distaste for conflict and violence. "But now violence has come calling," Brooks says.
"Now it is no longer possible to live so comfortably in one’s own private paradise. Shocked out of the illusion of self-reliance, most of us realize that we, as individuals, simply cannot protect ourselves. Private life requires public protection. Now it is not possible to ignore foreign affairs because foreign affairs have not ignored us. It has become clear that we are living in a world in which hundreds of millions of people hate us, and some small percentage of them want to destroy us."
That brief paragraph contains so many conclusions based on assumptions not in evidence that it is difficult to know where to begin. To be sure, violence did come calling on the United States, and we have had to come to grips with the fact that millions of people seem to hate us simply because we are Americans.
But is this because the country has practiced an excess of self-reliance and has turned its back (as a government, at least) on the outside world to the point of ignoring it? The record of the 1990s hardly supports such an assertion.
The decade began with the Gulf War, a massive display of American military power combined with fairly impressive coalition-building. In the ’90s, U.S. troops were committed, with varying degrees of seriousness, to conflicts in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo, none of them exactly central to the core national interest no matter how one defines it. American diplomats were dispatched to conflicts in Northern Ireland, the Middle East and elsewhere to try to impose an American stamp on local conflicts. NATO, a relic of the Cold War, was expanded rather than dismantled, and used for the first time to fight an offensive rather than a defensive war, sending chills into the Russians.
That’s not exactly ignoring the world until the world comes crashing in on us. One might even argue that all this mostly ineffective meddling had something to do with so many people hating us. It’s undoubtedly not the whole reason, but it would be prudent to consider foreign interventionism as a contributing factor.
RELYING ON WHOM?
One wonders whether Brooks is referring to personal or national self-reliance, but it is hardly the case that an excess of self-reliance was the besetting sin of the 1990 in either sense. On the domestic front the welfare state continued to grow apace without any serious move to dismantle it in favor of self-reliance. On the international front the Clinton era was an era of multilateralism, though not consistently so.
So was it foolish self-reliance that set the stage for terrorist attacks and made us appreciate the virtues of public protection? You could make a better case that the attacks represented a massive failure of public protection. You could even say that sane Americans should have been shocked out of a complacent reliance on the state to protect our interests and resolved to regain the American tradition of self-reliance that the passengers on the flight that crashed in Pennsylvania utilized (once they had the required information) to save any number of innocent lives.
During the initial stages of any foreign conflict, of course, self-reliance and a determination to question our leaders and institutions are hardly likely to be conspicuous. American presidents know the American people will rally around them and want to believe they are doing the right thing during any foreign conflict, even one precipitated by American foolishness. During a conflict precipitated by an outright attack on American soil, the first response will be to support the president and the government, perhaps even to brand those who raise uncomfortable questions as traitors, as some of us have discovered.
A lot more Americans have purchased personal firearms since September 11, which I view as an indicator of self-reliance and an acknowledgment that the public forces of order cannot protect us at all times and in all circumstances so we had best be prepared to do at least something for ourselves. That indicator aside, however, it is likely that at least for a time the institutions of centralized governance will be treated with more respect and given more leeway than is generally healthy in a free society. Those of us who deplore such a development may have to bide our time.
ASPECTS OF WAR
To his credit, Brooks notes that wartime does tend to encourage conformity and homogeneity and to discourage dissent and individuality. There are other aspects of wartime culture that sociologist Robert Nisbet has identified – an acceleration of certain kinds of change in society, an increase in sexual promiscuity as military people are removed from their families for extended periods of time, and ambivalent pressures – both pulling-apart and pulling-together on family ties and a sense of place. War tends to uproot people and undermine a sense of rootedness and groundedness, of being an integral part of a certain locale. It tightens some communitarian ties and frays others.
One wonders if certain traditional conservatives who are whooping it up for war have fully considered these aspects of wartime culture.
To be sure, war for many – especially young males – is the ultimate adventure, and for many people (those who survive) it remains a highlight of their lives, a time of intense effort, commitment and camaraderie beside which civilian life and the 9-to-5 routine pales. (Note how the Greatest Generation never tires of reliving the Good War, and the war envy generated among boomers.) Wartime can also be conducive to focused efforts to complete certain kinds of projects that may represent genuine technological advances, like the development of radar or the atomic bomb, on an accelerated basis.
MAKING A CASE FOR PEACE
It is important for those who yearn for peace to understand and acknowledge that war has its attractions for many (though I would take certain people more seriously if the editors of the Weekly Standard, for example, were volunteering to lead an irregular brigade to go get Osama bin Laden themselves rather than exulting in the opportunity other mothers’ sons will create to pursue an agenda of National Greatness).
It may or may not be true that war and conflict are built into the human genome and that the dream of a world without war is at odds with reality and human nature. But there are decidedly aspects of war that appeal to some aspects of human nature that most people seem to have in abundance.
It is incumbent on us, then, to remind people continually and persistently that even if war is sometimes necessary, even if war has its attractions, that peace is also essential to human well being. Although some great artistic works have been created in response to war, no great culture, whether artistic, musical or literary, has ever been built during wartime.
Creating a culture – an atmosphere in which contemplation can lead to innovation, experiment and thinking seriously about what constitutes beauty (rather than the occasional individual works of genius) – cannot be done during the chaos of war. The great eras of cultural ferment and progress have been eras of relative peace, when goods, tourists and cultural innovators crossed borders rather than armies.
It is possible to create the kind of wealth that has a chance to lift a substantial number of people out of poverty – the most common lot of most human beings through most of history – only in times of relative peace and security (and, I would argue, respect for commerce and those who undertake it). If we want to improve the lot of those who have not yet achieved a semblance of economic self-sufficiency we would do well to pray and work for peace as the minimum requirement. In wars, such people’s suffering tends to be multiplied, or ended by a swift death.
And while most human beings display a certain attraction for war and the martial virtues and vices, human beings are complex creatures. We may love adventure, but we also value the quiet times, the safe times, the contemplative times, to spend with our families, to go fishing, to watch the World Series, to hike, to sit by the side of a lake, to make music with friends, to read for enrichment or pleasure, to simply sit and think or let the mind go blank. You can find moments for such pleasures during wartime, but they are often fleeting and transient. The side of us that values quiet pleasures must hope and work for peace.
This current war on terrorism is an ideal conflict for political leaders in that it encourages submission and acquiescence to expanded government power but has no definable end. I fear, therefore, that it will last a long time. It behooves us to use that time not only to criticize and question the war, but to remind our fellows that peace has its virtues and its pleasures also. We’ll have ample time to develop and test our arguments.
Read more by Alan Bock
- How Brainy Is Obama? – April 8th, 2010
- Time to Move Past Camp David Envy – March 21st, 2010
- Down the Rabbit Hole in Afghanistan – March 14th, 2010
- Independence, Empire Don’t Mesh – July 5th, 2009
- The Timid Emperor – June 28th, 2009