With everything else going on, I wanted to return to a theme I’ve be writing about in one form or another for almost 15 years. And quite apart from the counter-terrorism and military policies we pursue in fighting terrorism, there are a great number of people, often “policy intellectuals” but not always, for whom the ‘war on terror’ is a channel for their own grandiosity, personal boredom or wish that they lived at a more dramatic historical moment.
I first wrote about this at length about a dozen years ago when I reviewed (“The Orwell Temptation“) Paul Berman’s Terror and Liberalism for The Washington Monthly. This was Berman’s stab at standing himself up as the Orwell of the “War on Terror” and giving the whole effort an intellectual heft, gravity and pedigree. In other words, not just a vast counter-terrorism operation but a war of ideas, something that smart guys write career-making books about. Like Orwell. We’re thankfully many years since this sort of grandiose intellectualism was in vogue on this topic. But we are seeing a rapid return.
It’s not at the same highbrow level. But here’s Jeb Bush’s statement in response to President Obama’s address last night.
“President Obama has finally been forced to abandon the political fantasy he has perpetuated for years that the threat of terrorism was receding. We need to remove the self-imposed constraints President Obama has placed on our intelligence community and military, and we need to put in place an aggressive strategy to defeat ISIS and radical Islamic terrorism as I have proposed. Unfortunately, neither he nor Hillary Clinton has the resolve to put in place such a strategy.
“This is the war of our time. It should not be business as usual. We need a war-time Commander-in-Chief who is ready to lead this country and the free world to victory.”
I’ll start by noting that while his brother may have used the term, “war-time commander-in-chief” is an all but unknown phrase in American history. And I suspect a linguist would tell you that it’s provenance is actually rooted in the Godfather-popularized phrase “wartime consigliere,” which is to say, glorious Hollywood nonsense.
More seriously, “this is the war of our time.”
Some people seem to want a war a lot. In this case, this isn’t simply saying we need more aggressive military action or even that we need to invade some specific country. Bush is saying that this is a ‘war’ that somehow defines our generation and our time. We have to rise to its challenge. This is pomposity, not strategy.
With apologies, let me quote myself from the review I referenced above …
Recalling those vivid images of the Twin Towers’ collapse, it is uncomfortable to have to argue that someone is overstating the danger of radical Islam. Nevertheless, to confront the very real threat we face, nothing is more important than seeing that danger for what it is–not through the distorting prism of our grandparents’ world. We have now toppled one of the worst regimes in the region. We have a foothold in the heartland of Islam. We have to decide how to proceed. Do we declare all-out war with much of the Muslim world or craft an approach more narrowly tailored to secure our safety and advance their freedom? Grandiose visions beget grandiose actions, which often end tragically. And grandiosity is a sin of intellectuals, too.
We should all be profoundly grateful we live today and not during the 1930s and 1940s, when tens of millions of people were being slaughtered in Europe and Asia and millions of men were being sent from the Americas and Africa into Europe and Asia to fight the wars in those regions. Nor was it only the death toll. The world was being churned by authoritarian ideologies like fascism, Nazism and Communism, which ruled great tracts of the world and exerted a profound draw into populations under democracies or constitutional monarchies.
To capture this in military terms, World War II produced five five-star generals in the United States Army: George Marshall (1944), Douglas MacArthur (1944), Dwight Eisenhower (1944), Henry Arnold (1944) and Omar Bradley (1950). Admirals Leahy, King and Nimitz received equivalent rank in the Navy in 1944. No US officers have been promoted to the five-star rank since Bradley in 1950, though the rank still exists.
Again, from that review: “George Orwell not only epitomized what an intellectual can and should be. He has also become the symbol of the role the best intellectuals played in those critical mid-century years. Along the way, however, the image he cast–or rather his ghost, or his shade–has also become part of the pornography of intellectuals. Berman has given way to this craving.” This all applies to politicians, too.
I know part of this may sound like pooh-poohing, or perhaps downplaying the suffering of the people who are killed in these horrific attacks. Right now I’m listening to the extended press conference held by the San Bernardino County officials describing for the first time, out of the crisis of the moment, just what happened. It is heartbreaking and powerful. It has a particular resonance for me since I grew up in San Bernardino County. All these names of little towns you’re hearing about are ones I grew up with, places I know well. We can ennoble and honor and protect ourselves without slipping into conceit and pomposity. Because these have consequences. Let’s step back and remember that at the end of the day it was as a result of the 9/11 terrorist attacks that we invaded Iraq. And that decision was a complete fucking disaster, the consequences of which we are still living with, no less than in the existence of ISIS itself. We need to remember that.
This is not the 1930s and 1940s. That history, on such a vast canvas, created leaders who still tower over the present-day going on a century later — FDR, Churchill, de Gaulle. It produced literature which remains a nourishing guide to understanding key aspects of the human condition. Good for Orwell, Niebuhr, Bonhoeffer and Weil for having such great material! But good lord, these were awful times. Let’s not flatter ourselves by imagining that we live in anything remotely like them. And thank God!
Fear is understandable and human. But on its own it is never admirable. And pomposity isn’t leadership.