I wasn’t planning on starting any books this morning that involved any deep thinking as I fly from Boston to St. Croix via San Juan on American Airlines, but I was caught by the cover of this week’s Sports Illustrated, about Pat Tillman’s journey from Athlete to Soldier.
So I pulled out Victor Davis Hanson’s new collection of essays, Between War and Peace
And damn, he’s caught me again, and I don’t want to put it down. But I have to – so that my mind can work through his thoughts and its impact on my own. Here are some snippets from the first three essays in this collection, all written from 9/11/2002 through 1/3/2003 and focused on The War Against Terror.
I had thought that the pessimism that presaged defeat in Afghanistan – the mountains, remember, were too high, the weather too cold, the religious calendar too foreboding, the factions too numerous, the Taliban too ferocious, and the country itself the graveyard of the British and Russian armies – might have been dispelled by the miraculous victory over the Taliban in a matter of six weeks at a cost of a handful of American lives. BUt it was not to be, as the renewed display of gloom during 2003-3 would prove.
As I wrote on July 4th, 2003, we are again told – after one of the most remarkable military victories in American history – that we are in perpetual crisis: no firm evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq as yet uncovered; no word about the ultimate fate of Saddam Hussein; and constant sniping and assassination of American troops in postwar Iraq with dears now reaching well over one hundred. Yet we forget that occupation is never easy – consider the mess of restoring order to territories of the former Japanese empire in 1946 – and our task is made difficult both by the sheer rapidity of a victory designed to shock rather than kill a large number of Baathist troops and the unlikely task of implanting consensual government in a region where democracy has no history.
Much of my own sense of things, of course, grew out of lifelong residency on a small farm in the San Joaquin Valley of California and my own training as a classicist and military historian who teaches Latin and Greek to mostly minority students at California State University, Fresno. The two worlds are not as antithetical as they might seem. The Greeks, after all, were a rural people, and the literature of a Homer or Thucydides often reveals a tragic view of the human condition often shared by contemporary agrarians who through the daily experience of battling nature to obtain a living – and now so often failing – agree that there are certain constraints on us all across time and space, given that the physical world remains unforgiving and the nature of man himself stays constant
The Wages of September 11th: There is no going back
The more the world knows of al Qaeda and bin Laden, the more it has found them both vile and yet banal – and is so confident and eager to eradicate them and all they stand for. It is one thing to kill innocents, quite another to take on the armed might of an aroused United States. Easily dodging a solo cruise missile in the vastness of Afghanistan may make good theater and bring about braggadocio; dealing with grim American and British commandos who have come seven thousand miles for your head prompts abject flight and an occasional cheap infomercial on the run. And the ultimate consequence of the attacks of September 11 will not merely be the destruction of al Qaeda but also the complete repudiation of the Taliban, the Iranian mullocracy, the plague of the Pakistani madrasahs, and any other would-be fundamentalist paradise on earth.
Indeed, as the months progressed, the problems inherent in “the European way” became all too apparent: pretenious utopian manifestos in lieu of military resoluteness, abstract moralizing to excuse dereliction of concrete ethical responsibility, and constant American ankle-biting even as Europe lives in a make-believe Shire while we keep back the forces of Mordor from its picturesque borders, with only a few brave Frodos and Bilbos tagging along. Nothing has proved more sobering to Americans than the skepticism of these blinkered European hobbits after September 11.
Real concern for the sanctity of life may hinge on employing, rather than rejecting, force, inasmuch as our troops are as deadly and protected abroad as our women, children, aged, and civilians are impotent and vulnerable at home. It seems to me a more moral gamble to send hundreds of pilots into harm’s way than allow a madman to further his plots to blow up or infect thousands in high-rises.
Al Qaedism: From Criminality to Politics in the Blink of an Eye
By the same token, it is very American for zealots to shout displeasure at their government, but their slurs that the President of the United states, the Vice President, and the Secretary of Defense are the “true axis of evil” rather than Stalinist North Korea, fascist Iraq, or theocratic Iran have consequences in the future that we cannot predict in the present. And we should be concerned that an apparent Iraqi national, recently returned with permission from Saddam Hussein’s regime, leads Americans in chants about their amoral war. We should cringe, too, when the former attorney general, Ramsey Clark, compares an American administration to Heinrich Himmler, the architect of the Gestapo. There are ripples from such hate and we are seeing how insidiously they can lap into crazy minds.
In other words, we have a moral responsibility to oppose such extremism, and yes, subversion. Such hateful anti-American language can lend a sense of legitimacy and encouragement to a John Muhammad, a mixed-up teenage John Lee Malvo, or an angry anti-Semite Hesham Mohamed Modayet at the Los Angeles airport, and so elevate their pathologies into something apparently “meaningful,” or perhaps even enrage them to at last act.
It’s Not the Money, Stupid! War Apparently Must be Anything Other Than Good v. Evil
It has only been a little more than a year since September 11 and already therapeutic voices are back, suggesting that we are somehow culpable for our own calamity because we did not give away enough money to the Middle East. Not long ago the well-meaning and sincere Senator Murray of Washington contrasted the purported civic philanthropy of Osama bin Laden with the supposed failure of the United States to help those impoverished in the Middle East. She was apparently perplexed over why so many Islamic countries hate us – and perhaps thinks that instead of warring with Iraq we should spend the projected billions in war costs on more foreign aid to convince the Arab masses to like us rather than him.
Sadly, prosperous Westerners never seem to learn of the folly of honoring appeasement of naivete – the awarding of Nobel Peace Prizes to the likes of a Le Duc Tho and Yasser Arafat, as if global praise might make them statesmen rather than murderers, to a Kim Dae Jung, as if his demonstrable kindness would pacify rather than embolden North Korea, or to ex-president Carter, as if his well-meaning parleys with tyrants could bring peace. As chief executive emeritus, his saintliness now plays well; but we forget in the rough and tumble of his presidency that Mr. Carter’s brag that he had no “inordinate fear of communism” was followed by the brutal Russian invasion of Afghanistan, that sending Ramsey Clark to apologize to the Iranians did not win the release of the American hostages in 1980, and that UN Ambassador Andrew Young’s praise of Cuban troops in Africa and his clenched-fist, Black Power salutes to African leaders did not stop Communist intervention and bloodletting abroad.
The United States cannot lose the struggle on the battlefield, as we did not lose the Vietnam conflict in the strict military sense either. But we most surely can fail in this war if our citizens and leaders reach for their checkbooks as the fundamentalists reach for their guns – or convince themselves that our enemies fight because of something we, rather than they, did.
Hanson always provokes my thought process in ways that I had not considered before. Off to think deeply as we fly over the deep blue of the Atlantic Ocean on the way to San Juan and St. Croix…