Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Thomas Bruscino and "The new old lie"

We have recently waxed eloquent about The New Criterion, the favorite periodical of the MH household.  That doesn’t by any means indicate that we always agree with what is published in those pages.  In a recent essay, Thomas Bruscino’s writes about what he calls “The new old lie.”
That lie, per Bruscino, is the idea that war is meaningless. He charges the American arts community with attempting to paint all war with a nihilistic brush for more than a century.
Emotions are freshest and hottest regarding our recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but Bruscino traces this “war is meaningless” strain of thought in the American art world back to writers like Ambrose Bierce and Stephen Crane. Their exposure (direct in the former’s case, indirect in the latter’s) to the horrors of the American Civil War caused them to take a more aloof stance toward the war experience, emphasizing realism over more idealized depictions of heroism.
Crude anti-war cant deserves a vigorous response, to be sure, especially when it is disguised as subtle art or insightful criticism. While attempting to critique the literary left, however, Bruscino spins off logical crudities of his own. Will those who might be susceptible to the siren song of the anti-war left finish reading his essay persuaded of a need to rethink things? No, a more likely result is that they might think that there are no compelling arguments capable of challenging their positions.
Can artistically sensitive souls on the left ever be brought to think that America’s wars have been, in the main, necessary and that any new war should thus be given the benefit of the doubt? Probably not. Perhaps only slightly more hopeful is the prospect of the left embracing an idea that would have been unremarkable in America as recently as the early 1960’s – namely that service to one’s country in uniform is intrinsically honorable, even ennobling.
While such wholesale conversions are unlikely on the part of what Bruscino calls “the cynics,” reflexive anti-war and anti-military sentiment expressed by artists and critics on the left should be answered with enough force to dissuade them from hoping for sympathy from a broader spectrum of Americans. Whether essays like Bruscino’s are helpful in this regard is quite another question.
Effective refutations do not begin with a rhetorical straw-man, and Bruscino creates a big one – namely that writers who oppose war are primarily motivated by the idea that war is meaningless. While there are doubtless devoutly consistent pacifists in the arts community, the intellectual left that informs writers and other artists has as often as not been inspired more by the idea that we are on the wrong side of a given war. Were this not the case, anti-war artists during the Cold War would have been equally critical of the Soviet bloc. During the Vietnam War, Jane Fonda was famously photographed sitting in the seat of an anti-aircraft battery used to shoot down American aircraft. Presumably the anti-war Fonda thought that shooting down American airmen was a meaningful, positive act of violence.
As another example, when President Clinton bombed Serbian civilian targets during Orthodox Easter, it seems – based on the silence – that the denizens of the left felt that this destruction of life and property ordered by President Clinton had some positive meaning. President Bush bombing civilian Muslim targets during Ramadan would doubtless have sparked outrage, on the other hand.
It is, at this point, worth stopping to note Bruscino’s persistent used of the loaded label of “cynic.” Leaving aside the fact that cynicism can just as easily underlie advocacy for war, alternative terms would be more accurate and fair when describing those anti-war views that percolate out into the general American consciousness from time to time. “Skepticism” would be a good choice, and more fairly frames the debate. Skepticism about war serves a critical function, whether that skepticism comes from sources hostile to American patriotism or from those devoted to it, although undoubtedly carrying greater weight when it comes from the latter.
Returning to the question of meaning in war, these words of Bruscino about President Lincoln’s eloquent words at Gettysburg are worth noting:
But was Lincoln right? Did the soldiers at Gettysburg give the last full measure of devotion to a cause? Have our soldiers ever fought for something more than just to survive the horrors of combat? The answer is much more complicated than the critics allow, which by default means that their absolutist view is wrong. But that assertion does not let them off the hook—in fact, it should make them rethink exactly what they hope to prove with their cynicism about war.
Really? Yes, absolutist views are usually at least partly wrong, but why should that fact cause anyone to rethink having a general cynicism or skepticism about war? A presumption against going to war is healthy. The very idea that in a free society a war skeptic should be given the burden of proof verges on moral rubbish. Quite the contrary – those who would take their nation to war should have the burden of proof in each instance. When this responsibility is worn lightly and public support for war is drummed up with jingoism or worse, such as was too often the case in that bloodiest of wars – WWI, a backlash of cynicism is hardly surprising.
The real question that citizens ask is never whether war is intrinsically meaningless. The question is always whether this war is so necessary at this time that it justifies sending these young American men and women to that country, where they will risk potential death, disability, or disfigurement in the service of those particular goals. In a more antique world, the end result of this deliberative process took the form of Congress voting to declare war.
Forcing such a clear declaration and forcing it to be defended clearly and truthfully – that is the role of skepticism. Pity the country that has insufficient numbers of such skeptics in civilian and military leadership when war is being weighed against other alternatives. This is no small matter when durable public support for a military effort is needed, whether for the war at hand or for an even more important one yet to come.
Bruscino correctly points out that wars have consequences, and that the results of a war can determine which nation’s values survive to live in another chapter of history. Successfully concluded wars are generally won by nations that can and do act with effective, swift, harsh, and brutal destructiveness. This is, indeed, the Achilles heel of the true anti-war advocate – a successful campaign to avoid acts of war can result in being on the receiving end of that kind of brutal destruction.
When Bruscino writes that “the outcome of war determines which cause gets to survive, thrive, and guide the lives of people in peace, and just as importantly, which cause does not get to shape the peace,” he is certainly correct. But this is not a debate-ending point in an argument over whether to enter into a given war. It is rather an argument for winning wars rather than losing them.
The persuasiveness of the anti-war left as it engages the broader public has nothing to do with arguments, whether cogent or sophistical, about the meaninglessness of war in general. What the American public can be persuaded of, though, is that this particular war is a bad idea. It is precisely on this point where anti-war sentiment can be most successfully translated from a fringe position of activists into a mainstream, policy-altering phenomenon. There is, however, a preventative – avoiding particular wars that really are meaningless, especially when compared to the expenditures of blood and treasure involved.
The American public, which has shown great forbearance with our nation’s military undertakings, even those of murky outlooks, has discovered that Iraq is not going to be colonial Philadelphia on the Euphrates and that Afghanistan’s shining cities on the hill are actually Taliban great keeps.
Thus, the real problem facing those who would promote our current wars is not the far left and its assertions of the meaninglessness of war. The real problem is war fatigue in the heartland. Heartland fatigue comes not because the denizens of those parts are being worn down by unanswered pacifists writing in The Atlantic Monthly. It comes because they meet the soldiers arriving at their local airports and visit the hospitals and gravesides, and because they are intelligent enough to see that in return for her pains, America has gone deeply into debt and weakened her economy. It comes because the soldiers in their lives are going back for second and third tours of duty in wastelands on the other side of the globe, with little prospect of achieving lasting victory.
At root, the fact that war is thought by some intellectuals to be meaningless has little effect on America and her ability to wage necessary wars. What does have a profound effect is that even a superficial encounter with war reveals that it is evil, even when it is necessary. Most importantly, war is the result of human choice. In the case of a powerful nation like ours that is unlikely to be invaded any time soon, it is at present always the result of our own choice, rather than someone else’s.
Pundits and politicians who advocate for making the choice of war are now facing an increasingly skeptical public that wonders whether decisions for American military intervention over the last 25 years have been arrived at with an appropriate seasoning of prudence. If Americans end up embracing for a time the anti-war cynicism of the left, it will be in no small part the result of the recent dearth of healthy skepticism when deciding whether war is necessary.

No comments: